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The Influence of The Enlightenment on The Declaration of Independence

The Influence of The Enlightenment on The Declaration of Independence

By-Tay



The Declaration of Independence was written in 1776, amidst an 18th-century movement called the Enlightenment. The movement involved critics, editors, playwrights, philosophers, and storytellers. Thinkers of the Enlightenment would criticize the current beliefs of society concerning education, government, history, human nature, religion, and other topics of life. Criticism was a key component of the movement. The purpose of the Enlightenment was to abolish intolerance, slavery, and superstition. The Declaration of Independence was a formal document in which the colonies declared their independence from Great Britain. The declaration was written by Thomas Jefferson and the members of the Second Continental Congress. The Enlightenment had major influences on the Declaration of Independence; critical components of the declaration were written based on thoughts and ideas from Enlightenment philosophers John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Baron de Montesquieu, amongst many others.

The Declaration of Independence was heavily affected by the ideals of English philosopher John Locke. He left his life as a teacher behind to focus on his career as a philosopher. According to the text, “Locke's position at Oxford had been lost while he was in the Netherlands. He then withdrew his request for reappointment after learning that someone else would lose their position there. Locke now turned his attention to finishing his main work on political philosophy, Two Treatises of Government, which he published anonymously in 1690” (Yunt). Knowing that another person would lose their job, Locke refused to be reinstated as a teacher at Oxford. Instead, he compiled his philosophical ideas into a book. In Two Treatises of Government, Locke discussed what he believed were the basic rights of humans. “He claimed that people establish societies and enter into a contractual relationship with their created government for convenience and better protection of their rights. Thus, for Locke, the only legitimate function of a government was to preserve and protect these rights, including life, liberty, and property. If any government should violate these rights, then the social contract was destroyed, thus leaving the individual free to rebel in order to establish a new and better contract. This was one of the earliest defenses of the concept of civil disobedience” (Yunt). According to Locke, the three basic rights are life, liberty, and property; a government is only needed to protect these rights. If the government does not protect the rights of the people, then the people can replace the government. Thomas Jefferson used John Locke’s concepts of basic rights and the social contract theory as a basis for the first draft of the Declaration of Independence. The text 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.—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” (Declaration of Independence). Americans had basic rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They could overthrow the government if it violated its jurisdiction. John Locke’s beliefs of basic rights in life, liberty, and property were altered to fit within the context of the declaration, whereas others were kept in their original form. Like John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was also a highly influential philosopher that contributed to the Declaration of Independence.

Throughout the course of his life, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote many books and novels, some of which presented inspiring concepts. In 1762 he wrote, “the political treatise Du Contrat social (The Social Contract), which became his most famous and influential work” (Siegel). The book was Rousseau’s expression of opinion on how people should be treated. “Rousseau argues that civil liberties are ‘natural rights of all human beings. The work begins with the famous sentence ‘Man was born free, but he is everywhere in chains.’ The philosopher insists that the sovereignty of a community does not lie in the divine right of kings. Instead, it rests in the interests of the people, as expressed in what he calls the ‘general will.’ In sum, Rousseau believed that civil society should be based on a social contract by which citizens are guaranteed individual liberty” (Siegel). Rousseau said that everyone was equal and that people were free to make their own choices rather than live under tyranny and oppression. The beliefs of Jean-Jacques Rousseau were incorporated into the Declaration of Independence alongside John Locke’s concepts. Specifically, “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” (Declaration of Independence). Everyone is equal and entitled to their freedom, while the government is there to simply represent the people. The Founding Fathers built upon Rousseau’s perceptions on liberty and government when they wrote the declaration. Another prominent and significant Enlightenment figure was Baron de Montesquieu.

The work of French lawyer and philosopher Baron de Montesquieu had a major influence on the Declaration of Independence. Montesquieu began to study government and wrote books to share his ideas. “Montesquieu was confident that he was in the process of preparing a significant tract of political philosophy. He finished researching and writing the work in 1746, and it appeared in 1750 under the title De l'esprit des loix (The Spirit of the Laws). The book eventually became a classic text of the Enlightenment'' (Siegel). The Spirit of the Laws depicts Montesquieu’s thoughts on how a government can function effectively and maintain stability. “The Spirit of the Laws demonstrates an extensive study of political and legal history, as well as Montesquieu's observations of contemporary European governments. It argues for a political system in which power is divided between several institutions. Montesquieu insisted that only by setting ‘power against power’ could society be protected from despotism. He based his argument to a large extent on his conception of the English system of government in which the British Parliament and the monarch divided power” (Siegel). Montesquieu claimed that if one person was entrusted with the power to rule over everyone, they would turn corrupt. Power must be distributed equally in order to keep it from being abused. In the event a government official turned corrupt, the public had the authority to elect another individual. The principles of Montesquieu had an effect on Thomas Jefferson, which in turn influenced the Declaration of Independence. The text states, “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" (Declaration of Independence). It was the responsibility of the people to protect themselves from despotism. They could alter, abolish, and replace the government in defense of their rights. As a side note, Montesquieu’s influence on Thomas Jefferson also affected the U.S. Constitution. What is known today as the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government derive from Montesquieu’s separation of powers. John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Baron de Montesquieu were highly influential philosophers of the Enlightenment.

The Declaration of Independence was written in 1776, which was during the middle of an 18th Century movement, the Enlightenment. Many philosophers of the Enlightenment wrote about how a government should treat its citizens. Among these philosophers were John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Baron de Montesquieu. John Locke believed in the social contract theory, and that people were entitled to life, liberty, and property at the moment of their birth. Jean-Jacques Rousseau insisted people were equal and had a right to freedom. Baron de Montesquieu claimed that power must be equally divided, and if the government tarnished the rights of the people, the people could elect new representatives to hold office. These standards were developed during the Enlightenment and were held in high regard at later times. It is clearly evident that the thoughts and ideas of Enlightenment philosophers John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Baron de Montesquieu influenced many critical components of the Declaration of Independence.


Works Cited

"Ideas of the Enlightenment." World History: The Modern Era, ABC-CLIO, 2021, worldhistory.abc-clio.com/Topics/Display/1185551?cid=41&sid=1185551. Accessed 4 Oct. 2021.


Siegel, Daniel. "Baron De Montesquieu." World History: The Modern Era, ABC-CLIO, 2021, worldhistory.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/315273. Accessed 4 Oct. 2021.


Siegel, Daniel. "Jean-Jacques Rousseau." World History: The Modern Era, ABC-CLIO, 2021, worldhistory.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/318205. Accessed 4 Oct. 2021.


Yunt, Jeremy. "John Locke." World History: The Modern Era, ABC-CLIO, 2021, worldhistory.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/314923. Accessed 4 Oct. 2021.


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