JOHN LOCKE AND THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION
Rebellion against the existing authority (Stuart Monarchy) in England, during the late seventeenth century, necessarily opened up avenues of political theory to explain the government’s existence (in terms of its origin and purpose), and to suggest possible alternatives of government rule. Of the most prominent enlightened political theorists that appeared on the scene, John Locke captured the idea of the freedom and equality of Men, and theorized their special relation to government in his coherent rational work, Two Treatises on Government. Though his Two Treatises served its purpose, in demanding and justifying the need for revolution (which occurred in 1689, establishing a Constitutional Monarchy), it was not confined to this purpose. It had philosophical aspirations as well as policy (i.e., a “statement of guidance of what men will accept, respond to and pursue, of the limits of their loyalty and the possible extent of generalization about their behavior”), that gave Locke’s writings a “mobility” so as to be applicable, in similar situations of revolution involving government, as a philosophical guideline in the formation of a just and representative government of the People. The circumstances that existed (?) the American Revolution that favored an attempt at such an application, and the extent to which Locke’s ideas on representative government, were successfully applied to the formation of the American Government during its Revolution, shall be the object of this study.
I intend to proceed by presenting Locke’s basic ideas on representative government, the factors that allowed its spread to the American Colonies, and the changes in the state constitution that occurred, to show the extent to which Locke’s theory on representative government was applicable.
The first of Locke’s Two Treatises intended to be a complete refutation of the interpretation that some men were set above other men by God (an attack on the basis of divine right rule). This first treatise was an argument that reasoned Locke’s assumption that men are free and equal. For the purpose of this paper, I will rely, to a great extent, upon the content of Locke’s “Second Treatise,” which dealt with the origin, the limits, and the ultimate aim of civil government. Locke stated that the basis for the possibility of a government,relies upon Man’s capability of “rational behavior and so able to understand and cooperate with each other.” Locke assumed that Man is born in perfect freedom (subject to nobody), equal to other Men, and that in a state of nature (where there is no authority on earth to judge and punish, outside of the individual man and his own reason) “he is absolute Lord of his own Person and Possessions,” and has the right to execute the will of his judgment to preserve himself, and his possessions; however, in a state of nature there is always the danger of invasion by other Men (in the act of executing their wills) so as to make it difficult for Man to enjoy his existence and his possessions. This situation compelled Man, as Locke theorized, to “joyn in Society (with other Men with his consent to 1. resign his natural right to execute the will of his judgment and 2. appeal to the judicature, established by the Society, to decide with Authority, Controversy between Men and punish Offenders (VII, 87, 25-28). . . . for the mutual Preservation of their Lives, Liberties and Estates” (IX, 124, 1-2). Locke emphasizes the point of Consent throughout his work, that it is the bond that unites Men, through which the Supreme Power of the Legislative is derived to establish Laws by which Men live in safety of each other. It is this initial causation (Men forming societies) that provided Locke’s rationale in defining the ultimate aim of the government (i.e., the Preservation of Man’s Life, Liberty and Estates).
The form of government that was to be instrumental in pursuing this aim, was classified by Locke as a Commonwealth. A Commonwealth is a form of government that depends upon the placement of the Supreme Power of the Legislative (law making body) (X, 132, 20). THe Supreme Power is essentially within the control of the society of Men from which it was derived. It is that society of Men which is empowered to grant the Legislative Power to one or (more?) persons for their lives or any limited time, then the Power returns back to that Society at the end of the term of rule, or by Forfeiture (t(?)hen the ruling body endeavors to take away and destroy those things that the Society wanted to preserve, or reduce Men to Slavery under Arbitrary Power, in which case the men have a right to rebel (XIX, 222, 20-25)) and grant the power anew to what hands they deem with reason that will provide for their Safety and Security. The supremacy of the Legislative is based upon the reasoning that for the Society, to remain as one body, must have only one supreme power, and since the Legislative literally represents the united force of the Society, it becomes the Supreme Power. The members chosen to effect the functioning of the Commonwealth are to be selected on “equal and just measures suitable to the frame of the Government” (XIII, 158, 25-27) by the majority of the People, so that the Will of the Government, will be the representative Will of the People, and to insure that the laws are made in the interests of the People, the members of the Legislature as well as all members of the Society, will be subject to the laws they make. Locke also presents subordinate powers to assist the Legislative, which are the Executive Powers (responsible for the maintenance of the force of the Laws made by the Legislative), and the Federative Powers (responsible for the external security of the Commonwealth). Though Locke presents each power as separate and distinct, as to function, he does not present the necessity of the separation of powers as a means of attaining a proper functioning and just exercise of those powers, instead, he bases the means on the concept of trust, which applies to the Legislative in its fullest force. The main limit placed on the function of each power, is that each functions in strict regard of the purpose that each was created. The Supreme Power of the Legislative, in the hands of delegated persons of the Society, are limited in this way:
1. They are to govern by promulgated established Laws, (no arbitrary rule).
2. These Laws also are to be designed for no other end ultimately, but for the Good of the People.
3. They must not raise Taxes on the property of the People, without the Consent of the people.
4. The Legislative cannot transfer its Power of making laws to nay Body else, or place it anywhere but where the People have.(XI, 143, 1-18)
Thus presenting Locke’s basic ideas on representative government within his line of reasoning, we can summarize his basic ideas in the following: (1) All Men are Free and Equal; (2) the foundation of government was the Consent of the People; (3) the aim of the government was to preserve the life, liberty and estates of its people; and (4) the Legislative Powers, derived from the People, are supreme. In his presentation of these ideas, he made no appeal to history, or tradition, so that his work would not be confined to the occurrences of his time. Nothing in his work could be disproved by the discovery of new historical evidence or by other convincing historical theories on society. Two Treatises on Civil Government is at the same time, a response to a particular political (English Revolution of 1689) and a statement of universal principle.
Conditions that favored the spread of Locke’s ideas concerning government to the American Colonies was to some extent due to the Enlightenment (which promoted an easy interchange of ideas). Other factors which include a rise in the activities of the booksellers and their advertisements in the colonial press, by the second quarter of the eighteenth century, helped create an interest in the progress of philosophy, literature and science of European and English thinkers; and the contacts through correspondence especially with English dissenters, like Thomas Gordon and John Trenchard, who kept acutely alive the spirit of reform and became rich sources of political and social theory. One of the most important tendencies that was evident in the cultural development of the American Colonies, was the emphasis placed on the study of the writings of great political theorists, like Locke, of the old world by the rising young intellectuals in the colonies. Thus, with the importation of knowledge from the European and English scholars, there appears to be an enlightenment movement within the American Colonies, similar to the intellectual movement that swept through England and Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The new social conditions that arose because of the environmental aspects (i.e., the new “frontier,” a natural setting free from any firm ties of tradition to the existing civilized cultures), promoted the spirit of freedom with and opportunity to put the reformist theories on old world enlightenment into practice. Locke’s principles of the freedom and equality of men, was reinforced into the nascent American culture, by developments of situation. For example, the nonexistence of a hereditary aristocratic class and the less inequality in the distribution of wealth (the extreme opposite states of each of these, being the developments of an established and organized culture, like England or France). Conditions that urged a tendency for self-government in the American Colonies, may be attributed to a great increase in wealth of the colonists from 1715 to 1754, which was partly due to the profitable utilization of the rich natural resources, and partly from non-enforcement of laws by the English. The presentation of the intellectual, social and economic factors, that favored the basic principles of Locke to be manifested in the American Colonies, serves to present the extent to which Locke’s ideas, of the equality and freedom of men and of Self-government (i.e., representative government), became a part of the frame of mind of those Americans that set up the American Government during their revolution.
I intend to compare the American Government during its revolution to the government that was set up before the revolution, as to their structural differences. The main intent of this is to extent(?) to which the ideas of Locke were applied as a new concept as compared to the most progressive government in existence, England. Before the Revolution, most of the state governments in Colonial America were modeled after the government of England (except for Connecticut and Rhode Island which had representative governments). Each of the remaining colonies had a legislative body, elected by qualified voters (adult male with property qualifications, which Locke did not deal with), however, consider, “suffrage granted to freeholders of certain competences proved in the colonies, where freehold property was almost universal to be not restrictive but widely permissive.” The legislative body consisted in most instances as two houses. The governor of these colonies was appointed by the proprietaries or the Crown. The governor would rule much like an absolute ruler, in that he (governor) would rule independent of the people and be responsible to no one. His powers were enormous, for example, he could convene and dissolve the legislature. To this power Locke writes in his treatise, “when the Legislative is broken or dissolved, Dissolution and Death of the Commonwealth follows” (XIX, 212, 12). His other powers are: that he is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the colony, that he has the power to appoint judges, civil and military officers, and his power to veto all laws, are among the most important powers. After the Revolution, however, the colonial governments became independent state governments. These state governments had lost its monarchical features, which was basically a change in the concentration of power, from the hands of the Executive Power to those of the Legislative Powers. Measures used to restrict the Executives (governors) followed a gradual path of limiting his appointing powers, and requiring that he consult an executive council on important matters of government. The act of transferring the concentration of a power to one branch, reflects the repudiation of the English theory of checks and balances. The chief feature the constitution of this American Government was the entire balance of the checks and balances. The matter of checks and balances is not explicitly stated in Locke’s Two Treatises, nor does it need to be in following his line of reasoning, because a system of checks and balances required powers that are equal in relative strength. However, Locke proposed to establish the supremacy of the Legislative as did the Americans in their formulation of government during their Revolution to gain independence from England. The lasting effects of this government under the Articles of Confederation, was only forty years. The failure of this first attempt to apply Locke’s idea on a working governmental system focused attention on the possibility of a government rule by the consent of the people. Locke succeeded in presenting a rational basis for a representative government. The American government of the Revolutionary Period, though failing to be any lasting monument in the application of Locke’s ideas, did ingrain, in the minds of men, his fundamental principles of Freedom and Equality of men.