Intellectual Influences on the Declaration of Independence

While the Declaration of Independence had many influences, the most notable was the influence of the Social Contract. The Social Contract is the agreement between the government and its citizens, and defines the rights of each party. John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau are most notable for the creation of the social contract political philosophy. The Social Contract believes that “individuals are born into an anarchic state of nature. Then, by exercising natural reason, formed a society (and a government) by means of a contract among themselves.” In other words, people are born into the world without any knowledge or opinions but then develop their views based on their society. Their society, in turn, is affected and altered based on the people’s beliefs. Self-interest, or “personal interest or advantage,” inspires a society and government who derives its power from the people. The social contract states that “rational people” should believe in organized government, and this ideology highly influenced the writers of the Declaration of Independence.

John Locke believed that government was obligated to follow the will of the majority
that created it, or popular sovereignty. He believed that every citizen was equal in the view of the government. Locke developed the “branch” system of government which consists of the legislative, executive and judicial branches we know today. If the government fails to fulfill their duties, then the citizens have the right to rebel and remove the figurehead. This notion gave the colonists the inspiration and good reason to fight against the British for independence. Locke is notable for making the statement that all men have the right to pursue “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Property.” In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson alters this statement to state that all men have the rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” John Locke fused “individualism within the framework of the law of nature and the limits of legitimate government authority.” Locke’s work inspired the Declaration of Independence and subsequently the U.S. Constitution. He also inspired many other famous documents written during the Revolutionary Era, including The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau each had their own interpretations of the social contract.
Locke believed that people naturally have the rights to life and private property, (Two Treatises of Government, 1690), Hobbes believed right and wrong did not exist in the world, (Leviathan, 1651) and Rousseau believed the government must rely on the general population of citizens, la volonté générale, or the general will of the people. (Du contrat social, 1762)

Each of these interpretations proved to be an inspiration to the Declaration of Independence.

1 Comment

  1. Bradley Boeke April 25, 2014 2:36 am  Reply

    “John Locke believed that government was obligated to follow the will of the majority
    that created it, or popular sovereignty. He believed that every citizen was equal in the view of the government.”

    In 18th century Europe, How could this majority will be measured? And How could the will of the majority be determined?

    And, who in society mattered? Was it just the landed gentry? the wealthy merchants? the clergy?

Leave a Reply