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Locke, Rousseau and the Founding Fathers

March 27, 2011

  As I was writing my paper this weekend on Locke, I stated somewhere in my paper that Locke had a significant influence on the Declaration of Independence, a common fact taught in grade school.  Sitting there thinking about this fact, I realized I don’t really know in what ways Locke influenced the writing of the Declaration of Independence, so I thought I would do some research to inform not only myself but others.  From my research I was able to find that two of the great thinkers of the 17th and 18th century that we have studied this year, Locke and Rousseau, both had significant influences on the writing of the Declaration of Independence and from the principals of the America that we know today. 

Locke’s most notable attribute to the Declaration of Independence is one of the most well-know phrases of the document, “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”   This phrase appears in Chapter 2 of the Treatises of Government where Locke states, “”no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”  From my research it appears the Jefferson changed possessions to the pursuit of happiness because he believe possessions would imply that people are entitled to others possessions and by changing it to pursuit, one is able to actively try to acquire what makes them happy.  Upon this fact, Locke also preached a few other concepts that had direct impact on the declaration of independence.  The first of these would be that the government should not only have limited power but should also actively protect and serve the rights of the people of which it governs.  Another point that Locke brings up is the early remmenants of democracy by stating that not only is the rule of a single individual wrong but there should be a consensus on the form of governing done by the government.  Lastly Locke address the idea that the citizens that are governed by a government come to a social contract with the government, to be ruled fairly, and if this is to not take place the people have the right and obligation to rebel.  Locke also discusses his “state of nature,” a situation in which all men are equal. 

Though what Locke preached is not exactly in the Declaration of Independence, one is able to draw a good deal of similarities and common points.  All of the issues addressed above are not only in the Declaration of Independence but are also ideas and principals that we as Americans pride ourselves on. 

Though it is hard to find as many resemblances and similarities among Rousseau and the Declaration of Independence, there are certainly points that should be noted.  The first main point that one can make a connection to is that Rousseau believed that every man is born free.  Building off this Rousseau makes points about how a government should govern its people saying that for the formation of a government individuals must look past their personal interests and focus on the interest of the greater good.  Rousseau also states that for a government to exist or have power over its people, the people must give consent to the government. 

Similar to Locke, Rousseau’s influences seemed to be on principals that one think make America what it is.  Equality and the government and the people working together for the greater or common good are something that staples in the current American principals.  One place I was able to find a direct connection between Rousseau and the Declaration of Independence is when Jefferson states the King of England is no longer in power of the colonist because he has lost their consent to be governed by him.  This idea is directly applicable to what Rousseau preached and another idea that the people of America hold in high esteem. 

It’s not a perfect comparison, but i thought it was something interesting to look into and thought it’d be nice to layout which arguments influenced the most important document in our countries history.


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