Political Philosophy – Locke’s Second Treatise of Government
For this lecture, read Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, chapter IX.
John Locke (1632-1704) was an English doctor and philosopher who was very influential on the American Founding Fathers (Hamilton, Madison, Jefferson), the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. One passage of the Declaration of Independence is almost wholesale lifted from Locke’s political work. He is famous for two works, the classic text of Empiricism, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and the political work, Two Treatises of Government. He was friends with scientists such as Boyle and Newton. Like Hobbes, he witnessed the struggle between the English Monarchy and Parliament, and his political writings are deeply influenced by his times. Jefferson considered him one of the greatest thinkers who ever lived.
Like Hobbes, Locke believed that human beings have natural rights that they derive from the state of nature and that government gets its power and rights from this and not divine decree of God, but unlike Hobbes, Locke believed that the power of the sovereign must not infringe on the right to life, the right to liberty, and the right to property. Like Hobbes, Locke argued that the state of nature is not sufficient for individuals to live as they want and so they establish the state by natural contract, but unlike Hobbes, Locke argued that this must be achieved by establishing a separation of powers and a system of checks and balances. While Hobbes argued that the sovereign is transferred the rights of the individual such that the sovereign can take life, restrict liberty and seize property for the good of the people as the people, Locke argues that the people have the right to rebel against the sovereign if the sovereign infringes on these rights. Thus, for Locke, the social contract with the sovereign is not unbreakable and does not fully transfer individual rights to the sovereign.
As many critics have pointed out, neither Locke nor the American founding fathers believed that these rights extended to all of humanity and there resulted great contradictions between love of individual rights and the brutal practices of slavery and colonialism. Locke was a major investor in the Royal African Company, a secretary to the Council of Trade and Plantations and a member of the Board of Trade, all of which were central to the African slave trade that took Africans from Africa to America to benefit the English plantations. While he argued that labor gives the individual a natural right to property, he also argued that the work of servants and slaves rightfully belongs to their master. Marx would later, as could be expected, agree that labor gives a right to ownership but disagree that the master or ruling class have the right to the fruits of the labor of the slaves, servants and lower classes. Like the founding fathers wrote “All men are born equal” but owned slaves themselves, Locke was clearly in agreement with the racism of his times and was writing for the equality of Europeans who owned property, servants and slaves and not of all-inclusive humanity.
Locke argued that money allowed property to be accumulated without injury to anyone. Many, including Marx, would take exception to this. Locke also writes that government should act such that individuals can accumulate as much wealth as they can but that wealth is distributed to the rest of society. He does not provide many insights as to how to go about this. Locke does argue that one of the major reasons that individuals should seek a social contract in the state of nature is to preserve their property and the fruits of their labor. In this, he is much more like Aristotle than Plato as Aristotle argues the state must draw everyone into a common unity yet preserve the diversity of personal property and ownership. While Hobbes sees preservation of one’s life as the primary reason for the social contract, Locke argues that the preservation of both life and property are the primary reasons for the social contract and that the sovereign cannot arbitrarily take life or property from the individuals bound together in the social contract.
One idea of Locke’s that has been very influential on many is the idea of the individual as a blank slate or tabula rasa (“blank slate” in Latin). An Empiricist, Locke believed that there are no innate ideas in the human mind and that all ideas are acquired by experience. Locke read a 12th century Arabic novel (translated into Latin) by Ibn Tufail titled Living Son of Wakening which tells the story of a child isolated from human society on a desert island who grows naturally by experience and reason to human adulthood. Another popular novel at the time was Robinson Crusoe which presents a gentleman and native “savage” on an island in the state of nature. Locke believed that education (like Confucius and the Confucians Mencius and Xunzi) is central to all development and that the mind is an empty cabinet waiting to be filled.
As most Americans know after elementary school, in the early 1770s the original thirteen American colonies rejected British rule and banded together to fight for independence. At first, the colonies planned to remain independent of each other, but through the process of the revolution and formation of the constitution the thirteen colonies became a federal republic that agreed to a system of checks and balances much like those called for by Locke and Mill. The British called the colonists terrorists and insurgents, while the colonists called themselves freedom fighters. The Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, the British renounced claims to the colonies in 1783, seven years later, and the Constitution was ratified in 1788 just as the French Revolution was beginning.
While Americans celebrate the Revolution and Constitution as the triumph of freedom, it is important to recognize, as we have all along in the class, that the founding fathers were not in favor of absolute democracy. They were particularly afraid of mob rule, like Plato and Aristotle, and so they wished to maintain aristocratic control of the common people, not to mention slaves and indentured servants. In the 1940s and 1950s, the John Birch Society (a foremost supporter of McCarthy’s anti-Communism hearings) declared openly that America is NOT a democracy, but a republic. Consider that America and the Soviet Union pointed at each other during the cold war and accused the other of deceptively claiming to be a government of the people for the people. Both China and America claim to be republics that represent the people. The words Communism and Democracy both mean ‘of the people’, but differences aside, both have had struggles with the age-old problem of authority. The struggles over the American Constitution and its Bill of Rights reflect this.
Because many of the thirteen colonies were afraid of joining a union for the same reasons that they were afraid of British rule, the American Constitution was an exchange of checks and balances. In exchange for the Bill of Rights, which was primarily concerned with the independence and freedom of the colonies and not of individuals, as it is understood today, a strong centralized federal government was established. The Bill of Rights says the Federal Government will not infringe on freedoms, but the individual states, such as California, can do what they please.
While these freedoms are secured at the state level today, speech that is declared a threat to the public good is not free, nor is speech on private property. Most forms of media, including television stations, are privately owned. You are not entitled to say whatever you want on a television station any more than you are in anybody’s apartment. If they don’t like what you have to say, they can demand that you leave. You have the right to speak freely in public as well as in private, including forms of media you personally own, as long as it isn’t threatening, which is decided by the courts.
There are still problems today with this exchange. Texas, Alaska, Arizona, and other states have active movements for secession from the Union due to perceived abuses and excesses of the federal government, just as the thirteen colonies participated in a movement for secession from Britain. In recent years, Arizona has considered legislation that would allow the Arizona state assembly to veto federal laws. While supporters have argued that this is in the original spirit of the Constitution (state independence), others argue that this directly violates the Constitution and its imposed exchange of balanced authority (federal law and Bill of Rights trumps state law).
Many right wing Americans will point to the Boston Tea Party and say that the revolution was about the right to property and fair taxation, while many left wing Americans will point out that people today have taxation with representation and that the majority of taxes go to military campaigns as they did for Britain in the period of the Revolution. However one interprets it today, many American colonists felt that Britain was violating the social contract by failing to preserve their rights to liberty and property. If the British Monarchy was unjustly infringing on the rights of life, liberty and property through the use of force and intimidation, the American rebellion was not unjust in resisting the British monarchy with the use of force and intimidation. This is why the British called the founding fathers terrorists and the Americans called them freedom fighters.
While the American Revolution is often pictured as a transition from tyranny to democracy, it should be remembered that most American colonists, like the Parliamentarians of Hobbes and Locke’s civil war, still wanted a monarch included in the arrangement of checks and balances. The conservative British political philosopher Edmund Burke argued that America needed a king because a country could not be ruled by a piece of paper. Many Americans agreed with Burke because they had never heard of a sovereign piece of paper, and it was only through the process of negotiations that led to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and a constitutional form of government. This inspired French revolutionaries to cut off the head of the king and renounce monarchy as an institution.
Consider that Canada, Australia, and South Africa still officially recognize the Queen of Britain today as their sovereign, featuring her image as well as that of other British royalty on their money, even though their parliaments have been completely free from Britain and the Queen’s rule for some time now. Many Americans hoped for just this sort of relationship with British monarchy, while others wanted to replace the British monarchy with an American monarchy (some suggesting that George Washington was a perfect candidate for the job). With the split between loyalists to the British crown and rebel patriots of the American Revolution, we see a similar split to that between the Royalists and Parliamentarians of Hobbes and Locke’s civil war. This time, however, there was no restoration of monarchy, but those who leaned away from federal power and towards states’ rights like Jefferson would say that there was a reformation of the same problems and grievances.
Native Americans and African American slaves and freemen were torn in their allegiances. Both sides promised better treatment, including the abolition of slavery at various times, especially to those who were enslaved to supporters of the opposite side. Some Natives and Africans felt that they could bargain with the British for greater freedom and security in exchange for support of the loyalists and monarchy against the patriot rebellion. Others felt that the independent colonies would be more favorable to their plight. Most Natives remained neutral, with some (like the Iroquois) fighting for the British with British weapons and supplies. Most free Africans fought for the colonies. The British accused the American patriots of hypocrisy in calling for freedom for their slave plantations, and actively encouraged slave rebellions while telling Americans that without British government the slaves would rise up and kill them. Natives and Africans did not fare well after the patriots won the revolution, but it is also true that the British supported the slave trade and would not likely have treated the Natives or Africans much better.
Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man (1791) was composed after the American Revolution, in response to Edmund Burke’s British conservative criticism of the French Revolution, which was, as Burke well knew, in part inspired by the American Revolution. In spite of the fact that it was composed afterwards, it is an excellent expression of the philosophy behind the American patriot cause. Thomas Paine (1737 – 1809), one of the central founding fathers, was a corset-maker and author of the 1776 pamphlet Common Sense, which argued that Britain was unjust and rebellion had become necessary. He later wrote The Age of Reason, which argued for freedom of thought and for deism rather than a national religion.
In The Rights of Man, Paine attacked Edmund Burke by name. Burke had supported the American Revolution, but argued they needed a king, and he had attacked the French Revolution for beheading the king as well as many nobles who supported him. Paine argued that the institution of monarchy was outdated and enabled the violation of rights to life, liberty and property. This is an extension of Locke’s ideas beyond Hobbes’ sovereign. Mill also stood for checks and balances without feeling the need to renounce or dismantle the monarchy. Today, this has become a debate between right and left over social institutions and federal limits on taxes and trade. Strangely, because of the French royal support of the American revolution (to further weaken the British) and because of Paine’s aversion to capital punishment, Paine argued that the French should have exiled Louis the 16th to America rather than behead him, and was later imprisoned by the radical French Revolutionaries led by Robespierre. I am sure Burke found this hilarious.
One of the central issues of the text is whether or not people should choose their leaders and representatives. The monarchy, of course, is hereditary, so the people can rebel against it but the people cannot vote a monarch into power. While Americans celebrate the revolution as a transition from tyranny to democracy, consider Mill’s argument that people should vote for their bosses in business or there will be economic tyranny. Paine was a supporter of guaranteed income and wealth redistribution, arguing that large land holdings were a great source of injustice and tyranny. Paine argues that authority must arise OUT of the people, not OVER the people. For these radically progressive ideas, he was ridiculed by many, such as in this political cartoon which depicts him trying to force freedom into his own form via a corset.
At the conclusion of the American Revolution, the colonies and power holders were fighting amongst themselves. There was massive debt from the war, riots, and armed militia who resisted centralized authority. One of the first and famous phrases from the Constitution, “in order to form a more perfect union”, refers to the fact that the colonies were already unified in their opposition to Britain but had yet to work out the details. It is only much later, with the Pledge of Allegiance, that we hear, “one nation, indivisible”.
One of the central issues was how to divide and check power in the union. Should there be a central figurehead, or not? If so, how would this avoid the problems of monarchy? If not, how would the union be preserved and how would equality amongst the colonies be maintained? How should the power be divided among the states? Should states get equal power, or should the more populated states have more say? By offering the Bill of Rights to states that feared federal control, the compromise was a bicameral congress with the House of Representatives expressing the popular vote and the Senate expressing the equal voting power of participating states. One of the famous injustices of this overall compromise was the Three Fifths Compromise: African slaves counted as three fifths of a person for calculating the number of house representatives even though they had no right to vote for these representatives.
Another issue: how much should individual liberty be protected? Even though most of the figures we study were not offended by the institutions of slavery, some Americans wanted Rousseau-like individual freedom while others sought protections for the institutions of slavery and indentured servitude. As the reading I gave you points out, the word “democracy” does not appear even once in the constitution (as the John Birch Society was happy to point out. America, like other countries in the world, speaks about “furthering democracy” when in fact it should be speaking about furthering republicanism, such as that of Machiavelli.
Four of the first five American presidents, Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, were all slave owners. Out of the first five, only John Adams, America’s second president, refused to buy or own slaves, writing, “I have, through my whole life, held the practice of slavery in such abhorrence, that I have never owned a negro or any other slave, though I have lived for many years in times, when the practice was not disgraceful, when the best men in my vicinity thought it not inconsistent with their character, and when it has cost me thousands of dollars for the labor and subsistence of free men, which I might have saved by the purchase of negroes at times when they were very cheap.” While Adams and his wife were both vocal opponents of slavery, Adams argued several times that the issue should be kept out of politics to keep Southern states in the Union.
Another problem that arose during the formation of the Union was how to bring charges against government officials who are corrupt or commit crimes. The House of Representatives has the power to bring charges against government officials, called impeachment, and the Senate has the power to convict or acquit the officials. Only seven people, all judges, no representatives, no senators, no presidents, have ever been convicted by the Senate. This removes the official from office, but does not send them to jail. In fact, while carrying out their duties, officials are shielded from arrest and lawsuits, with the occasional exception of arrest for serious criminal acts such as murder.