The Constitution was not created in a vacuum - it did not "appear out of nowhere" in 1787 as if there had never been anything before it that was worthwhile. We may sometimes think that we have to credit them with every good idea that ever arose in politics, as if it would be an insult to them not to do so; but the fact is that there were other smart people before they arrived on the scene; and the Founding Fathers had the "intellectual humility," if you will, to recognize the wisdom of these prior ages. Indeed, it is a testament to their genius that they listened to these prior philosophers carefully and with an open mind; and our heartfelt respect for our Founding Fathers does not mean that we have to discount everything else that has ever happened. If the Founding Fathers, after all, did not dismiss or ignore these prior philosophers, it would seem that there is no reason for us to do so (if I may be so bold); since even the greatest minds of our country's founding felt the need to listen to other opinions from other ages, and avoid wasting time in a fruitless effort to "reinvent the wheel."
Indeed, the Founding Fathers of the United States were - almost without exception - a smart bunch. Many were quite brilliant, and some were very original thinkers. But like any group of smart men, they used the good ideas of those that came before them; often improving on them, the way an inventor improves on previous technology. The list of philosophers that influenced the Founding Fathers is a long one; as they were influenced even by the ones they disagreed with, and many were quite familiar with the "wisdom of the ages." But besides the French philosopher Montesquieu, the two philosophers that influenced them the most may have been Thomas Hobbes and John Locke: the two I will focus on here. (For more about Montesquieu's ideas, click here - I'll focus this post instead on Hobbes and Locke.) There was much about Thomas Hobbes that our Founding Fathers disagreed with; but there were some important ideas original to him that they agreed with, and that influenced their thinking in the most profound of ways.
Baron de Montesquieu
What was it in Thomas Hobbes' ideas that they liked? If asked my opinion on this question, my first answer would be what he called the "state of nature." What did this phrase mean to him? If one modern word were to capture it, it might be "anarchy" - the absence of government of any kind, or what Hobbes once referred to as a "war of every man against every man." (Source: Leviathan, Chapter XIX, section called "Of the right of succession") Hobbes was not a fan of this condition; and once said that in the state of nature, "the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." (Source: Leviathan, Chapter XIII, section entitled "The incommodities of such a war") Men are free to infringe on the rights of others, as much as it is in their power to do so; and no one is safe for long under this system. The power to infringe on the rights of others is unstable in a state of nature, and one who has this power today may well lose it tomorrow.
Hobbes, in short, was no utopian; and had a darkly realistic view of how humans behave in the absence of society. It's possible that there may have been a few Founding Fathers with a utopian streak; but on the whole, they tended to be distrustful of human nature; which is something that distinguished them from utopian philosophers like Rousseau and Marx. Their realism about the darker side of man is best summed up in this quote from the Federalist Papers, written by James Madison: "It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary." (Source: Federalist No. 51) In short, all men are suspect; showing that the Founding Fathers had no illusions about the darker side of human nature.
Hobbes gave the most powerful argument ever written for the necessity of some form of government. Nothing written since then, even by Locke and the Founding Fathers, has ever equaled it. But the government Hobbes advocated was one of absolute power; for he believed that that was the only way to prevent anarchy. Unlike many advocates of absolute power, he did not do this out of a desire for power, or a desire to oppress others; but out of the belief that it was genuinely needed to prevent anarchy. Living during the turmoil of the English Civil War - a war between the armies of a king and the armies of a Parliament - it's easy to see how he came to this conclusion; and it shows how there are good and intelligent people on the wrong side of many political questions, including this one. But this was where the Founding Fathers parted company with Hobbes, and where John Locke parted company with him. Locke and the Founding Fathers were all advocates of a democracy; which was why they reached different conclusions about government than Hobbes did, even when agreeing with him about the state of nature.
It may have been John Locke who best articulated the concept of "unalienable rights" - a phrase not used by John Locke himself, but rather made famous by Thomas Jefferson in our Declaration of Independence. Nonetheless, it was John Locke who first articulated this concept, with the words: "Usurpation is the exercise of power, which another hath a right to; so tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which nobody can have a right to." (Source: Second Treatise on Government, Chapter XVIII, Paragraph 1) Let me explain.
United States Declaration of Independence
To give an example of an alienable right, let me mention the modern example of a car: A car does not belong to you unless you purchase it from another, and the car cannot be taken away from you unless you sell (or give) it to another. The title to your car is thus an alienable right, or one that can be transferred or sold as the owner pleases. To steal a car, or to violate an alienable right, is usurpation. This is what John Locke means when he says: "Usurpation is the exercise of power, which another hath a right to." Usurpation is the violation of alienable rights.
A replica of Independence Hall, which is not surrounded by
high-rise buildings (that don't belong in the period) the way the real one is today
Independence Hall, Philadelphia
But the rights to life and liberty are unalienable rights; or rights that cannot be taken away, except perhaps as punishment for crime. (We can take away someone's liberty by putting them in prison if they commit a serious crime - like murder, for example - but in all cases besides just punishments, liberty is an unalienable right.) To imprison a man who has not committed a crime, or to violate an unalienable right, is tyranny. This is what John Locke means when he says: "tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which nobody can have a right to." Just as usurpation is the violation of alienable rights, so tyranny is the violation of unalienable rights. To steal a car is usurpation, while to enslave a man is tyranny.
Constitution of the United States
In the state of nature that Hobbes described, both Hobbes and Locke believe that people form a "social contract" between themselves and government, in which the people give up some of their rights - some of our alienable rights - to protect the most important ones - especially unalienable rights. We give up the right to some of our property - paying it in the form of taxes - in order to have government protect our lives and our liberty, which are the more important rights. This is not to say that all government started with a formal or written agreement between the people and government; but that the agreement is a tacit one, similar to the one you make in a fancy restaurant when you order dinner. (You don't say explicitly that you'll pay the bill, but your consent is understood when you order your meal. Your agreement to pay the bill is thus considered "tacit," or implied.) In a similar way, we tacitly consent to obey the laws of a society when we live in it; and the government tacitly consents to protect our lives and liberty for so doing. Even when there is no written document like our Constitution, social contract theory can get off the ground with the concept of tacit agreement; allowing us to expect the government's protection by a "tacit" agreement on their part, even if government never signed a written contract saying they would do so. Such is the power of social contract theory.
The Constitutional Convention
John Trumbull's Declaration of Independence
The social contract theory is mentioned explicitly in the Declaration of Independence: "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." They then go on to say 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." The concept of violating unalienable rights - the very definition of tyranny - is the only thing that can justify violent revolution, and even then should only be done when absolutely necessary. In the words of the Declaration: "Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes." And today, we have the option of nonviolent revolution through the mechanism of elections; sparing us the bloodbath required to oust tyrannical governments, and allowing us to overthrow them peacefully every few years, whenever we feel like it. (What a wonderful system we have!)
Both Hobbes and Locke were social contract theorists; but Hobbes was a believer in absolute government, because of his experience of the anarchy of civil war in England; while Locke was a believer in a democracy, with a much more expanded concept of unalienable rights. Hobbes may have gotten a lot of the specifics of the social contract wrong, but he nailed the "state of nature" idea right on the head; and Locke was able to fix those parts of his social contract theory that were wrong. Locke improved on the ideas of Thomas Hobbes, and the Founding Fathers improved on the ideas of John Locke - applying them in the founding of our nation. The Founding Fathers were influenced by both, and we owe much of the success of our government to these two men.
If you liked this post, you might also like:
War of "every man against every man": Thomas Hobbes and the state of nature
Actually, John Locke did influence the U. S. Declaration of Independence
In defense of John Locke: The need for private property
Other posts about the Founding Fathers