The Social Contract

Plato and Aristotle from Raphael's School of Athens
Plato and Aristotle from Raphael's School of Athens. Public Domain Image

Definition of the Social Contract

The term "social contract" refers to the belief that the state exists only to serve the will of the people, who are the source of all political power enjoyed by the state. The people can choose to give or withhold this power. The idea of the social contract is one of the foundations of the American political system

Origin of the Term

The term "social contract" can be found as far back as the writings of Plato.

However, English philosopher Thomas Hobbes expanded on the idea when he wrote Leviathan, his philosophical response to the English Civil War. In the book, he wrote that in the earliest days there was no government. Instead, those who were the strongest could take control and use their power over others at any time. Hobbes' theory was that the people mutually agreed to create a state, giving it only enough power to provide protection of their well-being. However, in Hobbes' theory, once the power was given to the state, the people then relinquished any right to that power. In effect, that would be the price of the protection they sought.

Rousseau and Locke

Jean Jacques Rousseau and John Locke each took the social contract theory one step further. Rousseau wrote The Social Contract, or Principles of Political Right, in which he explained that the government is based on the idea of popular sovereignty.

The essence of this idea is that the will of the people as a whole gives power and direction to the state.

John Locke also based his political writings on the idea of the social contract. He stressed the role of the individual and the idea that in the 'State of Nature,' people are essentially free. However, they might decide to form a government to punish other individuals who go against the laws of nature and harm others.

It follows that if this government no longer protected each individual's right to life, liberty, and property, then revolution was not just a right but an obligation.

Impact on the Founding Fathers

The idea of the social contract had a huge impact on the Founding Fathers, especially Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. The U.S. Constitution itself starts with the three words, "We the people..." embodying this idea of popular sovereignty in the very beginning of this key document. Thus, government that is established by the free choice of its people is required to serve the people, who in the end have sovereignty, or supreme power to keep or get rid of that government. 

Social Contract for Everyone

As with many philosophical ideas behind political theory, the social contract has inspired various forms and interpretations and has been evoked by many different groups throughout American history. Revolutionary era Americans favored social contract theory over the British Tory concepts of patriarchal government and looked to the social contract as support for rebellion. During the antebellum and Civil War periods, social contract theory seemed to be used by all sides. Slaveholders used it to support states' rights and succession, Whig party moderates upheld social contract as a symbol of continuity in government, and abolitionists found support in Locke's theories of natural rights.

Historians also have linked social contract theories to pivotal social movements such as Native American rights, civil rights, immigration reform, and women's rights.  

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Kelly, Martin. "The Social Contract." ThoughtCo, Jun. 26, 2017, Kelly, Martin. (2017, June 26). The Social Contract. Retrieved from Kelly, Martin. "The Social Contract." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 24, 2018).