There are many Enlightenment ideals in the Declaration of Independence. One is the idea that all people are entitled to certain rights just by virtue of being human. Another is the belief that a government’s legitimacy comes from the consent of the governed. Finally, the Declaration of Independence incorporates the Enlightenment idea that a government’s main purpose is to protect the rights of the people.
The Declaration of Independence draws heavily on the ideas of Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke. Much of what Jefferson wrote in the Declaration comes direct from Locke’s ideas about government. Let us look at three examples of this.
First, the Declaration of Independence says that people have certain rights just because they are people. These rights are not given to them by the government and cannot be taken away from them. They have these rights simply because they are human. This is a major idea of the Enlightenment.
Second, the Declaration of Independence says that a government is only legitimate if the people consent to be ruled by it. It is possible for a government to force its will on the people, but that government is not a legitimate government and it has no right to rule the people. Enlightenment thinkers wondered why governments had the right to rule people. They did not believe that kings had a divine right to rule. Instead, they believed that governments were legitimate if the people agreed to be ruled by those governments. This idea is found in the Declaration as well.
Finally, the Declaration of Independence says that the only reason to have government is to protect the rights of the people. This, too, comes from the Enlightenment. Enlightenment thinkers did not think that governments should exist to give power to kings. Instead, governments should exist to protect their citizens. This is the third Enlightenment idea found in the Declaration of Independence.
One Enlightenment idea is that government derives its power from the consent of the governed. This idea went against the previous idea that rulers ruled by divine right, for example the king was God's secular representative on Earth. By putting the people in charge of government, government would hopefully be more responsive to the needs of the people.
A second Enlightenment idea is that all people had inalienable rights. John Locke stated that these rights were life, liberty, and property, but Thomas Jefferson amended these rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Even with Jefferson's amended version, the thought in that people were born with rights was still regarded as radical. Though this idea did not apply to women, slaves, or natives in America, it was a novel idea that a government would put down as part of its philosophy.
A third Enlightenment ideal is that government exists in order to protect the rights of the people. Jefferson states this and then goes on to list multiple abuses of the British government against its American colonists in order to point out that reconciliation with Britain is impossible and that independence is the only recourse left.
Jefferson's idea of "unalienable rights" in the Declaration of Independence is similar to the idea of natural rights, which comes from Locke. According to Locke, people are born with certain inherent rights that the government cannot remove. Jefferson writes in the Declaration that "all men are created equal." This idea is derived in part from Locke's idea of the "tabula rasa," which means that all people are born without prior knowledge and are therefore equal in status.
The idea that the government owes its existence to the consent of the governed and that once the government goes against this so-called social contract, it should be overthrown, comes from Locke and Rousseau. According to their philosophy, people give up some of their rights to the government for protection and security, but the government must still protect individuals' natural rights. Another Enlightenment idea in the Declaration is that people have the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These rights come from those Locke felt the government should protect, though Locke defined these rights as life, liberty, and property.