What are three Enlightenment ideas used in the Declaration of Independence?


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.

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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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.