The Declaration of Independence and Philosophy of John Locke

The Declaration of Independence is the most important piece of American political philosophy ever written.  It is also arguably the greatest statement of human liberty ever produced.  How is it then, considering that it expounds no new ideas, no fresh dogmas, or assertions about the state of man, or a true declaration of independence, this document is so beloved? The truth is that it seems that the entire document is a mashup of different ideas of which the majority can be traced to John Locke.  “Richard Henry Lee said the Declaration had been ‘copied from Locke’s treatise on government” (Stephens, 2002, p. 55).  Why is it, considering this, that it is considered the foundation of the United States? What about this document unified the 13 colonies against the British Crown during the Revolutionary war?  It is likely that the answer to these questions is tied to the rhetorical content used in the document and the constraints of the people from the 13 colonies that linked them a priori to enlightenment Lockean philosophies.  It is because of these a priori identification with Lockean ideas that it was used to create the Declaration of Independence from the beginning.  Either way, Lockean political philosophy, and rhetoric were used in such an effective way that it bound up the colonies regardless of its the intent.

To understand the effect of the philosophical rhetoric used in the Declaration of Independence, one must first examine the history leading up to it. Though popularly, this document is known for declaring the independence of the new United States of America, that view is incorrect. On June 7th, 1776, Richard Henry Lee had offered up a resolution of independence, and on July 2nd, 1776, John Adams, along with some other founders, passed this resolution through Congress. Therefore, the Declaration of Independence was merely restating what had already been settled two days before. “In other words, the direct goal of independence had already been proclaimed before the formal statement of justification for the action, in effect the ideology had been officially approved.” (Grimes & Davis, 1976, p. 5).  It is because Jefferson and the other founders already had the consent of the colonies they were free to use Locke’s rhetorical tools to build the justification of their position to other foreign nations and use it to unify the colonies in the coming conflict with Great Britain.

It should also be considered that with the approval of the colonies already given, the Declaration of Independence was not directly written for the colonists, as has often been asserted. Instead, it was penned for the colonial powers of the era.  It was Thomas Jefferson who stated, “an appeal to the tribunal of the world was deemed proper for our justification.  It was the object of the Declaration of Independence.  Not to find out new principles, or new arguments… 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” (Grimes & Davis, 1976, p. 5).  Indeed, the act of sending it to the world was the approval and agreement to be bound by it and consent to the language and the implications the document held.  Locke’s philosophical ideology is both obvious and present as modified text in places and implied solidarity around the Declaration’s intent.  The document represented the will of the people which was in line with Lockean principles on government and liberties which they held to be self-evident.

Proof that the principles contained in the Declaration were not just those of Thomas Jefferson and were from Locke, and in line with other founders, one only needs to read the original draft of the document.  In the second paragraph of the Declaration, one can see the statement, “We hold these truths to be [sacred and undeniable] self-evident(sic), that all men are created equal and independent” (Jefferson, 1776).  It was later condensed to “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” (Jefferson, 1776).  In the Two Treatises on Government, Locke states that when men are in a State of Nature they are in “A State also of Equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another: there being nothing more evident, than that Creatures of the same species…should also be equal one amongst another…” (Locke, 2009, p. 309).  When Franklin and Adams edited Jefferson’s draft, they made sure to remove Jefferson’s language of “sacred and undeniable” and “independent” from the document.  By removing these three words they made sure that the already Lockean document stayed true to its character, at least in this part.  Though there were points in the document that did deviate from Lockean political rhetoric, there was a specific purpose for this when it did occur, and this will be addressed later.

Michael P. Zukert’s analysis of the Declaration of Independence from his book The American Founding and the Social Compact said that it Is important to examine the “expressions of the American mind,” that is look at the speeches, sermons, and writings of that time in the colonies.  Zuckert states that he “and others have argued previously, the source ultimately lies behind the bulk of these outpourings of the American mind is John Locke” (Erler et al., 2003, p. 206).  For instance, in common sense, a pamphlet was written by Thomas Paine, one would find such phrases as “declaring War against the natural rights of all mankind.” And “Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil” (Paine, 1776/2014, p. 5)  Like the rhetoric in the Declaration these types of expressions were common at the time.  In light of this one can see that this type of language was appealing to the American mind in this age.

The authors of the Declaration were already of a Lockean mindset, and they had the consent of the colonies it was not difficult to turn that rhetoric into a unifying political manifesto.  The Declaration did not however found a nation; rather it declared the founding of 13 nations, however, the language did make clear their intent.  You can see that their intention was for the 13 states to found a new federation by inspecting the language.  The first example of an appeal to logos is the first paragraph of the Declaration: “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” (Jefferson, 1776).  This paragraph provides language that signifies a unity of purpose and will in this new nation based on Lockean principles.  As a group, the colonies are seeking separation from the Crown and Britain, and as a unified party, the colonies are letting the world know why.  The states are telling the world “we are already a separate nation and that they are of one mind to set out on their own.”   In the second paragraph, they set forth more proof of their independence and the soundness of their position.  Their position is that consent rules the people, and when a ruler commits crimes against the people he loses their consent.  The King of Britain has committed crimes against the people and therefore, he has lost the consent of the thirteen states to be at the head of their government and because of this, the states have united to cast off the crown.  Again, the same type of proof shows the authors’ intent to unify the country through general consent of these Lockean principles. A Statement of policy is indicated as well, through Lockean rhetoric, in the second paragraph of the Declaration to unify the states by the inference of the creation of a new government. It is subtle and assumed, rather than blunt and obvious. After establishing the self-evident rights of man, the Declaration tells the reader “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” (Jefferson, 1776).

The entire Declaration is an application of a myriad of John Locke’s theories of the social contract and the rights of consent and can sum up as in a state of “complete freedom men cannot live well.  Life is precarious…Consequently, although all have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, everyone is, in fact, subject to death, slavery, and misery. They soon join together to form a government for the sake of ‘moral security’ for [their] lives and properties” (Erler et al., 2003, p. 114).  Since the entire gist of the Declaration is that King George has committed crimes against the states, he must be cast off, but they will be left without a government in the process.  Notice that the colonists have acted in unison, and this indicates that they will not, in fact, be without government because of Lockean principles they have already begun acting as a government.  The colonial governments have each joined in the continental congress and consented to a compact that binds them together as one force to fight the British Crown. Thus, they are already one state, at least, while at war with the British indicating that they are not without a government.

The phrase should also be noted, “…that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” The phrase, “pursuit of happiness” does not appear anywhere in the works of John Locke.  There is no question that colonists were indeed landowners, almost all of them having land, possessions, and property, so why would this have been done? One reason it was phrased like this was to separate the people of the colonies from the landowners and inheritors of the feudal society in Europe. If this is true, then this phrase would have served as a unifying force for the states against their common adversary across the Atlantic, firmly tying them into a band of like-minded, principled people.

Another deviation from the philosophy and principles of John Locke are specifically related to the wording involving slavery.  In Jefferson’s rough draft of the Declaration, there was an explicit condemnation of slavery and King George’s allowance of its continuance in the colonies: it was included as a continuance of grievances.  “One of Jefferson’s strong complaints was that the King permitted the slave trade. He condemned him for violating the ‘most sacred rights of liberty’ in doing so, but the clause was omitted by the Congress in order to preserve the unanimity of the states against England” (Stephens, 2002, p. 59).  Because the southern colonies could not at the time have economically survived without the continuance of slavery, there would have been no détente with the southern states on a document that attacked the institution in this manner.  Though one could say that it was this decision that would eventually lead to Civil War later at the time, it was expedient to remove it from the document.  In this instance, adherence to Lockean principles would have doomed the colonial war effort.

The colonies were United in their grievances against Britain and John Locke’s philosophy gave justification to their intent for separation.  It was so to speak the “logos’ of the American Revolution.

The document is structured into three parts.  The clarification of the rights of men to consent to their government and its logic and the premise of the Declaration.  Then the list of grievances against the current government or the premises. The last and third section was the Declaration that they no longer consented to be ruled by the Crown and they were henceforth a separate and independent nation which is the conclusion.   It is laid out like a syllogistic argument.  “Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.” Then, “the history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states,” and “[the king’s] form of government [is] destructive of these ends.” This second claim is proven true by the list of grievances said to be “facts submitted to a candid world.” In conclusion, therefore, “these colonies are and of right ought to be free and independent states.” The Declaration of Independence, consequently, turns out to be its own proof, based on the philosophical political theories of John Locke, in justifying rebellion against England to the entire world” (Erler et al., 2003, p. 210).

The final paragraph is an appeal to foreign governments to recognize this new and innovative Lockean government based on the principles and rights of man to consensual government under natural law theory.  The authors claim that the United States, as independent states, have the right to “levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do” (Jefferson, 1776).  These rights are like the British bill of rights.  The Lockean rhetoric applied here, then, is effective twofold. Firstly, Lockean principles follow the structure of the Declaration being presented, acting as the foundation for the document’s language. Secondly, it serves as a justification based upon the usurper’s law, not allowing much room for argument on the English side.

There is also a myriad of claims within the document that appeal to the pathos of Christian nations. It is important to note these claims because it was important to illustrate that God was the ultimate authority and that he was on the side of the 13 states.  It demonstrated that one they were acting within Gods authority and not against it by defying the British Crown and that their case was justified under Gods law.  It was not just any insurrection, but a valid move to self-government backed by the authority of God whose law had been broken.  Therefore, it should not be viewed as rabble rousing or lawlessness but as a legitimate claim to become their own nation under Gods will. For example, in the final paragraph, there is an appeal to the “Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of their intentions,” (Jefferson, 1776), that directly links the authors’ thoughts with a more righteous mindset, engendering them with the Christian countries across the ocean. The use of Supreme Judge, in this instance, rather than God illustrates the authors’ desire to be arbitrated by the one, true, authority who has imbued them with their self-evident rights, and whom they already know has justified this rebellion.

A less apparent appeal to sympathy using religion is in the second paragraph.  The appeals to Locke’s principles tells something about man’s journey from the state of nature and search for justice under laws of God.  In the first paragraph, one finds that God has created man with unalienable rights.  Man must consent to be governed to secure those rights.  Over time, the government will overstep its authority and violate man’s god given rights.  When this happens, men will need to overthrow this government.  However, this is the entire point of the first of Locke’s treatises on government which sought to show the problem with Sir Robert Filmer’s positions on the divine right of Kings inherited directly from the Patriarch Adam.  Locke’s work is steeped deeply in Christian ideas, and he uses the Bible in much of refutation of Filmer positions.  If one takes the time to read through them, it will become easy to understand why Locke was disliked by the British crown and at one point felt it necessary to leave England.  Locke completely shreds Filmer’s position which undoubtedly left him unpopular with the Crown.

The Bible like the Declaration starts with man’s creation and is the endowment of free will.  Then man runs into trouble in the garden of Eden, and he then must leave for something new.  Like in Eden when Society becomes incorrigible enough God intervenes on our behalf.  As Michael Zuckert puts it, “The biblical stories then have three main moments: the original divine action of creation, which brings a world both good in itself and good for humanity; the human action of falling, of sin, of crime, which largely erases the goodness of the origin; and finally, the salvific divine action of giving the law or giving his “only begotten son” (Erler et al., 2003, p. 211).  While it may seem like a far leap to compare Lockean philosophy to the Biblical verse, we should remember the role that the Bible played in education and the everyday person’s life poor or privileged.  It is no coincidence that Locke’s ideas follow a familiar pattern, and so the Declaration of Independence would as well.  How could it make its appeal any better than following a pattern that every school child can recognize and understand at the time?  How better to deliver the message that the government of Britain had violated God’s law?

“The propositions which were intended to justify the act of separation from the British Empire,” and act as a unifying source to the thirteen states, “transcended [those] issues and occasion[s] to become values which constituted the ultimate tests of democratic political legitimacy” (Grimes & Davis, 1976, p. 6).  By basing the Declaration in God’s creation of man and couching it in Lockean principles and rhetorical language the appeal of the Declaration of Independence was universal across the western world.  To a certain extent, its rhetoric still appeals to the American mindset today.  It is universal in its message of government by consent, or the freedom to choose one’s government.  It is something that is taken for granted throughout the world, but at the time it had never been put in such terms to be practically applied at least not in the sense of a revolution that cast off an unwanted government for one of one’s choosing.  George Washington may be the father of the United States, but John Locke is its spirit.

Erler, E. J., Forde, S., Myers, P. C., Paynter, J., Walling, K., Watson, B. C., … Zuckert, M. P. (2003). The American founding and the social compact. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00E9Z11R8/ref=rdr_kindle_ext_tmb

Grimes, A. P., & Davis, D. F. (1976, August). Conservative revolution and liberal rhetoric: The Declaration of Independence. Journal of Politics, 38(3), 1-19. Retrieved from http://0-eds.a.ebscohost.com.library.regent.edu/ehost/detail/detail?vid=3&sid=d4862ccd-72c6-4822-b6b9-c853af6867a0%40sessionmgr4006&hid=4105&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#AN=4817208&db=poh

Jefferson, T. (1776). Declaration of Independence: a transcription. Retrieved from https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript

Jefferson, T. (1776). Jefferson’s “original rough draft” of the Declaration of Independence. Retrieved from https://jeffersonpapers.princeton.edu/selected-documents/jefferson%E2%80%99s-%E2%80%9Coriginal-rough-draught%E2%80%9D-declaration-independence-0

Locke, J. (2009). Two Treatises of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration (2009 ed.). [Kindle File]. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Treatises-Government-Letter-Concerning-Toleration-ebook/dp/B000FC276I/ref=sr_1_2?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1473997286&sr=1-2&keywords=John+Locke+digireads

Paine, T. (2014). Common Sense (1776). In Common sense and selected works of Thomas Paine (, pp. 3-56). San Diego: Canterbury Classics. (Original work published 1776)

Stephens, G. M. (2002). Locke, Jefferson, and the Justices : foundations and failures of the US Government. Retrieved from http://0-eds.a.ebscohost.com.library.regent.edu/ehost/detail/detail?sid=afaddbc4-1c30-4916-9ee0-6f07b0754225%40sessionmgr4007&vid=0&hid=4105&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#AN=66827&db=nlebk

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