America and John Locke


By Andre Lopes Massa

The Enlightenment was an age of new thinking that swept through Europe. After the work of men such as Nicolaus Copernicus, Rene Descartes, Sir Francis Bacon, and, most importantly, Sir Isaac Newton had destroyed much of the religious dogma about the functioning of the physical world and gave new scientific insight to the people of Europe through the introduction of new methods of thinking such as deduction and the scientific method during the 17th century after the Thirty Years War had caused the people of Europe to begin to question the Catholic Church and the religious order in general after Martin Luther had begun to question the Catholic Church after nailing his 97 theses to a Church in Wittenberg, Germany over a century earlier. The Scientific Revolution’s emphasis on rationality and reason paved the way for the core ideas of the Enlightenment to develop. It was in the salons of France that the core ideas of the Enlightenment began to take off as philosophes such as Voltaire began to think of a world where man was a rational being, free to control his own destiny, which was quite a contrast from the from the frame of mind adopted during the feudal era in Europe where a person was only considered a human being if they had a title of nobility in front of their names, or else they were considered the property of their lord and the land that they were bound to serve. Voltaire’s introduction of Deism, the belief that God did create the world but left it to run on it’s own like a perfectly built clock, paved the way for rational men to question the established order and to use rationality to bring about progress and improvement not to just one’s individual life, but to the community as a whole through the idea of separation of Church and state. With religious dogma out of the way and the world and the world now open to rational explanation, the conditions were right for Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu to imagine the best form of government to allow men to express their individuality the best while still maintaining order in society. What came about in Montesqieu’s The Spirit of the Laws was a republic whose powers would be divided into three branches, the executive branch, the judicial branch, and the legislative branch, which would prove to be a major influence of the framework of our government developed by the Founding Fathers. While it may have been the core ideas of the Enlightenment and Montesqieu’s work in particular that gave us the framework for the structure of our government, it was John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government that provided us with the moral principles upon which our three branched Republic should function on and the moral impetus to start the American Revolution, all of which can be seen in our Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

John Locke had written the Second Treatise of Government in 1690, years before the peak of the Enlightenment in France had begun to take hold on the minds of the people of Europe. However, it was this landmark inquiry into men and the justification of government that made Locke one of the fathers of the Enlightenment. Locke introduced the principle that men were rational beings and that each man had unalienable rights that no government could take away or any man could give up. Like many of the philosophers of the Enlightenment, Locke believed every individual to be sovereign and equal in every way in the state of nature. Locke believed that, in the state of nature, no one may use physical force to subordinate another, to which Locke writes “A state also of equality, wherein in all power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no, one having more than another, there being nothing more evident than that creatures of the same species and rank promiscuously born to all the same advantages of Nature and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal amongst another, without subordination or subjection, unless the lord or master of them all should, by any manifest declaration of his will, and confer on him, by an evident and clear appointment, an undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty”. (Locke, Chapter 2, pg. 3, Second Treatise of Government). Locke’s belief that all men are created equal is consistent with the beliefs of many of the philosophers of the Enlightenment, such as Voltaire and Rousseau, who rejected the institution on slavery on the basis that all men are created equal and have an “undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty”. Locke then goes on to establish another crucial precedent for the Enlightenment in the form of deism, where Locke writes “And that all men be restrained from invading others’ rights, and from doing hurt to one another, and the law of nature be observed, which willeth the peace and preservation of all mankind.” (Locke, Chapter 2, pg.5, Second Treatise of Government). Much of Locke’s justification for the existence of rights and their inalienability derive from the existence of God, our creator in his eyes. Much like the philosophers of the Enlightenment, Locke acknowledged the existence of God but by also acknowledging the existence of a “Law of Nature”, Locke believed that God did let the Earth function on it’s own and that the “Law of Nature” provided the supreme moral basis for the existence of rights and how a society should function to which Locke writes “In transgressing the law of Nature, the offender declares himself to live by another rule than that of reason and common equity.” (Locke, Chapter 2, pg.5, Second Treatise of Government). Though the Law of Nature may be the supreme law to which society should adhere to, Locke believes that it is only through the rationality that men were gifted by God that the Law of Nature can truly be interpreted, much like the philosophers of the Enlightenment who believed that men were rational beings and that the only way to interpret the world was through a rational lens. Thus rational men, needing to protect our unalienable rights and enforce the law of nature according to their rational interpretations of it, need to set up an institution that has the political power, the power to make laws and punish those who break it according to Locke, to enforce the law of Nature. It is these principles of the Enlightenment that can be found in our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution that vindicate our government being a product of the Enlightenment and The Second Treatise of Government.

In the Second Treatise of Government John Locke wrote on tyranny “As usurpation is the exercise of power which another hath a right to, so tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which nobody can have a right to; and this is making use of the power anyone has in his hands, not for the good of those who are under it, but for his own, separate advantage.” (Locke, Second Treatise of Government, Chapter 18, pg.112). According to Locke, governments are set up mainly to protect the rights and property of its citizens. Therefore, according to Locke, tyranny is present when government oversteps its boundaries and uses its monopoly of political power to violate rights, such as using the power of eminent domain to confiscate the property of another for personal gain. In the Declaration of Independence, a document heavily based on the philosophy of John Locke, Thomas Jefferson writes of King George III “He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.” (Declaration of Independence, Paragraph 3, line 1). In reviewing the many grievances the colonists had against the colonists, this one grievance stands out because it echoes the exact sentiment Locke felt because it shows that King George III had used the governments of the colonies for personal gain, in this case he saw the colonists as nothing more than a source for taxes to pay for the expenses of the French and Indian War. Thus, King George, according to Locke’s definition of tyranny, was a tyrant in the eyes of the colonists. According to Locke, when government became tyrannical, it is the duty of the citizens to rebel, dissolve it, and set up a new government that can better protect their rights and property. Locke writes “Whenever the legislators endeavor to take away and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power they put themselves into a state of war with the people and the people are absolved from any further obedience. Whensoever, therefore, the legislative shall transgress this fundamental rule of society and either by ambition, fear, folly or corruption, endeavor to grasp themselves or put into the hands of another an absolute power over the lives, liberties, and estates of the people, by this breach they forfeit the power the people had put into their hands for contrary ends and it devolves to the people, who have a right to resume their original liberty, and by the establishment of a new legislative provide for their own safety and security, which is the end for which they are in society.” (Locke, Second Treatise of Government, pg.124, chapter 19). When George III continually raised taxes on the colonists to raise money to pay for the French and Indian War, his government began confiscating the property of the colonists; they put themselves into a state of war with the people. According to Locke, when government an its people are in a state of war, that government loses all credibility, which Jefferson acknowledges in the Declaration when he writes “When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” (Declaration of Independence, Paragraph 1). Jefferson further acknowledges more of Locke’s principles in the Declaration when he acknowledges that the colonists have a moral duty to dissolve the current government and establish a new one based on the protection of their rights and property when he writes “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 effect their Safety and Happiness. (Declaration of Independence, Paragraph 2). While the Declaration of Independence may be echo the philosophy of John Locke in identifying the government of George III as a tyranny and providing the philosophical justification for rebellion, Locke’s philosophy in present in the Preamble of the Constitution, which reads “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” (Constitution of the United States, Preamble). The Founding Fathers had outlined the proper role of government by limiting it to the protection of property by maintaining a military, courts, and a police force in accordance to Locke’s philosophy. However, by using the sentence “do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America” the Founders had acknowledged that they were in a state of nature and that they were rationally engaging in a social contract by signing the Constitution, thus putting government at the service of the people, not above the people since government would gain its power from the people in accordance to Locke’s philosophy. While Locke’s philosophy provided the moral basis for revolution against the British Crown and the moral boundaries of our government in the Preamble, it is the Enlightenment which has provided us with the intellectual basis for the very structure of our government.

It is clear that the work of Montesquieu provided the Founders with the intellectual basis for our form of government. In the Spirit of Laws, Montesquieu argued for a government based on that of England’s, which divided power into an executive branch to enforce laws, a legislative branch to make laws, and a judicial branch to review laws. Using the idea of separation of powers, the Founders established the office of president to serve as the executive branch, Congress as the legislative branch, and the Supreme Court as the judicial branch. However, the founders feared the same thing that Locke feared; one branch becoming tyrannical through abuse of its power. Thus, the founders gave each branch checks and balances to limit the powers of the other branches and ensure an equal balance of power within the U.S government. The Bill of Rights serves, as a “Supreme” document that secures our unalienable rights that the philosophers of the Enlightenment acknowledge and whose security Locke believed was the primary function of government. However, more problems as society becomes more complex people need more tools to succeed mainly in the form of education. While Locke and the philosophers of the Enlightenment acknowledge the existence of the rights of Life, Liberty, Property and the Pursuit of Happiness, they do not provide any answers for what people are specifically entitled to. As economic inequality still exists in large quantities, people born into poverty stricken families may have trouble affording an education. Because of this fact, we must ask questions such as “Does the right to pursue one’s happiness include the right to an education?” or “Does the right to life include the right to shelter, healthcare, and a minimum standard of living?”. With these questions come more questions about the proper role of government and as society continues to evolve today and education becoming more and more of a vital tool, it may be hard for the U.S government to stick to the limited role Locke and the philosophers of the Enlightenment believed it should.

Works Cited

“Age of Enlightenment Review.” Index. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Apr. 2013. <;.

“Baron de Montesquieu : A Short Biography.” Rich Geib’s Humble Outpost in Cyberspace. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2013. <;.

“Constitution of The United States.” United States Constitution. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2013. <>.

“Declaration of Independence.” National Archives and Records Administration. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2013. <;.

Locke, John. Second treatise of government. Raleigh, N.C.: Alex Catalogue, 199. Print.

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