The Invention and Implementation of "Human Rights": 1651-1776

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), Leviathan (pub. 1651): human society is a kind of huge "artificial man" (the "Leviathan" of the title) which forms itself by creation of a "social contract" in which human beings accept limits on their freedom in exchange for the safety of government.  That safety being lost, the contract is broken and the government is illegitimate. Hobbes, a royalist, was anything but a revolutionary, and he wrote in Parisian exile from the Puritan Protectorate.  Without a government founded on that social contract, Hobbes famously wrote, "the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" (1592).  [See the Norton 7th edition, pp. 1587-95 for excerpts.]

John Locke (1632-1704), Two Treatises of Government and "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding" (both pub. 1690):  Human beings live in a universe governed by "natural laws" which precede in authority and age the laws of any government.  Those natural laws guarantee that we will be free to enjoy our persons, our property, our free speech, thought, and worship.  We acquire the right to enjoy things beyond ourselves (e.g., property, as in Col. Hutchinson's gunpowder) by virtue of having "mixed our labor" with it, which establishes human labor as the root of all claims of ownership.  Any human government has authority only in trust, a kind of loan, from natural laws, and if it violates that trust, its authority is invalid.  This laid the groundwork for the possibility of legitimate popular authority overthrowing a failed government.

The Declaration of Independence (pub. 1776):  "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."