The Social Contract

Constitution of the United States


Tetra Images/Getty Images

The term "social contract" refers to the idea 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 early human history there was no government. Instead, those who were the strongest could take control and use their power over others at any time. His famous summation of life in "nature" (before government) is that it was "nasty, brutish, and short." 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 was 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 any individuals who go against the laws of nature and harm others. Locke further posited 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. Following from this principle, a government 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 the 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 the rebellion. During the antebellum and Civil War periods, social contract theory was used by all sides. Slaveholders used it to support states' rights and succession, Whig party moderates upheld the 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 those for Native American rights, civil rights, immigration reform, and women's rights.