“The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records. They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of divinity itself, and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.” Alexander Hamilton
Numerous times throughout history, tyranny has stimulated breakthrough thinking about liberty. This was certainly the case in England with the mid-seventeenth century era of repression, rebellion and civil war. There was a tremendous outpouring of political pamphlets and tracts and by far, the most influential writings emerged from the pen of John Locke, 1632-1704, a philosopher and physician, known as the Father of Classical Liberalism. Classical liberalism, for those not familiar with the term, is a philosophy committed to the ideal of limited government and liberty of individuals including freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and free markets.
Up to this point in history, putting aside a few ancient democracies and republics, Kings and nobility were the origin of authority, granting rights and privileges to their subjects. Under tyranny, the people did not possess rights, only privileges dependent upon the pleasure of the rulers
Lock, believing in the First Principle of Inalienable Rights, expressed the radical view that government is morally obligated to serve people by protecting life, liberty, and property. He explained the principle of checks and balances to limit government power preferring a representative government and rule of law, common for everyone, based on natural rights and not subject to the arbitrary will of another man.
Educated at Oxford, Locke had two of his treaties on government published in October 1689. While left leaning philosophers belittled his work because he based his thinking on “archaic” notions about a “state of nature,” his bedrock principles endured. Locke defended natural law tradition whose glorious lineage went back to the ancient Jews; the tradition that rulers cannot legitimately do anything they want, because there are moral laws that apply to everyone.
Locke’s writings established that private property was absolutely essential for liberty and that everyone had a “property in his own person” which no man but himself has a right to. “The labor of his Body and the Work of his hands are properly his.” He believed that people must be free to make choices about how to conduct their own lives as long as they don’t interfere with the liberties of others.
He insisted that people, not rulers, were sovereign. Government “can never have a power to take to themselves the whole or any part of the subjects’ property, without their own consent.” He even went further to declare that rulers “must not raise taxes on the property of the people, without the consent of the people, given by themselves or their deputies.” Believing that the sole purpose of government was to preserve and protect our God-given rights, Locke affirmed an explicit right to revolution “whenever the legislators endeavor to take away and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power. . .”
Locke’s byline appeared with An Essay Concerning Human Understanding published in 1689 that established him as England’s leading philosopher. He challenged the traditional doctrines of learning, encouraging man to observe, to think for himself, to let reason be his guide. With the publication in 1693 of Some Thoughts Concerning Education Locke declared that the purpose of education was for liberty, that setting an example was the most effective way to teach moral standards and fundamental skills, which is why he recommended home schooling, urging parents to nurture the unique genius of each child.
During the 1720’s the English radical writers John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon popularized Locke’s writings in Cato’s Letters, a popular series of essays published in London newspapers, which had the most direct impact on American thinkers.
Thomas Jefferson, who used Locke’s theory of natural rights to reason for revolution, ranked Locke and his compatriot Algernon Sidney, as the most important thinkers on liberty. Jefferson wrote to John Manners in 1817 that “the evidence of natural right, like that of our right to life, liberty, the use of our faculties, the pursuit of happiness, is not left to the feeble and sophistical investigations of reason, but is impressed on the sense of every man. We do not claim these under the charters of kings or legislators, but under the King of Kings.”
Locke also helped inspire Thomas Paine’s radical ideas about revolution. James Madison and Benjamin Franklin drew their most fundamental principles of liberty and government from his writings. Voltaire called him “the man of the greatest wisdom. What he has not seen clearly, I despair of ever seeing.”
The influence that Locke had on the founding of our great country is evident. In 1833, Justice Joseph Story, author of the famed Commentaries on the Constitution, described him as “a most strenuous asserter of liberty” who helped establish in this country the sovereignty of the people over the government, majority rule with minority protection, and the rights of conscience.
In 1834, George Bancroft, the Father of American History, described Locke as “the rival of ‘the ancient philosophers’ to whom the world had ‘erected statues’,” noting that Locke esteemed “the pursuit of truth the first object of life and . . . never sacrificed a conviction to an interest.” In 1872, historian Richard Frothingham said that the principles that he said were “inspired and imbued with the Christian idea of man,” produced the “leading principle [of] republicanism” that was “summed up in the Declaration of Independence and became the American theory of government.”
In the 1890s, John Fiske, the celebrated 19th century historian, affirmed that Locke brought to America “the idea of complete liberty of conscience in matters of religion” allowing persons with “any sort of notion about God” to be protected “against all interference or molestation,” and that Locke should “be ranked in the same order with Aristotle.”
The influence of Locke on America was truly profound. He was a renaissance man, an individual skilled in numerous areas and diverse subjects.