Saturday, October 24, 2009
Commemorating John Locke's Second Treatise on Civil Government
As has already been said, the American Revolution cannot be understood without a grounding in the English Revolution. To this, I will add that the American Declaration of Independence cannot be understood without a grounding in the writings of John Locke. Locke's was the voice that justified the English Revolution by basing government on a contract theory; because the Stuart monarchy had violated its contractual obligations, the people of England were permitted to dissolve the contract and institute a new government.
In this entry, I will explore the historical context of Locke's work, offer a brief synopsis of his Second Treatise of Government, and explore the extent to which the Treatise impacted the American founders, the Declaration of Independence, and the American Revolution.
A. Historical Context
The tumultuous events of the English Revolution would change history forever. The kings of the first half of the seventeenth century claimed to hold absolute power and divine appointment to exercise their office. This power would often be exercised arbitrarily and to the detriment of their subjects, who longed for accountability under law. The breaking point came in 1640, when King Charles I brought four hundred to the House of Commons to arrest its five leading members, who he accused of plotting to establish the Presbyterian Church in Scotland. Civil War broke out.
After nearly a decade of bloodshed and violence, Charles was defeated militarily and was tried for “Treason and High Misdemeanours” in 1649 by Parliament. The trial would lead to his execution, the first of a king in England.
Another uneasy decade followed where the English monarchy was replaced by a commonwealth, lead by Oliver Cromwell and later his son, Richard. Yet the former’s rule descended in a dictatorship and the latter’s rule was largely incompetent. Instability grew, and change was needed. Under these conditions, General Monck, commander of troops in Scotland, believing the only way to restore order was to restore the Monarchy, brought the formerly purged members of Parliament back to their seats. The new Parliament set up a Council of State that invited Charles II, son of the executed Charles I, to the reestablished throne under the House of Stuart. The period from 1660 to 1688, when the House of Stuart was reinstituted under Charles II and later under his brother James II, was known as the Restoration.
Unrest continued under Charles II, and when his brother, James II, succeeded him, Catholics and Dissenters under the Declaration of Indulgence were relieved from the penal statutes that were passed against them. Catholics were appointed throughout England to posts formerly reserved to Protestants. Tensions naturally grew as many read the Declaration of Indulgence as establishing Catholicism in Protestant England. This, coupled with the fact that James II’s Catholic wife unexpectedly gave birth to a son (thus transferring succession of the throne to a Catholic), sparked a revolution among Protestants.
As a result of these events, Parliament created a new royal dynasty under its control and laid down the conditions of its reign. A group of Whigs and Tories of a parliament dissolved by James thereafter invited William III (William of Orange, France) and his wife Mary (James’ daughter) to take the throne and thus assure a Protestant succession. William mobilized an army of fifteen thousand troops and three hundred vessels. While shedding relatively little bloodshed, William ascended to the throne of England in 1689 in what was known as the “Glorious Revolution.”
William and Mary adopted and read before both Houses the Declaration of Rights and Liberties of the Subject, which would in 1689 be enacted as a statute entitled the “Bill of Rights.” The English Bill of Rights confirmed William and Mary’s rule, by resolving that “William and Mary, prince and princess of Orange, be and be declared king and queen of England.” The Bill of Rights echoed many of the elements of the Petition of Right in 1628 under King Charles, such as the prohibition of taxation without representation and of standing armies in times of peace. The list of enumerated rights sets limitations on royal power and foreshadows the American Bill of Rights. It represents a monarchy under law that contrasts the rule of James and Charles before the Revolution, who considered no authority in England to be above their wills.
B. Locke’s Writings
The English scholar John Locke was the voice behind this Glorious Revolution. Just as John Milton justified the execution of Charles in his The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649), so would John Locke in his treatises justify the Glorious Revolution. In 1689, Locke returned to England from exile in the Netherlands and published works that offered the intellectual and philosophical justification behind the Revolution. He argued for government based on the consent of the governed that respected natural rights.
In his Two Treatises of Civil Government, first published in December of 1689, and his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, published in the same year, Locke argued that political sovereignty lays not in the hands of the king, but in the hands of the people, and that at any time, the people may withdraw the power that they have delegated to the legislature. His Two Treatises is comprised first of The False Principles and Foundation of Sir Robert Filmer, and His Followers and second of An Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent, and End of Civil-Government.
2. The Second Treatise of Government
The Second Treatise of Government, like the first, seeks to undermine the arguments of Sir Robert Filmer, an English political theorist best known for his work Patriarcha, a defense of the divine right of kings. Locke’s Second Treatise also works to undermine the ideas presented in Hobbes’ Leviathan by arguing that government is agreed upon by the free contract and that rulers hold their power through the free consent of the people. When the free consent of the people in establishing government is violated, the people may revoke this consent and overthrow the government.
Chapter 1. Of Political Power
Locke opens his treatise by arguing against Filmer’s theory of the divine right of sovereignty and concludes his first chapter by defining the purpose and scope of political power: “Political power, then, I take to be a right of making laws, with penalties of death, and consequently all less penalties for the regulating and preserving of property, and of employing the force of the community in the execution of such laws, and in the defence of the commonwealth from foreign injury, and all this only for the public good” (¶ 3).
Chapter 2. Of the State of Nature
Locke defines the state of nature as a state “of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of Nature, without asking leave or depending upon the will of any other man” (¶ 4). In this state of equality among men, all may do as they please. All remain in this state until they decide to
Chapter 3. Of the State of War
The state of war is “a state of enmity and destruction” (¶ 16) that arises whenever one member, in the state of nature where all are equal, attempts to put another “into his absolute power” (¶17). Thus, while the state of nature is comprised of “[m]en living together according to reason without a common superior on earth, with authority to judge between them,” the state of war is “force, or a declared design of force upon the person of another, where there is no common superior on earth to appeal to for relief” (¶ 19). Thus, where there is no common authority to judge among men, they live in a state of nature. When force without right is imposed on a man’s person, a state of war arises, whether or not a common authority judges among men.
Chapter 4. Of Slavery
Man lives in natural liberty when he is “free from any superior power on earth [and from] the will or legislative authority of man,” but is governed only by the law of nature (¶21). Liberty in society, in contrast, arises when man lives “under no other legislative power but that established by consent in the commonwealth, nor under the dominion of any will, or restraint of any law, but what that legislative shall enact according to the trust put in it” (¶ 21). Like Hobbes, Locke argues that the right to be free from absolute, arbitrary power is so absolute that it cannot be relinquished (¶ 22). Because one’s life is inalienable, man “cannot by compact or his own consent enslave himself to any one” (¶ 22). Slavery is thus the state of war extended “between a lawful conqueror and a captive” (¶ 23).
Chapter 5. Of Property
Locke asserts that the earth has been given to every man “in common” (¶ 24). However, “[t]he ‘labour’ of his body and the ‘work’ of his hands, we may say, are properly his” (¶ 26). Private property thus only arises when one exerts himself to appropriate some good; “He that is nourished by the acorns he picked up under an oak, or the apples he gathered from the trees in the wood, has certainly appropriated them to himself” (¶ 27). However, when one acquires more than he can consume, he has “offended against the common law of Nature,” for he has “invaded his neighbour′s share, for he had no right farther than his use called for any of them” (¶ 37). However, the invention of money can solve this problem by allowing one with excess to trade his goods before their useful lifespan is terminated.
Chapters 6 and 7. Of Paternal Power and Political or Civil Society
Although all men are created equally, “Age or virtue may give men a just precedency” (¶ 54). For this reason, children are under their parents’ power until they are old enough to function independently. However, they remain throughout their lives under a political power that passes laws and executes them in order to protect their property and “punish the offences of all those of that society,” thus establishing a political society where “every one of the members hath quitted this natural power, resigned it up into the hands of the community in all cases that exclude him not from appealing for protection to the law established by it” (¶ 87). Absolute monarchies violate this system and are thus “inconsistent with civil society” (¶ 90), for the monarch himself is considered to be the law and is thus neither bound by it nor punished for its violation.
Chapter 8. Of the Beginning of Political Societies
When men agree to establish one community or government, they “make one body politic, wherein the majority have a right to act and conclude the rest” (¶ 95). These body politics are consensual in their origins, though they may later evolve into despotic regimes.
Chapter 9. Of the Ends of Political Society and Government
Society and government arise when men living in a state of nature unite into a commonwealth and put themselves under a government for “the preservation of their property” (¶ 124), which Locke defines as their “lives, liberties and estates” (¶ 123). Locke goes as far as even writing that “The great and chief end, therefore, of men uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property; to which in the state of Nature there are many things wanting” (¶ 124). Thus, while man previously lived in a state of nature where he could undertake any action not prohibited by the law of nature, in new society, through his free will, he voluntarily restricts this freedom “to do whatsoever he thinks fit for the preservation of himself and others within the permission of the law of Nature” (¶ 128). Relinquishing his “equality, liberty, and executive power” (¶ 131), he agrees to submit to the positive law enacted in the political society and also gives up his “the power of punishing” evil doers, a power which is transferred to the political society for the preservation of the public good.
Chapters 18 and 19. Of Tyranny and the Dissolution of Government
It is in chapters 18 and 19 the arguments of Locke that have inspired the American founders are presented in their full force. Locke begins by defining tyranny as “the exercise of power beyond right … not for the good of those who are under it, but for his own private, separate advantage,” when the governor’s actions “are not directed to the preservation of the properties of his people, but the satisfaction of his own ambition, revenge, covetousness, or any other irregular passion” (¶ 199).
Tyrannical acts do necessarily give rise to the right of the subjects of a political society to resist the authority, whenever the authority “exceeds the power given him by the law, and makes use of the force he has under his command to compass that upon the subject which the law allows not.” When such a case arises, the authority ceases to be a magistrate, and “acting without authority may be opposed, as any other man who by force invades the right of another” (¶ 202). However, this does not mean that any member of the political society may oppose the authority for every slight occasion or unlawful exercise of power, for this would “unhinge and overturn all polities, and instead of government and order, leave nothing but anarchy and confusion” (¶ 203). Locke goes on to enumerate specific situations in which opposition to authority is not justified. For example, “where the injured party may be relieved and his damages repaired by appeal to the law, there can be no pretence for force, which is only to be used where a man is intercepted from appealing to the law” (¶ 207). This ideas are echoed in the Declaration of Independence,
In chapter 19, Locke moves on to discuss when the opposition to government and the dissolution of the same is justified. He lists several situations that may arise where the dissolution of government and the formation of a new government is proper. This situation arises, for example, when “a single person or prince sets up his own arbitrary will in place of the laws which are the will of the society declared by the legislative” (¶ 214) or when “by the arbitrary power of the prince, the electors or ways of election are altered without the consent and contrary to the common interest of the people” (¶ 216). With respect to the question of “whether the prince or legislative act contrary to [the people’s] trust,” Locke replies: “The people shall be judge” (¶ 240). In the same manner, “If a controversy arise betwixt a prince and some of the people in a matter where the law is silent or doubtful, and the thing be of great consequence, … the proper umpire in such a case should be the body of the people” (¶ 242), for it is ultimately the people who have the best judgment as to whether the government and authority is fulfilling its proper end of securing their rights and interests.
C. Locke’s Impact
1. A Refutation of Hobbes
One of Locke’s goals in writing his Second Treatise was to refute the principles offered in Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, where it is asserted that life in a state of nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Hobbes argues that men submit themselves to the power of a massive and necessary beast, which Hobbes calls the “great Leviathan,” or commonwealth or state, in order to obtain safety and protection. They unite to one another only because they have less fear of the Leviathan than they do of each other. The ruler holds absolute power and stands under no higher law; he may do as he pleases.
Locke, in contrast, argues that life in the state of nature is one of perfect freedom where men live together according to reason. When they come together to establish a political society, they do so to better guarantee those rights naturally guaranteed by the law of nature, which is not a law of absolute freedom, but rather, a law of order. Commonwealths are established by men’s free consent to further their well-being. They may be dissolved when they fail to serve this end. Thus, while Hobbes’s framework leads to a ruler with absolute power who stands under no higher power, the ruler in Locke’s framework is always accountable to the people by whose authority he stands. Naturally, the ideas of Locke would offer the philosophical framework for both the English and American revolutionaries who resisted and overthrew the absolutist monarchies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, respectively.
2. Was Locke Successful?
Locke’s writings were not without controversy. Although some considered his Second Treatise to have successfully refuted Hobbes’ Leviathan, others, such as Hume, rejected Locke’s theories by arguing that men establish governments not through consent, but through conquest. Indeed, much of the history of Europe supports this theory. Until the Glorious Revolution, rulers obtained their power through might and force, not through compacts. This was the case of the countless absolute monarchs of Europe, who acknowledged no law above their own wills.
Locke replies to this by stating that even these monarchies “have been commonly, at least upon occasion, elective” (¶ 106), though they may have later departed from these origins. Yet even if Locke’s writings failed to describe the power structures of monarchies under the old order, they provided the justification for the events of the Glorious Revolution and the monarchies under law that would follow. The Restoration of the monarchy under Charles II was conditioned on the king’s agreement to respect basic liberties that his father denied. The invitation of William of Orange to the English throne was conditioned on the king’s submission to a social compact with the people. He would be bound to respect basic religious liberties and to adhere to the Declaration of Rights and Liberties of the Subject, which would later become the Bill of Rights. Within this framework, Hobbes’s Leviathan of absolute power was replaced by Locke’s political society under mutual consent led by a ruler under law.
In an age where such democratic ideals were so new and rarely practiced, Locke’s writing defied the received traditions and assumed truths about government and human nature. As his writings spread throughout Europe in the eighteenth century, they influenced leaders who ultimately cast off old forms and established democracies in France and beyond.
3. The Philosophical Justification for the American Revolution
Locke’s ideals would ultimately reach the American founders, who frequently discussed his writings and their implications for the political society. The Second Treatise gave an intellectual basis for principles that are at the heart of the contemporary American Republic, such as the fundamental right to private property and the inalienable rights to life and liberty. The parallels between the Treatise and the ideals, language, and principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence are nothing short of remarkable. In the first paragraph of the Declaration, the founders declare the basis for their decision to “dissolve the political bands” which have connected them with England, applying the principles of chapter 19 of Locke’s Treatise. They justify their decision on the “Laws of Nature” that entitle them to a “separate and equal” station with England, a concept that sounds notably like Locke’s state of nature, where all live as equals obeying only the law of nature and enjoying the freedoms guaranteed thereby. The inalienable rights that the founders invoke are those that Locke includes in his definition of property: life and liberty. The compact between the governed and the governors that Locke discusses is described by the founders as government “deriving [its] just powers from the consent of the governed.” The founders further identity the right of people to “alter or to abolish” government and to “institute new Government” when the established powers become destructive of their principal end: to secure men’s rights. Just as Locke in chapter 18 imposes limits on the rights of citizens to resist and oppose their governments, so too do the founders recognize that “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes,” but rather, should be suffered “while evils are sufferable.” However, “when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” This is the enactment of Locke’s chapter 19 enumeration of the specific situations that occasion a dissolution and change of government, such as when the prince by his arbitrary power acts “without the consent and contrary to the common interest of the people” (¶ 216).