Today is arguably the most important Federal Holiday of the United States. The commemoration is usually overshadowed by the celebratory elements like parades, speechifying, and fireworks. In fact, many of us just think of today as the Fourth of July. The traditional tributes will be paid to the Revolution against the British Empire and we will salute the Declaration of Independence, the Founding Fathers and the Flag. Honoring these things is well and good. This is something I also affirm.
Behind all of this festivity is something frequently forgotten and neglected–the American Social Contract. In the most basic terms, the American Social Contract is a concept that defines our Democratic Republic. Basically, in our form of government, the citizens surrender certain individual rights in order to ensure that we all can enjoy the right to life, liberty, and happiness within the framework of a civilized society.
The basic concept of a social contract (aka social compact) goes back to the antique days of Plato. The scope of which requires much more room than my usual short blog posts. In its simplest form, the American Social Contract is the statement that the state exists to serve the will of the people. The citizens are the source of all political power employed by the state.
The founding fathers were largely influenced by Jean Jacques Rousseau and John Locke. Rousseau was the author of the treatise titled The Social Contract or Principles of Political Right. In this work, Rousseau explained, among other factors, that government should primarily be based upon the concept of popular sovereignty.
Meantime, Locke expanded the definition of social contract in regard to explicit responsibilities of the individual. While humans are essentially free in the “State of Nature”, they may decide to formulate a government in order to punish other people whose actions harm others. Locke’s theory was one of the ideas behind the American Revolution.
All things considered, English Colonials were very unhappy with the conservative British Tory form of patriarchal government and favored the ideas of the social contract. Thus the social contract became not only the stated purpose of the Revolution, it was an inspiration for our present Constitution. Ideally, our laws are written in order to enhance and officially define the social contract. In simple terms, road traffic regulations and laws against theft and murder are parts of the social contract.
Debates about the scope of the social contract have fueled great controversies throughout American History. In the nineteenth century, slaveholders argued that it supported “states’ rights”. They claimed the social contract mandated the Confederacy and succession from the Union. Meantime, moderates maintained that the social contract supports government continuity and national integrity. The abolitionists found inspiration from Locke’s writings about “natural rights”.
The 20th century witnessed some enhancement of the social contract to the well-being of citizens with such programs as Social Security and consumer protection. Social reformers have based important movements such as women’s rights, civil rights, LGBT rights, environmental protection and many others within the American Social Contract.
In a nutshell, the 18th century refinements of the social contract inspired and fueled the United States of America. It has provided the parameters of our constitutional democratic-republic form of government.
The American ideal that is often and recently breeched is the primary social contract that is stated as: “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” This social contract is well worth defending. The American Social Contract is at the very heart of today’s federal holiday. At this critical crisis point in history, it is time to renew our American Social Contract.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes social media specialist Simon Mainwaring. “Everyone living under the social contract we call democracy has a duty to act responsibly, to obey the laws, and to abandon certain types of self-interested behaviors that conflict with the general good.”