According to social contract theory, governments exist as a result of an implicit contract between the government and the governed. Without a government, people live in complete freedom. People come together and agree to give up some of this freedom in exchange for protection of their basic rights. While Thomas Hobbes gave perhaps the first full explanation of the theory, it was John Locke who most influenced the founders of American democracy.
Legitimacy of Government
A government's power and authority over its people is grounded in their consent. People agree to subject themselves to that power because the government agrees to act in the best interests of the people. According to Locke, people have the right to revolt and overthrow the government if it has ceased to uphold its end of the bargain. These acts make the contract void, returning the people to the state of nature. Since everyone is equal in the state of nature, the people are free to defend themselves against the tyrant. Once the tyrant is deposed, the people create a new social contract in place of the old one. These ideas were at the heart of the Declaration of Independence.
All Men Are Created Equal
As Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, he was inspired by Locke's explanation of the social contract when he wrote: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Locke would have counted property among those unalienable rights, but Benjamin Franklin preferred "pursuit of happiness," and Jefferson agreed to use that phrase instead. Jefferson went on to list of all the actions of Great Britain's King George III that violated his government's social contract with the American colonists. Locke's ideas, as embodied in the Declaration, became the philosophical justification for the Revolutionary War.
We the People
With America's independence gained, Jefferson looked at the Constitutional Convention as an opportunity to experiment with a true social contract following Locke's theories. James Madison drew upon Locke's ideas when drafting the Constitution. From its first words, the American government is created by the American people to serve the public good and protect their freedom. Madison also referenced French philosopher Baron de Montesquieu, who proposed protecting republics from factions using a system of checks and balances. If each of the branches of government had checks on each other, none would be supreme. This kept a small group from taking over the government and using it to advance their own private interests instead of the public good.
To Protect Inalienable Rights
Locke's social contract theory included liberal ideals the framers embodied in the Constitution's Bill of Rights. All people have natural rights, and part of the government's role is to protect those rights. Locke argued that governments had no place dictating anyone's beliefs, establishing churches or favoring certain beliefs over others. Many American colonists had fled Great Britain so they could worship as they chose, so the ideals of religious freedom and freedom of speech resonated with them. The Bill of Rights protected these rights and more, prohibiting the American government from making laws that would limit them.
- The University of Tennessee at Martin Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Social Contract Theory
- The University of Tennessee at Martin Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: American Enlightenment Thought
- John Locke Foundation: John Locke -- His American and Carolinian Legacy
- National Archives: Declaration of Independence -- Text Transcript
- National Archives: Transcript of the Constitution of the United States
- Hulton Archive/Hulton Archive/Getty Images