John Locke and The Founding Fathers

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13554

The writings of John Locke, more so than any other person, influenced how the Founding Fathers would decide to structure their new nation.


United States, United States

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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  • Do you see the similarities between this quote from John Locke and this excerpt from the Declaration of Independence?

English Civil War

Battle of Naseby

John Locke was born in England into an upper-class family in 1632, so he was still young when the English Civil War broke out in 1642 between the monarchy and the Parliament.

The war began when Parliament members felt the King had been exercising too much power. These parliamentarians, as they were known, wanted the legislative body to have more of a role in the nation's decisions.

As you watch the video below, pay attention to the three major issues that caused the war.

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John Locke's father joined the Parliamentarians and led a cavalry during the conflict.

  • How might being raised on Parliament's side have influenced Locke's thinking?

British Empiricism

John Locke

John Locke spearheaded British Empiricism, a philosophical movement that asserted rationalism was the only way to the truth.

Rationalism is the belief that reason and facts matter more than religion or experience.

During this Age of Reason, Locke asserted three new societal perspectives influenced by his upbringing during the English Civil War. These perspectives heavily influenced the Founding Fathers.

As you look at Locke's ideas below, connect them to what you know about the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Role of Religion

Anglican church in Liverpool

John Locke's A Letter Concerning Toleration, published in 1689, contains the following excerpts.

"For the Civil Government can give no new Right to the Church, nor the Church to the Civil Government. So that whether the Magistrate joyn himself to any Church, or separate from it, the Church remains always as it was before, a free and voluntary Society."

"And such is the nature of the Understanding, that it cannot be compell’d to the belief of any thing by outward Force."

  • Knowing that John Locke witnessed a war over a monarch who claimed a divine right and attempted to assert his religious views on the public, can you see why he may have developed these views?

The idea that religion was a strictly personal choice and had no place in government was a completely new one at this time. Even the Parliamentarians, with whom his father had sided, wanted to enforce Protestantism like King Charles sought to enforce Catholicism.

This idea of a separation between church and state heavily influenced the structure of the new government in the United States.

Read this excerpt from the third article in the Bill of Rights.

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; ..."

Inalienable or Natural Rights

Declaration of Independence

John Locke's assessment of the English Civil War colored his ideas on who held the power in society.

  • Did the King hold the power? Parliament? The people?

As you watch the video below, listen for phrases and ideas that you may have heard before.

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Locke proposed another new idea: that the power governments hold is directly given by the people. Because of this, fundamental things exist with or without a central body or government.

This principle encourages the idea that a limited government is also the freest. It is also from where the Declaration of Independence's clause "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" comes.

Second Amendment

Second Amendment

The Second Amendment in the Bill of Rights reads as follows.

"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed. "

  • Can you see how this amendment stems from the idea of natural rights?

Because of his life experiences, John Locke believed the ability of a nation to rise up was one of the most fundamental rights of its citizens.

Having just fought the American Revolution, the Founding Fathers believed this idea was essential for preserving liberty.

Continue to the Got It? section to further examine the right to bear arms in context with Locke's ideas about government and to attempt to determine what the Founding Fathers likely intended by the Second Amendment.

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