"When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."
- The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776 (first paragraph)
Some have claimed that John Locke didn't have much influence on the Founding Fathers ...
John Locke once wrote an eloquent defense of private property, which liberals enchanted with socialist ideas have long resented. Because of this, there have been some who have claimed that he did not really have much influence on the Founding Fathers of the United States, who are still quite popular in my American homeland.
... so it might be helpful to correct the record
Because of this, it seems like it would be worthwhile now to correct the record; and give the evidence that Mr. Locke did indeed have an influence on the Founding Fathers. Most notably, he had a great influence on Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence; and it can be shown that some of the language within it (not to mention the ideas) are a direct borrowing from John Locke.
Specifically, he influenced the Declaration of Independence, as these quotes will show ...
I will now present the quotes from the Declaration of Independence (which are well-known), followed by the quotes from John Locke's "Second Treatise on Government" (which are lesser-known). These will help to show that not only are the ideas the same, but in some cases, the language is as well.
John Trumbull's Declaration of Independence
"Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"
From the United States 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."
And from John Locke's "Second Treatise on Government":
"Man being born, as has been proved, with a title to perfect freedom, and an uncontrouled enjoyment of all the rights and privileges of the law of nature, equally with any other man, or number of men in the world, hath by nature a power, not only to preserve his property, that is, his life, liberty, and estate, against the injuries and attempts of other men." (Source: Chapter VII, Section 87)
Independence Hall, Philadelphia
"Most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness"
Here is the Declaration of Independence:
"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."
John Locke's "Second Treatise on Government" (18th-century American edition)
And here is John Locke's "Second Treatise on Government":
"When the government is dissolved, the people are at liberty to provide for themselves, by erecting a new legislative, differing from the other, by the change of persons, or form, or both, as they shall find it most for their safety and good." (Source: Chapter XIX, Section 220)
"More disposed to suffer ... than to right themselves"
Back to the Declaration of Independence:
"Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly 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."
And back to John Locke's "Second Treatise on Government":
"The people, who are more disposed to suffer than right themselves by resistance." (Source: Chapter XIX, Section 230)
King George III, the king that the American Revolution rebelled against
"A long train of abuses"
Back to the Declaration of Independence:
"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."
Battle of Bunker Hill, 1775 (the year before American independence)
And back to John Locke's "Second Treatise on Government":
"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." (Source: Chapter XIX, Section 225)
United States Declaration of Independence - July 4, 1776
My conclusions from the comparison
Not only are the sentiments the same, but some of the language Jefferson used is lifted right out of John Locke. "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" sounds much like the earlier "life, liberty, and estate" - which would also enter the United States Constitution via the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, as "life, liberty, or property" (an even closer paraphrase of Locke). "Most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness" sounds much like "most for their safety and good." "More disposed to suffer ... than to right themselves" sounds a lot like "more disposed to suffer than right themselves." And the part about "a long train of abuses" is an exact quote from John Locke, followed by a paraphrasing of what comes after it.
John Adams, the principal force behind getting the Declaration of Independence adopted
Jefferson responded to accusations of plagiarism ...
When Thomas Jefferson was later charged with what amounts to plagiarism, he wrote in a letter to James Madison that "Pickering's observations, and Mr. Adams' in addition, 'that it contained no new ideas, that it is a common place compilation, its sentiments hackneyed in Congress for two years before, and its essence contained in Otis' pamphlet, may all be true. Of that I am not to be the judge. Richard Henry Lee charged it as copied from Locke's treatise on government. Otis' pamphlet I never saw, and whether I had gathered my ideas from reading or reflection I do not know. I know only that I turned to neither book nor pamphlet while writing it. I did not consider it as any part of my charge to invent new ideas altogether, and to offer no sentiment which had never been expressed before." (Source: Letter of 30 August 1823)
James Otis, Jr. - author of the aforementioned pamphlet
... but never denied being influenced by John Locke
It is notable that despite denying that he read Otis's pamphlet in this letter, he did not deny that he read "Locke's treatise on government," which he had just mentioned - an omission that is almost certainly deliberate, and should be considered significant. He further said that he turned to neither book nor pamphlet "while writing it"; thus limiting this denial to the period "while writing it," and declining to extend it to the years before. He also said in another letter (this time to John Trumbull) that Bacon, Locke, and Newton were "the three greatest men who have ever lived, without any exception" (Source: Letter of 15 February 1789) - something which makes clear that he was strongly influenced by John Locke, and admired him greatly; and would probably not have said so if he had never read any of Locke's works.
James Madison, longtime friend of Thomas Jefferson
Nor did he think he ever had to come up with something new here
By implication, it seems quite clear that he read it; and that he felt no embarrassment about his being influenced by it - on the contrary, he said that he "did not consider it as any part of [his] charge to invent new ideas altogether, and to offer no sentiment which had never been expressed before." (Source: Aforementioned letter to James Madison) He further said in a letter to Henry Lee that the object was "not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take ... Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion." (Source: Letter of 8 May 1825)
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
Conclusion: Locke did indeed influence Jefferson
Thus, it seems conclusive to me that the philosopher John Locke did indeed influence both the Founding Fathers generally and Thomas Jefferson specifically, through his notable influence on the Declaration of Independence. Some may not like it that the popular Founding Fathers were influenced by John Locke (who defended private property so openly), but the fact of the matter is that he did so, and that it can be proven with a few simple quotes from John Locke himself.
Some quotes from the American State Papers:
"We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name and by the authority of the good people of these colonies solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British crown and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved; and that, as free and independent states, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do. And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor."
- The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776 (final paragraph)
"His Brittanic Majesty acknowledges the said United States, viz., New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, to be free sovereign and independent states, that he treats with them as such, and for himself, his heirs, and successors, relinquishes all claims to the government, propriety, and territorial rights of the same and every part thereof."
- The Treaty of Paris (1783), Article 1
Footnote to this blog post:
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died on July 4, 1826 - the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
If you liked this post, you might also like:
The philosophers that influenced our Founding Fathers
In defense of John Locke: The need for private property
A review of PBS's "Thomas Jefferson" movie
Part of a series about the
U. S. Constitution
Influences on the Constitution
Hobbes and Locke: Anarchy, social contract theory, and unalienable rights
The Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776): Philosophically important
Public and private property: When can you take away someone's private property as taxes?
Representative government: The advantages of a republic over a direct democracy
Baron de Montesquieu: Theory of separation of powers and checks & balances
The Constitution itself, and the story behind it
Convention at Philadelphia: The writing of the Constitution (1787)
States' rights: The conflict between the "several states" and the federal government
The Congress: Its power to make laws, and the president's power to veto them (in some cases)
Congress versus the president: Five limits on presidential power (besides impeachment)
Powers of Congress: A few reasons why the Congressional elections are so important
Elected officials: A few ways that the Constitution keeps our politicians under control
Frequency of elections: So how long do all of these people serve, anyway?
Representation: So who decides how many votes each state gets?
Slavery: The complicated legacy of the "Three-Fifths Clause"
The presidency: Making decisions for the police, military, and foreign diplomacy
Impeachment and removal: The most dramatic checks upon the power of presidents
The courts: "Good behaviour," some important judicial powers, and how they're appointed
Miscellaneous: Amendment process, "supreme law of the land," and some closing remarks
Debates over the Constitution, then and since
Debates over ratification: Whether to adopt the Constitution in the first place
The "Federalist Papers": Frequently asked questions about them, and why they're important
Who is "Publius"?: The secret pen name of the men who wrote the Federalist Papers
Debates over checks & balances: Do they actually conflict with separation of powers?
The Bill of Rights: Important in the debates over ratification (adopted 1791)
The First Amendment: Debates over freedom of religion, and public "establishment" of religion
The First Amendment: Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and peaceable assemblies
Rights to fair trial: Judicial restraints on the power of the police and the president
Rights of the accused: The balance between individual protections and criminal justice
Congressional pay: The amendment that never made it into the Bill of Rights
Abolishing slavery: The things that led up to the famous antislavery amendment
Backup plans: Vacancy, disability, and presidential elections without a clear majority
Voting rights: Some important amendments about who is allowed to vote in this country
Epilogue: Some thoughts about civics education
← Previous page: Influences on the Constitution - Next page: Public and private property →