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In devising the Declaration of Independence, the founding fathers used the work of John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government as an ideological framework. The similarities are mainly notable in the claims against the King, but can also be found in other important respects. Locke’s concept of the state of nature is evident in the founders’ claims, while the influence of Locke’s ideals on political power and the function of government can be seen in the arguments presented in the Declaration. Yet the two texts diverge in important ways; the most significant difference between the two documents is that the Declaration lacks some of the extreme views that Locke takes in his discussion on the state of war. Nonetheless, it is clear that the Declaration of Independence was built on Locke’s concepts of government.
John Locke’s conception of the state of nature heavily influenced the writing of the Declaration. He devotes the second chapter of the Second Treatise of Government to discussing the state he believes men are naturally born into and the rights they deserve. Here, he presents the idea that men are created as equals when he says, “because it is simply obvious that creatures of the same species and status, all born to the same advantages of nature and to use of the same abilities, should also be equal” (Locke 3). This quote has such a strong influence on the Declaration because, through stating that the equality of men is obvious, Locke has made this idea appear to be indisputable. The founding fathers desired a strong, unequivocal statement for addressing the King, so they took inspiration from the passage when writing the famous line, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” (Declaration). This line not only delivers a powerful message, but also sets up the ideals that both drive the rest of the text and become a major part in shaping the new United States of America.
The arguments made by Locke are often used to support the Declaration’s claims against the King. Beginning with the very first claim, Locke’s definition of political power is referenced. He defines political power as the right to make, regulate, and enforce laws, highlighting that political power is only meant to be used for the public good. The first claim uses this definition to support the contention that King George III has overstepped his power, as the authors state that “He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good” (Declaration). This statement is in reference to the King vetoing laws that the colonies made, laws which would improve their societies. To bolster this claim, the founding fathers provide examples of how the laws made by the King have harmed the colonies. These arguments lead into the claims which concern the importance of consent when dealing with government.
Two of the important ideals on government that Locke expresses are the significance of the consent of the governed and the problems inherent in monarchy. He ends his chapter on the state of nature by highlighting how consent is required by the people; as Locke says, “and I also affirm that all men are naturally in the state of nature, and remain so until they consent to make themselves members of some political society” (Locke 7). In the Declaration, the authors emphasize that the people of the colonies have not consented to the acts of the King, further supporting the notion that the king has abused his political power. This abuse is specifically noted in the claim that the King has kept troops in the colonies against the residents’ will. Locke would attribute this abuse of power to the problems created when one man controls the government of many. The claims provided in the Declaration exemplify the problems that Locke raises about such monarchies, as this document explicitly says, “He has made judges dependent on his will alone” (Declaration). Government with a single man in charge is subject to the bias and flaws of that single man, thus leading to the unfair and tyrannical rule of King George III over the colonies. The Declaration of Independence serves as the colonies’ proclamation of departure from the King’s rule; their citizens will enter into a new political society with ideals informed by Locke’s work.
Despite many similarities between the Second Treatise of Government and the Declaration of Independence, there are a few differences between the two documents. One of these involves the rights of men, which are designated as “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” in the Declaration (Declaration). The difference here is very subtle, as Locke states that the rights of man in the state of nature are “his life, health, liberty, or possessions” (Locke 4). Though the distinction between happiness and possessions seems insignificant, it highlights the difference in values between Locke and the authors of the Declaration. Locke puts emphasis on how property and wealth are the most valuable things one can gain. The authors of the Declaration did not share this ideal and broaden it to the pursuit of happiness to accommodate a wider range of beliefs. This perspective on the rights of man would later influence the formation of the United States government, specifically with the Bill of Rights of the US Constitution.
The second and more notable difference is that the Declaration avoids some of the extreme ideals that Locke expresses in his work. Within his chapter on the state of war, Locke discusses the punishments man has the right to enforce on others for violating the laws of nature. Several of these penalties can be viewed as extreme. For example, Locke raises the possibility that the penalty for theft is death when he says, “This makes it lawful for me to kill a thief who hasn’t done me any harm or declared any plan against my life, other than using force to get me in his power so as to take away my money or whatever else he wants” (Locke 8). As examined previously, King George III had infringed upon many of the laws of nature, and therefore the founding fathers had every right to demand the death of the King according to Locke’s ideals. No such demand is present in the Declaration, though, due to the political impact that such divisive and violent rhetoric would have exerted. Such a demand could have created an even greater uproar from those loyal to the King and could have compromised some of the support for the founders’ cause. Beyond trying to avoid any chaos that a demand for death would have caused, the founding fathers do not demand the king’s death in order to rise above King George III’s tyrannical rule. This departure from Locke’s influence elevates the Declaration of Independence by positioning the newly-formed government of the United States as more righteous than the rule of the King.
The Second Treatise of Government had a clear influence on the authors of the Declaration of Independence. Locke’s chapter on the state of nature inspired several points in the Declaration, including its introduction and many of the claims made against the King. The founding fathers used Locke’s work to support their arguments that King George III was unfit to rule them, and used Locke’s premises to set up the preliminary values of the new United States. Overall, there are several similarities between the two documents, but there are a few fundamental differences as well. Despite these variances, the Declaration of Independence makes apparent the influential role that John Locke’s ideas played in the formation of government in the United States of America.
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