Social Compact Theory

Author:Leonard W. Levy
Pages:2438-2440

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An invention of political philosophers, the social contract or social compact theory was not meant as a historical account

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of the origin of government, but the theory was taken literally in America where governments were actually founded upon contract. The words "compact" and "contract" are synonymous and signify a voluntary agreement of the people to unite as a political community and to establish a government. The theory purports to explain why individuals should obey the law: each person, in a government that exists with the consent of the governed, freely and, in effect, continuously gives consent to the constitution of his community.

The theory hypothesizes a prepolitical state of nature in which people were governed only by the law of nature, free of human restraints. From the premise that man was born free, the deduction followed that he came into the world with God-given or NATURAL RIGHTS. Born without the restraint of human laws, he had a right to possess liberty and to work for his own property. Born naked and stationless, he had a right to equality. Born with certain instincts and needs, he had a right to satisfy them?a right to the pursuit of happiness. These natural rights, as JOHN DICKINSON declared in 1766, "are created in us by the decrees of Providence, which establish the laws of our nature. They are born with us; exist with us; and cannot be taken from us by any human power without taking our lives."

When people left the state of nature and compacted for government, the need to make their rights secure motivated them. ALEXANDER HAMILTON observed that "Civil liberty is only natural liberty modified and secured by the sanctions of civil society.?The origin of all civil government, justly established, must be a voluntary compact between the rulers and the ruled, and must be liable to such limitations as are necessary for the security of the absolute rights of the latter." The most detailed exposition of this theory was by JOHN LOCKE, the most brief and eloquent by THOMAS JEFFERSON in the preamble of the DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE. One of the self-evident truths in the latter is "That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.?"

The compact theory of government colored the thought and action of Americans during the colonial period and through the period of constitution making. The new world actually...

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