John Locke believed that the government’s main role in society was to protect the rights of its citizens. Writers before had argued that Adam was given a supreme right to dominate earth, and that this divine right was passed down from generation to generation and now held in the kings of the world. Locke argues that even if God had given Adam such a power, there is no evidence to suggest that that right was passed down to his sons and even if it were, since no one can trace their lineage back to Adam, no one else has it. Therefore, according to Locke, men were equal. In the state of nature, said Locke, men had the right to protect their own rights to life, liberty and fortune. Each man, said Locke, had the right to make laws and to execute punishment on those who robbed them of their rights or tried to take away their property. People also had the right to seek help from the community in righting wrongs (Locke).
However, he said, men could not be expected to be impartial judges. They would naturally side with themselves or their friends in disputes. Meanwhile, passion and vengeful tempers might lead them to be overly harsh with those they quarreled with. Therefore, he said, in order to ensure that men were fairly and equally treated when disputes arose, impartial governments were created (Locke). Thomas Jefferson echoed Locke’s statements when he penned the declaration of independence. Here, he acknowledges Locke’s belief that all men were made by the same creator and that they, therefore, were all entitled to the rights such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Governments, says Jefferson, were made to secure these rights (Jefferson).
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While governments are meant to protect the rights of their citizens, Locke realized that these governments often become corrupt. While, he said that dissolving a government should not be done on a whim, there were, in his eyes, a number of reasons that justified the dissolution of a government. First, said Locke, a government could be dissolved when one person (perhaps a prince) put his will before the law and usurps authority not given to him. Second, said Locke, when, rather than usurping authority, the prince prevents legislators from acting, debating or carrying out their duties, then the people had the right to dissolve their government. Third, according to Locke, people had the right to dissolve their government when the way in which representatives were elected was changed without the consent or direction of the people. The fourth instance in which the government could be dissolved, according to Locke, was when rule of the people was given over to a foreign power. There would, he says, be no purpose in having a separate and distinct nation if power were given over to foreign authorities. The fifth instance in which a government could rightly be dissolved, according to Locke, is when that government neglects to protect the rights of the people and fails to do the job it was appointed to do.
Finally, says Locke, governments may be abolished when the ruler acts against the rights of the citizens to preserve their lives, liberty and fortune (Locke).
Thomas Jefferson echoed Locke on this issue as well. To make his case against King George and to justify America’s decision to fight for independence, Jefferson argued that the King had become destructive of the rights he was meant to protect. He argued that the king had forced Americans to live under tyranny and abused his power, thus giving Americans the right to appoint for themselves new guards. Jefferson further argued that the king had failed to pass laws that Americans needed for protection and that he had kept lower officials from doing what they could to help protect Americans. He argued that the King had attempted to keep Americans from having a say in their own affairs, by changing the House of Representatives numerous times and by holding meetings in hard to reach, uncomfortable places (Jefferson).
Jefferson further argued that the king had failed to provide Americans with sufficient military protection. Not only that, but he had commissioned them to fight against their own country. Finally, Jefferson argued that the King had tried to leave Americans under the power of the natives – which is fairly similar to leaving them under foreign control. In short, Jefferson showed that the king had created nearly every one of Locke’s scenarios for dissolution (Jefferson).
Jefferson, Thomas. “The Declaration of Independence.” 2008. US History.org. 08 Aug 2008 <http://www.ushistory.org/Declaration/index.htm>.
Locke, John. “Two Treatises on Government (1680-1690).” 2008. Longang Library Web Site. 08 Aug 2008 <http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1690locke-sel.html>.