This paper analyzes the historical significance of John Locke’s political philosophy, specifically regarding the American Revolution. The historical analysis of absolutism, natural rights, and political philosophy is vital to understanding the modern context of these concepts and their reflections in contemporary governments.
Perhaps even more than technological innovation or geographic discovery, it is political enlightenment that brought rise to modern society. Although the seventeenth century witnessed unprecedented development in the American colonies, these advances would have been in vain if not for the innovative moral and political doctrines they adopted. The United States credits its founding documents to the ideas of English philosopher John Locke, who rejected the absolutist philosophy of his day and developed the concepts of natural rights and liberalism. This paper analyzes John Locke’s political philosophy and the historical significance of his work, specifically regarding the American Revolution. The historical analysis of absolutism, natural rights, and political philosophy is vital to understanding the modern context of these concepts and their reflections in contemporary governments.
John Locke reached intellectual maturity in a society governed by absolute monarchs. All power is consolidated to a single individual in an absolute monarchy, as displayed by the Hapsburgs of Spain, the Bourdons of France, and the Romanoffs of Russia. Absolutism has many positives, including the ability of long-term planning and quick decision-making. Thomas Hobbes explored these benefits in Leviathan (1651), which eloquently outlined humanity’s need for an authoritarian government to ensure the safety of citizens. However, the benefits of security and stability come at the cost of democracy and often result in corruption. England witnessed these dangers before Locke’s birth throughout the reign of James VI and I (r. 1603-1625). Like many absolutist rulers, James VI and I declared a divine right to the throne, meaning his political legitimacy derives from God. James VI and I used this religious status to justify the abolition of Parliament in 1621, thereby consolidating power to himself until his death in 1625 – seven years before the birth of John Locke.
Charles I (r. 1625-1649) ruled England in a similar absolutist philosophy to his predecessor at the time of Locke’s birth. After responding to Parliament’s demand for reform with violence, Charlies I’s absolutism ignited the English Civil War when Locke was ten years old. The bloody conflict deeply resonated with Locke, as the cheers of Charles I’s beheading echoed in his school library. Even after the English Civil War, absolutist rulers continued to govern England throughout the life of John Locke. More recently, Parliament deposed absolutist ruler James II in the 1688 Glorious Revolution only one year before the publication of Locke’s seminal work, The Two Treatises of Government (1689). The English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution exemplify the widespread political ideas of Locke’s time: obedience to an absolutist government whose legitimacy derives from God. Locke spent his adult career in political philosophy opposing these ideas and advocating for the liberal doctrine of constitutionalism.
Although Locke’s political philosophy developed throughout multiple publications, no text summarizes his ideas more eloquently and famously than his Two Treatises of Government (1689). Widely considered Locke’s flagship work, the Two Treatises is an inquiry into the sources and limits of political relationships. Similar to Hobbes, Locke began his work by deliberating humanity’s state of nature to define the boundaries of the political. He sought to identify the elements of modern life that are possible without civil laws or states. Unlike Hobbes, Locke determined that a state of nature would be relatively peaceful because humanity is inherently rational. This philosophical difference on human nature withholds profound consequences on both philosopher’s perception of rights and ethical governance. Rather than perceiving a state of nature as perpetual warfare, Locke defined it as a state of perfect freedom, equality, and liberty. Locke continued Chapter II of the Second Treatise of Government by describing the “law of nature,” which humanity defines as the preservation of life, liberty, and property by the uniquely human capacity of reason. This interpretation of human nature led Locke to disagree with Hobbes’ assertion that the totalitarian power of kings is justified by their ability to keep order to the chaos that would supposedly reign in the state of nature.
On the contrary, Locke believed that each individual possesses natural rights that government cannot define or relinquish in exchange for protection. In the Two Treatises of Government, Locke proclaimed that each individual is naturally born free with the right to govern their lives within the bounds of natural law freely. These rights include life, liberty, and property. The purpose of legitimate government is to preserve these rights and prosecute those who violate the rights of others. In contrast to the divine right of kings, the Two Treatises declared that the only source of legitimate political authority is free consent of the governed. Therefore, governments are only justified in their scope of securing citizens’ natural rights to life, liberty, health, and estate. Governments become illegitimate when they fail their essential duties or operate beyond the limits on political authority. In the Second Treatise of Government, Locke proclaimed that violent resistance to government is justified in the face of illegitimate government. Almost ninety years after the famous publication, these ideas were used to justify a colonial rebellion against the British Empire:
“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 affect their Safety and Happiness.” (Thomas Jefferson, 1776)
Strikingly similar to John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, the American Declaration of Independence begins by presenting the concept of natural rights. Using similar language to Locke, Jefferson identified these rights as inalienable and God-given. He then elaborated on this concept by describing the duty of government to preserve and enforce, rather than define, these rights. Before listing how King George III violated the colonists’ natural rights, the Declaration again echoed the ideas of John Locke by proclaiming the rights of subjects to rebel against an illegitimate government. Locke described the governed as the only source of political legitimacy. The Declaration on Independence was a statement that the colonists did not give consent to British rule and were justified to violent revolt.
As the United States adopted a new Constitution, its government continued to reflect the ideas of John Locke through its various mechanisms to distribute power. Many officials in the current US government are either elected or appointed by elected officials, reflecting Locke’s belief that political legitimacy derives from the will of the governed. The separation of powers featured in the United States government also reflects Locke’s liberal philosophy. To avoid the consolidation of power, the United States government is divided by the local, state, and national levels. Furthermore, the federal government is fragmented into the executive, legislature, and judicial branches with interconnecting checks and balances. This structure, inspired by Locke and Montesquieu, intends to prevent the consolidation of power conducted under absolutist regimes such as Charlies I. The American government also functions under the Bill of Rights, alongside the other declarations of natural rights added to the Constitution. These natural rights include the ability for an armed citizenry to speak out against their government and revolt if it becomes illegitimate. Like the American Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights also reflect the ideas expressed in John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government.
John Locke was a dissenting voice in a world dictated by absolute monarchs. His writings revolutionized the Western perception of rights and political legitimacy by combating both the concept of divine right and the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. In contrast to all that came before, Locke declared that humans possess natural rights and that the popular consent of the governed is the only source of political legitimacy. From the English Civil War to the Glorious Revolution, Locke witnessed the brutality of authoritarianism and deliberated the flaws of contemporary political thought. The solutions which Locke theorized deeply influenced the authors of the United States Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights as they crafted a nation in the image of Lockean liberalism. The impacts of the American revolution are profound and felt throughout the globe for centuries, making John Locke’s contributions to moral and political philosophy among the most vital texts in human history.
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