The Influence of John Locke on the Declaration of Independence

John Locke was the greatest of the Enlightenment political philosophers.  In his work: “An Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent and End of Civil Government”, Locke proposed that all men have certain inalienable rights. These rights are “Life, Liberty and Property”. These are inalienable because they may not be taken from a person except by due process of law. Further these rights were self-evident, meaning they required no more support that was given by observing human nature.  Based on these natural rights and his view that all humans are rational actors, Locke argued for a nation-state structure that was designed to secure these rights and prevent chaos but nothing more. For Locke, the best state was a constitutional state with the three branches of government separated from each other, with legislative control of state finances, an independent legal system and the rule of law.

Locke was deeply affected by the Glorious Revolution of 1688.  His philosophical works strongly supported the Revolution Settlement of 1688 between Parliament and William of Orange, later King William III and the Bill of Rights of 1689.

Jefferson’s devotion to Locke’s ideals is clear in the famous preamble to the Declaration of Independence where he states “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Here Jefferson paraphrased “life, liberty and property” into “life, liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Further the Declaration is an almost line for line recapitulation of the English Bill of Rights of 1689 and how King George violated those rights in America.

For example in the Bill of Rights:  “No royal interference with the law. Though the sovereign remains the fount of justice, he or she cannot unilaterally establish new courts or act as a judge.” And in the Declaration: “He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.  He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.”  There are many other examples.

Sources:

John Locke, An Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent and End of Civil Government, 1696

The American Declaration of Independence 1776

The  English Bill of Rights 1689

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