The Declaration of Independence recognizes as a self-evident truth that “governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. . . .”
There are two aspects to this First Principle of the Social Compact. First, that legitimate governments are instituted among the people; second, that the just powers of the government are derived from the consent of the people.
The Founding Fathers derived much of their understanding of this First Principle from John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and other like-minded philosophers.
The Founding Fathers believed that because conflict is inevitable in a state of nature, individuals united in civil societies and established government to secure the peace. James Madison reflected that “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” But men are not angels, Alexander Hamilton noted, and government becomes necessary to restrain “the passions of men.” Thus, paradoxically, legal restraints are necessary to preserve liberty. The alternative is vigilantism – which Hobbes aptly termed a “war of every one against every one.”
The second aspect of the Social Compact is that the people must consent to give the government its authority. Robert Bates, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, explained that “In every free government, the people must give their assent to the laws by which they are governed. This is the true criterion between a free government and an arbitrary one.”
Indeed, the American Revolution was strongly motivated by a defense of this First Principle. The cry of “no taxation without representation” was directly derived from the Social Compact.
The Social Compact is an indispensable First Principle of American freedom.