Second Treatise of Government
Lockean Ideals in the Declaration of Independence
In devising the Declaration of Independence, the founding fathers used the work of John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government as an ideological framework. The similarities are mainly notable in the claims against the King, but can also be found in other important respects. Locke’s concept of the state of nature is evident in the founders’ claims, while the influence of Locke’s ideals on political power and the function of government can be seen in the arguments presented in the Declaration. Yet the two texts diverge in important ways; the most significant difference between the two documents is that the Declaration lacks some of the extreme views that Locke takes in his discussion on the state of war. Nonetheless, it is clear that the Declaration of Independence was built on Locke’s concepts of government.
John Locke’s conception of the state of nature heavily influenced the writing of the Declaration. He devotes the second chapter of the Second Treatise of Government to discussing the state he believes men are naturally born into and the rights they deserve. Here, he presents the idea that men are created as equals when he says, “because it is simply obvious that creatures of the same species and status, all born to the same advantages of nature and to use of the same abilities, should also be equal” (Locke 3). This quote has such a strong influence on the Declaration because, through stating that the equality of men is obvious, Locke has made this idea appear to be indisputable. The founding fathers desired a strong, unequivocal statement for addressing the King, so they took inspiration from the passage when writing the famous line, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” (Declaration). This line not only delivers a powerful message, but also sets up the ideals that both drive the rest of the text and become a major part in shaping the new United States of America.
The arguments made by Locke are often used to support the Declaration’s claims against the King. Beginning with the very first claim, Locke’s definition of political power is referenced. He defines political power as the right to make, regulate, and enforce laws, highlighting that political power is only meant to be used for the public good. The first claim uses this definition to support the contention that King George III has overstepped his power, as the authors state that “He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good” (Declaration). This statement is in reference to the King vetoing laws that the colonies made, laws which would improve their societies. To bolster this claim, the founding fathers provide examples of how the laws made by the King have harmed the colonies. These arguments lead into the claims which concern the importance of consent when dealing with government.
Two of the important ideals on government that Locke expresses are the significance of the consent of the governed and the problems inherent in monarchy. He ends his chapter on the state of nature by highlighting how consent is required by the people; as Locke says, “and I also affirm that all men are naturally in the state of nature, and remain so until they consent to make themselves members of some political society” (Locke 7). In the Declaration, the authors emphasize that the people of the colonies have not consented to the acts of the King, further supporting the notion that the king has abused his political power. This abuse is specifically noted in the claim that the King has kept troops in the colonies against the residents’ will. Locke would attribute this abuse of power to the problems created when one man controls the government of many. The claims provided in the Declaration exemplify the problems that Locke raises about such monarchies, as this document explicitly says, “He has made judges dependent on his will alone” (Declaration). Government with a single man in charge is subject to the bias and flaws of that single man, thus leading to the unfair and tyrannical rule of King George III over the colonies. The Declaration of Independence serves as the colonies’ proclamation of departure from the King’s rule; their citizens will enter into a new political society with ideals informed by Locke’s work.
Despite many similarities between the Second Treatise of Government and the Declaration of Independence, there are a few differences between the two documents. One of these involves the rights of men, which are designated as “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” in the Declaration (Declaration). The difference here is very subtle, as Locke states that the rights of man in the state of nature are “his life, health, liberty, or possessions” (Locke 4). Though the distinction between happiness and possessions seems insignificant, it highlights the difference in values between Locke and the authors of the Declaration. Locke puts emphasis on how property and wealth are the most valuable things one can gain. The authors of the Declaration did not share this ideal and broaden it to the pursuit of happiness to accommodate a wider range of beliefs. This perspective on the rights of man would later influence the formation of the United States government, specifically with the Bill of Rights of the US Constitution.
The second and more notable difference is that the Declaration avoids some of the extreme ideals that Locke expresses in his work. Within his chapter on the state of war, Locke discusses the punishments man has the right to enforce on others for violating the laws of nature. Several of these penalties can be viewed as extreme. For example, Locke raises the possibility that the penalty for theft is death when he says, “This makes it lawful for me to kill a thief who hasn’t done me any harm or declared any plan against my life, other than using force to get me in his power so as to take away my money or whatever else he wants” (Locke 8). As examined previously, King George III had infringed upon many of the laws of nature, and therefore the founding fathers had every right to demand the death of the King according to Locke’s ideals. No such demand is present in the Declaration, though, due to the political impact that such divisive and violent rhetoric would have exerted. Such a demand could have created an even greater uproar from those loyal to the King and could have compromised some of the support for the founders’ cause. Beyond trying to avoid any chaos that a demand for death would have caused, the founding fathers do not demand the king’s death in order to rise above King George III’s tyrannical rule. This departure from Locke’s influence elevates the Declaration of Independence by positioning the newly-formed government of the United States as more righteous than the rule of the King.
The Second Treatise of Government had a clear influence on the authors of the Declaration of Independence. Locke’s chapter on the state of nature inspired several points in the Declaration, including its introduction and many of the claims made against the King. The founding fathers used Locke’s work to support their arguments that King George III was unfit to rule them, and used Locke’s premises to set up the preliminary values of the new United States. Overall, there are several similarities between the two documents, but there are a few fundamental differences as well. Despite these variances, the Declaration of Independence makes apparent the influential role that John Locke’s ideas played in the formation of government in the United States of America.
The Muddled Philosophy and Life of John Locke
The examination of philosophy requires an in-depth look at two aspects of the philosopher. First one must examine their writings to grasp their points and perspectives, and then one must be able to examine the philosophers’ personal lives to see whether they maintain their written philosophies, or whether they live their lives by alternative standards. The examination of John Locke thus becomes inherently necessary and extremely tricky. Often described as an incredibly virtuous man and portrayed as the founder of modern democracy, Locke is in truth a far more complex human being than many are aware. Although John Locke appears to condemn slavery on paper, his actions reveal a man torn between the acceptance and condemnation of slavery.According to Locke, it is only a certain kind of slavery that is inappropriate. In his Second Treatise of Government, Locke protests outright slavery where the slave is owned as property by the slave holder and the slave subsequently no longer has in his possession the rights given to him in the state of nature. Locke explicitly states, “For a man, not having the power of his own life, cannot by compact or his own consent enslave himself to any one” (Locke 22). With this statement Locke firmly and pointedly argues against what at the time was the growing popularity of chattel, or “ownership” slavery. This practice had slaves surrendering power over their own lives to owners who then used them at their discretion. Locke writes, “Nobody can give more power than he has himself”; in essence, he believes that since no man has full power over his own life (that power is reserved for God) he cannot under any circumstances surrender himself and his life and liberty to any other man (Locke 22). Locke, in his writings at least, seems fully prepared to fight the growing rise of ownership slavery, perhaps even to the point where he would lose his own standing in the public eye and in the government. Also, under this tenet of his philosophy Locke would deem the rising practice of enslaving Africans in North America wrong and illegal because it is blatant ownership slavery. Despite this vaunted position that Locke takes on chattel slavery, he does condone slavery under certain conditions.In his Second Treatise Locke comes to terms with two types of slavery. First off, there is “retribution” slavery, which he sums up as the perfect condition of slavery: it entails limited power on one side of the contract and obedience on the other (Locke 23). It is also defined by Locke as a continuation of a state of war in which the person who has committed such an act as deserves death is given delay by the person whom he has attacked in order that he may make him useful for his own services (Locke 22). This form of slavery is modernly defined as imprisonment. Simply put, someone who has done wrong must enter into a contract with those whom he has wronged in order to make retribution for his actions. This idea is often called retribution slavery because the criminal is making up for what he has done by forfeiting his services to the government or person that he has harmed in some way. The other type of slavery that Locke recognizes is the kind found in the Bible. He only condones this because “it is plain this was only to drudgery, not to slavery” (Locke 23). He says that the Jews were not under full control because the master did not have the power to kill them at will; therefore, this was not chattel slavery and was thus somewhat acceptable. These two cases are important to a full understanding of Locke’s ideas on slavery. He allows imprisonment and Biblical slavery because their tenets do not fall under the category of chattel or ownership slavery, which he feels is wrong. As many scholars and authors have noted, Locke frequently contradicts himself in his writings, but he may also have contradicted himself in his actions, as well.In Chapter V, Locke discusses the nature of property and how it factors into the ownership of a man. It is through labor that a man can make any piece of the state of nature his. By taking something from the state of nature and mixing it with his inherently held labor, a man makes that something his own. He clarifies this idea further by saying, “For this ‘labor’ being the unquestionable property of the laborer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to” (Locke 26). This clarification raises an obvious question in terms of slavery: if a slave uses his inherent labor to make something from the state of nature his property, is it really his, or is it his master’s? Locke never truly addresses this contradiction; it seems that there is no obvious explanation. It can be surmised, however, that Locke would say that a slave is not a man and does not have to rights that men do; thus, he has forfeited his “labor” to his owner or master. If slaves are not men, how can Locke stand behind his premise of all men being equal in stature in the state of nature? Locke also found other ways to contradict his stance on slavery by writing a highly controversial charter for the Carolinas and investing in the slave trade itself. The charter that Locke wrote for the Carolinas (which was never used) gave them the right to institute slavery and gave the men who settled there the right to import and own slaves in the form of chattel slavery (Norton Anthology). How is it possible that a man who condemns chattel slavery would suggest that this very form of slavery was condonable? There is another case to be made for Locke’s acceptance of slavery that involves his personal actions. Locke’s commercial trading activities as a government official eventually spilled over into the slave trade. He was an investor in the East India Trading Co.: one of the first companies to precipitate the slave trade (Norton Anthology). He is said to have viewed the slave trade as an important and economically empowering venture for England. This may seem preposterous given his opinion of chattel slavery, but there is strong empirical evidence to support this contention. Whatever Locke may have written on the topic of slavery, he most certainly did not back up his stated beliefs with his personal actions.Although it is impossible to definitively state why a man who wrote a treatise that condemned chattel slavery would have gone on to invest in that same form of slavery, that is the legacy of John Locke. We can discern from his Second Treatise of Government that he condemned outright ownership or chattel slavery, but we can also discern that Locke wrote an unused charter for the Carolinas that included a provision allowing chattel slavery and that he then went on to invest in companies that precipitated the slave trade for the sake of his country’s economic advancement. Whatever Locke’s writings may say about his perspective on slavery, they directly contradict with the actions of his personal and professional life. Indeed, it appears that John Locke led a decidedly muddled life outside of the philosophies that he committed to paper.
Locke and Rousseau
Students and scholars alike are often deceived by the association between Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau as founders of the social contract. Grouping these authors together often causes people to forget the essential variations presented by each man. The issue of liberty, for example, takes on an entirely different meaning when viewed from the eyes of either Locke or Rousseau.In understanding John Locke’s opinions on liberty in The Second Treatise of Government, it is important to begin with his definition of the idea. Fundamentally, Locke identifies liberty as the ability to do whatever one pleases without ever having to be dependent on another (Locke 2.4:116). However, Locke also recognizes that there are certain logical restrictions on this freedom, which he terms natural law: “A state of perfect freedom…within the bounds of the law of nature” (Locke 2.4:116). These natural laws prevent an individual from harming another man’s “life, health, liberty, or possessions” (Locke 2.6:117), and thus maintain order within a society. By restricting certain actions, natural laws shape a new form of freedom called societal liberty, where citizens may be under the control of a legislative power, but only one which is consented to by all (Locke 4.22:126).Under societal liberty, a new government, sovereign, and set of laws seem unnecessary. Locke explains, however, that over time a political society must be created in order for people to retain their freedom. Since men are naturally inclined to seize property (Locke 5.26:127), they eventually require preservation of their property because people “in this state [feel] very unsafe, very insecure” (Locke 9.123:178). Therefore, to reestablish liberty and preserve property, man, in common, agrees to be presided over by a unifying government (Locke 9.124:178). The true brilliance of Locke’s proposition comes in his defense of liberty under this established government. For man only relinquishes two powers – the ability to do whatever one wishes which is now regulated by a legislature (Locke 9.129:180), and the power of punishment which falls under executive authority (Locke 9.130:180). Despite these two forfeitures, each individual is guaranteed the opportunity to “preserve himself his liberty and property” (Locke 9.131:180). Likewise, individuals of the society are granted a consistent interpretation of the otherwise vague laws of nature (Locke 7.89:159). In this way, there is never a tradeoff of liberty for security, but an equal enhancement of both.Maintenance of a government that upholds freedom requires a few institutional arrangements. In order for the commonwealth to initiate this organization, the community must unanimously consent to the new establishment (Locke 8.96:163). Next, the body must agree, “to act as one body, which is only by the will and determination of the majority” (Locke 8.96:163). Furthermore, the commonwealth instills a great deal of power within the legislature (Locke 11.135:183), and the power to enforce laws within the executive (Locke 12.144:189).Lastly, Locke warns against the ways in which freedom can be restricted within society. The first form is legislative abuses, which Locke anticipates by requiring the legislature to act according to standing laws and always in the interest of the commonwealth (Locke 11.136:184). Secondly, the executive can also use his power to limit the freedom owed to the public. Once again, however, Locke foresees this problem by stating that, “When they are hindered by any force…wherein the safety and preservation of the people consists, the people have a right to remove it by force” (Locke 13.155:194). Locke protects against any injustice aimed towards the liberty of the commonwealth and summarizes his entire concept of freedom with the Latin words, “Salus populi suprema lex” (Locke 13.158:196): The people’s safety is the supreme law.Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in The Social Contract, although discussing the same topic of liberty, approaches the argument from a different perspective. Freedom, in Rousseau’s mind, is the right to function completely independent of others (Rousseau 1.7:58), and to be the judge and master of his own decisions (Rousseau 1.1:46). Political government is eventually sought to protect liberty because, “there is a point in the development of mankind at which the obstacles to men’s self-preservation…are too great to be overcome by the strength of any one individual” (Rousseau 1.6:54). At this point, individuals come together to form a society in which these obstacles can be overcome (Rousseau 1.6:54). Rousseau argues that, despite the new society and government, liberty is protected in three aspects; the social contract is based on freedom and self-preservation and thus will never contradict itself (Rousseau 1.6:55); nothing is lost in the new establishment, “in giving himself to all…he gains the equivalent of all that he loses, and greater strength for the conservation of what he possesses” (Rousseau 1.6:55). The ultimate goal of government, society, and the individual is the greatest good which consists of “liberty and equality” (Rousseau 2.11:86).In organizing a political authority which protects freedom as Rousseau has anticipated, the first step is to unanimously agree on a social contract aimed towards the general will (Rousseau 1.6:55). Next, the civilians of the new society form a sovereign, or collective entity, to exercise the universal general will (Rousseau 2.1:63). With the social contract and sovereign in place, the people continue by discovering a legislator, “who frames the laws, therefore, has not, or should not have, any rights of making law” (Rousseau 2.7:78). Lastly, a government is created to ensure crucial correspondence between the sovereign and subject, execute the laws, and maintain liberty (Rousseau 3.1:92). Despite the detailed instructions Rousseau gives in establishing a protective political society, he does recognize that violations of freedom can still occur.The two most probable restrictions on freedom, Rousseau claims, concern the sovereign’s power and minority presence. Rousseau states that, “To violate the act through which [the sovereign] exists would be to destroy itself, and that which is nothing can give rise to nothing” (Rousseau 1.7:57). Secondly, it appears as though Rousseau assumes that a general will is established easily and without controversy, but what would take place if a powerful minority dissented against the majority? Rousseau explains that in this case the majority would force the minority to understand and consent to the general will, and thus the minority, “will be forced to be free” (Rousseau 1.7:58).Although John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau display similar interests in the social contract and a political society’s preservation of freedom, their individual methods often vary. In order to completely understand each author’s perspective on liberty, they must be viewed separately. In doing so, we see the first signs of a political organization which is able to successfully maintain freedom despite a system of government and laws.