Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration. Edited by Ian Shapiro. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003.
John Locke’s book, Second Treatises of Government, is central to understanding the Revolutionary War, the colonist, the founding fathers, and the framing of the Declaration of Independence. Locke raised fundamental issues. He made them universal. They are still relevant today. With ever increasing governmental control over people’s lives, Locke’s political philosophy is paramount to counter the drive towards tyranny. No longer does the culture talk about freedom, but rather how much can the government do for it. To reclaim the meaning of liberty is to rediscover Locke. The liberty-wheel need not be reinvented – it has already been hashed-out, refined, and fought over. Thomas Jefferson considered Locke one of the greatest philosophers of all times. Consequently, this will not be a normal book review. Rather, this paper will give a brief summary of Locke’s important philosophical positions, how they influenced the colonist and the founders, and how they are still relevant today.
According to Locke, natural rights are found in nature. Natural rights are basic: Life, liberty, and property or the pursuit of happiness – Locke used these terms interchangeably. Everyone is born with these rights – in a state of nature. A state of nature has no political structures or legal system. Since men and women are born in this state, they are inherently born equal. Equality, for Locke, simply meant all men and women are born with the same basic rights. He did not mean equality in a Marxist sense or in the modern context. Equality is natural, only because everyone is born free – or freeborn. The difference between Lockean equality and modern equality is that natural rights are automatic, whereas modern equality comes from government. Notice that natural rights precede government. Thus, no government, according to Locke, can take them away. God is the ultimate giver of natural rights.
If, on the other hand, government gives equality or rights – then they can take them away. Simply put, the state becomes all powerful, taking the place of what is found in nature and stealing God’s authority. From this emphasis, governments are founded to protect the people’s natural rights. If government abuses its power, and there is no remedy found, the people have a right to reclaim their natural rights without the consent of government. Without natural right theory there would be no legitimate basis for civil disobedience. The right of conscience will be dictated through and by the state. Nor would there be any basis for a revolution – found in Locke’s book, found in natural rights, and expressed by the founding generation. Long before the American Revolutionary War, the concept of born free or free-born was widespread in the colonies.
For example, in 1766 (a decade before the Revolutionary War) the famous minister, Jonathan Mayhew, preached a message after Parliament repealed the Stamp-Act. Parliament passed a tax (Stamp-Act of 1765) to collect revenue. The tax was to be used for British troops to defend the American frontier. The tax was a tax on all paper used in the colonies, “Ship’s papers, legal documents, licenses, newspapers, other publications, and even playing cards were taxed.” In actuality, the revenue was small, but the colonist viewed this as collecting revenue, rather than regulating commerce. In addition, it was passed without the colonist consent. More importantly, perhaps, they felt it would set a terrible precedent for the future. The Stamp-Act caused such protests in the colonies that it was quickly repealed by Parliament. In Mayhew’s sermon, The Snare Broken, A Thanksgiving-Discourse . . . REPEAL of the Stamp-Act, reveals how deep Lockean principals were ingrained in the mind and hearts of the colonist In pursuance of this plan . . . that we are free-born, never made slaves by the right of conquest . . . so we have a natural right to our own, till we have freely consented to part with it, either in person, or by those whom we have appointed to represent, and to act for us. It shall be granted, that this natural right is declared, affirmed and secured to us, as we are British subjects, by Magna Charta; all acts contrary to which, are said to be ipso facto null and void.” Mayhew’s sermon echoed Locke’s doctrine for the right of people to appeal to higher law, when man-made law tramples on natural rights. And he also stood on the fact they were British subjects and used the Magna Charta to establish their position in liberty.
Locke distinguished between a state of nature and civil society. People are born in a state of nature and with certain basic natural rights. But Locke understood there were serious problems in such a state. He set out to establish the purpose of civil society without jettisoning natural rights. For example, everyone has the right to protect their life and liberty, even putting another to death if that person takes from him or her. Ostensibly, everyone becomes their own police, judge, and executioner. Therefore, mankind is driven into civil society to avoid anarchy. Civil societies sole purpose or, “Chief end in a civil society is the preservation of property,” (136). What makes property private, according to Locke, is labor.
Locke did not limit property to just land or materialism, however, but to anything that a man or a woman does to further their own happiness. Civil society’s laws must reflect mankind’s natural rights – found in nature. In other words, “community comes to be [an] umpire,” (138). If government abuses these rights the people have a right to change it. Samuel Adams, summarized Locke, and concluded, “When men enter society it is by voluntary consent . . .. Every natural right not expressly given up, or from the nature of a social compact necessarily ceded, remains. All positive and civil laws should conform . . . to the law of natural reason and equity.” This brings us to the Declaration of Independence.
A simple word by word comparison and analysis will show how Jefferson borrowed from Locke’s book – Second Treatises of Government – to write the Declaration of Independence. I will use the acronym: DOI, to represent the Declaration of Independence:
A. Locke: “Mankind . . . being all equal and independent . . .. All men by nature are equal.”
B. DOI: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
A. Locke: “From that equal creation they derive inherent and inalienable [Rights].”
B. DOI: “That they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights.”
A. Locke: “Man being born, as has been proved with a Title to perfect freedom, and an uncontrolled enjoyment of all the Rights and privileges of the Law of Nature, equally with any other Man, or number of men in the world, hath by nature a Power, not only to preserve his property, that is, his life, Liberty and estate, against the Injuries and Attempts of other Men; but to judge of, and punish the breaches of that Law in others.”
B. DOI: “That among these are life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
A. Locke: “Man . . . seeks . . . to joyn in society with others . . . to unite for the mutual Preservation of their lives, Liberties, and Estates.”
B. DOI: “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
These are just a few examples of how Locke’s writings were used in the making of the Declaration of Independence. In fact, the Declaration of Independence is, in actuality, an abridged version of Locke’s Second Treatises of Government. Indeed, Locke’s political philosophy was a major factor in the ideological foundations of the American Revolution.
Consequently, if a government or any branch of a government violates natural rights, it is government that is in rebellion against the people. Thus, the people have the right to resist. It is only the legislature (the people’s representatives) that have the authority to make laws. Any other branch of government, the executive, the courts, or the bureaucracy that makes laws – are illegitimate laws – especially if the laws violate natural rights. Why? Because consent of the people is key. An un-elected court system, or any other branch of government that does not have the authority to make laws – thwarts the will of the people. It is virtually impossible to impeach a sitting judge with tenure, or a monarchy or a sitting president or to fire a bureaucracy. On the other hand, the people’s representatives (congress) can be easier voted in and out of office. Even the Framers of the Constitution were influenced by Lockean theory. The first words in the preamble established the new government in Lockean fashion, “WE THE PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES,” – this is consent of the people. The people’s representatives constructed it, but it was the people who ratified it.
The Declaration of Independence outlines a long list of abuses done by the King of England. Remarkably, many of these same abuses are found in Locke’s book, Second Treatises of Government. The founders and the founding generation understood their history. They knew Locke. And they understood what he wrote. Historian Bernard Bailyn in his book, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, succinctly reveals that the war was an ideological war – perhaps the first of its kind in all of human history. The colonist fought over Lockean theory of Natural Rights in a civil society. Locke, of course, was not the only philosopher who influenced the colonist – Baron Puffendorf, Hugo Grotius, Richard Hooker, and William Blackstone – are examples of other major influencers – but his works laid the foundation for them to think in another paradigm. They believed that their God-given natural rights were being abused and was at risk of being taken away. The colonist found in Locke the political foundations to fight a just war – to protect liberty for themselves and for future generations.
In conclusion, Locke’s book Second Treatises of Government is riveting and relevant for today. By addressing ideas framed around the consent of the people, he made these concepts universal. In order to understand the colonist and the founders, it is essential to understand Locke’s political theories. The Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution reflect Locke’s political philosophy as well. He was, in my opinion, one of the virtual founders of the United States. Subsequently, as stated before, the Declaration of Independence is an abridged version of Locke’s Second Treatises of Government. Just a side note here, Locke was also a devote Christian. There are two major sources Locke relied upon in writing his Second Treaties of Government: Richard Hooker and the Bible. Hooker was an Anglican priest and an important theologian. Scholars have determined “Locke invoked the Bible over 1,500 times,” in his book. What is important about this point is that today’s secularist claim the United States Constitution is a secular document, mainly because it does not mention Christ. But this is a weak argument. As we have seen Locke’s strong influence on the founders – we can find Locke’s finger prints all over the Constitution. Simply put, the United States Constitution’s origins are from a Judeo-Christian world view – not a secular humanistic worldview.
Locke is still relevant today. America has departed from its roots. Lockean natural right theory has given way to a Hobbesian political system and culture. Hobbes believed in the absolute authority of the state. A Hobbesian political theory can take the shape of any type of authoritarian or totalitarian system: Absolute monarch, Fascism, Communism – as in the United States, judicial supremacy. Beginning in the early twentieth century progressives began to chip away at America’s foundation. They believed the Constitution was out of date. They set about to weaken it. Progressives and others have been busy for a better part of hundred years. They truncated, stole, and replaced America’s rich foundations – building something foreign in its place. Locke is not even known by most students today, nor his importance in American history.
The term progressive (in today’s context) is an oxymoron. Rather, progressivism is a return back to some form of an all-powerful state. Subsequently, if rights come from the state – and not from God – then the state can take them away. Thus, the consent of the governed is violated and that government is in rebellion. To that end, any law that originates from any other place than the people’s representatives, placing the people in a state of war, as what is occurring presently. For Locke, the founders, and founding generation – such a government is illegitimate – hence, the Revolutionary War.
Adams, Samuel. “The Rights of the Colonist as Men.” In The Constitution of the United States of America and Selected Writings of the Founding Fathers. New York: Barnes and Nobles, 2012.
Bailyn, Bernard. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. 2nd ed. Cambridge, MS: Belknap Press, 1992.
Barton, David. The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed about Thomas Jefferson. Nashville: TN, 2012.
Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government and a Letter Concerning Toleration. Editor Ian Shapiro. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003.
Mayhew, Jonathan. “The Snare Broken, A Thanksgiving-Discourse . . . REPEAL of the Stamp- Act.” In Political Sermons of the American Founding Era 1730-1805. Vol. 1. Edited by Ellis Sandoz. 2nd Ed. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1998. Kindle.
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. “A Summary of the 1765 Stamp-Act.” Accessed November 2, 2015. http://www.history.org/history/teaching/tchcrsta.cfm.