John Locke and His Influence on American History
Rare is the westerner who has not heard the name of John Locke. To most, he is known as a seminal philosopher and political thinker of the Age of Enlightenment. However, few laypersons can fathom the impact that Locke’s ideas had on American revolutionaries. However, a close perusal of historical documents reveals that Locke’s reflections of liberal theory and classical republicanism served as guidelines for American revolutionaries, including the founding fathers. This short research paper will begin with the discussion of John Locke’s biography, focusing on the people that influenced his worldview. After this, the paper will explore Locke’s own philosophy and ideas, focusing on his political views. Finally, the paper will segue into a discussion of Locke’s influence on the American Revolution. Overall, the preliminary findings suggest that John Locke’s comprehensive worldview had a clear impact on the American Revolution. The thesis statement is creative, but nonetheless clear: if John Locke had lived long enough to witness the independent American state, he would have certainly approved of the philosophy underlying is constitution and political processes.
John Locke was born in 1632 into the Puritan family of a celebrated lawyer with the same name and his wife Agnes Locke, nee Keene. At the time, Britain was spearheaded by Charles I. Jeffreys (1967) argues that, while “the profession of lawyer was not much respected” during the reign of Charles I, Locke’s family had “an established social position”. The reason for this is that Locke’s father, in addition to being a deft lawyer, also served in the army of Cromwell during the English Civil War. The senior Locke was not remiss to curry a favor with his influential brothers-in-arms, asking them to make a reference for his 15-year-old son. Ultimately, it was due to Alexander Popham’s references and recommendations that John Locke matriculated in the Westminster School in London in 1947.
Graduating from the Westminster School with what would be now called a cum laude diploma, Locke decided to continue his dalliance with education. In 1952, he entered the Christ Church –the constituent unit of the prestigious Oxford University. Proceeding along the now familiar learning course, he received his bachelor’s degree in 1956 and his master’s degree two years later. In addition to philosophy and political thinking, Locke took interest in medicine during his Oxford years. In fact, he developed such a strong predilection for medicine that he decided to return to this field of studies nearly two decades later. In 1675, Locke obtained a bachelor’s degree in medicine. Hirschmann and McClure further explain that Locke chose not to proceed with his medical training “because of his own poor health”.
One of the reasons why Locke failed to make medicine his main vocation in life and why he interrupted his studies of philosophy after obtaining a master’s degree in 1958 was because of the series of serendipities that defined his future career. One such serendipity was Locke’s acquaintanceship with Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Earl of Shaftesbury and the father of the Whig party, in 1666, when the earl came to Oxford for treatment. Locke propelled himself from the office of Cooper’s personal secretary in 1667 to the standing of his most stout aide in 1672 by sheer ability. In a sense, Locke was steeped in parliamentarism from the early years by virtue of influential connections through his father and his patrons like Alexander Popham.
Barring his forays into medicine, Locke dedicated the rest of his productive life to politics and philosophy and to political philosophy. His rising social status was emphasized by his admission into the Royal Society in 1668. Throughout the 1670s, Locke climbed the ladder of success, assuming a variety of influential political offices in England. It is important, however, that his success was largely contingent on the success of Anthony Ashley Cooper. In the early 1980s, as Cooper fled England for the safety of the Netherlands, John Locked followed his mentor. He would not return to England until the Glorious Revolution of 1688 brought William and Mary to the throne. In the 1690s, Locke held several offices in Britain, but focused mostly on his philosophical output.
John Locke succumbed to severe asthma at the age of 72 years, in 1704, having already become a towering figure in English history by this time.
To say that that John Locke dragged himself up from obscurity by his own bootstraps would be folly. To say that John Locke was an ignoramus who relied on the influence of his friends and acquaintances to achieve success would also ignore the truth. The reality was that Locke availed himself of the connections he made, using them as a vehicle for harnessing his own potential and translating it into fruitful political career and extensive literary oeuvre.
The individuals who influenced Locke’s worldview could be divided, if somewhat negligently, into two categories: political and philosophical influences. The first category included such figures as Alexander Popham and Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Earl of Shaftesbury. They both were Locke’s patrons at different points of his life. Yet, whereas the influence of Popham on Locke was very limited, that of Shaftesbury was dramatic and stayed with Locke until his death in 1704. Since they were introduced to each other in 1667, Locke and Cooper became good friends and partners. The two of them co-authored the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina 1669. Ascending to the post of Lord Chancellor in 1672, Shaftesbury urged Locke to enter politics as well, which he did. Importantly, the political ideas of the experienced politician continued to exert influence over John Locke even after he fell from grace in 1675. For example, it is generally believed that Shaftesbury urged Lock to write one of his most famous and prodigiously argumentative books – Two Treatises of Government. Needless to say that the arguments against absolute monarchy that Locke outlines in the book mirrored those of Shaftesbury.
The second category of Locke’s influences included individuals who influenced Locke’s philosophical beliefs. Locke ostensibly took interest in the works of Aristotle, Avicenna, Plato and Hobbes. Yet, in university, the ideas of Rene Descartes and other contemporary philosophers impressed Locke more than what he saw as ossified treatises of the earlier philosophers taught in school. Unsurprisingly, instead of perusing the works from the prescribed curriculum, Locke chose to familiarize himself with the iconoclastic ideas of his contemporaries. Like Descartes, Locke was a metaphysical dualist, meaning that he conceived the world as consisting of the two diametrically opposed kinds, namely matter and mind. Thomas Sydenham, who left an indelible mark on Locke’s philosophical convictions, worked together with Locke on medical projects. Additionally, Sydenham’s perspective on natural theology determined Locke’s own religious views.
Despite the all-pervading influences of Descartes, Sydenham and other luminaries of the time, Locke was not afraid to take a stance that would differ from those of his mentors. Locke’s gnosiological views diverged from those of Descartes, for example. Whereas Descartes believed that knowledge was to be gained by pure reason, Locked contested that knowledge came through the senses.
Locke personally knew most people who influenced his views. In addition to all those mentioned above, Locke hobnobbed and treated with great veneration other members of the Royal Society, including Newton and Boyle. From Boyle, for example, he learnt the basics of atomism and adopted the language of secondary and primary qualities. Similarly, Locke used the ideas he adopted from Newton’s discoveries and Bacon’s treatises.
Locke’s Philosophy and Ideas
As reiterated earlier in the text, Locke took interest in a bewildering array of issues. Unsurprisingly, his output contains reflections on various topics. For the sake of brevity, this section will review only his political philosophy. At the time John Locke was born, the parliamentarian process in England was at its heyday. Established sometime in the 11th century, the parliament gradually took over the powers of the monarch. This takeover of powers culminated with the decapitation of Charles I in 1649. Locke was 17 at the time. Unsurprisingly, the onslaught of parliamentarism defined his political philosophy.
Locke’s political ideas are enshrined in his two major works: Two Treatises of Government and An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Locke’s most important work in political philosophy, Two Treatises of Government, is essentially a justification of the 1688 Glorious Revolution, in which a union of English parliamentarians toppled King James II. In the book, Locke relies heavily on his religious views to back up the arguments he raises. The entire book proceeds from the assumption that human beings are but God’s servants on the earth and have to obey his laws. From the perspective of Locke, God endowed people with sufficient faculties of the mind to fathom the existence of God and to understand his laws. Yet, despite Locke’s deep religious convictions, he also permeated his discussion in Two Treaties of Government with references to natural law. To Locke, natural law is equal in its strength to the law of God. Likewise, while Locke’s piousness was undeniable, he inveighed against the dogmas and excesses of the Catholic Church, such as papal infallibility – essentially, the assumption that popes are always right and cannot ever be wrong.
In the second treatise of his magna opus, John Locke offers the following definition of political power:
[It is] 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 community, in the execution of such laws and in the defense of the commonwealth from foreign inquiry; and all this only for the public good.
Locke’s definition of political power was quite revolutionary for those times. He saw political power as a morally sanctioned right to make laws and enforce them for the good of the public. In contrast to Filmer, whose ideas Locke demolishes in his treatises, he denies the existence of a natural hierarchy among humans. Quite the contrary, Locke regards humans as being inherently free, subject only to the will of God. In this context, Locke adds that humans are obliged to comply with the law of nature and punish the offenders of this law. To do so, however, Locke exhorts humans to create a legitimate government that would be responsible for the enforcement of the law of nature. This statement is central to Locke’s conception of the social contract. In contrast to Hobbes, Locke sees the existence of a civil government established by common consent as a sufficient precondition for compelling the citizens “to risk death” in defending their state in war. Also, unlike Hobbes, Locke does not “make allowances for those who refuse to fight because of natural timorousness”.
Speaking on the organization of government, Locke opined that the existence of legitimate legislative bodies was of paramount importance for the successful operation of a society. Even so, he further noted that legislative bodies did not have a moral right to take actions or adopt edicts that would contravene the law of nature. To the boot of that all, Locked was among the first to advocate the division of state power into legislative, judicial and executive. Locke argued that the three branches should use their authority in the same manner in regards of all citizens, regardless of their differences. Finally, Locke vehemently promoted the right of people to legitimately dislodge or – should this option be unavailable – forcefully overthrow ineffective authorities through revolution.
Locke and America
Apparently, Locke was an influential political philosopher. His nimble mind backed up by several degrees from Oxford made Locke an ideal consultant for the Earl of Shaftesbury. The two of them drafted the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina in 1669. Prominent French writer Voltaire lauded the document and Locke’s role in its drafting: “Cast your eyes over the other hemisphere, behold Carolina, of which the wise Locke was the legislator”. Voltaire, for one, was mesmerized by Locke’s advocacy of religious tolerance, as evinced from the document. Yet, the critics pointed to the express approval of slavery in the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina and to “the absolute powers of life and death of slave-holders”, thereby providing evidence for Locke’s anti-democratic views. In fact, Locke was simply a secretary to the Lords Proprietors of Carolina at the time and could not dictate to them.
It was only after the publication of Two Treatises of Government in 1688 that Locke’s political ideas began to resonate. Immediately after the publication of the book, Locke’s ideas found an echo in the wider British society. His refutation of Robert Filmer’s defense of the theory of divine right of kings, for example, gained significant traction in Great Britain.
Locke’s famous expression of liberalism resonated in other parts of the world as well. Nearly a century after it was formulated, this expression ensured Locke a significantly better reputation that his involvement in the drafting of the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina. Locke’s ideas of liberalism were instrumental in both inspiring the 1776 American Revolution and in composing the US Declaration of Independence. Indeed, in staging the revolution, American citizens proceeded from Locke’s admonition that people should revolt in case the government fails to protect their natural rights.
The natural rights that John Locke so often talks about are enshrined in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain undeniable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. In this context, “undeniable” is clearly synonymous with “natural”. The Declaration of Independence contains other parallels to Locke’s philosophy, including the idea that governments derive their “just powers from the consent of the governed”. Likewise, the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights are also replete with references to Locke’s political philosophy. For example, Locke’s ideas about the responsibility of civil society to protect property are enshrined in the Bill of Rights – that is, the first 10 amendments to the US Constitution. Likewise, the Bill of Rights promoted the right to freedom of the press, the right to freedom of religion, the right to a free trial, etc. The great overlap of Locke’s ideas with the tenets of America’s national charter and amendments to it is not surprising. Indeed, as Amar and Adams argue, the founding fathers, including Washington, Jefferson and Adams, “intended nothing less than to incorporate into their new governments the laws and liberties of Englishmen”. They all were influenced by the political philosophy of one Englishman – John Locke.
This paper has shown that the direction of John Locke’s political philosophy was determined largely by the ethos of the time. Born in the early 17th century, Locke grew up to behold the culmination of parliamentarism in Britain. He lived through the reign of King Charles I, the Interregnum period, and the Restoration of the English Monarchy, all of which were closely interwoven with and affected by the rise of parliamentarism in the nation. Born into a relative influential family, Locke developed a deep interest for these processes and used his father’s connections to enter the academe. In university, Locke was influenced by the works of his contemporaries like Descartes and Sydenham more than he was influenced by the works of classical philosophers. Shortly after his graduation, Locke scraped an acquaintance with Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Earl of Shaftesbury, who also greatly impacted Locke’s political views. Imbuing his political ideas with religious undertones but equaling the law of God to the natural law, Locke opposed the absolutism of monarchs and called for the division of state authority into legislative, judicial and executive branches. He also adhered to the ideas of equality among humans as one of the central tenets of state organization. Many of these and other ideas served as an inspiration for the 1776 Declaration of Independence in the US and ultimately found their way into the US Constitution.