How do Thomas Jefferson's statements in The Declaration of Independence reflect the ideas of Rousseau?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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There is no question that Thomas Jefferson was indebted to European thinkers such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who theorized that in the state of nature all men are equal and all men have natural rights. Thus, they shared Jefferson's concept of democracy. Like Rousseau, Jefferson believed that men have the ability to reason and shape their society in a positive manner. He felt that men would choose the right course from an innate moral sense; this innate sense is much the same as Rousseau's concept that man is innately good with a clear moral sense. Therefore, in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson, too, asserted this optimistic view of mankind:

...all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with inherent and inalienable rights....Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments...should not be changed for light and transient causes....

Further, Rousseau's Social Contract contended that the government must remain a separate institution from a sovereign entity. If this separate institution should overstep its bounds, it is the duty of the people to abolish this government, break the Social Contract, and begin anew. In accordance with these thoughts of Rousseau, Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence,

...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.

Also like Rousseau, Jefferson implied with all the charges against the King of England that he, like Rousseau, perceived the dangers of a monarchy which, as Rousseau points out in his Social Contract, is able to wield extreme power over the people, whereas a government by the people must expend time and energy working with one another in order to arrive at democratic decisions.

Clearly, Jefferson and Rousseau shared ideas on the concept of democracy as both had faith in mankind's ability to self-govern and make decisions. Jefferson viewed the masses as the bulwark against tyranny, and Rousseau found man to be innately moral and good, capable of thinking beyond self-interest.

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