Life, liberty, and property

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John Locke
Main Ideas:

  • Believed all individuals had natural rights which include “life, liberty, and property”

  • State should protect individual rights

  • Citizens should rebel against unjust governments

  • Believed in religious freedom

  • Supported women’s rights

John Locke is considered one of the most important fathers of our democratic tradition. He wrote Two Treatises of Government. Locke’s ideas were widely read in both England and America. Thomas Jefferson used Locke’s principles in the Declaration of Independence when he said men are “endowed with certain inalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Jefferson incorporated Locke’s ideas of individuals’ rights to life, liberty and property in the Declaration of Independence.

Locke believed that a Social Contract exists between the government and the people. He states that governments are formed with the consent of citizens. Locke believed that powers in the government should be limited and the powers between parts of the government should be balanced. These checks and balances (later reflected in the U.S. Constitution) and true representation in the legislature would maintain limited government and individual liberties.

Locke said that the state exists to preserve the natural rights of its citizens. Therefore, he said that if a government fails in that task citizens had the right to rebel against it. In some cases, it was the citizens’ duty to rebel. He did not agree with Thomas Hobbes that the individual person surrendered his natural rights to the government in return for protection. John Locke also believed that no one should dictate another person’s religion.

Locke was also a proponent of equal rights for women. He believed that the idea that man was superior to women was an idea that men had made, and could therefore be reversed.


  1. How did John Locke influence American democracy? Provide at least three examples.

  2. According to Locke, what is a Social Contract?

  3. What are natural rights?

  4. What did Locke believe was the responsibility of a citizen? How is this different from Thomas Hobbes?

Mary Wollstonecraft

Main Ideas

  • Disagreed with societies’ treatment of women

  • Believed marriage was particularly unfair of women

  • Advocated equal education for women and men

  • Believed that both sexes could contribute equally to society

Mary Wollstonecraft was born in 1759. She grew up in London in a large family. She watched her father bully his wife and family and protected her sister from an abusive husband. After a few years as a teacher, she decided to follow a literary career.

Mary became disturbed by the unfair treatment of women. She read books by the Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke and Edmund Burke. She was very moved by the French Revolution and their fight for rights. In 1790, she produced her Vindication of the Rights of Man as a response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. In 1792, she published her Vindication of the Rights of Women. This important work advocated equality of the sexes and ideas, which were the main doctrines of the later women’s movement. She did not believe that women were helpless creatures who were fit to be simple decorations inside a man’s house. Society had created women who were “gentle domestic brutes.” Mary believed women were too often nauseatingly sentimental and foolish. She encouraged women to become educated, to gain self-respect, and put their abilities to good use in society.

Although Mary viewed marriage as a form of tyranny over her sex, she eventually married William Godwin. Mary Wollstonecraft died the year her child was born in 1897. Her daughter, Mary, eventually married Mr. Shelley, and wrote the famous novel Frankenstein.

Mary Wollstonecraft was truly an enlightened thinker and a child of the French Revolution. She saw a new age of reason and benevolence close at hand. Mary undertook the task of helping women to achieve a better life, not only for themselves and for their children, but also for their husbands. She is one of the pioneers of the Women’s Rights Movement.

  1. What happened in Wollstonecraft’s past made her more aware of the unequal treatment of women?

  2. What did her Vindication of the Rights of Women advocate? How does this uphold enlightenment ideas of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes?

  3. Why do you believe Wollstonecraft felt marriage was a form of tyranny?

  4. How did Mary Wollstonecraft influence the later women’s movement in America?

Baron de Montesquieu

Main Ideas

Montesquieu’s full title was Baron de Le Brede et de Montesquieu. He became the first great French man associated with the Enlightenment. He became famous in 1721 with his Persian Letters, which criticized the lifestyle and liberties of the wealthy French as well as the church. However, Montesquieu’s book On the Spirit of Laws, published in 1748, was his most famous work. It explained his ideas on how government would best work.

Montesquieu argued that the best government is one in which power was balanced among three groups of officials. He thought England – which divided power between the king (who enforced laws), Parliament (which made laws) and the judges of the English courts (who interpreted laws) – was a good model of this. Montesquieu called the idea of dividing government power into three branches the “separation of powers.” He thought it most important to create separate branches of government with equal but different powers. That way, the government would make sure that too much power was not held by the one individual or group of individuals. He wrote, “ When the (law making) and (law enforcement) powers are united in the same person…there can be no liberty.”

According to Montesquieu, each branch of government could limit the power of the other two branches. There would be a system of checks and balances between the groups. Therefore, no branch of the government could threaten the freedom of the people. His ideas about separation of powers became the basis for the Unites States Constitution.

Despite Montesquieu’s belief in the principles of a democracy, he did not feel that all people were equal. Montesquieu approved of slavery. He also thought that women were weaker than men and that they had to obey the commands of their husband. Although some women might have the ability to govern, it was against their basic nature.

  1. What did Montesquieu believe was the best form of government? What did he call this form of government? How did he influence American democracy?

  2. How did Montesquieu propose balancing power in government? Explain.

  3. What do you think Montesquieu meant by “the rights of the individual”? What are some of your rights as an individual in the United States?

  4. How did Montesquieu contradict his ideas of democracy?

Jean Jacques Rousseau

Main Ideas

  • Believed politics and morality are not separate

  • He is considered an opponent of the Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason

  • Believed people should rely more on instinct and emotion

  • State is created to preserve freedom

  • Government is a contract between the rule and citizens

Jean Jacques Rousseau was born in 1712. He had an unusual childhood with no formal education. From these very simple beginnings he became one of the most influential thinkers of the Enlightenment.

His classic book on political theory was called The Social Contract (published in 1762). The beginning, ‘Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains’ is very famous. This work looks at how man should behave with society.
The Social Contract is what Rousseau calls the agreement among men and government that explains what responsibilities is required in the partnership. The social contract he explores in the book involves people recognizing a collective ‘general will’. The general will is supposed to represent the common good and public interest. One of the primary principles of Rousseau’s political philosophy is that politics and morality should not be separated. When a state stops acting in a moral fashion, it no longer has the right to control, make decisions, and exert authority over the individual. The second important principle is freedom, which the state is created to preserve.

Rousseau believed that all citizens should participate in government or the contract – and should be committed to the general good – even if it means acting against their private or personal interests.


  1. According to Rousseau, what is a social contract?

  2. What did Rousseau mean by “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains” in his book The Social Contract.

  3. According to Rousseau, why should politics and morality not be separated?

  4. What is the role of government? Do you agree? Why or why not?

John Stuart Mill

Main Ideas:

  • Opinions of how people and the government should behave toward each other

  • Greatest good for the greatest number should be the aim of the lawmakers

  • Self-protection can be a defense for interfering with someone else’s personal freedoms

  • Advocated freedom of opinion without censorship

  • Approves of common sense morality

  • Worked for women’s rights

John Stuart Mill was born in 1806, well after the Enlightenment and after the American Declaration of Independence, but his interpretation of the basic ideas of liberty, individual rights, women’s rights, and other issues contribute to the continuing development of democratic ideas.

Mill was a philosopher, economist, and was a proponent of Utilitarianism. Utilitarians believed that an action is right if it tends to promote happiness and wrong if it tends to produce the reverse of happiness – not just the happiness of the person involved in the action but also the happiness of everyone affected by it. In other words, things that produce the greatest happiness for the most people are good. He particularly approves of common sense morality. They are things people do without systematic thought.

This focus on the greatest good for the greatest number is against John Locke’s idea of individual rights. Mill believed that ethically, a person should be concerned for how the individual action affects society. Rights are ultimately founded on utility. In On Liberty, Mill made the statement that self-protection alone could excuse of justify either the states tampering with the liberty of the individual or any person interference with someone else’s freedom.

John Stuart Mill believed that there is an intellectual elite. Without men of genius, society would become a “stagnant pool.” He recognized that a person and society has to be trained properly to make use of the liberty he advocated. He was in total opposition to any government censorship. Without complete liberty of opinion, he insisted, civilizations would not develop. A society has to be free and open without suppressive government or private organizations.

Mill was also a believer in rights for women. He and his wife, Harriet, worked for women’s suffrage in England.


  1. What is the primary belief of Utilitarianism?

  2. How are Mill’s ideas of individual rights different from John Locke?

  3. What is the role of the intellectual elite? Why are they needed?

  4. How do you think Mill’s ideas of censorship influenced the American interpretation of free speech?

General Questions:

  1. Compare and contrast Hobbes’s perspective on man with Locke’s and explain how that perspective affects their respective ideal governments.

  2. What evidence is there that the ideas of the Enlightenment continue to be influential in modern times?

  3. What were some of the major intellectual changes that led to the Enlightenment?

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