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