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Standard 1.0 Political Science

Topic A. The Foundations and Function of Government

Indicator 2. Analyze the impact of historic documents and practices that became the foundations of the American political system during the early national period

Objective c. Explain how the philosophies of Hobbes, Locke and Montesquieu influenced the principles that shaped United States government


The Founders were students of history and philosophy. They studied books, read newspapers, and listened to sermons in church. The Founders discussed and exchanged ideas with each other and with other people. Three philosophers whose ideas influenced the thinking of the Founders were Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Baron de Montesquieu.

British philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679) is widely recognized as a pioneer in Western political philosophy. In his 1651 book Leviathan, Hobbes was one of the first political theorists to describe life in a state of nature, or a world without any government. In such a world, each individual has an absolute right to do anything he or she wants to do. Hobbes theorized that a state of nature would give rise to a chaotic “war of all against all.” In an effort to escape the “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” conditions in the state of nature, humans would agree to enter into an agreement known as a social contract. As a result of the social contract, the people would surrender individual autonomy they possessed in the state of nature and create an authoritarian government that would protect one person from another for the sake of maintaining order.

Following Hobbes, John Locke (1632 – 1704) also described life in a state of nature, and the need for people to enter into a social contract. But where Hobbes emphasized the social contract’s role in maintaining order, Locke believed its purpose was to protect the “inalienable” rights of the individual. According to Locke, the very purpose of government is to preserve those natural rights that the individual cannot hope to protect in a state of nature. In his Two Treatises of Government, Locke also asserted that a necessary component of the social contract is the people’s approval to be governed, and that no government was legitimate unless it was grounded in this consent. Locke’s ideas about “natural rights” and the consent of the governed would later be echoed by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence.

French philosopher Baron de Montesquieu (1689 – 1755) espoused theories about government that influenced the Founders’ establishment of an American political system based on separation of powers. In The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu argued that since “constant experience shows us that every man invested with power is apt to abuse it,” governments need to be structured in such a way that “power checks power.” This is achieved through creation of a governmental system in which legislative, executive, and judiciary powers are held by “different persons or different bodies.”

Resources for Objective 1.A.2.c:
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