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The American Social Contract

July 25, 2019

The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America by Charles Armand Dumaresq, c1873.  White House, Washington, DC.

The formation of the United States of America as a new nation was made possible by the principle and practice of social contracts.  Social contracts or compacts are voluntary civil agreements of mutual obligation among a people or between a people and their governors for political purposes, usually to create a civil state with a certain form and laws or to authorize a governor.  The practice of social contracts in the American founding was influenced by social contract theory developed by John Locke and Algernon Sidney in the Enlightenment era as well as by the practice of covenants in early colonial America.  These influences were either indirectly or directly informed by a biblical worldview and Judeo-Christian thought.  The American Founders applied the principle of social contract to defend the American Revolution and to write the United States’ Declaration of Independence and U. S. Constitution.

During the Enlightenment era of the 1600s and 1700s in Europe, British philosopher John Locke notably developed a social contract theory of civil government that influenced American political thought.  In his 1689 First Treatise of Government, Locke refuted the commonly-held view of the Divine Right of Kings—the doctrine that monarchs are given absolute, unlimited power directly from God to rule over the people.  Instead, he defended popular sovereignty or the people’s rule—the idea that since all men are created free and equal by God, the whole people (not just one person) hold political power.  Consequently, in his 1689 Second Treatise of Government, Locke laid out the means for the people’s rule through social contracts.  Locke’s social contract was later taken up by the American revolutionaries and Founders.

Portrait of John Locke by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1697.

In Locke’s social contract theory, every individual, as free and equal before God, possesses certain God-given, natural rights including life, liberty, and estate—which Locke generally calls property.  In a state of nature (before or outside of civil society and government), individuals are unable to secure their rights, which are always at risk and threatened by others, because no adequate means exist to enforce the Law of Nature, the universal moral law of mankind, and to protect their rights.  Due to this unsecure state, a person may voluntarily agree to give up a little freedom in order to join and unite together with others to form a civil society that can protect his rights and ensure his survival.  The people thus enter a contract or firm agreement with one another to submit to the determination of the majority and to abide by the just, agreed-upon laws of the civil body.  The people’s rights and freedoms are limited only to the minimal extent necessary for society.  Locke addresses this practice and purpose of social contracts:  … 

Locke pointed out that contracts can only be enacted among free individuals, for a person can only enter an agreement and give up some of his rights if he or she is free from another’s captivity or control.  Indeed, Locke’s social contract is formed by the consent of the governed.

Socially-contracted civil society and government derive legitimacy from its just rule according to the Law of Nature and from the people’s consent.  Locke asserted the need for consent in such contracts, saying, “That which begins and actually constitutes any political society is nothing but the consent of any number of freemen capable of majority, to unite and incorporate into such a society.  This is that, and that only, which did or could give beginning to any lawful government in the world.”2  He further asserted that the people’s consent (along with the Law of Nature) is what authorizes the society’s civil laws.  Without it, such laws are “no better than mere tyranny.”  He expresses, “Laws they are not, therefore, which public approbation has not made so.”3

It is important to emphasize that the purpose of this socially-contracted society is to enforce the Law of Nature and to protect citizens’ rights and properties.  The people give up some rights in society, Locke explained, with the express trust that the civil state will be employed for their good, in such a manner as will be conducive to their own and citizens’ preservation.  For men enter civil society, says Locke, “only with an intention in every one the better to preserve himself, his liberty and property (for no rational creature can be supposed to change his condition with an intention to be worse).”4  Thus if the civil authority unjustly infringes upon citizens’ rights and properties, or does not abide by and enforce the laws to protect citizens, the people may reform the laws, elect new leaders, or overthrow the government.

A Bible-based worldview and Judeo-Christian thought indirectly influenced Locke’s social contract because the contract, though secularized, was based on popular sovereignty and the recognition that mankind is given equality and natural rights by God.  What is more, Locke’s social contract, as it were, closely resembled a covenant as was practiced by Jews and Christians in the Bible and by the Puritans in early America.

A covenant is a solemn, binding promise between two or more parties, often made in the presence of a higher authority like God or king who acts as a participating party, witness, or guarantor of the agreement to hold the parties accountable.  Covenants are a biblical practice.  Civil covenants in the Bible include those between God and the ancient Israelites, and between the ancient Israelites and their rulers.

The principle of civil covenants permeated European political thought during and after the Reformation era from the 1500s to 1700s.  The civil covenant was seen, for example, in reformed political writings including Stephen Junius Brutus’s 1579 Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (Defense Against Tyranny), Samuel Rutherford’s 1644 Lex Rex (The Law and the Prince, or The Law is King), Thomas Hobbes’s 1651 Leviathan, and Algernon Sidney’s 1698 Discourses Concerning Government.

Algernon Sidney

English parliamentarian and theorist Algernon Sidney notably connected the principle of civil covenant to the social contract.  Sidney—Locke’s contemporary and a thinker who also influenced the American Founders—supported Locke’s social contract based on popular sovereignty, stating in his 1698 Discourses Concerning Government that “a civil society is composed of equals, and fortified by mutual compacts”5 and that “multitudes are composed of such as are under some contract.”6  In describing an agreement among a people, or between a people and their rulers, Sidney saw covenants and contracts as similar enactments to express the participating parties’ consensual obligations.  He writes, “There is no such thing therefore as a dutiful obedience, or duty of being obedient, incumbent upon all nations…nor upon any particular nation, unless it be expressed by a covenant.”7  He cited, for instance, the biblical Israelites’ use of covenants to institute their kings.  In such a covenant, the king agreed to abide by God’s law and rule justly, and the people agreed to follow God’s law and submit to their chosen king’s rule.

David Anointed King in Hebron by Julius Schnorr Carolsfeld, 1851-60.

Sidney cited King David and King Joash of Judah as examples in the Bible.  Referencing 2 Samuel 5:3, Sidney describes the event in which “all of Judah came to Hebron and made David their King, …anointed him king over them.  And he [David] made a covenant with them before the Lord.”8  The people did not submit to David until they made a covenant with him.  Citing 2 Chronicles 23, Sidney also showed how the Israelites overthrew the usurper Queen Athaliah and covenanted with Joash, their choice.  He observes,

“Jehoiada [the priest] gathered the Levites out of all the cities of Judah, and the chiefs of the fathers of Israel, and they came to Jerusalem.  All the congregation made a covenant with the king in the house of God, brought out the king’s son [Joash], put upon him the crown, gave him the testimony, and made him king.”  Whereupon they slew Athaliah. …. [emphasis mine]9

Sidney explained that such compacts are mutually binding, and if one breaches the agreement, the other is released from it.  He says that “all contracts are of such mutual obligation, that he who fails of his part, discharges the other.  If this be so between man and man, it must needs be so between one and many millions of men.”10

Sidney’s compact was evidently informed and illustrated by the Bible.  George Klosko affirms in his 2011 Oxford Handbook of the History of Political Philosophy that “the ancient texts of the Christian Bible provided material for contractualists, especially in the Old Testament discussions of God’s covenants with the children of Israel.”11  Sidney’s Bible-inspired compact, like Locke’s social contract, was likely in the American Founders’ consciousness when they enacted their social contracts in the new nation of the United States.

Signing of the Mayflower Compact by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1899.

The application of social contracts in America’s founding was likely further impacted not only by Locke and Sidney but also by the long history and practice of covenants among the reformed Christian Puritans in 1600s colonial America.  The Pilgrim’s Mayflower Compact of 1620, Puritan leader John Winthrop’s 1630 “City on a Hill” sermon, and the Puritans’ covenantal laws and constitutions in their colonies of Massachusetts and Connecticut, all initiated the Bible-based practice of covenants in America—long before Locke articulated his social contract theory.

As well, the founding charters for many of the British American colonies of the 1600s also acted as covenants, granted by the British king, meant to secure colonists’ rights under the English constitution.  Later, during the revolutionary and founding eras, some Americans like Rev. Samuel Webster of Massachusetts in his 1774 Misery and Duty of an Oppressed and Enslaved People described these charters as “a solemn covenant between [the king] and our fathers…in the same manner that King David stood engaged by the covenant of the people.”12

Portrait of Samuel Adams by John Singleton Copley, 1772.

From these early European and American influences, the social contract became an important Bible-based principle of the American Revolution and the American founding in the 1700s.  During this time, patriot American colonists argued that Britain’s King George III and parliament had breached its colonial charters in America by violating colonists’ rights.  For example, revolutionary leader Samuel Adams, drawing on Locke, brought up in his 1772 Report on the Rights of Colonists the purpose and conditions of social contracts to argue that Britain had violated its compacts.  Adams declares, …

Adams and other revolutionaries thus helped to bring Locke’s social contract theory freshly to the minds of colonists during the Revolutionary War.  In the eyes of many patriot Americans, because Britain had violated its charters, America’s ties and obligations to Britain were dissolved.  According to Daniel J. Elazar in his essay Political Theory of Covenant appearing in his and John Kincaid’s 1980 Covenant, Polity, and Constitutionalism, the American Revolution “translated the concept [of covenant] into a powerful instrument of political reform but only after merging it with the more secularized idea of compact.  American constitutionalism is a product of that merger.”14

The American Founders consequently founded the new nation of the United States upon a new social contract among the American people, expressed in the Declaration of Independence of 1776 and in the U. S. Constitution of 1787.  The Declaration affirms the need for the people’s consent to form a civil state, asserting that “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from consent of the governed.”  What is more, the Declaration—in being a pledge or promise among the people, with God as witness—acts not only as a contract but also much like a covenant when it concludes,

We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by 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….  And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the Protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.  [emphases mine]

The Declaration—as an agreement to create a new nation—and later the U. S. Constitution—as an agreement on the nation’s civil government and laws—comprise the agreements necessary to form a socially-contracted civil state.  For in such states, explains Donald Lutz in his 1988 Origins of American Constitutionalism, the people agree firstly “to form a society and be bound by the majority in collective decisions” and secondly “on the form of government to have.”15  The founding documents aimed to “create a people, define the kind of people they are or wish to become, and establish a government.”16  The Declaration and Constitution, explains Lutz, together make up and function as a national compact.

To be sure, the American Founders recognized the danger or flaw of majority rule in a democracy or system of government by the people, a danger known as the “tyranny of the majority.”  The “tyranny of the majority” is when the majority unjustly disregards or violates the rights of the minority, essentially oppressing those in the minority.  As the common saying goes, “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.”  The Founders recognized the need to protect the rights of every citizen in a democracy—including those who stood in a minority or unpopular voting position.  In Federalist Paper 51, Founder James Madison affirmed the great importance in democratic systems “not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part.”17  In order to better guard the rights of both the majority and minority, therefore, the Founders did not create a pure democracy, with direct majority rule.  Rather, they created a republic, with the people ruling through representatives and a system of checks and balances.  The Founders also added the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights of 1791, to the U. S. Constitution to reinforce citizens’ individual rights.

Americans often recite the Pledge of Allegiance, which affirms the national compact.  The Pledge states, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic, for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

In conclusion, the principle of social contract was an important characteristic in the United States’ early history, revolution, and founding as a nation.  The formation of the United States was based on a social contract, as articulated by Locke, with the goal that the civil society would protect citizens’ natural rights and property and work for the people’s good.  The nation’s social contract was shaped to some degree by the Bible-oriented worldviews of Locke and Sidney—in being based on a God-oriented popular sovereignty and in reflecting the covenants practiced by the ancient Israelites in the Bible.  In addition, this contract was also undoubtedly shaped by the Christian Puritans’ application of covenants in their early American colonies and colonial constitutions.  These influences show that the Bible-based idea of covenants informed America’s national compact.  “If all the Biblical and Christian sources in history for compact theory were removed,” affirms Gary Amos in his 1989 Defending the Declaration, “the Declaration could not have been written the way it was.”  Through the social contract, Elazar explains, “covenant acquired a fully separate political justification which, through Locke, Montesquieu and the covenanter settlers of America, became the basis for the formation of the United States as reflected in the preambles of the Declaration of Independence, the U. S. Constitution, and the American state constitutions.”  The American social contract and the values expressed in the Declaration and Constitution still function today as the unifying agreement that joins together in a common bond the free, diverse citizens of the United States.  Indeed, without this compact and the cherished values contained within it, what would hold “we the people” together?

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[1]  John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government, 1690, in Two Treatises on Government (London:  George Routledge and Sons, 1884), 240-241.

[2]  Locke, Second Treatise, Routledge, 242.

[3]  Locke, Second Treatise, Routledge, 260-261.

[4]  Locke, Second Treatise, Routledge, 258.

[5]  Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government, to which are added, Memoirs of His Life, 1698, 3rd ed. (London:  Printed for A. Millar, 1751), chapter 2, 68.

[6]  Sidney, Discourses, chapter 2, 81.

[7]  Sidney, Discourses, chapter 3, section 4, 267.

[8]  Sidney, Discourses, chapter 2, 79.

[9]  Sidney, Discourses, chapter 2, 93.

[10]  Sidney, Discourses, chapter 3, 329.

[11]  George Klosko, ed., The Oxford Handbook of the History of Political Philosophy (Oxford:  Oxford U Press, 2011), 575.

[12]  Samuel Webster, The Misery and Duty of an Oppressed and Enslav’d People, Salisbury, MA, 14 July 1774 (Boston, MA:  Edes and Gill, 1774), 10, 22, quoted in Bernard Bailyn, Pamphlets of the American Revolution, 1750-1776, vol. 1 (Cambridge, MA:  Belknap Press, 1965), 111-112.

[13]  Samuel Adams, “A State of the Rights of Colonists,” 1772, in Tracts of the American Revolution, 1763-1776, ed. Merrill Jensen (Indianapolis, IN:  Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1967), 235-236.

[14]  Daniel J. Elazar, “Political Theory of Covenant:  Biblical Origins and Modern Developments,” Covenant, Polity, and Constitutionalism in Publius:  The Journal of Federalism 10, no. 4 (1980):  9.

[15]  Donald S. Lutz, The Origins of American Constitutionalism (Baton Rouge:  Louisiana State U Press, 1988), 80, 111.

[16]  Lutz, Origins, 112.

[17]  James Madison, Federalist Paper #51, in The Federalist Papers, ed. Clinton Rossiter (New York:  Mentor Penguin, 1961), 323.

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Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

This essay (with endnotes) is available as a printable PDF handout in the member resources section on americanheritage.org.  Simply sign up and login as a member (no cost), go to the resources page, and look under Miracle of America essays.

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Source for more information:
Kamrath, Angela E.  The Miracle of America:  The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief.  Second Edition.  Houston, TX:  American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015.

Additional source for this essay:
Sidney, Algernon.  Discourses Concerning Government, 1698.  Third Edition.  London:  A. Millar, 1751.  See Chapter 3, Section 4, p. 267; and Chapter 3, Section 2, p. 262.

Related articles/videos:
1.  The Principle of Popular Sovereignty:  The People’s Rule
2.  Who were the Pilgrims?  Why did they come to America?
3.  Why the Pilgrims Identified with the Israelites
4.  The Mayflower Compact:  The Pilgrims’ First Self-Governing Act in America
5.  The Pilgrims’ Mayflower Compact as Covenant
6.  A City on a Hill:  Why John Winthrop and the Puritans Came to America
7.  How the American Puritans Were Like the Bible’s Israelites 
8.  John Winthrop and the Puritans Founded the Self-Governing Colony of Massachusetts
9.  Why Puritan Thomas Hooker Favored Democracy over Aristocracy
10.  The Puritans in America Created the First Written Constitutions of Law
11.  The Principle of Rule of Law
12.  Why the Puritans in America Favored Rule of Law
13.  Great Awakening Principle:  All Men Equal Before God
14.  American Revolution Debate:  The Principle of Civil Covenants
15.  American Revolution Debate:  The American Quest for a New, Bible-Inspired Republic
16.  The Creator God:  The Basis of Authority, Law, & Rights for Mankind in the United States of America
17.  The Law of Nature:  The Universal Moral Law of Mankind
18.  The Law of Nature and Nature’s God:  The American Basis and Standard for Just Civil Law
19.  Self-Evident Truth:  A Philosophy of Rights in the Declaration of Independence
20.  John Locke and Algernon Sidney:  A Bible-based Defense of Equality and Popular Sovereignty for the American Founders
21.  The American, Bible-based Defense of Unalienable Rights 
22.  The Purpose of American Civil Government

Poster:  Declaration of Independence

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Activity:  The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 7, Part 2, Activity 9:  Our National Compact:  The Nation’s Social Contract, p. 254.  MS-HS.

Our National Compact:  The Nation’s Social Contract….

Purpose/Objective:  Students consider how the principles of civil covenant, social contract, and  consent of the governed are applied in the Declaration of Independence, and how/in what ways the Declaration and U. S. Constitution make up the national compact of the United States.

Suggested Readings:
1)  Chapter 7 of Miracle of America reference/text.  Students read sections 7.1, 7.2, 7.11, 7.14-7.16, 7.20, 7.23, and pp. 236-237.
2) Essay/Handout:  Principles of the Declaration of Independence by Angela E. Kamrath found in the “Supporting Resources” of the Miracle of America HS Teacher Course Guide, pp. 362-365, or in the “Miracle of America Snapshots” handout under member resources at americanheritage.org.
3)  Related articles/videos (see above).

Activity:  Journal/Reflection Writing and Short Answer Test
Have students read/review the above essay and assigned readings including the Declaration of Independence, on their own, individually.  They may also read selected excerpts in Chapter 7 of Miracle of America (such as 1.2, 2.4-2.6, 3.3, 3.9, 3.15, 6.1, 6.7, 7.10, 7.16, 7.17, 8.3, 8.14).  Students will discuss how and in what ways the Declaration (along with the Constitution) serves as the United States’ social compact.  Students will think about the characteristics of the Declaration that make it a compact.  How is it similar to a civil covenant?  How does it differ, if at all?  The students will also consider and write about how this compact affects them personally.  What does it mean to them?  Discuss as a class.  This writing and class discussion may serve as preparation for a short answer test.

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To download this whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the “resources” page on americanheritage.org.  To order the printed binder format of the course guide with all the units, go to the AHEF bookstore.

Copyright © American Heritage Education Foundation.  All rights reserved.

Published by: The Founding

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