The Social Contract

What was the impact of the social contract on our founding fathers?

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 only exists 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 at any time over others. Hobbes' theory was that the people mutually agreed to create a state, only giving it 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.

Thus 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.

However, 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.