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Background Essay: The Enlightenment and Social Contract Theory

Background Essay: The Enlightenment and Social Contract Theory

Guiding Questions: What were the major ideas of the Enlightenment? How did the Enlightenment influence the United States’ Founding?

  • I can explain the historical context for the emergence of the Enlightenment.
  • I can explain the major ideas of Enlightenment thinkers Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
  • I can compare the influence of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau on the Founders of the United States.

Essential Vocabulary

absolute monarchy a form of government under which the monarch holds all political power
civil society the groups of citizens and organizations that make up society and work for the common concerns in a community
English Civil War a civil war fought between supporters of the monarchy of Charles I and supporters of Parliament from 1642 to 1651
Enlightenment a time period during the 16th and 17th centuries that urged people to use reason to discover knowledge of the universe
Glorious Revolution a nearly bloodless revolution that began in 1688 in which England overthrew its king, James II, and replaced him with a new monarch with fewer absolute powers
natural law a system of justice that applies to all humans universally
natural rights universal rights that all humans hold regardless of customs, laws, or societies and given to them by God or by nature
scientific method a mode of gaining knowledge that involves observing and testing in order to learn
Scientific Revolution a time period during the 16th and 17th centuries in which major advances in various fields of science and mathematics were made
social contract an agreement under which humans live together under certain rules
sovereign having legitimate power/authority that does not derive from a higher power/authority
tyrannical excessive and oppressive power


Directions: As you read the essay, highlight or underline key ideas in the text. Take notes about the main ideas of the essay in the right column.

During the 1500s and 1600s, the Scientific Revolution greatly expanded human understanding of the material world and the frontiers of human knowledge through use of the scientific method and experiments. The Enlightenment, or age of reason, followed in the 1600s and focused on examining human nature and its characteristics, such as forms of government. The Enlightenment ushered in an era of greater questioning of traditional truths and authorities and played an important role in helping shape the American Founders’ thinking.

Many Enlightenment thinkers, including Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, developed ideas about human nature by reflecting on the nature and condition of humans before the existence of government and civil society—the groups of citizens and organizations that make up society and work for the common concerns in a community. Each thinker considered what humans are like in their natural state and explained why they formed organized communities. The philosophers agreed that to do so, humans must make a social contract, or an agreement to live together under certain rules for the common good. However, Enlightenment thinkers disagreed on nearly all of the details.

Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679)

Image of Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes wrote his famous book Leviathan (1658) within the context of the English Civil War, a civil war fought between supporters of the monarchy of Charles I and supporters of Parliament from 1642 to 1651. He believed that human nature was essentially corrupt. He thought that people were naturally ruled by their passions, self-interest, and a desire for power. Without laws or government authority, humans threaten each other’s rights and lives. All are equally endangered. Hobbes argued that this state of nature was a “war of all against all.” Since no one was safe in the state of nature, it was reasonable for humans to form a social contract with each other to create a government. Hobbes’s social contract philosophy represents a break from the ancient and medieval belief that humanity was naturally social. The older view was that social and political institutions arose naturally, not from a contract between individuals.

In the social contract, individuals agreed to form a political society based on certain conditions, including that the people surrendered many of their rights to a sovereign leader—one with legitimate authority—to protect their lives. The sovereign was given the power to enforce the contract. The sovereign was not subject to the contract. The sovereign ruled with unlimited power and had the right to make war and peace, enact taxes, raise an army, prevent negative speech, and punish lawbreakers severely. There was no separation of powers to limit the sovereign’s power. Hobbes thus supported an absolute monarchy, a form of government under which the monarch holds all political power.

According to Hobbes, the main goal of the social contract was to prevent a return to the state of nature and provide order, safety, and security through a strong government. There was no right of rebellion, and subjects had a duty to obey the sovereign’s will. The Founders read Hobbes, but few agreed with his conclusions about absolute power.

John Locke (1632–1704)

Image of John Locke

John Locke was influenced by the outcome of the Glorious Revolution, a revolution in which England overthrew its king, James II, and replaced him with a new monarch with fewer absolute powers. He wrote Second Treatise of Government (1690), in which he developed very different conclusions about human nature than Hobbes. Locke believed that in a state of nature, humans were rational beings and equal in their natural rights to life, liberty, and property, which could not be taken away by anyone without their consent. People also enjoyed perfect freedom restricted only by the moral code of natural law, a system of justice that applies to all humans, and could not violate one another’s rights.

Locke believed individuals claimed ownership of property when they improved it through their labor. They had a right to that property, and it could not be taken away from them without their consent. Even though humans were generally good, occasional disputes occurred over property rights. Therefore, humans agreed to form a social contract with each other to create a civil government and society to settle these disputes. The purpose of the government was to protect the individual rights of the sovereign people and to promote the common good. The powers of government were therefore limited to these activities, rather than extending to providing goods and services for citizens. In addition, the existence of natural rights is itself a limit on government, as the individual has rights that government itself must respect. Government power was further restricted by a separation of powers between the branches of government. Locke consistently defended limited government, in contrast to Hobbes’s absolutism, or unlimited governmental power.

According to Locke, the people are the final check on tyrannical, or oppressive, government. If a government acted tyrannically and violated rights, the people had the right to rebel. They could alter or abolish the government but only after a long history of abuses. The people would then agree to a new social contract to create a new form of government that was better able to protect their rights.

Locke’s influence on the natural rights philosophy and principle of self-government in the Declaration of Independence is unmistakable.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778)

Image of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a French Enlightenment thinker who lived and wrote after Hobbes and Locke. He focused on social contract theory, most notably in his book The Social Contract (1762). Rousseau developed views about human nature and government that were radically different from those of Hobbes and Locke.

Rousseau opened his book with the provocative phrase “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” What he meant by this is that humans are naturally good and even perfectible in a state of nature. They are innately, or naturally, good, virtuous, equal, and free.

Rousseau further argued that the institutions of society (family, church, education, government, and civil groups) actually corrupted and enslaved individuals rather than teaching them civic virtues. The creation and ownership of private property created inequalities, and wealth created vanity and corruption. Rousseau believed that society robbed humans of their natural freedom. His view of the social contract and government was based upon this view of human nature and society.

Rousseau believed that all individuals surrendered their rights and property to the community. Since humans were rational and perfectible beings, they would all agree on good laws. This collective consensus (meaning all agree, rather than just a majority) was called the “General Will” and was the only source of law.

In Rousseau’s view, all citizens were legislators and participated in government. If the country became too large and needed representatives, these officials were required to consult the General Will in making laws rather than their own judgments. Since the people were free, reasonable, and equal, there was no need for a separation of powers among three branches or a division of power of any kind.

Rousseau’s ideas influenced the French Revolution and were found in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789. This document, which sought to list the rights of the citizens of France, stated that sovereignty was found in the collective will of the nation. In the American Declaration of Independence, sovereignty is found in the people. Rousseau’s influence on the Founders was limited.

In Conclusion

The different strains of Enlightenment thought helped shape the political philosophy of the modern world. The American republic was most heavily influenced by the Enlightenment ideas of John Locke, along with classical thought, Protestant Christianity, English tradition, and colonial experience. Part of the genius of the Founding generation was in their combination of these various intellectual streams, taking the best of each tradition and building a “new order for the ages.”

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