John Locke and the Declaration of Independence

John Locke was influential to Jefferson’s political thinking. Law professor Gary Amos notes, “One cannot understand John Locke without reading Paul.”[1] He adds, “Intuitive reason, according to Locke, is ‘a revelation from God to us by the voice of reason,’ which causes us to know a natural truth which we had not known before.”

Amos points out: “The most serious charge leveled at Locke is that he subjected divine revelation to human reasoning. He did not.” And neither did Jefferson.

Some of Locke’s ideas, especially those embodied in his Second Treatise on Government are echoed in the Declaration of Independence. For example, he writes about the “Law of Nature”:

“Thus the Law of Nature stands as an eternal rule to all men, legislators as well as others. The rules they make for other men’s actions must . . . be conformable to the Law of Nature, i.e., to the will of God, of which that is a declaration, and the fundamental Law of Nature being the preservation of mankind, no human sanction can be good or valid against it.”

Note how such concepts are found in the Declaration. The law of nature stands outside of any one nation. It’s up to nations to conform to the will of God and not vice versa. Government becomes invalid when it contradicts such natural laws. In some ways the essence of the Declaration of Independence is summed up in that very passage from Locke. Jefferson writes that it is the duty of nations to recognize the God-given rights of the people. When they don’t, that government becomes tyrannical and is no longer legitimate. That’s the revolutionary nature of the Declaration, and it was partially summed up eighty years before by Christian political philosopher, John Locke. It is not surprising that Jefferson’s motto was “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.”



[1] Ibid., 3.

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