social contract, agreement or covenant by which men are said to have abandoned the "state of nature" to form the society in which they now live. The theory of such a contract, first formulated by the English philosophers Thomas Hobbes (in the Leviathan, 1651) and John Locke, assumes that men at first lived in a state of anarchy in which there was no society, no government, and no organized coercion of the individual by the group. Hobbes maintained that by the social contract men had surrendered their natural liberties in order to enjoy the order and safety of the organized state. Locke made the social contract the basis of his advocacy of popular sovereignty, the idea that the monarch or government must reflect the will of the people. Like Locke, the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, in Le Contrat social (1762), found the general will a means of establishing reciprocal rights and duties, privileges, and responsibilities as a basis of the state. Similar ideas were used as a justification for both the American and the French revolutions in the 18th cent. Thomas Jefferson held that the preservation of certain natural rights was an essential part of the social contract, and that "consent of the governed" was fundamental to any exercise of governmental power. Although historically important, the theory as a basis of society and the state has generally been discarded by modern social and political scientists.
See E. Barker, Social Contract (1948, repr. 1962); J. W. Gough, The Social Contract (2d ed. 1957); A. Cobban, Rousseau and the Modern State (2d ed. 1964); L. G. Crocker, Rousseau's Social Contract (1968); P. J. Mccormick, Social Contract and Political Obligation (1987).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.