John Locke’s Influence on The Declaration of Independence

John Locke

I discovered John Locke some time ago, but in discovering Greg Forster, I have grown to better understand Locke and appreciate his exhaustive grasp of human nature, philosophy, theology and the historic setting of his life and times and his impact on the principles of our constitutional republic.

For Freedom’s Sake was launched for the examination of and communication of the very ideas that men like John Locke brought to bear on the thinking of our founding fathers. Thomas Jefferson in The Declaration of Independence captured the philosophical ideas, which launched the American system of constitutional government.

Greg Forster, in his book, “Starting with Locke,” pulls together, into one place, a comparison of Locke’s ideas along side those written by Jefferson’s in The Declaration of Independence which bridges our cherished views of freedom with those written by Locke in his “Two Treatises of Government” just over 87 years before The Declaration of Independence.

Forster writes in chapter 6, entitled “Locke’s Rebellion” the following:

“The same philosophy of rebellion we find in Locke was widely influential in colonial America and profoundly shaped the American revolution. It is probably impossible to say with certainty how much the American revolutionaries were shaped by Locke, as opposed to other sources with similar ideas. On the one hand, many of the same earlier books that influenced Locke, from Cicero’s On the Republic to Samuel Rutherford’s 1644 Lex Rex, were influential on the American founders. On the other hand, Locke was himself influential on figures like Jonathan Edwards and William Blackstone, who were in turn influential on the America founders. Who is to say to what extent the American founders drank from the same wells Locke drank from, and to what extent they drank from the wells he dug?

“But if the lines of influence are indistinct, the outcome is as clear as the sun in the sky. The Declaration of Independence shows how indistinguishable the political philosophy of the American revolution is from the political philosophy of Locke’s Two Treatises:

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; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.

“It is an old observation that the line about how it is “self-evident that all men are created equal” and “endowed by their creator” with “unalienable rights” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” echoes Locke’s conception of the natural law: “Reason, which is that law [of nature], teaches all mankind who will be consult it that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, liberty or possessions” (T II.6, 117).

“But in fact the entire passage quoted above – the key passage of the Declaration – mirrors the Two Treatises perfectly. Governments are instituted by consent, to secure natural rights, when government becomes destructive of those rights, the people may alter or abolish it; people will suffer great evils rather than rebel; but when it is clear that the abuses are intentional, they will and should rebel.

“Consider the question of how Locke and the Declaration define when we have a right to rebel. This must be the most important distinguishing feature of a revolutionary philosophy. When is rebellion authorized? Here is the Declaration: “when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism.” And here is Locke, “if a long train of abuses, prevarications, and artifices, all tending the same way, make the design [of tyranny] visible to the people.” The criterion to be established – a deliberate – “design” of tyranny – and the evidence by which we establish it are alike identical. The overwhelming bulk of the Declaration is devoted to reciting a list of grievances against the king. The purpose of this list, as the Declaration itself states, is not simply to show the wrongs one to the colonists but to establish “a history of repeated injuries and usurpations all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states.”

“The founders’ deviations from Locke – such as Thomas Jefferson’s romantic phrase “pursuit of happiness” standing in for Locke’s more concrete term “property” – may not be completely trivial. But these variations in phrasing pale, if not to insignificance then almost that far, when compared to the nearly identical structure of the philosophical framework and the basic argument.

“It is interesting to note that during the siege of Boston in the winter of 1775-1776, warships commissioned by George Washington bore flags that declared, in large black letters on a white background, “AN APPEAL TO HEAVEN.” The flag was adopted by the Massachusetts Navy in April 1776.”

See, Greg Forster, Starting with Locke, London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011, pp.131-133.

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14 Comments

  1. Posted September 22, 2011 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    This is very boring, and bland. Spice it up. *_*

  2. Daniel
    Posted October 17, 2011 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

    This is a very well written and informative piece that describes in great detail how much our declaration of independence was ripped off of the ideas of John Locke. Great Job! its very helpful

  3. Posted December 15, 2011 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    yyyeeeaaa bbbuuuddddddyyy

  4. Posted December 15, 2011 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    this was very helpfull to me for my project on john locke and the doi got a 96% yyyeeeaaa dddoooggg

  5. alisha
    Posted January 6, 2012 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

  6. Cindy
    Posted February 11, 2012 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

    Great article for me to review the concept of John Locke’s State of Nature and the ideas Thomas Jefferson adopted from his theory.

  7. brenna
    Posted August 14, 2012 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    THis was perfect to work with for my essay. I needed help finding Locke’s ideas that were in the Declaration of Independence, and this helped greatly! Thank you!

  8. Kelly
    Posted August 26, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this. I seriously needed this for my essay on John Locke, and his influence on the Declaration of Independence. This was very straightforward. Thank you, again!

  9. Clea
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

    This really helped me to write my first essay in my first AP class…thank you Internet :)

  10. Posted July 5, 2013 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    I wrote a more descriptive article back in 2010 about the same thing, going more point by point.
    http://www.discoveringthefoundingprinciples.com/2010/09/what-inlfuenced-founders-john-locke-and.html

  11. Posted July 5, 2013 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    This is well written and as it was when I was in High School – John Lock should be studied by everyone. Thanks for bringing this to the fore front.

    R/
    CAPT Lucks USN

  12. Marlon
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    thanks u helped alot i just hope i get a A+ on my paper

  13. laurence
    Posted October 11, 2014 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

    thanks for your artical. hope it can help me with my paper work

  14. actually John Locke
    Posted October 22, 2014 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    A good review on the basics of his ideas for the constitution, but it just scratches the surface of the many ideas he contributed.

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