Identify and explain elements of the social contract and natural rights theories in United States founding-era documents

Focus Question: How is the idea of a social contract and natural rights theories expressed in the founding documents?

John Locke
"Thomas Hobbes" by John Michael Wright

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

rotating gif.gifFor more on natural rights and social contracts, see
United States History I.2 and
AP United States History Theme 4

external image Social_contract_rousseau_page.jpg

Image to the right shows the title page of the genuine first octavo edition (first state with standing Justice) of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Social Contract 1762

Social Contract:

The Social Contract theory originated with philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The idea of social contract is an agreement between the people and the government, in which the people give the government the power to govern.
  • Thomas Hobbes: Thomas Hobbes wrote Leviathan in 1651. His argument was that people give up some of their rights in order to receive protection from the government
  • John Locke: John Locke wrote Second Treatise of Government in 1689. His theory was that people will join together and give power to a government to rule. The only legitimate laws are laws made to benefit all and protect natural rights.
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote The Social Contract in 1762. He argued that people legitimate the laws and the rulers. The people consent to be governed and in return, the laws are shaped by the General Will of the people.

Natural Rights:

Natural Rights are rights that are given to people by nature that cannot be taken away. Natural rights cannot be controlled by laws.
  • Thomas Hobbes says that a natural right would be doing what it takes to sustain life.
  • John Locke's natural rights include life, liberty, and property unless they conflict with each other and other people's natural rights to the same.

In US Founding Documents:

The Social Contract and Natural Rights theories played big roles in the creation of the United States. This is evident in the documents.

The Declaration of Independence: In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson's ideas of natural rights are the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. He also calls on the social contract idea in that the government derives its power from the people and is instituted to secure the rights of the people. Since they felt the British government was failing to secure these rights, the American people were allowed to overthrow them and create a new government that will protect their natural rights.

The US Constitution: The US Constitution also went on to ensure that the basic natural rights were provided for and to ensure that the people have a say in the government. The government works for the people and the people chose who rules the government. By voting in elections, you are consenting to accept the final outcome of the election as the will of the people, thus giving the government your consent to rule.

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