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The Influence of Locke and Sidney on the American Revolution

August 29, 2019

Writing the Declaration of Independence, 1776, by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1932.  Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams were on the committee to draft the Declaration.

Early Americans of the American founding era drew from the best moral and political ideas in Western Civilization, expressed by various European and American thinkers, to support the American cause of freedom and the founding of a new, independent nation.  In particular, the American Founders and revolutionaries acknowledged the strong influence, during the time of the American Revolution and birth of the United States, of Enlightenment-era philosophers John Locke and Algernon Sidney, through their key writings, in clearly articulating the moral and political governing principles that had long been recognized by many early American colonists.

Portrait of John Locke by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1697.

British philosopher John Locke largely influenced the American Founders primarily through his 1689 Two Treatises of Government containing his first and second treatises of civil government, with his Second Treatise being widely read and cited among Americans for its clear, modern explanations of popular sovereignty, equality, God-given natural property rights of man, the right of revolution, and social contract.  Also influential was his 1689 Letter Concerning Toleration to which the Founders later looked on the issue of freedom of belief and religious tolerance, when constructing the new nation’s government and laws.  British Whig parliamentarian Algernon Sidney made his mark through his 1698 Discourses Concerning Civil Government in which he, like Locke, also favored popular sovereignty, natural rights, right of revolution, and social contracts.  Both of these thinkers cited the Bible to morally and philosophically ground and support their ideas.

Algernon Sidney

A number of prominent early Americans and Founders specifically cited Locke and Sidney as two important thinkers who helped to support and defend America’s founding ideas.  Indeed, many American Founders including Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton had works of Locke and Sidney in their libraries.  Locke and Sidney appeared on Jefferson’s library list.

Statesman and primary Declaration author Thomas Jefferson referred numerous times to Locke and Sidney as important contributors to the explanation and assertion of America’s founding principles of government.  For example, in a May 8, 1825, letter about his sources and inspiration for writing the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson cited Locke and Sidney among others.  He writes, “All its [the Declaration’s] authority rests…on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.”1  In a May 30, 1790, letter to a prospective law student, Jefferson recommended Locke’s Second Treatise for reading, stating, “Locke’s little book on Government is perfect as far as it goes.”2  In a June 11, 1807, letter, Jefferson again mentioned Locke and Sidney among several readings on civil government that he recommended.  He writes, …

I think there does not exist a good elementary work on the organization of society into civil government.  I mean a work which presents in one full and comprehensive view the system of principles on which such an organization should be founded, according to the rights of nature.  For want of a single work of that character, I should recommend Locke on Government, Sidney, Priestley’s Essay on the First Principles of Government, Chipman’s Principles of Government, and the Federalist [Papers].3  

The University of Virginia, founded in 1819 by Jefferson, included the study of Locke and Sidney in its early academic programs.  On March 4, 1825, the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia, directed by Jefferson, adopted a resolution to include the works of Locke and Sidney in the college’s curriculum.  The resolution states,

Whereas, it is the duty of this Board to the government under which it lives, and especially to that of which this University is the immediate creation, to pay special attention to the principles of government which shall be inculcated therein, and to provide that none shall be inculcated which are incompatible with those on which the Constitutions of this State, and of the United States were genuinely based, in the common opinion; and for this purpose it may be necessary to point out specially where these principles are to be found legitimately developed:  Resolved, that it is the opinion of this Board that as to the general principles of liberty and the rights of man, in nature and in society, the doctrines of Locke, in his “Essay concerning the true original extent and end of civil government,” and of Sidney in his “Discourses on government,” may be considered as those generally approved by our fellow citizens of this, and the United States….4

Declaration signer, physician, and civic leader Benjamin Rush expressed in his 1777 Observations on the Government of Pennyslvania the importance that Americans placed on Locke.  He observes, “Mr. Locke is an oracle as to the principles, Harrington and Montesquieu are the oracles as to the forms of government.”5

Declaration signer, statesman, lawyer, and second U. S. President John Adams also recognized in his 1787 Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America the contributions of Locke and Sidney to the understanding of America’s founding philosophy.  He elaborates, …

Adams further praised the work and merit of Sidney in a September 17, 1823, letter to Jefferson.  He writes,

I have lately undertaken to read Algernon Sidney on Government.  …  As often as I have read it and fumbled it over, it now excites fresh admiration [surprise] that this work has excited so little interest in the literary world.  As splendid an edition of it as the art of printing can produce, as well for the intrinsic merits of the work, as for the proof it brings of the bitter sufferings of the advocates of liberty from that time to this, and to show the slow progress of moral, philosophical, and political illumination in the world, ought to be now published in America.7

In addition to prominent founders, some American patriot clergymen also noted in their revolutionary-era political sermons the impact of Locke and Sidney in clearly expressing American ideas and views of government.  Congregational clergyman Rev. Jonathan Mayhew of Boston, for example, was greatly influenced by Locke’s writings.8  In a 1754 election sermon, Mayhew named Locke and Sidney as significant sources of American civil liberty and part of his education at Harvard.  He expresses,

Having been initiated in his youth in the doctrines of civil liberty, as explained and inculcated by Plato, Demosthenes, Cicero, and other renowned persons among the ancients, and such as Sidney, Milton, Locke, and Hoadly, among the moderns, I approved them—they appeared rational and just:  and having also learned, from the holy scriptures, that wise, and brave, and virtuous men were always the friends of liberty…I was thus led to conclude that freedom as a great blessing.9

In his 1988 Origins of American Constitutionalism, Donald Lutz affirmed the importance of Locke and Sidney for their clear articulation of many long-held beliefs and practices of American colonists, which Americans drew upon during the founding era.  He explains,

[T]he sentiments, ideas, and commitments found in Locke and Sidney existed also in American colonial writing [such as Thomas Hooker and Roger Williams] long before these two English theorists published their great works.  …  On the other hand, the manner of expressing these ideas and commitments in the Declaration of Independence rested heavily upon the writings of Sidney and Locke, as well as Burlamaqui and Vattel, though mediated by two slightly earlier documents written by prominent Americans.10

The language of the Declaration is much like Locke’s, says Lutz, “because the Americans enthusiastically fastened upon his clear, efficient vocabulary for expressing what they had already been doing for years.”11

During the American founding era, American patriots acknowledged and drew from Enlightenment-era theorists Locke and Sidney because these thinkers clearly articulated important governing principles to which many colonists had aspired in their early colonies, and on which patriot Americans based their cause of freedom.  With the Bible-inspired principles of equality, popular sovereignty, natural rights, right of revolution, and social contract; Locke and Sidney helped to ground, defend, and justify the American quest for independence and self-government.  Their assertions ultimately helped Americans to create a strong moral and rational basis for America’s founding political philosophy and new nation.

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[1]  Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson to Henry Lee, Monticello, 8 May 1825, Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 118-119.

[2]  Thomas Jefferson to Mr. Thomas Mann Randolph, New York, 30 May 1790, in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 7, ed. Albert E. Bergh (Washington, DC:  Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1907), 31.

[3]  Thomas Jefferson to John Norvell, Washington, 11 June 1807, in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 11, ed. Albert E. Bergh (Washington, DC:  Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1905), 222.

[4]  University of Virginia Board of Visitors, Transcript of the Minutes of the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia, during the Rectorship of Thomas Jefferson, Mar. 4, 1825, from Manuscripts From the University of Virginia Collection, 360-498, in The Works of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 19, ed. Albert E. Bergh (Washington, DC:  Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1907), 460–461.

[5]  Benjamin Rush, Observations Upon the Present Government in Pennsylvania:  In Four Letters to the People of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, PA:  Printed by Styner and Cist, 1777), 20.

[6]  John Adams, A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, 1778, vol. 3, in The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, vol. 6, ed. Charles F. Adams (Boston:  Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1851), 3-4.

[7]  John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, Quincy, 17 September 1823, in The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, vol. 10, ed. Charles F. Adams (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1856), 410.

[8]  See Alden Bradford, Memoir of the Life and Writings of Rev. Jonathan Mayhew, D. D. (Boston:  C. C. Little & Co., 1838), 462.

[9]  Alden Bradford, Memoir of the Life and Writings of Rev. Jonathan Mayhew, D. D., pt. 4, (Boston:  C. C. Little & Co., 1838), 119-120; Jonathan Mayhew, From “The Snare Broken,” A Thanksgiving Discourse Preached at the Desire of the West Church in Boston, Occasioned by the Repeal of the Stamp Act, 23 May 1766, in Cyclopaedia of American Literature, in Two Volumes, vol. 1, eds. Evert A. Duyckinck and George L. Duyckinck (New York:  Charles Scribner, 1856), 146.

[10]  Donald S. Lutz, The Origins of American Constitutionalism (Baton Rouge, LA:  Louisiana State U Press, 1988), 119-120.

[11]  Lutz, Origins, 114.

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Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

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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.

Related articles/videos:
1.  The Principle of Popular Sovereignty:  The People’s Rule
2.  What is the Doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings?
3.  Great Awakening Principle:  All Men Equal Before God
4.  The American Revolution:  An Introduction
5.  American Revolution Debate:  The Lawfulness of Defensive War
6.  American Revolution Debate:  The Principle of Civil Covenants
7.  American Revolution Debate:  The American Quest for a New, Bible-Inspired Republic
8.  The Creator God:  The Basis of Authority, Law, & Rights for Mankind in the United States of America
9.  The Law of Nature:  The Universal Moral Law of Mankind
10.  The Law of Nature and Nature’s God:  The American Basis and Standard for Just Civil Law
11.  The Principle of Rule of Law
12.  Self-Evident Truth:  A Philosophy of Rights in the Declaration of Independence
13.  John Locke and Algernon Sidney:  A Bible-based Defense of Equality and Popular Sovereignty for the American Founders
14.  The American, Bible-based Defense of Unalienable Rights 
15.  The Purpose of American Civil Government
16.  The American Social Contract
17.  The American Right of Revolution

Poster:  Declaration of Independence

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Activity:  The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 7, Part 2, Activity 10:  Concepts in the Declaration of Independence, p. 254.  MS-HS.

Concepts in the Declaration of Independence….

Purpose/Objective:  Students learn key principles of the Declaration of Independence including Creator God, Supreme Judge and Divine Providence, Law of Nature and Nature’s God, Popular Sovereignty and Consent of the Governed, Unalienable Rights, and Social Contract.  Students will consider the definition/meaning, explanation, and context of each principle.

Suggested Readings:
1)  Chapter 7 of Miracle of America reference/text.  Students read sections 7.1-7.23, 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:  Declaration Principle Chart
Have students consider the Bible-based and philosophical concepts incorporated in the Declaration of Independence.  In the appropriate columns on charts, students (in pairs or small groups) research and write down the source(s) from which each concept was derived and the concept’s meaning, explanation, and/or context in their own words.  See the “Concepts in the Declaration of Independence” principle chart in the “Supporting Resources” section of this Miracle of American HS Teacher Course Guide, p. 388.  This activity may also be found in chapter 7 of the Miracle of America text/sourcebook, p. 241.

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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.

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Published by: The Founding

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