John Locke-Philosophical Foundations of American Government Are Basis of American Constitution

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John Locke (August 29, 1632-October 28, 1704)

I have often heard people say that they don’t see any reason to study philosophy. Oddly these are often educated people in their own fields, often in science. In a few words it is hard to convince them that philosophy is the basis of most other things, including science, business and government.

 Some people who should know better say things like why study about “dead white men”.

Our own government and its founders were very much influenced by the philosophical ideas of an English philosopher named John Locke. The ideas of the founders have influenced and will influence our entire society

Locke has been known as the “father of liberalism.” His liberalism is what we might call classic liberalism now. I think is almost the opposite of what we now call liberalism.

He was an English philosopher and also a medical doctor and one of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers. He can be classified as an Empiricist following the tradition of Francis Bacon. Where we as Americans are most indebted to him is in his contributions to the philosophy of the Social Contract and Natural Law.

Such philosophers as Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Descartes and Hobbes have influenced him.

 

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Early Influences

His father who was also named John Locke was a country lawyer, clerk of the justices of the peace in Chew Magna, been a captain of Cavalry for the Parliamentarian forces in the early phase of the English civil war. His mother was a tanner’s daughter by the name of Agnes Keene. The parents were Puritans. When he was very young they moved to Pensford where he grew up in a rural Tudor house in Belluton

He was sent to Westminster School in London in 1647. Alexander Popham the former commander of Locke’s father and a Member of Parliament sponsored him. He was a good student but impatient with the curriculum. He was more interested in the modern philosophers such as Descartes than the material taught at the university. A friend introduced him to an interest medicine and experimental philosophy. He went on to get a degree in medicine in 1764.He studied with many prominent scientists of the day.

He met Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper who was the 1st Earl of Shaftsbury and became his personal physician. He continued his medical studies under Thomas Sydenhaum and developed his thinking on his natural philosophy. This would later culminate in his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

 

Locke was responsible for helping save the life of Shaftsbury who got a liver infection. Locke recommended somewhat risky surgery, which resulted in success.

Shaftsbury was a founder of the Whig movement. And helped encourage Locke to write his Two Treatises of Government. Although associated with the Whigs his ideas about natural rights and government are considered quite revolutionary for that period in English History.

Locke’s Influence

Locke had a great influence on political philosophy. It has been said that Locke launched liberalism by tempering Hobbesian absolutism and clearly separating the realms of Church and State. He strongly influences Voltaire. His views on liberty and the social contract influenced the works of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and some of the other United States founding fathers. His writing influenced the Declaration of Independence. Lock is an influence on today’s Libertarians. Some intellectual historians think that Locke started the modern western conception of self.

He was also a strong influence on our concepts of freedom of religion.

Locke’s Political Theory

His political theory was based on the “social contract” concept. He believed that human nature is based on reason and tolerance, but did think that human nature allowed men to become selfish. Everyone has a right to defend his “Life, health, Liberty, or Possessions.” This concept was used in our American declaration of Independence as “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

He also believed in government having separation of powers. He believed that revolution might be necessary in some circumstances. He was a strong influence on our Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

Natural Law was a basis of Locke’s philosophy that influenced the American documents.

Other views

 

Locke believed that monetary policy should be based on silver and gold rather than paper money for international transactions.

He thought that education determines what a person is to a large extent.

Negative views on Locke

Those who detract from Locke claim he was an investor in the English slave trade through the Royal African company. He also participated in the drafting of the Fundamental Constitution of the Carolina’s while he was secretary to Shaftsbury it established a feudal aristocracy which gave a master absolute power over slaves. Some claim that statements about unenclosed property were intended to displace the Indians.

Since he opposed aristocracy and slavery in his major writings he is accused of being a hypocrite and caring for only the liberty of the capitalists.

While the scope of this article does not allow for complete examination of this issue, I would say that all persons evolve in their thinking and what was written later may not necessarily reflect what one may have thought at a younger age.

His influence on our founders and our founding documents is a legacy that is important to all of us now.

 

Some John Locke quotes


“The end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom. For in all the states of created beings capable of law, where there is no law, there is no freedom

“Man. hath by nature a power
.... To preserve his property - that is, his life, liberty, and estate - against the injuries and attempts of other men.”

...

“All mankind... being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.”

...

“Government has no other end, but the preservation of property.”

“The great question (about power) is who should have it”

...

© 2011 Don A. Hoglund

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Comments 36 comments

Robwrite profile image

Robwrite 5 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

One of my favorite philosophers. Parenthetically, the character of John Locke on "Lost" was deliberately named after the original Locke.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Thanks for being the first to comment.My primary interest is his influence philosophically on our constitution which seems to be somewhat forgotten now a days.


HSchneider 5 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

Great Hub. Those that dismiss philosophy are fools. It touches every aspect of our lives. Without John Locke there very well might not be any United States or at least the United States we know. Great history and explanation of the greatness of this man. I enjoyed reading this very much.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

You comment is very much appreciated.I agree with what you say about the influence of Locke's thinking on the United States.


2patricias profile image

2patricias 5 years ago from Sussex by the Sea

Hello Dahoglund, An interesting and well-written Hub. I did a course on political philosophy about 3 years ago, and of course John Locke was included. It is interesting to see that some of his ideas are included in the American system of government.


randslam profile image

randslam 5 years ago from Kelowna, British Columbia

Great hub about another influential character in the history of western civilation. It is interesting to note that he was considered liberal, when by today's definition of liberalism, he may not be accepted as such.

As to the portents of the American constitution, I think many of the modern ideas of the freedoms that the founding fathers were creating are misunderstood by the majority.

The excessive worry about "bearing arms," and the lack of understanding regarding socialized programs that help young and old in a community of care extending to one's personal wealth and joy in "the pursuit of happiness."

Maybe a hub on the true meanings of the rights advocated in the framework of the constitution is next on your list?

Thanks for a great insight into a very influential character.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

2Patricias

Thanks for commenting. What I recall from classrooms of many years ago is that the phrase "we hold these truths to be self evident" is a reference to Natural Law as espoused by John Locke. One would have to believe in Natural Law--the idea that we have in us a program of understanding certain things.Without that concept nothing would be self evident.

Jefferson I believe got the concept from John Lockes writings.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Randslam,

thanks for commenting. Right now I am exploring the ideas that influenced our founders.My next topic will probably be the romanticism and the agrarian myth or the myth of the Yeoman farmer.I did do a hub on "conservative and Liberal" concepts.The bill of rights will take some study yet.


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

Great Hub.

I’m always amazed when people who ought know better, state that the Constitution grants us our rights. Nothing could be further from the truth. “We hold these truths to be self evident” clearly states that our rights are natural rights, granted by our Creator, and not by man. What man grants, man can take away!

The Constitution grants no rights. Not a single one! They are all assumed to preexist our Constitution. The Constitution was created to establish a federal government, limit its powers, and protect the preexisting rights and freedoms of the people from that government.

Sadly, that concept is all but forgotten by both the people and those who wish to be all powerful.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

WiilStarr,

You are right. In a sense the founders were calling to our attention the fact that those things were our rights. they were also saying that through reason and intuition, I would say, we can recognize these rights as coming from the creator.

There is one sense in which one might say the constitution grants the rights is by codifying them in the law of the land.

Thanks for contributing.


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

I must respectfully disagree that rights are in any way granted by our Constitution.

Every right in the Bill of Rights was presumed to be a preexisting natural right. Nowhere is there any wording that indicates they were being created and granted by the Founding Fathers. It's an important distinction, because whatever man grants, man can also take away.

The Founding Fathers thought those natural rights were so important that they needed to be enumerated and protected for all time.

How right they were. Without that written protection, all those rights would have long ago been violated.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Unfortunately many of the rights are being violated anyhow.Certainly many of them are being misrepresented.I heard a Political Science professor state that health care is a right as part of the right to life.Maybe I would have better said that the government has a role in protecting those right through the code of law. However, it does not help if the rights are so blatantly misinterpreted.


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

Agreed, especially when new government power grabs are disguised as 'rights'! After all, Obamacare actually takes away our right to choose whether or not we want to buy health insurance! Now it's mandatory!


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

lets hope not. It may be declared unconstitutional.Thanks for your comments.


randslam profile image

randslam 5 years ago from Kelowna, British Columbia

WillStarr brings an overlooked viewpoint to this rights question that Locke addressed when discussing natural law. It is intriguing to see how many of our rights are taken away without knowledge by the masses.

When we think about the early founders and pilgrims fleeing from religious persecution and wanting a better life with freedom and justice for all.

The wanted to realize their natural right to freedom of religion--sadly, for many today, it may be more of a desire for 'freedom from religion.'

At any rate, the constant barrage on western nations to have people of faith impose their beliefs on citizens of countries who only desired the natural rights of free speech, the pursuit of happiness, security of the property one has worked for and tolerance is disarming as we move ahead into the future.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

When I realize how many of our lawmakers are not even familiar with the constitution it worries me.


Wealthmadehealthy profile image

Wealthmadehealthy 5 years ago from Somewhere in the Lone Star State

This was an excellent read dahoglund. I know a lot of people seem to get bored reading of people who are not alive anymore, but these very people are the ones who fashioned are ways of living today. Where would we be without Aristotle, and Descartes? Or George Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexandr Graham Bell?? They have all brought their ideas to our current table of life.

I really enjoyed this hub! Thanks for writing it!!

And as far as Obamacare. It was unconstitutional when written, has been declared unconstitutional and I sincerely hope it ends up being burned on the White House Lawn!! Hooray for Judge Vinson!!


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Thanks for reading it. I am glad you enjoyed it. I was purely amazed at the audacity of the administration and congress that would push through such a big, unpopular mandate.


Smkmdb11 profile image

Smkmdb11 5 years ago from North Carolina, USA

Great hub. The only problem with our current government is this. They know the truth and they are very well educated. They understand the Constitution completely. They choose not to live by the oath they take when being sworn in. These people are not idiots. Luckily, the majority of the country still understand and believes in the Constitution and everything it stands for.

The most common argument I run into when debating, or arguing basically, lol, is on the subject of health care being a right. There really should not be an argument at all. I wont go into a long rant or political rave, but I'll say that this was a great hub and you should come check out some of the hubs I have written. I think you and I would get along just fine, lol.

Have a good night.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Thanks for commenting.I am not sure which is the most dangerous those who do not know truth or those who know it and ignore it.


Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 5 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

"all persons evolve in their thinking and what was written later may not necessarily reflect what one may have thought at a younger age."

Well said. The only way to be entirely consistent is to do nothing. We are self-contradictory by nature, but the fact remains that some, like Locke, Hume and Popper, have left a legacy of great thinking from which we can all benefit, with a little effort.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Yes, I think we all should grow in our thinking. As Emerson said"a foolish consistency if the hobgoblin of little minds." thank you for commenting.


Truckstop Sally profile image

Truckstop Sally 5 years ago

Thanks for a great hub AND your inclusion of the opposite viewpoints. Very interesting.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

I appreciate your comments. I try to give a somewhat balanced view.


Abdeta Emana 5 years ago

I really appreciate john lock for he has laid foundation for human freedom specially by limiting excessive laws.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

I agree with you entirely. thanks for commenting.


jackie_fish profile image

jackie_fish 5 years ago

I really enjoy john lock when we have done him at collage I have admired him the most

great hub


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Thanks for visiting and commenting. since much of our constitution is based on Locke's ideas I think he is very important.


John Sarkis profile image

John Sarkis 5 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

Great hub. Locke is probably one of the 10 greatest philosophers that has ever lived. Most of the laws in the USA are directly/indirectly related to Locke in some way or another. Him and Hume are probably the two greatest of English philosophers....

Thanks and take care

John


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Thanks for your comment. My philosophy is a bit rusty as my classroom days are long ago. Locke I do remember in this context at least.


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 5 years ago from Houston, Texas

Hi dahoglund,

Like you, my classroom days are distant memories but you have written a great article about John Locke and I enjoyed all the comments as well. I loved the philosophy course I took in college long ago. Voted up, useful and interesting!


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Hi Peggy

Most of my friends in the old days were interested in Science and technology. They had a low opinion of philosophy which is really the basis of all our other thinking except religion which is a field of study called Theology. However, they too are related.Thank you for the comments and votes.


veritorogue profile image

veritorogue 4 years ago from Arizona

John Locke's view that the people have the right to revolt against their government influenced the adoption of the second amendment. The founders knew that the only real way to defend Liberty from tyranny and for the individual to protect his life and property was by arms. He is my favorite enlightenment philosopher.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 4 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

veritorogue,thanks for some additional information on his views.


wba108@yahoo.com profile image

wba108@yahoo.com 4 years ago from upstate, NY

“The end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom. For in all the states of created beings capable of law, where there is no law, there is no freedom"

This is an important concept of our Constitution that's being violated by those on the left. The concept is that we are to be under the rule of law and not the rule of man. The left uses the law in an arbitrary manner in order to shape society. This type of legal system undermines equal protection under the law!

“Man. hath by nature a power

.... To preserve his property - that is, his life, liberty, and estate - against the injuries and attempts of other men.”

This concept of Locke's is under constant attack by the left! The idea of natural law is ridiculous to them because they see rights as coming from the government not nature's God!


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 4 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Because I was raised in the Catholic church I was also raised in a tradition of natural law.Not the same as Locke but natural law just the same. I agree with your analysis.Thanks for commenting.

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