John Locke, recognized as the father of classic liberalism, was a big fan of the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment. In fact, he probably inspired it.
Oh, and Edmund Burke, recognized as the father of conservative thought, was probably against it.
We’ll get to Burke and his take on abstract rights next week. This week is all about Locke, the man who basically designed the United States of America.
Before the Enlightenment, which began in the 17th century and continued into the 19th century, the common thinking was that rulers derived their authority to rule from a god, or gods, or rulers were, in some cases, themselves gods. That view, which prevailed for most of human history, began to change during the Enlightenment. Locke (1632-1704) was not alone in his contrarian views regarding what was known and widely accepted as the “divine right of kings.”
Many during the Enlightenment period shared Locke’s views, but we’re focusing on him because of the role that his writings played in the formation of the United States.
Locke made three great contributions to human history: One was arguing for tolerance in religion, respecting the beliefs of others and keeping church and state separate. He wanted that separation not to protect the state from the church, but to protect the church from the state. His second contribution was in education, where he proposed the “blank slate” theory. Before Locke, the thinking was that people are born with innate knowledge. Locke said, no; we learn from experience.
His third contribution was his great political work, Second Treatise of Government. In it he continues his case for why the people — not a divine being — have the ultimate authority for government.
Locke was also wary of giving any one person too much authority, and he argued for a separation of governmental powers.
Locke also said that people were born with natural rights and that they consented to give up a limited number of those rights to form a government, primarily so the government could protect their rights.
Locke argued that if a government abused the power that the people entrusted to it, revolution was the people’s right and their obligation, too.
Locke also argued that citizens must maintain the means to revolt in case it was needed (hello, Second Amendment).
When the United States’ Founding Fathers, specifically Thomas Jefferson, sought to justify rebellion against England, they found Locke.
Compare these quotes:
Locke: “The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”
Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed …”
The bedrocks of the U.S. Constitution — government by the people; separation of powers; separation of church and state; the obligation to rebel when rights are violated (as when American revolutionaries opposed taxation without representation) — all originated with Locke.
The United States was, at its inception, an experiment based on Locke’s liberal philosophies, to see whether they could work in the real world.
So far, that experiment has succeeded to an extent that few could have imagined when Locke put these ideals into writing in the 17th century.
Sorry, again, conservatives.
Next week we’ll look at the leader of the anti-Enlightenment, the man who invented conservatism: Edmund Burke.
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