John Locke’s America
John Locke is a seventeenth century English philosopher (1) whose ideas have had far reaching influence on many parts of western culture. It is a widely entertained notion that John Locke’s ideas and writings had heavy impact on the writing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 (2), and it can easily be understood that this may be one of the most important distinguishing factors setting American culture and idealism apart from that of powerful European empires and nations of the time.
Locke’s works began their shaping of America with The Virginia Declaration of Rights, the ideas of which were then translated into the Declaration of Independence, and eventually into the Bill of Rights. (3) This inceptive influence has carried through American history and come to shape the modern American way. Indeed, even the ever sought after “American Dream” suggests that it dates back to Locke’s ideas, with concepts like equality, democracy, and material prosperity.
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America has achieved idealistic distinction from other nations, and remains to be held as a forward thinking, progressive nation because of the influence of John Locke, and the reflections of his ideas in the original American charters of freedom. On June 12, 1776, the Virginia Constitutional Convention adopted the Virginia Declaration of Rights (4)(henceforth referred to as the VDR). The document was written by George Mason (5) to express the rights of Virginian citizens, and is plainly tailored after the writings of Locke.
The first section states that “All men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights […] namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety. ” (6) This statement directly parallels ones that appear across Locke’s work, reflecting his theories on the state of nature and innate human rights and freedoms.
In his Second Treatise of Government, Locke sums this theory up in an enduring and well recognized sentence that appears to have been the model for this first section of the VDR. Locke states here that “Being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions. ” (7) The second and third sections carry on to claim that the duty of the government is to protect these rights (8), which echoes Locke’s statement that “The great and chief end, therefore, of men’s uniting […] and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property. (9) Locke also states that by property he refers not only to estate, but also to these other inherent rights of man (10), and continues much later to say that “the first and fundamental natural law, which is to govern even the legislative [body] itself, is the preservation of society, and (as far as will consist with the public good) of every person in it. ” (11) What Locke expresses here is the idea that the government should work toward the common good of the governed.
These ideas, as well as countless others to be found, evidently show unquestionably strong resemblance to those in the VDR, and that Locke’s profound influence had thereby rooted itself deep within American history. The VDR began the events which have cemented Locke’s ideas within American society, by lending these ideas of his that it used to the writings of other documents. On July 4, 1776, Continental Congress representatives signed the Declaration of Independence, which was penned by Thomas Jefferson, in the interest of declaring America’s autonomy and separation from British rule. 12) The Declaration of Independence (hereby referred to as The Declaration) expresses many of the same ideas as the VDR, as well as many others about rights, governments, and order. Many ideas that are widely seen as taken from Locke which appear in The Declaration were actually modeled after the writing of the VDR. However, these do remain Lock’s ideas nonetheless – ones that Jefferson appreciated as natural law just as Mason did, and certainly as Locke did decades before them.
Being from Virginia, and acting as a representative of his home colony during Continental Congress, Jefferson was himself heavily influenced in his writing by the VDR. The progression of borrowing the ideas from his own colony’s declaration for adoption by the nation as a whole is evident, and it seems only logical that in agreeing with these ideas he would include them in a statement of the beliefs of all of the American people.
Because The Declaration was not meant as an assertion of citizen’s rights, but as a tool for independence, it is arranged slightly differently. In contrast to the VDR’s statements as law, The Declaration states its ideas as facts of nature ignored by the British crown. This gives it particular resemblance to Locke’s own work; as it criticizes the Monarchy’s hand in America, so does he criticize the British, as well as other major European governments of his time.
The three most memorable, important, and immortal ideas expressed in The Declaration are put forward in the first sentence of the second paragraph, one that compounds three of Locke’s major ideas into a single statement. (13) It is here that Jefferson 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. 14) Jefferson, here, effectively combines several of Locke’s ideas; His theories on the state of nature and human understanding (15), the extent of legislative power and the goals of government and societal organization (16), and the dissolution of these governments (17). Jefferson’s statement about the consent of the governed very strongly resembles Locke’s assertion that “no body can have a power to make laws, but by [the society’s] consent, and by authority received from them. (18) As well as this, he states, just as The Declaration claims is true, that “the great end of men’s entering into society [i. e. the role of government], [is] the enjoyment of their properties in peace and safety, and the great instrument and means of that being the laws established in that society. ” (19) It is clear that each of these ideas expressed in The Declaration can be easily traced to an original notion set out by Locke.
Even the bold statement on the abolition of governments reflects Locke’s idea that “[w]hensover the legislative shall transgress this fundamental rule of society [this rule being the role of government], and by either ambition, fear, folly, or corruption, endeavour to grasp […] an absolute power over the lives, liberties, and estates of the people; […] they forfeit the power the people had put into their hands. ” (19) Locke continues after this to state that the people “have a right to their original liberty, and, by the establishment of a new legislative, (such as they shall think fit) provide for their own safety and security. (21) The statements of this nature in The Declaration so closely articulate these ideas that it leaves little, if any, doubt that the latter certainly provided heavy influence for its writing. It is interesting to note that John Locke puts forward an idea that now distinguishes the revolution of America from that of France which follows. In his chapter on the dissolution of government, he points out the distinction between the dissolving of government opposed to the dissolving of society. 22) America’s revolutionary war, which was its act of removing the legislative that threatened its morals, but maintaining its own structure as a society, shows the abolition of a government, while in France, the complete collapse of political, economic, and social structure shows the abolition of a society, which creates need for a complete rebirth. Locke urges the importance that the society remains even when government is abolished, and by this, sets out a model for the American Revolution, which remains, by his standard, to be a nearly perfect example of the dissolution of a government disregarding its purpose.
The Declaration does its part to state America’s intention of breaking away from Britain, and this in turn causes the war of independence. This shows Locke’s influence extending not into just written and held ideas, but now into behaviours and actions of the nation, and the merit of his ideas fueling this conflict, which to Locke, is the most moral and logical of any. Locke’s far reaching influence now clearly stretches beyond The Declaration, and into much more of American culture and society.
With its impact on the revolution, it has reached into a new age of America; the period that follows the dissolution of government, as defined by Locke, where the society rebuilds its government according to the needs of the people. His statement that “men can never be secure from tyranny if there be no means to escape it […]: therefore it is, that they have not only a right to get out of it, but to prevent it,” (23) illustrated the transition of his influence from the removal of the British government, to the establishment of the new American government.
The system of checks and balances, as well as the democratic houses of parliament, reflect his idea of preventing future tyrannical leaders, by taking away the ability of seizing too much power within the system. 1. Uzgalis, William. “John Locke. ” 2. Ibid. 3. Mason, George. “The Virginia Declaration of Rights. ” (Introduction) 4. Ibid. 5. Ibid. 6. Mason, George. “The Virginia Declaration of Rights. ” 7. Locke, John et al. Second Treatise of Government. C. 2 8. Mason, George. “The Virginia Declaration of Rights. ” 9. Locke, John et al. Second Treatise of Government. C. 9 0. Ibid. 11. Locke, John et al. Second Treatise of Government. C. 11 12. Jefferson, Thomas. “Declaration of Independence” 13. Ibid. 14. Ibid 15. Locke, John et al. Second Treatise of Government. CC. 2, 5 16. Locke, John et al. Second Treatise of Government. CC. 7, 8, 9, 11 17. Locke, John et al. Second Treatise of Government. C. 19 18. Locke, John et al. Second Treatise of Government. C. 11 19. Ibid. 20. Locke, John et al. Second Treatise of Government. C. 19 21. Ibid. 22. Ibid 23. Ibid Works Cited Jefferson, Thomas. “Declaration of Independence” The Charters of Freedom.
The U. S. National Archives and Records Administration, n. d. Web. 20 May 2012. . Transcript of the original document as recorded by the United States government Locke, John, and Crawford Macpherson. Second Treatise of Government. 1690. Reprint. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett, 1980. Print. The second part of Locke’s “Essay Concerning the True Original Extent and End of Civil Government”, edited and with an introduction by C. B. Macpherson Madison, James. “Bill of Rights” The Charters of Freedom. The U. S. National Archives and Records Administration, n. d. Web. 7 May 2012. . Transcript of the original text as recorded by the United States Government Mason, George. “The Virginia Declaration of Rights. ” The Charters of Freedom. The U. S. National Archives and Records Administration, n. d. Web. 20 May 2012. . Transcript of the original text as recorded by the United States Government Uzgalis, William. “John Locke. ” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Version Winter 2010 Edition. Stanford University, n. d. Web. 14 May 2012. . Historical information on Locke and his theories, as well as analysis of his major works