What are some Enlightenment ideas found in the Declaration of Independence?
Among other concepts, Locke’s natural rights and Rousseau’s general will and social contract feature greatly.
Prepare for a long one, friend:
The most obvious translation from Enlightenment to Declaration is John Locke’s concept of natural rights. Lockean logic held that the human state of nature was inherently good; Thus, per Locke it benefits society to maintain their basic freedoms. In Two Treatises of Government, he argues that citizens are owed guarantees on their rights to “Life, Liberty, and Property.”
However, Jefferson was not just declaring evidence, he was trying to win over the estimated two-thirds of Americans that were not revolutionaries; as such, he moved away from the aristocratic connotation of “Property,” opting instead for “the pursuit of happiness.” Though Lockean philosophy appeared near verbatim in the Declaration, its origin is found in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ideology.
Parisian philosophe Rousseau created the concept of the Social Contract: No government rules by divine right or intrinsic authority. Rather, rulers’ legitimacy is determined by the consent of the public. Society is a contract between the rulers and the ruled; the ruled must behave responsibly and patriotically, aspiring to keep order. The rulers must pursue the general will, the goals of the population.
Rousseau’s influence is at least as prominent as Locke’s. Jefferson takes the Social Contract and blows it up: He notes,
“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government…”
Further, in the Declaration, the List of Grievances makes it clear that the British Crown has failed the people of the American colonies. In portraying, in casual terms, a “give-and-take” relationship between government and people, the Declaration displays Jefferson’s understanding of Rousseau’s political theory.
In conclusion, Jefferson fused Locke’s inherent, natural rights and Rousseau’s theory of contractual government to forge the .