The Social Contract in American Politics

Constitution of the United States

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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 the 4th-5th century BCE Greek philosopher Plato. However, it was English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) who 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 in the past, 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, the loss of rights was the price of the protection they sought.

Rousseau and Locke

The Swiss philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) and English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704) each took the social contract theory one step further. In 1762, Rousseau wrote "The Social Contract, Or Principles of Political Right," in which he explained that 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 based many of his political writings on the idea of the social contract. He stressed the role of the individual and the idea that in a "state of nature," people are essentially free. When Locke referred to the "state of nature," he meant that people have a natural state of independence, and they should be free "to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature." Locke argued that people are thus not royal subjects, but in order to secure their property rights, people willingly give over their right to a central authority to judge whether a person is going against the laws of nature and needed to be punished.

The type of government is less important to Locke (except for absolute despotism): Monarchy, aristocracy, and republic are all acceptable forms of government as long as that government provides and protects the basic rights of life, liberty, and property to the people. Locke further argued that if a government no longer protects each individual's right, then revolution is not just a right but an obligation.

Impact on the Founding Fathers

The idea of the social contract had a huge impact on the American Founding Fathers, especially Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) and James Madison (1751–1836). The U.S. Constitution 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 overthrow that government.

Jefferson and John Adams (1735–1826), often political rivals, agreed in principle but disagreed about whether a strong central government (Adams and the federalists) or a weak one (Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans) sufficed best for supporting the social contract.

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. Enslavers 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.

More recently, 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.  

Sources and Further Reading

  • Dienstag, Joshua Foa. "Between History and Nature: Social Contract Theory in Locke and the Founders." The Journal of Politics 58.4 (1996): 985–1009.
  • Hulliung, Mark. "The Social Contract in America: From the Revolution to the Present Age." Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007. 
  • Lewis, H.D. "Plato and the Social Contract." Mind 48.189 (1939): 78–81. 
  • Riley, Patrick. "Social Contract Theory and its Critics." Goldie, Mark and Robert Worker (eds.), The Cambridge History of Eighteenth-Century Political Thought, Volume 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 347–375.
  • White, Stuart. "Review Article: Social Rights and Social Contract—Political Theory and the New Welfare Politics." British Journal of Political Science 30.3 (2000): 507–32.
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Kelly, Martin. "The Social Contract in American Politics." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Kelly, Martin. (2020, August 27). The Social Contract in American Politics. Retrieved from Kelly, Martin. "The Social Contract in American Politics." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).