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How John Locke Influenced the Declaration of Independence

On this day 243 years ago, the Second Continental Congress declared the American Colonies’ independence from their motherland, England. Now, every year Americans come together to commemorate this occasion with large celebrations and grand fireworks displays. Here at the John Locke Foundation, we like to celebrate by paying tribute to one of the greatest inspirations behind this revolutionary declaration, John Locke.

John Locke was an English philosopher in the 17th century and is renown as one of the most influential thinkers of the Enlightenment. It has been said that “Locke’s justification of revolt, as based on his theory of natural rights, was the background from which the Declaration sprang.”

Locke’s influence appears in countless speeches and writings of the Founding Fathers. For instance, the Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congresswhich was written two years prior to the Declaration of Independence by authors such as John Adams and George Washington – quotes Locke almost verbatim in resolving [Colonists] are entitled to life, liberty and property.

His most famous writings, A Letter Concerning Toleration and Second Treatise of Government, both heavily influenced the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson. Many believe much of the most memorable language of the Declaration of Independence is derived from Locke’s works. The entire Declaration has been said to have “Succeeded admirably in condensing Locke’s fundamental argument into a few hundred words.”

One can most notably see Locke’s influence in the Declaration’s references to “inalienable rights” and “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” However, Locke’s influence can be seen throughout the Declaration of Independence (see table).

The Declaration

Locke’s Second Treatise

..all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed

…till the mischief be grown general, and the ill designs of the rulers become visible, or their attempts sensible to the greater part, the people, who are more disposed to suffer than right themselves by resistance, are not apt to stir(Sec. 230)

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

But if a long train of abuses, prevarications and artifices, all tending the same way, make the design visible to the people, and they cannot but feel what they lie under, and see whither they are going; it is not to be wondered, that they should then rouze themselves, and endeavour to put the rule into such hands which may secure to them the ends for which government was at first erected… (Sec. 225)

*Adapted from “John Locke and the Declaration of Independence” in Cleveland State Law Review

Not only is the spirit of Locke’s philosophy seen in the writings of those Americans who read his work, but John Locke, under the guide of his mentor Lord Shaftesbury, crafted the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina. Though it was never adopted, this document was intended to be used as the Constitution of the English Province of Carolina. 

We here at the John Locke Foundation still uphold Locke’s notions of natural rights and revolutionary zeal in the work we do every day. And we, like the Declaration, hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.

 

Happy Independence Day!

Brenee Goforth / Marketing and Communications Associate

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