What is the relationship between the ideas of John Locke and those contained in the U.S. Declaration of Independence?

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pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The relationship between the ideas of John Locke and those contained in the Declaration of Independence is that the main ideas in the second section of the Declaration come from Locke.  The people who wrote the Declaration had read Locke’s writings and Locke had influenced them greatly.  They borrowed almost directly from him in writing that part of the Declaration.

The first relevant part of the Declaration comes when the document says that

all men … are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

This comes fairly directly from Locke.  Locke says, in his Second Treatise on Government, that the “law of nature” says that “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”  Locke then goes on to say that the reason why no one should do this is because all people were made by an “omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker” and that people had no right to take away what the maker had given.  We can see that Locke’s ideas and those of the Declaration are very similar here.  The only real difference is that the Declaration substitutes the phrase “pursuit of happiness” for “possessions.”

The second relevant part of the Declaration says that governments get “their just power from the consent of the governed.”  This, too, comes from Locke.  Locke says that no man can be “subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent.”  Once again, these ideas are practically identical.

Third, the Declaration says that the people have the right to change or to overthrow their government if it fails to protect their rights.  Locke says something very similar.  He says that, whenever the government tries

to take away, and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power

then the people no longer have to obey the government.  Instead, the people have the right to throw off the government and create a new one.

From all of this, we can see that the second section of the Declaration of Independence comes almost directly from the ideas of John Locke as set out in his Second Treatise.  This is the relationship between Locke’s ideas and those of the Declaration.