John Locke was one of the most influential philosophers with respect to the United States form of government. He believed in the natural rights philosophy. This involved how human beings would act in a "state of nature," a condition in which there was no government. Locke believed that there are certain rights one cannot be denied, among them the rights to life, liberty, and property. In a state of nature, there would be people who would take advantage of the lawlessness by depriving others of their natural rights. In order to protect themselves and keep this from happening, people form governments. The people enter into a "social contract" with their government. They agree to give up some of their rights so that the government may protect the people's natural rights. For example, today, people must obey the laws or risk punishment for not doing so. The laws are there to protect the people from each other and to secure their natural rights, the ones that they cannot be denied.
Whew! This guy's name is a mouthful! Good thing we just call him Montesquieu (pronounced MON-tes-kyoo). Widely admired by Americans, Montesquieu thought that the best way to protect the rights of the people and work towards the common good was to separate the government's powers into divisions; this way, no one class could gain control, and thus dominate, the government. Montesquieu cited the British government as a prime example of the separation of powers, but he messed up. Supposedly, the British government combined monarchy (the King), aristocracy (Parliament's House of Lords), and democracy (the House of Commons). In reality, both houses of Parliament were mostly aristocratic. Moreover, the King used his advisors to influence Parliament. The framers of the Constitution admired the system of separation of powers, but wanted to avoid the 'incomplete' separation that the English had. To achieve this, a system of checks and balances was put in place; this system ensured that no branch (legislative, executive, judicial) had power over another.
Rousseau's take on government builds off of Locke's. Indeed, his major political work is called The Social Contract. However, unlike Locke, he did not believe that the majority would always act for the common good. Instead, government's role was to ensure that the common good, or general welfare, was protected. To achieve this, the people gave up some of their rights to the government.
Copyright © 1997 Jonathan Chin & Alan Stern