Rationalism and the Enlightenment Thinkers: Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau

Rationalism and the Enlightenment Thinkers: Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau


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Rationalism is the “philosophy that emphasizes the role of logic and reason in gaining knowledge” (The American Vision, National Geographic). During the enlightenment era, new philosophers used rationalism to voice their theories on the nature of man and role of the government. Among these philosophers were John Locke, Baron de Montesquieu, and Jean Jacques Rousseau. Their ideas and theories lead to the creation and foundation behind the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

John Locke thought that the nature of man was basically good but environment has a strong affect on either preserving or destroying that basic goodness.  Locke came up with the idea that every human being, no matter their nature, had three natural rights: life, liberty, and property. These are rights that people are born with and that should be protected by the government at all costs. In order to do this, he came up with a “social contract” between the people and the government; the people have to give up some freedom in order for the government to be able to protect their natural rights. An example of this in our society would be if you were to rob a bank, you would get put in jail. People give up the freedom to do and take whatever they want so the government can protect people’s freedom and property. However, if someone violates this social contract, the government can take away their freedom by putting them in jail in order to restore justice. Another idea he had was that the power of government should come from the people, and that the power resides with the consent of the governed. This means that the people that are being controlled by the government should be the ones who make the government decisions. With this, he also believed that if the government should have limited power and if it ever became corrupt, that it was the right of the people to be able to overthrow government. All these ideas about natural rights, consent of the governed, and limited government were used in the creation of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Baron de Montesquieu believed that man’s nature was influenced by their environment, and that their nature could be corrupted if they were too rich or too poor. He believed that the necessity for government is to protect the people. Montesquieu is the main influence behind separation of power within the government. He made the term “checks and balances”, the concept that the three branches of government are equal and can balance out each other’s powers. This was used to create the basic structure of government in the Constitution.

Jean Jacques Rousseau was a man from Switzerland who, like John Locke from England thought that man was naturally good at birth, but was corrupted by society. He thought that if man were to not have any outside influence by a corrupt society, then they would never become evil or bad in nature. He believed that the government is to be established to keep order. He believed in direct democracy, where people have the say and make decisions in the government. He, like Locke, believed the idea that the government and the citizens would form a “social contract”. He also believed that people must give up their individual will for the general good of everyone. With this, the overall authority of the government rests with the general will of all of the people. This means that the government is an agent of the people. So, if the government ever stopped representing the people, it was the people’s right to revolt the government.

These ideas from the 1600s and 1700s in Europe were used in America when writing the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  The key idea is that the decision making lies with the majority of the people as long as they also protect the minority’s basic rights and that it was the people’s right to overthrow the government if the government ever stopped being an agent of the people.

Source: Mr. Garvey’s Government Class

Purpose: Context for Mr. Hardy’s US History Class