The phrase “state of nature” is common to Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. They differ in their view of man in such a state. In Locke’s case, the phrase shouldn’t be seen as synonymous with the primate state as it is with Hobbes and Rousseau. For Locke, it has more to do with what I call “the situation.” Two individuals (or groups of people) that have no governing institution in common are in a state of nature. Canada and the United States are currently in a “state of nature” since there is no common government that jointly rules over both regions. The Founding Fathers used the phrase in this sense when they referred to independence as creating a “state of nature” between Britain and America.
The “state of nature” can be peaceful, as it has been between Canada and the United States for centuries. It can also be a rights-respecting regime as our rights are just as secure in both countries. While Locke holds that rights are valid by our nature, he clearly has no illusions that they are secured in a primitive state. He sees the creation of a government as important to protecting natural rights. Jefferson will echo his thoughts when he writes “to secure these rights governments is instituted among men.”
Rousseau sees the primitive state as idyllic and civilization as corrupting. Hobbes sees the primitive state as inherently brutal requiring men to enter civilization by giving their government a blank-check. Locke sees no need to surrender one's fundamental rights in order to benefit from civilization. One surrenders the enforcement function to the government.
Locke's view of man and morality shows many influences. There is a passage in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding that I find interesting and perhaps revealing:
That men should keep their compacts is certainly a great and undeniable rule in morality. But yet, if a Christian, who has the view of happiness and misery in another life, be asked why a man must keep his word, he will give this as a reason:- Because God, who has the power of eternal life and death, requires it of us. But if a Hobbist be asked why? he will answer:- Because the public requires it, and the Leviathan will punish you if you do not. And if one of the old philosophers had been asked, he would have answered:- Because it was dishonest, below the dignity of a man, and opposite to virtue, the highest perfection of human nature, to do otherwise.
Which view is Locke’s? Further reading of the Essay confirms it is clearly the Christian view as he sees the rewards in the next life as important to the hedonic calculus that makes men moral. Which view inspired the Founding Fathers?