The Declaration of Independence and John Locke

November 29, 2017
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Many ideas in the Declaration of Independence were not Thomas Jefferson’s own ideas. During the time period when the Declaration of Independence was written, Europe was engulfed in the Enlightenment, a movement that emphasized reason instead of tradition. Philosophers such as John Locke were Enlightenment thinkers and they influenced Europe and the colonies greatly, especially Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson, the main author of the Declaration of Independence, derived the ideas in the Declaration of Independence from the ideas of the Enlightenment – mainly from John Locke’s ideas, to be exact. Ideas like natural rights, social contract, and reason mentioned in the Declaration of Independence were all from the Enlightenment. So, it is evident that Locke’s Enlightenment ideas inspired Jefferson when writing the Declaration of Independence. By incorporating John Locke’s Enlightenment ideas, the Declaration of Independence is an Enlightenment document.

Because the Declaration of Independence stated the rights that men were born with, which was similar to the idea of natural rights in the Enlightenment, it is an Enlightenment document. Thomas Jefferson wrote about the idea that men were born with certain rights, no matter who they are in his Declaration of Independence. However, this idea was not his; Jefferson “adopted John Locke's theory of natural rights to provide a reason for revolution” (Costly). The rights that humans were born with are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as stated in the Declaration of Independence (Jefferson). This idea is the main idea in the Enlightenment as well. John Locke, a philosopher at the time who supported the Enlightenment, stated in his book Two Treatises Government, that men were born with natural rights which consisted of “life, liberty, and property” (Locke). The natural rights were an Enlightenment idea and stated that humans were born with certain rights that neither the law nor the society gave them. Both Jefferson and Locke agreed upon the fact that men are born with certain rights and nobody, not even the government itself, could take away those rights. This view shared between Jefferson and the Enlightenment philosopher explicitly shows how Jefferson was influenced by Locke when writing the Declaration of Independence. So, naturally, the Declaration of Independence became an Enlightenment document. Of course, Jefferson and Locke shared their views not only in certain human rights, but in the idea that the government was only created to protect the people’s rights as well.

Social contract, another idea of the Enlightenment, is in both the Declaration of Independence and the Enlightenment, making the Declaration of Independence an Enlightenment document. In the Declaration of Independence, it states that “to secure these [natural] rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” (Jefferson). This statement explaining the purpose of the government and why it exists supported the social contract idea of the Enlightenment as well, since one part of the social contract stated that government exists solely to protect the rights of the people. People who believed in the Enlightenment believed that governments did not exist to give absolute power to the kings, but to protect its citizens (Adams). Clearly, Jefferson incorporated the ideas of the Enlightenment in the Declaration of Independence. He believed the same thing the Enlightenment thinkers believed – the social contract between the government and its people. Jefferson used this idea of the Enlightenment to support his reasons as to why the colonies were separating from Great Britain. He claimed that King George III had not kept his end of the social contract, and therefore the colonists had every right to overthrow such government that is not even considered “legitimate”. Jefferson, in his Declaration of Independence, not only used the ideas of the Enlightenment but also used reason and evidence to support his claims.

There had to be a reason for everything as reasoning is important according to the Enlightenment beliefs, and there are clear reasoning in the Declaration of Independence. John Locke claims that people need to use “reason to try to grasp the truth, and determine the legitimate functions of institutions” (Uzgalis). The importance of reasoning was an idea in the Enlightenment, as the Age of Enlightenment was even called the Age of Reason (Evans). In the Enlightenment’s point of view, reasoning is necessary in everything, especially when breaking away from an empire or a country. Therefore, Jefferson lists 27 reasons as to why the colonies actions against Great Britain and King George III is justified. Jefferson and the rest of the Continental Congress could have not made the Declaration of Independence, as the Continental Congress already passed Richard Henry Lee’s resolution that America was independent from Great Britain (Lee). However, they still took the time and effort to explain why it was necessary for them to secede from the British Empire. This demonstrates the fact that Jefferson and many others were influenced by the Enlightenment and believed that they should list all the reasons in order for their actions to be justified. The importance of reasoning was an idea in the Enlightenment, an idea that John Locke firmly believed as well. By stating clear reasons for their actions, Jefferson incorporated the idea of the Enlightenment that reasoning is important and used reasons and evidence to prove his point. Therefore, it cannot be denied that Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, having 27 reasonable reasons, is an Enlightenment document.

Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and John Locke’s Enlightenment ideas had almost the same ideas.  People have certain rights that they were born with, which was not given nor can it be taken away by the government or the society. Government’s sole purpose for existence is to not give absolute power and authority to itself, but to protect its people and the rights that they were born with. And lastly, there has to be reason for everything and Jefferson lists 27 reasons on why they are breaking away from Great Britain. Through the usage of the Enlightenment ideas to justify the colonies actions, Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence is without a doubt an Enlightenment document. From natural rights and social contract to reason, it is unquestionable that the Declaration of Independence embodies all the Enlightenment ideas.

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