In 1776, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence to assert America’s independence from Britain. European philosophers, including John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, heavily influenced this document, demonstrating the significance of political theory because of its ability to inspire political action and affect the formation of new societies.
Jefferson’s justification for independence rested heavily on John Locke’s theory of natural rights because he believed that the British government was depriving the colonists of natural equality and liberty. He claimed, “All men are created equal” (Declaration of Independence); this idea is based on Locke’s belief that the state of nature is “a state also of equality” (Locke 287). Furthermore, Jefferson claims that people are “endowed… with certain unalienable rights” such as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (Declaration of Independence). In Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, he claims that people have a “right of self-preservation” (Locke 292)(i.e. the right to life), which extends to the right to things that “affords for their subsistence” (Locke 293) therefore creating the right to property. The colonists believed that the British government was violating the right to property because it was taxing American colonists without allowing them representation in British Parliament. Additionally, people living in Britain were allowed to vote for members of Parliament, but American colonists were not. This violated Locke’s theory of natural equality and liberty, which influenced the colonists to rebel against the British government.
Thomas Jefferson also used Rousseau’s social contract theory to justify his assertion of independence. Jefferson stated, “Governments are instituted… deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” (Declaration of Independence). The idea of consent stems from Rousseau’s On the Social Contract. He stated that this contract was a “reciprocal commitment” (Rousseau 433) between people in a society and the government they create. He believed a “social compact” (Rousseau 432) was needed to form a government in which people gave consent to the government being formed. During the American Revolution, American colonists believed that they were being subject to a government without their consent because of the “virtual representation” that did not allow them to vote for Parliament. They subsequently believed the government was not formed by a social contract as advocated by Rousseau so they rejected it. Furthermore, when they formed their new government, they used a social contract. They required at least nine out of the thirteen colonies to ratify the Constitution before it was adopted, and they instituted a government that allowed landowning males to vote for their representatives.
When the Americans decided to rebel against Britain, Jefferson justified the call for independence using the ideas of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This shows that these political theories are significant and help shape societies. In America, John Locke’s theory of natural liberty and equality influenced the colonists to rebel against a government that denied them liberty by taxing them (taking away their property) and did not grant them the equal right to vote for Parliament that it provided to British citizens. Furthermore, they believed that they did not form a social contract with the British government, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau advocated, so they formed a new government based on the consent of the people.
Declaration of Independence, 1776.
Locke, John. “Second Treatise of Government.” Modern Political Thought. Ed.
David Wootton. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2008. 287-297. Print
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. “On the Social Contract.” Modern Political Thought. Ed.
David Wootton. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2008. 432-433. Print