Today in 1632, John Locke was born. One of the most influential political philosophers and Enlightenment thinkers, his theories on natural law, social compact theory, property, monetarism, and republicanism have had a profound effect on the development of the western world.
Locke believed that humanity was inherently cooperative and tended to work for the mutual benefit of individuals, which contrasted greatly with the outlook of Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He contended individuals were vested with liberty by their creator – as an extension of their own humanity – and that such rights were pre-political. He argued that property itself was a natural right, derived from the exertion of one’s own labor. According to Locke, government cannot “dispose of the estates of the subjects arbitrarily.”
According to Locke, humans formed a social compact with each other in order to protect life, liberty, and property – the sole purpose of any just social arrangement. Any government that departed from this vision, he thought, could be justifiably altered and abolished – forcibly if necessary – by those which lived within it.
This vision greatly influenced Thomas Jefferson, an avowed Lockean, who stressed these ideas in the Declaration of Independence.
Out of the social compact theorists, Locke had by far the most influence on the founding generation in the American states. Historian Clinton Rossiter wrote that “Locke rode into New England on the backs of Moses and the Prophets.” Patriot lawyer James Otis wrote that “the authority of Mr. Locke has been preferred to all others.” Benjamin Franklin said that Locke was one of the “best English authors” in the fields of history, rhetoric, logic, moral and natural philosophy. Richard Henry Lee went as far as to describe the Declaration of Independence as a copy of Locke’s work. Thomas Jefferson called Locke one of the three greatest men that ever lived.
Dave Benner [website] speaks and writes on topics related to the United States Constitution, founding principles, and the early republic. Dave is also the author of Compact of the Republic: The League of States and the Constitution. See his blog archive here and his article archive here.