What is the social contract?
The social contract is the concept that human beings have made a deal with their government, and within the context of that agreement, both the government and the people have distinct roles. The theory is based on the idea that humans abandoned a natural (free and ungoverned) state in favor of a society that provides them with order, structure, and, very importantly, protection.
Through the ages, many philosophers have considered the role of both the government and its citizens within the context of the social contract. In the theories of English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704), the social contract was inextricably tied to natural law (the theory that some laws are fundamental to human nature). Locke argued that people first lived in a state of nature, where they had no restrictions on their freedom. Realizing that conflict arose as each individual defended his or her own rights, the people agreed to live under a common government, which offers them protection. But in doing so they had not abandoned their natural rights. On the contrary, argued Locke, the government should protect the rights of the people—particularly the rights of life, liberty, and property. Locke put these ideas into print, publishing his two most influential works in 1690: Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Two Treatises of Government. These works firmly established him as the leading “philosopher of freedom.” His writings profoundly influenced Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), author of the Declaration of Independence (1776), which asserts that there are “self-evident truths” (natural laws), that people are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” (natural rights), and that among these are “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), one of the great figures of the Enlightenment (a cultural period of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, during which reason was celebrated as a superior human virtue), later published a book on the subject of the social contract. In his book titled Social Contract (1762), he wrote that people enter into a binding agreement among themselves, and it is incumbent upon them to establish their government and government systems. According to Rousseau, people “have a duty to obey only legitimate powers,” meaning that only the people can decide who governs them. Rousseau’s ideas helped promote the causes of the French Revolution (1789–99) and the American Revolution (1775–83). The concept of the social contract as defined by Rousseau materialized in the Declaration of Independence (1776), which proclaims that “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” and “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.” The well-known words of the “American’s Creed,” written in 1917 by William Tyler Page (1868–1942) of Maryland, also asserts these principles: “I believe in the United States of America as a government of the people, by the people, for the people; whose just powers are derived from the consent of the governed….”