Constitutions and Contracts: Why establish rules for governing?

A photo of the U.S. Constitution displays the headings,

LEARNING OBJECTIVES

  • Identify the origins of political thought leading to the Declaration of Independence.
  • Identify some of the actions leading to the American Revolution.
  • Understand the concept of unalienable rights.

If individuals band together to form a government, give their consent to this government to gain the protection of rights, and work to maintain collective order and security, it is preferable to put the rules of consent in writing–a contract. Whether the nation has 13 states or 50–with 3 million or 330 million citizens–a country as large and diverse as the US needs a written contract between government and citizens.

The American people have a contract with their government–the Constitution of the United States of America.  Written in 1787 and amended twenty-seven times, this document is the basis for U.S. government.[1]

The Constitution is the oldest and shortest written constitution of the modern era, the culmination of American (as well as British/European/Greek/etc.) political thought about government power.  The framers of this contract were not like-minded individuals aligned in thought or purpose.  The Constitution was born of necessity following the failures of the first revolutionary government and featured several pragmatic compromises. 230 years later, the U.S. government still requires compromise to function.

Where did ideas for revolution arise?

A painting shows John Locke.

John Locke was one of the most influential thinkers of the Enlightenment. His writings form the basis for many modern political ideas. (Credit: The Hermitage, Godfrey Kneller, Portraiture, 1697)

Most people understand the idea of natural or unalienable rights, believing no other individual or government has the right to take away their life, restrict their liberty, or take their property–without a very good reason.

People often band together to protect life, liberty and property.  These bands may have a contractual agreement because individuals and governments do not always respect the life, liberty, and property of others. Throughout history few governments have recognized individual rights. John Locke, a 17th century philosopher, wrote about the relationship between government and unalienable or natural rights (whether arising from a belief in a higher power bestowing these rights or from a human ability to reason that such rights exist).

Locke was not the first to suggest such rights.  The English elites sought to protect lives, liberties, and property of English freemen long before the settling of North American colonies. In 1215, King John signed Magna Carta—a contract protecting life, liberty, and property–“No freemen shall be taken, imprisoned . . . or in any way destroyed . . . except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.”[2] While Magna Carta afforded protections only to the English barons who were in revolt against King John in 1215, these protections were considered a cornerstone of liberty for freemen of all socio-economic conditions by the time of the American Revolution—rights always possessed by the people but begrudgingly acknowledged by King John.[3] A belief in unalienable or natural rights of all human beings indicates a belief that rights are only protected by government and not granted or conveyed by government.

The problem with Magna Carta is significant.  If a king may grant rights, a king may remove rights.  If rights are unalienable (not granted by any individual or government), people may never be separated from these rights to life, liberty and property.  Governments may protect the rights or infringe/restrict them, but they do not bestow or grant them.

Locke also addressed the purpose of government. For centuries monarchies claimed their authority originated from God. Locke, however, asserted that human beings created government.[4] People sacrifice some freedom in exchange for government protection of their lives, liberty, and property. Locke called this implicit agreement between a people and their government the social contract. Should government deprive people of their rights by abusing its authority, the contract was broken and the people were no longer bound by its terms.

The people could thus withdraw their consent to obey and form another government for their protection–popular sovereignty. For Locke, withdrawing consent meant replacing one monarch with another.

Why revolt?

How did disagreement move from thought to war?  Over time the British monarchy came to treat colonists differently from other freemen living in Britain.  Learned men among the colonies’ elites, familiar with the works of Locke and other political philosophers boldly sought a solution. Appeals to the monarchy failed.  Parliament and King George III made decisions for colonists without their input/consent. Colonists’ rights to property (taxes and quartering of soldiers without consent) were taken from them.  Ultimately, these colonial elites determined the social contract was broken, and they sought a means of self-government. Separation was the solution.

In December 1773, a group of Boston men boarded a ship in Boston harbor and threw a cargo of tea into the water.  The protest concerned granting of a monopoly on tea to the British East India Company, which many colonial merchants resented.[5]

This act of defiance became known as the Boston Tea Party. Today, many who do not agree with the positions of the Democratic or Republican parties have organized themselves into an opposition group called the Tea Party.

The lithograph in Part a shows a scene from the Boston Tea Party where protestors emptied tea chests into the Boston Harbor. Photo b shows a participant in a Tea Party Express rally, dressed in colonial clothing, writing on a wall.

Members of the modern Tea Party movement claim to represent the same spirit as their colonial forebears in the iconic lithograph The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor (a) and protest against what they perceive as government’s interference with people’s rights. In April 2010, members of a Tea Party Express rally on the Boston Common signed a signature wall to record their protest (b). (Credit b: modification of work by Tim Pierce)

In 1774, Parliament responded to colonial defiance with laws called the Coercive Acts, punishing Boston for leading resistance to British rule. This assault on Massachusetts and its economy enraged people throughout the colonies, and delegates from all the colonies except Georgia formed the First Continental Congress to create a unified opposition to Great Britain and to develop a declaration of rights and grievances.  King George III continued to ignore the reasoned appeals of colonial leaders for equal treatment.

In 1775, delegates met again as the Second Continental Congress. Armed conflict had begun with skirmishes between colonial militiamen and British troops at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. Congress drafted a Declaration of Causes explaining the colonies’ reasons for rebellion. On July 2, 1776, Congress declared American independence from Britain and two days later signed the Declaration of Independence.

Consider the Original

Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence officially proclaiming separation from Britain. Jefferson laid out justification for revolt.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.[6]

Britain had deprived the colonists of their rights. The King had “establish[ed] . . . an absolute Tyranny over these States.” Just as their English forebears had removed King James II from the throne in 1689, the colonists now wished to establish a new rule.  There was a crucial difference this time.  The colonists did not want a new king.  They wanted self-government.[7]

With their signing of the Declaration of Independence, the founders of the United States committed themselves to the creation of a new government.

This painting depicts the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

The presentation of the Declaration of Independence is commemorated in a painting by John Trumbull in 1817. It was commissioned to hang in the Capitol in Washington, DC. (Credit: Library of Congress)

link to learningThomas Jefferson explains in the Declaration of Independence why many colonists felt the need to form a new nation. His evocation of the natural rights of man and his list of grievances against the king also served as the model for the Declaration of Sentiments that was written in 1848 in favor of giving women in the United States rights equal to those of men. View both documents and compare.

Questions to Consider

  1. What reason would you give for maintaining the written contract US citizens have with the government?

  2. Would you like to see the contract/constitution changed?  In what way?

  3. Would a verbal contract work for government?

  4. Would a contract by handshake work for government?

  5. Is government more accountable to a written contract? Why/why not?

  6. What key tenets of American political thought influenced in the decision to declare independence from Britain?

  7. What actions by the British government convinced the colonists they needed to declare their independence?

Terms to Remember

consent–citizens may consent to give up some liberties to governing authority/rule of law in order to receive a benefit like security/order

Declaration of Independencea document written in 1776 in which the American colonists proclaimed their independence from Great Britain and listed their grievances against King George III

natural rights–the right to life, liberty, and property; believed to be given by a Higher Power or understood by human reasoning ability; no government may give/convey these liberties; government may only protect or infringe on these rights

social contract–an agreement between people and government in which citizens consent to be governed so long as the government protects their natural rights

popular sovereignty–the people are sovereign rather than a monarch or oligarchy; the rule of law places people above politics

unalienable rights–rights all human beings possess; rights to life, liberty of movement, and personal property; inseparable


  1. credit: modification of work by National Archives and Records Administration
  2. https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured-documents/magna-carta
  3. https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured-documents/magna-carta
  4. From Project Gutenberg at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/10615
  5. Bernhard Knollenberg. 1975. Growth of the American Revolution: 1766-1775. New York: Free Press, 95-96.
  6. Declaration of Independence complete transcript available with the National Archives at USA.gov
  7. Declaration of Independence excerpt from the National Archives at USA.gov