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The social contract is the concept that human beings have made an agreement with their government, whereby the government and the people have distinct roles and responsibilities. The theory is based on the idea that humans abandoned a natural (free and ungoverned) condition in favor of a society that provides them with order, structure, and, very importantly, protection.

Through the ages many philosophers have considered the role of both government and citizens within the context of the social contract. According to English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704), the social contract is directly tied to natural law (the theory that some laws are fundamental to human nature). Locke argued that people first lived in a state of nature, where they had no restrictions on their freedom. Realizing that conflict arose as each individual defended his or her own rights, people finally agreed to live under a common government, which offers them protection. However, in doing so they had not abandoned their natural rights. On the contrary, argued Locke, the government should protect the rights of the people—particularly the guarantee of life, liberty, and property. In 1690 Locke published these ideas in his two most influential works, Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Two Treatises of Government, which established him as the leading "philosopher of freedom." His writings influenced American statesman Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826). Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence (1776; the document in which the American colonies asserted their right to independence from Great Britain), which states that there are "self-evident truths" (natural laws), that people are "endowed by their Creator [God] with certain unalienable rights" (natural rights), and that among these are "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."

Another advocate of the social contract was French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778). He was one of the great figures of the Enlightenment, a cultural period of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, during which reason was celebrated as a superior human virtue (moral goodness). Rousseau later published Social Contract (1762), a book in which he asserted that people enter into a binding agreement among themselves and that it is their responsibility to establish a system of government. According to Rousseau, people "have a duty to obey only legitimate powers," meaning that only the people can decide who governs them. Rousseau had a direct influence on the French Revolution (1789–99), a movement that overthrew the French monarchy (government by a king or queen) and established a republic (government by the people). His ideas also helped promote the American Revolution (1775–83), the conflict in which American colonies gained independence from Great Britain. The concept of the social contract as defined by Rousseau also influenced the writing of the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration proclaims that "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed," and "whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it." The well-known words of the "American's Creed," written in 1917 by William Tyler Page (1868–1942) of Maryland, reassert these principles: "I believe in the United States of America as a government of the people, by the people, for the people; whose just powers are derived from the consent of the governed."

Further Information: Raboff, Ernest. Henri Rousseau. New York: Harper & Row, 1988; "Social Contract." Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. [Online] Available http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/s/soc-cont.htm, November 7, 2000; "Social Contract." MSN Encarta. [Online] Available http://encarta.msn.com/find/Concise.asp?ti=03A9C000, November 7, 2000.