Why are John Locke's ideas important?

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John Locke’s ideas are historically important largely because they helped to inspire the American Revolution.  Many of the Patriot leaders read and accepted Locke’s ideas about government.  We can see proof of this in the fact that the Declaration of Independence uses Locke’s ideas.

John Locke was an Enlightenment thinker who did not believe that monarchy was rational.  Locke believed that it was irrational to think that God had appointed certain families of people to rule over others.  Instead, he tried to come up with a more logical way to think about how government came to be and what made government legitimate.

Locke argued that governments arose because people wanted something to protect them from other people in the state of nature.  In the state of nature, there was no government and no limits on what people could do, but there was also no way for people to protect their rights.  Therefore, Locke argued, people created governments.  The governments were legitimate because the people agreed to be ruled by them.  The governments were also legitimate because they protected the people’s fundamental rights.  These were the rights to life, liberty, and property.

These ideas are very clearly reflected in the Declaration of Independence.  Jefferson uses Locke’s arguments almost word for word in that document.  He did this because he and many of the other American leaders believed that Locke’s democratic vision was correct.  Locke’s vision helped inspire them to want to rebel against the British monarchy.  Therefore, Jefferson said, in the Declaration, that government got its power from the consent of the governed and that the purpose of government was to protect the people’s rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Historically speaking, then, Locke’s ideas are important mainly because they helped to inspire one of the most important political revolutions in the history of the world. 

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