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John Locke’s Social Contract and the American Government


Source: xtimeline.com

The concept of the social contract as discussed by John Locke is significant not only to history but to today’s world as well. Throughout his Second Treatise of Government, Locke argues that man is born into a natural state of perfect freedom and equality. In this state, natural law is what presides over the people and their actions; therefore it is up to the citizens to bring justice to those who violate these rights. Locke elaborates on this natural state, claiming all men are able to “dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave or depending upon the will of any other man.” This statement suggests that unless someone violates another’s right to life, liberty, or property they are following the natural order.

While men in this society must only answer to themselves, this natural state leaves the people with little protection. The human desire for security leads to the peoples’ collective choice to establish a government body that will work to protect these natural rights through common laws. This agreement, or “social contract” is based upon the notion that the men involved will “unite into a community for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living.” However, this safety does not come without sacrifice, as the people must give up their complete authority over themselves. In exchange for their perfect freedom, men join society to avoid infringement of their property and liberty. Locke describes this government as having three branches: the executive, legislative, and judiciary. Locke’s model of government embodies the democratic system that is in place in the United States today, making his essay a crucial influence on the Declaration of Independence. Locke’s treatise, written in 1690, outlines the system of government that would be set in place nearly a hundred years later by the founders.


Source: ushistory.org

Locke also notes that the people have the right to dissolve this government at any time should the agreement be violated, giving the people true sovereignty. The idea that the people have the right to overthrow the government if they feel as though they are being mistreated is crucial to the democratic system and the Declaration of Independence. Locke notes that in the state of nature, man is “exposed to the invasions of others; for all being kings as much as he, every man his equal,” addressing the issue that a state of complete equality and freedom inevitably leads to the violation of natural law. The government is put in place to protect these natural rights that would otherwise be violated; thus, the people can overthrow the government if they fail to protect said rights. Thomas Jefferson reiterates this notion in the Declaration as he justifies the colonies’ split from the crown by listing grievances against the King, making the idea a central element of American independence.

Upon reading Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, the influence his work had on the nation’s founders is evident. The work serves as a foundation for the ideas later expressed in the Declaration of Independence, ideas that are still held today, making Locke’s work one of the most influential pre-revolutionary works.

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