How are the ideas of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke expressed in the Delcaration of Independence?Or in what ways were their ideas modified in the Delcaration of Independence?

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larrygates eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I respectfully submit that no part of the Declaration of Independence is based on the ideas of Thomas Hobbes; rather it is almost entirely a restatement of John Locke's position in his Second Treatise on Civil Government.

Thomas Hobbes in his famous work, Leviathan, had supported absolute monarchy and the divine right of kings. He believed this to be the only way to prevent the "war of all against all," in which life was "nasty brutish and short." Nowhere in the Declaration are these ideas found. Locke, in fact, had disputed Hobbes' theories in his First Treatise on Civil Government in which he dismissed the notion that governments were necessary to protect ourselves from each other. Locke's Two Treatises on Government written to support the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in which the British people had deposed James II and invited William of Orange and Mary to take the throne, stated:

  • All men are born with certain "natural rights."
  • These rights include life, liberty and estate.
  • People through a social contract form a government to protect their rights.
  • People have the fight to change that government if it no longer protects their rights.

Locke had argued that James II had no longer protected the rights of the British people, and they therefore had the right to depose him. The language of the Declaration is strikingly similar:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. 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, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

saintfester eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke’s ideas were central to the eventual formation of the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Hobbes is easily found within the words of the Declaration. He was an early champion of the natural equality of men, so the immortal phrase, “All men are created equal” could easily be credited in part to him. Hobbes also believed that power had to come from the people, which is echoed in the Declaration’s passages about men instituting government to protect their freedoms. The idea of a “social contract” existing between the government and the governed is Hobbes’ thoughts.

Locke further developed this theory of social contracts. More striking is Locke’s belief that in a natural state, all people are equal and everyone has the right to defend his “Life, liberty and property.” This of course was the inspiration for Jefferson’s own words regarding everyone’s right to the pursuits of “life, liberty and happiness” found in the Declaration. John Locke also believed in the right of revolution, where people have the right and duty to rebel from tyrannical governments if they did not prescribe to the people’s will. Jefferson inserted this into the Declaration as well.

saintfester eNotes educator| Certified Educator

If Hobbes had no influence on the Declaration of Independence, then I must ask why in Leviathan Hobbes clearly discusses natural rights and freedoms and how men and women establish governments in order to secure peace. How is this not the social contract theory that Jefferson argues in favor of? Locke later borrowed this theory from Hobbes. He changed it because he didn't believe in the absolute right of governments to rule like Hobbes did, but the concept is still very much the same.

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