The most concise expression of the ideals upon which our nation was founded is the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence (minus the last three sentences, which should, properly, have been the first three sentences of the next section of the Declaration):
"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.
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established
should not be changed for light and transient causes;
and accordingly all experience hath shewn,
that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable,
than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.
But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object
evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism,
it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government,
and to provide new Guards for their future security."
The history of governments until quite recently calls into question just how "self-evident" the truths mentioned in the Declaration of Independence were, at least until the ideas of John Locke began to take hold. What is "self-evident" is the fact that John Locke’s ideas inspired Thomas Jefferson as he wrote the Declaration of Independence. Here are a few quotations taken directly from Locke’s Second Treatise of Government:
“Men all being naturally free, equal, and independent, no-one can be deprived of this freedom, etc.
and subjected to the political power of someone else, without his own consent.”
"The consent of the people…is the only lawful basis for government.” [Emphasis in original.]
“Nobody has power to subject a society to laws except with the society’s consent and by their authority.”
“The people retain a supreme power to remove or alter the legislature when they find it acting contrary to the trust that had been placed in it.”
“It is harder to get people out of their old forms of government than some writers are apt to suggest.
It is almost impossible to get them to amend the admitted faults in the system they have grown used to. And if there are any systemic defects, or less deep ones introduced by decay or by the passage of time, it’s hard to get them changed even when everyone sees that there’s an opportunity to do so.”
“But if a long series of abuses, lies, and tricks, all tending the same way, make the design visible to the people so that they can’t help feeling what they are oppressed by and see where they are going, it’s not surprising that they should then rouse themselves and try to put the ruling power into hands that will achieve for them the purposes for which government was at first established.” [Emphasis in original.]
“The people, who are more disposed to suffer than to right themselves by resistance, are not likely to rise up until the mischief has become general, and the wicked schemes of the rulers have become visible or their attempts have made themselves felt in the lives of the majority.”
“The people have a right to act as supreme and to continue the legislature in themselves, or to set up a new form of government, or retain the old form while placing it in new hands, as they see fit.”
Although Locke’s Second Treatise of Government is not a long book, as should be expected when summarizing the ideas expressed in a book in a single paragraph, there are some important ideas in the Second Treatise that are not included in the Declaration of Independence. There are also a few of Locke’s ideas that are included in the Declaration of Independence but expressed more fully in the Second Treatise.
Locke anticipates and accepts the argument that the majority may infringe on the rights of a minority of the population by acknowledging that, “Whenever power is put into some hands for the government of the people and the preservation of their properties, and is then diverted from that purpose and used to impoverish, harass, or subdue the people to the arbitrary and irregular commands of those that have the power, then that immediately becomes tyranny, whether the power holders are one or many.”
He adds the caveat that, “What men enter into societies with governments for is the preservation of their property, so it would be a gross absurdity to have a government that deprived them of that very property!” [Note: Locke defines “property” more broadly than we typically do today, as a person’s “life, liberty and possessions”.]
And, as a further point of emphasis, he adds that, “Men wouldn’t quit the freedom of the state of nature for a governed society, and tie themselves up under it, if it weren’t to preserve their lives, liberties and fortunes with help from stated rules of right and property.”
Locke makes the point that tyranny is to come from the rulers as opposed to the people: “The purpose of government is the good of mankind. Which is better for mankind: that the people be always exposed to the limitless will of tyranny; or that the rulers be sometimes liable to meet with opposition when they grow exorbitant in the use of their power and use it for the destruction and not the preservation of the properties of their people?”
Addressing the limits of the power of a legislature, Locke makes a utilitarian argument: “The outer limit of its power is set by the good of the society as a whole. It is a power whose only purpose is preservation, and therefore the legislature can never have a right to destroy, enslave, or deliberately impoverish the subjects.”
The Declaration of Independence does not make it clear that the “consent of the governed” does not mean the unanimous consent of the governed or that majority rule is the necessary compromise. Locke does make those distinctions: “For if the consent of the majority shall not in reason, be received, as the act of the whole, and conclude every individual; nothing but the consent of every individual can make anything be the act of the whole: But such a consent is next to impossible ever to be had.” He also states that, “every man, by agreeing with others to make one body politic under one government, puts himself under an obligation to everyone in that society to submit to the decisions of the majority, and to be bound by it.”
Although he was writing nearly a hundred years before the American Revolution (the Second Treatise was first published in 1689), Locke was aware of the unique opportunity for America to provide a testing ground for his ideas: “It is important to keep America in mind, because America even now is similar to how Asia and Europe were in the early years when there was more land than the people could use, and the lack of people and of money left men with no temptation to enlarge their possessions of land.” He adds, “For history, both religious and secular, is full of examples of men removing themselves and their obedience from the jurisdiction they were born under and from the family or community they grew up in and setting up new governments in other places.”
Today, of course, those points are irrelevant. We are well beyond the point where there is surplus land available people in quantities that would give people the option of founding a new society or government.