Constitutional Rights Foundation (2023)

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Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau on Government

Starting in the 1600s, European philosophers began debating the question of who should govern a nation. As the absolute rule of kings weakened, Enlightenment philosophers argued for different forms of democracy.

In 1649, a civil war broke out over who would rule England—Parliament or King Charles I. The war ended with the beheading of the king. Shortly after Charles was executed, an English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), wrote Leviathan, a defense of the absolute power of kings. The title of the book referred to a leviathan, a mythological, whale-like sea monster that devoured whole ships. Hobbes likened the leviathan to government, a powerful state created to impose order.

Hobbes began Leviathan by describing the “state of nature” where all individuals were naturally equal. Every person was free to do what he or she needed to do to survive. As a result, everyone suffered from “continued fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man [was] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

In the state of nature, there were no laws or anyone to enforce them. The only way out of this situation, Hobbes said, was for individuals to create some supreme power to impose peace on everyone.

Hobbes borrowed a concept from English contract law: an implied agreement. Hobbes asserted that the people agreed among themselves to “lay down” their natural rights of equality and freedom and give absolute power to a sovereign. The sovereign, created by the people, might be a person or a group. The sovereign would make and enforce the laws to secure a peaceful society, making life, liberty, and property possible. Hobbes called this agreement the “social contract.”

Hobbes believed that a government headed by a king was the best form that the sovereign could take. Placing all power in the hands of a king would mean more resolute and consistent exercise of political authority, Hobbes argued. Hobbes also maintained that the social contract was an agreement only among the people and not between them and their king. Once the people had given absolute power to the king, they had no right to revolt against him.

Hobbes warned against the church meddling with the king’s government. He feared religion could become a source of civil war. Thus, he advised that the church become a department of the king’s government, which would closely control all religious affairs. In any conflict between divine and royal law, Hobbes wrote, the individual should obey the king or choose death.

But the days of absolute kings were numbered. A new age with fresh ideas was emerging—the European Enlightenment.

Enlightenment thinkers wanted to improve human conditions on earth rather than concern themselves with religion and the afterlife. These thinkers valued reason, science, religious tolerance, and what they called “natural rights”—life, liberty, and property.

Enlightenment philosophers John Locke, Charles Montesquieu, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau all developed theories of government in which some or even all the people would govern. These thinkers had a profound effect on the American and French revolutions and the democratic governments that they produced.

Locke: The Reluctant Democrat

John Locke (1632–1704) was born shortly before the English Civil War. Locke studied science and medicine at Oxford University and became a professor there. He sided with the Protestant Parliament against the Roman Catholic King James II in the Glorious Revolution of 1685. This event reduced the power of the king and made Parliament the major authority in English government.

In 1690, Locke published his Two Treatises of Government. He generally agreed with Hobbes about the brutality of the state of nature, which required a social contract to assure peace. But he disagreed with Hobbes on two major points.

First, Locke argued that natural rights such as life, liberty, and property existed in the state of nature and could never be taken away or even voluntarily given up by individuals. These rights were “inalienable” (impossible to surrender). Locke also disagreed with Hobbes about the social contract. For him, it was not just an agreement among the people, but between them and the sovereign (preferably a king).

According to Locke, the natural rights of individuals limited the power of the king. The king did not hold absolute power, as Hobbes had said, but acted only to enforce and protect the natural rights of the people. If a sovereign violated these rights, the social contract was broken, and the people had the right to revolt and establish a new government. Less than 100 years after Locke wrote his Two Treatises of Government, Thomas Jefferson used his theory in writing the Declaration of Independence.

Although Locke spoke out for freedom of thought, speech, and religion, he believed property to be the most important natural right. He declared that owners may do whatever they want with their property as long as they do not invade the rights of others. Government, he said, was mainly necessary to promote the “public good,” that is to protect property and encourage commerce and little else. “Govern lightly,” Locke said.

Locke favored a representative government such as the English Parliament, which had a hereditary House of Lords and an elected House of Commons. But he wanted representatives to be only men of property and business. Consequently, only adult male property owners should have the right to vote. Locke was reluctant to allow the propertyless masses of people to participate in government because he believed that they were unfit.

The supreme authority of government, Locke said, should reside in the law-making legislature, like England’s Parliament. The executive (prime minister) and courts would be creations of the legislature and under its authority.

Montesquieu: The Balanced Democrat

When Charles Montesquieu (1689–1755) was born, France was ruled by an absolute king, Louis XIV. Montesquieu was born into a noble family and educated in the law. He traveled extensively throughout Europe, including England, where he studied the Parliament. In 1722, he wrote a book, ridiculing the reign of Louis XIV and the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church.

Montesquieu published his greatest work, The Spirit of the Laws, in 1748. Unlike Hobbes and Locke, Montesquieu believed that in the state of nature individuals were so fearful that they avoided violence and war. The need for food, Montesquieu said, caused the timid humans to associate with others and seek to live in a society. “As soon as man enters into a state of society,” Montesquieu wrote, “he loses the sense of his weakness, equality ceases, and then commences the state of war.”

Montesquieu did not describe a social contract as such. But he said that the state of war among individuals and nations led to human laws and government.

Montesquieu wrote that the main purpose of government is to maintain law and order, political liberty, and the property of the individual. Montesquieu opposed the absolute monarchy of his home country and favored the English system as the best model of government.

Montesquieu somewhat misinterpreted how political power was actually exercised in England. When he wrote The Spirit of the Laws, power was concentrated pretty much in Parliament, the national legislature. Montesquieu thought he saw a separation and balancing of the powers of government in England.

Montesquieu viewed the English king as exercising executive power balanced by the law-making Parliament, which was itself divided into the House of Lords and the House of Commons, each checking the other. Then, the executive and legislative branches were still further balanced by an independent court system.

Montesquieu concluded that the best form of government was one in which the legislative, executive, and judicial powers were separate and kept each other in check to prevent any branch from becoming too powerful. He believed that uniting these powers, as in the monarchy of Louis XIV, would lead to despotism. While Montesquieu’s separation of powers theory did not accurately describe the government of England, Americans later adopted it as the foundation of the U.S. Constitution.

Rousseau: The Extreme Democrat

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) was born in Geneva, Switzerland, where all adult male citizens could vote for a representative government. Rousseau traveled in France and Italy, educating himself.

In 1751, he won an essay contest. His fresh view that man was naturally good and was corrupted by society made him a celebrity in the French salons where artists, scientists, and writers gathered to discuss the latest ideas.

A few years later he published another essay in which he described savages in a state of nature as free, equal, peaceful, and happy. When people began to claim ownership of property, Rousseau argued, inequality, murder, and war resulted.

According to Rousseau, the powerful rich stole the land belonging to everyone and fooled the common people into accepting them as rulers. Rousseau concluded that the social contract was not a willing agreement, as Hobbes, Locke, and Montesquieu had believed, but a fraud against the people committed by the rich.

In 1762, Rousseau published his most important work on political theory, The Social Contract. His opening line is still striking today: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” Rousseau agreed with Locke that the individual should never be forced to give up his or her natural rights to a king.

The problem in the state of nature, Rousseau said, was to find a way to protect everyone’s life, liberty, and property while each person remained free. Rousseau’s solution was for people to enter into a social contract. They would give up all their rights, not to a king, but to “the whole community,” all the people. He called all the people the “sovereign,” a term used by Hobbes to mainly refer to a king. The people then exercised their “general will” to make laws for the “public good.”

Rousseau argued that the general will of the people could not be decided by elected representatives. He believed in a direct democracy in which everyone voted to express the general will and to make the laws of the land. Rousseau had in mind a democracy on a small scale, a city-state like his native Geneva.

In Rousseau’s democracy, anyone who disobeyed the general will of the people “will be forced to be free.” He believed that citizens must obey the laws or be forced to do so as long as they remained a resident of the state. This is a “civil state,” Rousseau says, where security, justice, liberty, and property are protected and enjoyed by all.

All political power, according to Rousseau, must reside with the people, exercising their general will. There can be no separation of powers, as Montesquieu proposed. The people, meeting together, will deliberate individually on laws and then by majority vote find the general will. Rousseau’s general will was later embodied in the words “We the people . . .” at the beginning of the U.S. Constitution.

Rousseau was rather vague on the mechanics of how his democracy would work. There would be a government of sorts, entrusted with administering the general will. But it would be composed of “mere officials” who got their orders from the people.

Rousseau believed that religion divided and weakened the state. “It is impossible to live in peace with people you think are damned,” he said. He favored a “civil religion” that accepted God, but concentrated on the sacredness of the social contract.

Rousseau realized that democracy as he envisioned it would be hard to maintain. He warned, “As soon as any man says of the affairs of the State, ‘What does it matter to me?’ the State may be given up for lost.”

For Discussion and Writing

1. Of the four philosophers discussed in this article, which two do you think differed the most? Why?

2. Which of the democratic forms government proposed by Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau do you think is the best? Why?

3. Rousseau wrote in The Social Contract, “As soon as any man says of the affairs of the State ‘What does it matter to me?’ the State may be given up for lost.” What do you think he meant? How do you think his words relate to American democracy today?


The Philosophers Take a Stand

1. Divide the class into four groups, each taking on the role of Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, or Rousseau.

2. The members of each of the role group will need to research why their philosopher would agree or disagree with the debate topics listed below. The article contains some clues, but students should find out more about their philosophers’ views by using the school library and Internet.

3. After research has been completed, each role group will state its philosopher’s position on topic A. The groups should then debate the topic from the point of view of the philosopher they are role playing. Follow the same procedure for the rest of the topics.

4. After all the debates are finished, class members should discuss which one of the four philosophers they agree with the most and why.

Debate Topics

A. The best form of government is a representative democracy.

B. Only the president should have the power to declare war.

C. A good way to make laws is for all the people to directly vote on them.

D. Religion should be a part of the government.

E. The government should have the authority to confiscate a person’s property for the public good.

For Further Information


Encyclopedia articles:

Wikipedia: Thomas Hobbes

Wikipedia: Leviathan

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Thomas Hobbes

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Hobbes’ Moral and Political Philosophy

Malaspina Great Books: Thomas Hobbes

Leviathan Text of the book.

SparkNotes: Leviathan A study guide to the book.


Yahoo Directory: Thomas Hobbes

Google Directory: Thomas Hobbes

Open Directory Project: Thomas Hobbes


Encyclopedia articles:

Wikipedia: John Locke

Bluplete Biography: John Locke

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: John Locke

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: John Locke

Wikipedia: Two Treatises of Government

Second Treatise of Civil Government Text of the book.

SparkNotes: Locke’s Second Treatise of Government Two Treatises of Government A study guide.

Malaspina Great Books: John Locke


Yahoo Directory: John Locke

Google Directory: John Locke

Open Directory Project: John Locke


Encyclopedia articles:

Wikipedia: Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The Social Contract The text of the book.

SparkNotes: Rousseau’s Social Contract A study guide to the book.

Malaspina Great Books: Jean-Jacques Rousseau


Yahoo Directory: Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Google Directory: Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Open Directory Project: Jean-Jacques Rousseau


Encyclopedia articles:

Wikipedia: Montesquieu

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Montesquieu

Catholic Encyclopedia: Montesquieu

The Spirit of the Laws The text of the book.

Malaspina Great Books: Montesquieu


Yahoo Directory: Baron de Montesquieu

Google Directory: Montesquieu

Open Directory Project: Montesquieu


What does the Constitutional Rights Foundation do? ›

Constitutional Rights Foundation (CRF) inspires lifelong civic engagement through interactive programs and resources for teachers and youth because our democracy depends on informed participation by all. CRF seeks to instill in our nation's youth a lifelong commitment to the principles expressed in our Constitution.

When was the Constitutional Rights Foundation established? ›

Founded in 1962, Constitutional Rights Foundation was born in tumultuous times, but its timeless mission to educate about our Constitution and Bill of Rights is just as important today as it was then.

Can constitutional rights be taken away? ›

Our ruling

Baldwin said she believed the "Supreme Court has never taken away a constitutional right." Legal scholars say that although such reversals are uncommon, a handful of examples do exist.

What are constitutional rights in simple terms? ›

Constitutional rights are the protections and liberties guaranteed to the people by the U.S. Constitution. Many of these rights are outlined in the Bill of Rights; such as the right to free speech in the First Amendment, and the right to a speedy and public trial in the Sixth Amendment.

What are the most important constitutional rights? ›

The First and Second Amendments. The First Amendment is widely considered to be the most important part of the Bill of Rights. It protects the fundamental rights of conscience—the freedom to believe and express different ideas—in a variety of ways.

Who created the constitutional Rights? ›

The American Bill of Rights, inspired by Jefferson and drafted by James Madison, was adopted, and in 1791 the Constitution's first ten amendments became the law of the land.

Who laid the foundation of Constitution? ›

The constitution was drafted by the Constituent Assembly, which was elected by elected members of the provincial assemblies. The 389-member assembly (reduced to 299 after the partition of India) took almost three years to draft the constitution holding eleven sessions over a 165-day period.

Who signed the constitutional Rights? ›

After George Washington, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton were two of the most important people to approve of and sign the constitution. James Madison contributed so many ideas that he is known as the father of the constitution. James Madison is often referred to as the 'Father of the Constitution.

Can you sue the federal government for violating your constitutional rights? ›

United States law allows an individual who believes that his or her constitutional rights have been violated to bring a civil action against the government to recover the damages sustained as a result of that violation.

Can the government limit our rights? ›

Government can limit some protected speech by imposing "time, place and manner" restrictions. This is most commonly done by requiring permits for meetings, rallies and demonstrations. But a permit cannot be unreasonably withheld, nor can it be denied based on content of the speech.

Has the Supreme Court ever overturned a constitutional right? ›

Of the more than 25,500 decisions handed down by the Supreme Court since its creation in 1789, it has only reversed course 146 times, less than one-half of one percent.

What is another word for constitutional rights? ›

  • civil rights.
  • civil liberties.
  • natural rights.
  • rights of citizenship.
  • unalienable rights.

What is the difference between legal rights and constitutional right? ›

The constitutional rights are those which are provided in the various provisions of the constitution. The legal rights, on the other hand, are those which are provided in the various laws (acts) of the Parliament and the State Legislatures.

What are the constitutional rights of a U.S. citizen? ›

The Bill of Rights protects freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to keep and bear arms, the freedom of assembly and the freedom to petition. It also prohibits unreasonable search and seizure, cruel and unusual punishment and compelled self-incrimination.

What are the 5 basic rights? ›

The five freedoms it protects: speech, religion, press, assembly, and the right to petition the government. Together, these five guaranteed freedoms make the people of the United States of America the freest in the world.

What are my rights as a citizen? ›

Right to vote in elections for public officials. Right to apply for federal employment requiring U.S. citizenship. Right to run for elected office. Freedom to pursue “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

What are the top 3 most important rights? ›

They include the right to life, the right to health and the right to freedom from torture.

What is the least important amendment? ›

by Gordon S. Wood. The Third Amendment seems to have no direct constitutional relevance at present; indeed, not only is it the least litigated amendment in the Bill of Rights, but the Supreme Court has never decided a case on the basis of it.

What are the top 5 most important rights? ›

So based on the Constitution, here are the five basic rights granted to every US citizen.
  • Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression. ...
  • Right to a Fair Trial. ...
  • Right to Free and Unperturbed Media. ...
  • Right to Vote Freely in Public and Open Elections. ...
  • Right to Worship Religion in a Free Setting. ...
  • Right To Live Permanently In The US.
Nov 28, 2022

Who forced the Bill of Rights? ›

Few members of the First Congress wanted to make amending the new Constitution a priority. But James Madison, once the most vocal opponent of the Bill of Rights, introduced a list of amendments to the Constitution on June 8, 1789, and “hounded his colleagues relentlessly” to secure its passage.

How many constitutional Rights are there? ›

The US Constitution has 27 amendments that protect the rights of Americans.

Is the Constitution the foundation of government? ›

The foundation of our American Government, its purpose, form and structure are found in the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution, written in 1787, is the "supreme law of the land" because no law may be passed that contradicts its principles. No person or government is exempt from following it.

What document laid the foundation for the Constitution? ›

The Articles of Confederation were adopted by the Continental Congress on November 15, 1777. This document served as the United States' first constitution. It was in force from March 1, 1781, until 1789 when the present-day Constitution went into effect.

Who was the first Constitution? ›

In 1634 the Kingdom of Sweden adopted the 1634 Instrument of Government, drawn up under the Lord High Chancellor of Sweden Axel Oxenstierna after the death of king Gustavus Adolphus, it can be seen as the first written constitution adopted by a modern state.

What two founding fathers never signed the Constitution? ›

Three delegates—Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts and Edmund Randolph and George Mason of Virginia—were dissatisfied with the final document and refused to ink their signatures.

What is the latest amendment in Constitution? ›

What is the latest amendment in the Indian Constitution? 105th Amendment Act of 2021 brought the latest amendment in the Constitution of India. The Constitution (One Hundred and Fifth Amendment) Act, 2021 is designed to clarify that the states can maintain the “state list” of OBCs.

When did the last signer of the Constitution died? ›

Jonathan Dayton, aged 26, was the youngest to sign the Constitution, while Benjamin Franklin, aged 81, was the oldest. Franklin was also the first signer to die, in April 1790, while James Madison was the last, dying in June 1836.

What happens if a person's constitutional rights are violated? ›

When your constitutional rights are breached during the criminal justice process, and the breach contributes to a guilty conviction, you can pursue an appeal based on an error in the criminal procedure or jury misconduct, or file a motion for a new trial.

What is an example of violation of constitutional rights? ›

Constitutional rights violations can take a variety of forms, ranging from retaliating against you for expressing your First Amendment right to free speech, to arresting you without possessing probable cause to believe you have committed a crime, or even arbitrarily depriving you of your Fourteenth Amendment right to ...

Can the state take away your life liberty or property? ›

Section 1 Rights

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Can our freedom be legally taken from U.S. how? ›

The Bill of Rights guarantees that the government can never deprive people in the U.S. of certain fundamental rights including the right to freedom of religion and to free speech and the due process of law. Many federal and state laws give us additional rights, too.

What rights are not protected by the Constitution? ›

The Supreme Court has found that unenumerated rights include such important rights as the right to travel, the right to vote, and the right to keep personal matters private.

Can the federal government override states rights? ›

The U.S. Constitution declares that federal law is “the supreme law of the land.” As a result, when a federal law conflicts with a state or local law, the federal law will supersede the other law or laws. This is commonly known as “preemption.” In practice, it is usually not as simple as this.

Can a president overturn a constitutional amendment? ›

But the president cannot repeal part of the Constitution by executive order. And Congress cannot repeal it by simply passing a new bill. Amending the Constitution would require a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate, and also ratification by three-quarters of the states.

How many times has the Supreme Court taken away a constitutional right? ›

Never in its history has the Supreme Court ended a basic constitutional protection. To be sure, following its seminal 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, which established abortion as a fundamental right, the Court narrowed its scope in Planned Parenthood v.

Can citizens overturn Supreme Court decisions? ›

Can Congress overrule decisions? Not directly, but Congress can pass laws that respond to rulings. For instance, the court ruled in 2007 that Lilly Ledbetter had not filed an equal pay discrimination complaint within the allowed time period (because she had not discovered the discrepancy until years later).

What is Constitution Foundation? ›

Foundation of constitution

Constitution is a legal document having a special legal sanctity, which sets out the framework and the principal functions of the organs of the government of a state, and declares the principles governing the operation of those organs.

What are the 5 constitutional rights? ›

The five freedoms it protects: speech, religion, press, assembly, and the right to petition the government. Together, these five guaranteed freedoms make the people of the United States of America the freest in the world.

Who are the authors of the Constitutional Rights Foundation? ›

Matthew Byrne, Stuart Buchhalter, Robert Carlson, Judge Judith Chirlin, Justice James Cobey, Judge Ronald George (soon to become Chief Justice of California), Norman Clement, Louis Colen, Russsel Freeman, Dr.

Is the Constitution the foundation of all laws? ›

The U.S. Constitution is the nation's fundamental law. It codifies the core values of the people. Courts have the responsibility to interpret the Constitution's meaning, as well as the meaning of any laws passed by Congress.

Is the Constitution the foundation of our government? ›

The foundation of our American Government, its purpose, form and structure are found in the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution, written in 1787, is the "supreme law of the land" because no law may be passed that contradicts its principles. No person or government is exempt from following it.

Is the Constitution the foundation of America? ›

The Constitution of the United States is the foundation of our American Government. It lays out the system of Government and the rights of the American people. The Constitution has three parts. The Preamble tells the purpose of the document and Government.

What are the basic rights? ›

Human rights include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and many more. Everyone is entitled to these rights, without discrimination.

What are the basic human rights? ›

These include the right to life, the right to a fair trial, freedom from torture and other cruel and inhuman treatment, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the rights to health, education and an adequate standard of living.

What does the Constitution say about who has the right to vote? ›

Twenty-Sixth Amendment Section 1: The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on a. . .

Are constitutional right human rights? ›

In the United States, human rights comprise a series of rights which are legally protected by the Constitution of the United States (particularly the Bill of Rights), state constitutions, treaty and customary international law, legislation enacted by Congress and state legislatures, and state referendums and citizen's ...

What determines a constitutional right? ›

A right is a constitutional right if it is written into the Georgia or U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Constitution outlines the basic rights of all citizens of the United States. Each state's constitution also outlines rights for its citizens.

Who is the known Father of the Constitution? ›

James Madison, America's fourth President (1809-1817), made a major contribution to the ratification of the Constitution by writing The Federalist Papers, along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay. In later years, he was referred to as the “Father of the Constitution.”

Who is the father of all Constitution? ›

Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar is known as the father of Indian constitution. On 29 August 1947, the Constituent Assembly set up a Drafting Committee. This Drafting Committee was headed by Ambedkar.

Who were the three important men who helped write the Constitution? ›

Biographical Index of the Framers of the Constitution
  • Oliver Ellsworth (Elsworth)*
  • William. Samuel Johnson.
  • Roger Sherman.
Mar 16, 2020


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