US Political Theory - Foundational Thinkers

What was the intellectual foundation for the formation of the United States? In the 1700s, a democratic system of government as envisioned by the founders did not exist anywhere on the globe. So what -- and who -- provided their inspiration?

This article introduces the "who" in that question, the men behind the political philosophy.

Thomas Hobbes (5 Apr 1588 - 4 Dec 1679)

Thomas Hobbes
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the world envisioned by Hobbes, war is a natural state because we are always competing for resources. Hobbes believed that people created governments, or societies, out of pragmatic self-interest: give up some rights in return for protection. He described this state in Leviathan (full title: Leviathan, or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil), a book written during the English Civil War. Hobbes calls for a strong central government that controls all parts of society: civil, military, judicial and church.

John Locke (19 Aug 1632 - 28 Oct 1704)

Locke was an English philosopher remembered for his contribution to social contract theory, the implied agreements that structure governments and social order. Individuals give up some rights to the government in order to preserve social order. It is social contract theory that provides the foundation for a government that rests on the consent of the governed, a principle critical to the Declaration of Independent and the Constitution.

Locke contributed to the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina (March 1669) which governed most of the area between Virginia and Florida. This area was governed by eight British Lords.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (28 June 1712 - 2 July 1778)

Rousseau was born in Geneva but lived much of his life in Paris and Venice. In 1762, he published The Social Contract, which has become one of the most influential works of political philosophy. In this work, Rousseau argued that "Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains," the chains resulting from man leaving the state of nature for the benefits of society.

This well-known Enlightenment philosopher argued that only the people are sovereign, thus dispelling the notion that God appointed the King to rule over man. Moreover, this sovereignty is both indivisible and inalienable. Rousseau advocated direct, not representative, democracy. His writings influenced the 1789 French Revolution.

Thomas Paine (29 Jan 1737 - 8 June 1809)

Born in Thetford, England, Paine immigrated to the American colonies at age 37. Paine is best-known for writing the monograph Common Sense (Jan 1776) during the American Revolution; it advocated independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain. Common Sense became the best-selling book of the 18th century.

Paine also wrote The Rights of Man (Jan 1791) and The Age of Reason: Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology (1794-1807, 3 parts); his work "fundamentally altered the political and social landscape of the 18th century world. Today, Paine is recognized as a visionary political thinker."

For More Reading ...

About Hobbes From ... your guide to

About Locke From ... your guide toAbout Rousseau From ... your guide toAbout Paine From ... your guide to
  • Classic Literature
  • Quotations