America's Founders derived inspiration for their revolutionary political project from a variety of sources from the contemporary to the ancient, from the scientific to the philosophical. These Americans were extraordinarily well-read men, and the following is merely a sampling of the sophisticated, controversial, and celebrated thinkers whose works filled their bookshelves and whose ideas filled their heads.
John Locke is often referred to as the "intellectual godfather" of the Revolution. There is no question that his ideas had a profound influence on the movement for independence. Philosophers call Locke's school of thought "liberalism." In recent years, some historians have decided that liberalism was actually given too much credit for influencing American independence, and that republican ideology (as described in the Analytic Overview) was equally important to colonial thought, if not more so. In fact, liberalism and republicanism were both important strands of thought that often intertwined in the minds of eighteenth-century Americans.
John Locke wrote amidst the rise of joint stock companies—when certain companies received monopolistic privileges from the crown—and the Glorious Revolution in England—when the forces of crown and parliament battled for domination of the English government. He supported the Whig faction that vied for Parliamentary supremacy. Locke and many others had to flee England when the Stuart dynasty reclaimed control of government in 1660, but he returned 28 years later when William of Orange and his wife Mary waged a successful coup against Mary's own father, King James II. Locke's theories on exploitation (which he was finally free to publish after 1688) were therefore intrinsically connected to his late-seventeenth-century context. His arguments concerning the natural rights of man were most eloquently expounded in his 1680 work, Second Treatise on Government (or Two Treatises on Government), a book that Thomas Jefferson read at least three times. In this text, the English philosopher argued that people are born equal with certain natural rights. They can give up some of these rights to leave the state of nature and enter into a society; the trade-off is that they receive the protection of that society's government, which enforces the laws. The state is therefore beholden to its citizens, who live by its rules so that their lives, liberties, and property will be protected. If the government fails to live up to its end of the bargain, the people can abolish it in favor of a better one that functions in their best interest.
Locke, in turn, had derived inspiration for his theories from the work of scientific empiricism, most famously embodied by Isaac Newton, who had propounded the notion of natural laws in the field of science in his 1687 work, Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (known familiarly as "The Principia"). If natural laws governed the universe, why not the field of human relations, too? Humans were therefore born in a state of nature and enjoyed certain natural (Jefferson would call them "inalienable") rights that no government could take away from them. This all sounds pretty good on paper, especially since Locke and his contemporaries tended to speak of liberty in universal terms; it doesn't sound so good when you write about freedom...only for white adult males.
Locke was one of the first intellectuals to defend women's property rights and even thought that they should have the ability to divorce; he also condemned slavery as a "vile and miserable estate of man." Yet for all of his progressivism, Locke was nonetheless a product of his times. He was an investor in the Royal African Company, which engaged in slave trading. He also helped draft the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina in 1669, which founded the colony of Carolina and allowed for slavery, guaranteeing slaveowners "absolute power and authority" over their human property. For men like Locke, it was easier to exclude slaves and other minorities from civil society than to try and address the contradiction to his idealized form of government that they embodied. Locke's expansive language in regard to natural rights and human equality nonetheless created a foundation for disfranchised groups to seek redress in the future.
Though Locke was Jefferson's preferred philosopher, the concept of "self-evident" truths in the Declaration of Independence derived more from the theory of Scottish philosopher David Hume, a friend of Adam Smith and Benjamin Franklin who had distinguished between "synthetic" and "analytic" truths. The former described matters of fact, while the latter—what came to be known as the "self-evident" truths—existed by virtue of reason. It was Franklin who changed Jefferson's language from "we hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable" to "we hold these truths to be self-evident." The change reflected a statement grounded in reason, rooted in the principles of the scientific revolution, rather than the notion that the equality of all men was an article of religious faith.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Geneva-born son of a clockmaker, became one of the most influential thinkers of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment (as well as one of its best-selling novelists). His definitive 1762 work, The Social Contract, was so controversial that it—along with Emile, a tract on education—was immediately banned in Paris and forced him to flee France. Rousseau's views on religion, expressed in both tracts, proved too controversial for French readers. He said that Christianity had been responsible for "the most violent of earthly despotisms" and that—though it instills a respect for the law and a public devotion to the state—religion is nonetheless based on "lies and error."
Rousseau's political philosophy proved far more influential and long-lasting than his ideas about religion. He spoke of the process by which people selflessly agree to enter into a social contract, committing themselves to a common good and making sacrifices for the community to realize their full potential as rational and moral human beings. Despite the fact that the concept of a social contract dated back to the Late Middle Ages, when the Italian merchant republics appeared, Rousseau managed to get himself banned by formulating his ideas with an ample dose of inflammatory ideology.
Aside from his outspokenness on the subject of religion, Rousseau was different because he characterized the social contract as a voluntary union, not an act of submission on the part of society's weak members. It was a contract between equals, between people who all sought to exercise self-government; it was not an agreement between the weak and the powerful. If anyone in a given contract was degraded or harmed, Rousseau considered the contract null and void, regardless of whether the oppressed people had entered into it voluntarily or not. Why, you might ask? Because to Rousseau, you might relinquish your property, but you can't give up your freedom or your life, because those are the essential elements of your humanity.
Rousseau had previously written well-received and popularly accessible discourses on inequality and political economy, but in The Social Contract, his most controversial and least readable of tracts, he looked toward the future, rather than his previous tactic of providing the historical origins and context of social ills. He famously declared that "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains." Taken literally, this does not make much sense (babies are, after all, quite dependent creatures), but Rousseau was speaking theoretically, and his assertion dovetails with the philosophy of John Locke. Both Locke and Rousseau argued that humans are born free into a state of nature; they therefore disagreed with Thomas Hobbes, a contemporary of Locke who had a quite pessimistic view of the state of nature—he thought it was savage, solitary, brutish, and short. A recent New Yorker article refers to this as "a long-running debate about the fundamentals of human nature.... Were humans savage but for the constructs of civil society (Thomas Hobbes)? Or were they civil but for the corruptions of society (Jean-Jacques Rousseau)?"2
Locke and Rousseau instead viewed this metaphorical state of nature as a birthright of freedom. The "chains" that Rousseau mentions are not wielded by the almighty king (as Hobbes would have it) but by self-government. People give up some of their natural rights in exchange for the conventional rights and duties of the social contract.
Yet such "chains" could also indicate social dependency, which was one of the most despised pathologies in contemporary society, as Rousseau saw it. This is where the philosopher's problems with women tend to emerge: to him, modern women symbolized this dependency problem, and their continued subjugation under the social contract was his proposed solution to preventing the rest of society (i.e., men) from suffering under such "dependence." This unusual brand of conservatism in such a revolutionary philosopher may indeed have made his incendiary ideas about male society more digestible for his wary reading public.
The Founding Fathers' sources of inspiration extended beyond these figures to a wide array of writers, from Francis Hutcheson and Henry St. John Bolingbroke to poets such as Daniel Defoe—who wrote that kings who commit injustices:
...are no Kings, though they possess the Crown.
Titles are Shadows, Crowns are empty things,
The Good of Subjects is the End of Kings
There were also the works of ancient philosophers like Cicero, who said that "The people's good is the highest law." John Adams similarly recast that idea in his Thoughts on Government, where he wrote that the purpose of government was the "greatest quantity of human happiness." The Founders may not have come up with all of their ideas or even their language entirely on their own, but they were fantastic readers who knew where to look for inspiration and how to channel these centuries of sophisticated thought into the boilerplate for revolution and a new form of government.