Hobbes and Locke

Hobbes and Locke

A Chapter by Debbie Barry

An essay about the influences of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke on the Framers of the United States government, Written for HIS 303: The American Constitution.


Hobbes and Locke



Thomas Hobbes and John Locke were both strong influences on the Framers of the United States government, even though Hobbes and Locke did not fully agree on how government should work.  In fact, it appears that Hobbes' greatest influence on the Framers was in showing them what they did not want for the government of the new republic.  Dr. Ozodi Osuji (2008) tells us that "[Hobbes] believed that the people needed an absolute monarch to make them do the right thing and punish them if they stepped out of line" (Thomas Hobbes, para. 6).  Rather than follow this belief, the Framers composed Article II, Section 1, of the U.S. Constitution (1787), which states that "[t]he executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America" (cited in O'Connor and Sabato, 2008, p. 73), and which goes on to detail who may serve as President and how said person shall be chosen.

It appears that John Locke had a more direct influence on the Framers than that of Hobbes.  Locke's influence may be seen clearly in a comparison of his words and those used by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence.  Jefferson's (1776) famous words: "[w]hen in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume, among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them" (cited in Constitutional Underpinnings, n.d., table 1), echoes Locke's (1690) words, from his Second Treatise of Civil Government: "[w]hen any one, or more, shall take upon them to make laws whom the people have not appointed so to do, they make laws without authority, which the people are not therefore bound to obey; by which means they come again to be out of subjection, and may constitute to themselves a new legislature" (cited in Constitutional Underpinnings, n.d., table 1).  In essence, both men were saying that, when a government is intolerable and unlawful, the people should separate themselves from the old government and form a new government.  The parallels between Locke's Second Treatise and Jefferson's Declaration of Independence occur over and over, demonstrating that Jefferson was strongly influenced by Locke.

According to our text, "[Hobbes and Locke] argued that all individuals were free and equal by natural right" (O'Connor and Sabato, 2008, p. 9).  This was echoed by Jefferson (1776) in the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" (cited in O'Connor and Sabato, 2008, p.38).  In addition, the fourth Amendment (1789) to the Constitution echoes this natural equality and freedom when it guarantees "[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons" (cited in O'Connor and Sabato, 2008, p. 81).

According to Cox (2008), "Locke thought everyone needed to form a society together where there is a system of checks and balances" (para. 5), which is echoed clearly in the Framers' creation of our three branches of government, as laid out in the first three articles of the Constitution: the legislative, executive, and judicial branches.  Each of these branches is checked and balanced by the other two branches, so that no one branch may dominate the government.  Even today, the system of checks and balances may be seen in the United States government, despite complaints during the last two presidencies about abuses of government power in the declaring of war in the Middle East without Congressional action, or the perceived appointment of a United States President by the Supreme Court.  Even though some governmental actions may be misunderstood by some people, the system of checks and balances espoused by John Locke and adopted by the Framers continues to work.

Locke believed that "political society and government are established by mutual consent forming 'one body politic under one government'" (Dillbeck, n.d., para. 9).  When Jefferson (1776) drafted the Declaration of Independence, he included the concept of mutual consent in the words

We, therefore, the Representatives on the united States of America ... do, in the Name, and by the Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United  Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States ... we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.  (cited in "Declaration of Independence," 1964, p. 67).

In addition, Locke believed that "[i]n the best circumstances the people desire that government which provides them with security but also is limited in its scope of power" (Osuji, John Locke, 2008, para. 4).  Today, there is much discussion in many venues about the people's desire for the government to see to the security of the people, whether through the War on Terror, or through social welfare programs, or through government bailouts of banks and corporations.  At the same time, there is a similar level of discussion about the need to prevent the government becoming too powerful or restricting too many of the people's rights.



Constitutional underpinnings.  (n.d.).  Retrieved February 9, 2010, from           http://www.runningromans.com/Academics/Government/Review%20Notes/01.htm

Cox, S.  (2008, September 14).  Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau: Great political       philosophers lay    foundation for today's politics.  Retrieved February 9, 2010, from http://great-          philosophers.suite101.com/article.cfm/hobbes_locke_and_rousseau

"Declaration of Independence."  (1964).  In The World Book Encyclopedia, 5 (pp. 66-69).      Chicago: Field Enterprises Educational Corporation.

Dillbeck, B.  (n.d.).  Social contract, The.  Retrieved February 9, 2010, from                                  http://learningtogive.org/papers/paper222.html

O'Connor, K. and Sabato, L.J.  (2008).  American government: Continuity and change, 2008     Edition.  New York: Pearson-Longman.

Osuji, O.T.  (2008, April 14).  John Locke.  Retrieved February 9, 2010, from           http://www.chatafrikarticles.com/articles/1315/1/John-          Locke/Page1.html/print/1315

--.  (2008, April 11).  Thomas Hobbes.  Retrieved February 9, 2010, from           http://www.chatafrikarticles.com/articles/1314/1/Thomas-          Hobbes/Page1.html/print/1314

© 2017 Debbie Barry

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Debbie Barry
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Added on November 10, 2017
Last Updated on November 10, 2017
Tags: essay, American history, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, government

A Journey through My College Papers


Debbie Barry
Debbie Barry

Clarkston, MI

I live with my husband in southeastern Michigan with our two cats, Mister and Goblin. We enjoy exploring history through French and Indian War re-enactment and through medieval re-enactment in the So.. more..