The Declaration of Independence

by Thomas Jefferson

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

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Core Enlightenment ideals used in the Declaration of Independence include the idea that all people are entitled to certain rights just by virtue of being human, the belief that a government’s legitimacy comes from the consent of the governed, and the idea that a government’s main purpose is to protect the rights of the people.

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The entire Declaration of Independence is saturated with Enlightenment-era ideas and influences, the most noticeable and famous of which stem from John Locke. It can itself be labeled a product of the Enlightenment and an illustration of Enlightenment-era political thought.

Like Locke, the leaders of the American Revolution envisioned politics as fundamentally contractual, being based on a contract between the rulers and the ruled. This tradition of political theory, known as social contract theory, was one of the most famous strands of political thought associated with the Enlightenment, one which stretches outside of Locke to also embrace the absolutist Hobbes (who predated Locke), as well as the later Rousseau. The entire argument sketched out in the Declaration of Independence is contractual at its core, stating that Great Britain has failed to uphold its obligations to the colonies, and therefore the colonies have a legitimate claim to independence. Note how the entire Declaration of Independence is almost structured like a court case: after setting the basic logic and argumentation, it presents a series of very specific grievances, the aim of which is to prove the claim that the original contract has been broken.

In addition, where Locke's influence is particularly strong lies in his vision of what that original social contract entails. Ultimately, social contract theory has involved imagining what human existence looks like in the absence of functioning society and governance. From there, one can then extrapolate the original social contract that would have given rise to governance to begin with. For Hobbes, the state of nature was a state of lawless brutality (from which he constructed his absolutist vision of the social contract), but Locke defined it first and foremost as a state of freedom that is fundamentally rational but also deeply fragile, with the potential for violence.

For Locke, thus, people surrender to governments and society some of that boundless freedom to protect those freedoms that are most foundational to living and enjoying life: for Locke, they were life, liberty and property. This same vision can be applied to the Declaration of Independence, which argues that government, likewise, was founded for the purpose of defending the natural rights to "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Finally, both the Declaration of Independence and these larger currents of Enlightenment thought were deeply concerned with the problem of tyranny. One can look towards Montesquieu and his differentiation between legitimate monarchy and despotism, a differentiation that ultimately boils down to the rule of law. For Montesquieu, absolutist kings (as powerful as they were), still ruled according to traditions and customs, as opposed to despots who (so Montesquieu claimed) ultimately ruled according to their whims.

To this, one can also refer to the ideas of the resistance theorists (Locke among them) and their own concerns about abuse of power and the breaking of the social contract. "Tyrant" would have been a powerful and politically charged word in an Enlightenment context, and it is not by accident that the word is invoked in the Declaration of Independence. It is not simply that the social contract has been broken, but the monarch is explicitly being charged with acting tyrannically, a claim that held power within the intellectual and emotional climate that shaped the Declaration of Independence.

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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.

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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 that people were born with rights was still regarded as radical. Though this idea did not apply to women, slaves, or native peoples in America, it was novel for a government to put this idea 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.

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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 directly 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.

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