Locke, John (1632–1704)

Perhaps no other single person has had as much impact on political philosophy and thinking as John Locke. Thomas Jefferson acknowledged Locke’s influence on his own political thought; George Mason named Locke as a primary influence on his work; Thomas Paine used Lockean notions of liberty in his writing.

Born outside London to a minor gentry family, Locke was educated at Christ Church, Oxford. His primary contribution to politics and political science is his presentation of Natural Law theory and the Social Contract. Natural Law, although not a concept original to Locke, found one of its most fervent disciples in Locke. He defined Natural Law as a moral basis for human behavior; in other words, the way man should (but does not always) act. Respect for the Natural Rights of others, including property and the preservation of human life, were basic rights given to man by God.

In a state of Nature, that is, in a precivilization context, man existed independent of communities. Although each person had the same rights, namely the right to life, the right to keep and own property, and the right to live unaffected by the choices of all other persons, it also fell on each individual person to defend those rights. For the sake of convenience, man entered into a state of Society, whereby he surrendered some of those rights to the state. For example, it being difficult and inconvenient for a person living in close proximity to 1,000 other persons with property and rights to defend himself against all other persons, he created a simple government. By giving the government the power and authority to act in his own name, the man entered into the Social Contract. The state, then, took the responsibility of mediating disputes about property or incidents whereby one citizen was damaged in some way by another.

It is critical to recognize the limits to the social arrangement: under Social Contract theory; the state could never possess more authority to act in any citizen’s name than that citizen possessed himself. For example, the state could not take property from one citizen or give it to another without authority. The state was authorized to proscribe laws for the good of society, but those laws could not provide unfair advantage to one citizen over another. For the purpose of proscribing laws, a legislature of some fashion was the favored method; legislators were theoretically beholden to the electorate and could be held accountable for their actions.

In addition, seen in the context of a theoretical contract, the agreement could be broken by either party. The right of the people to rebel under a government, for example, was inherent, because ultimate authority rested in the people. A king or some other ruler could (and should) be overthrown if that ruler became tyrannical, and Locke was explicit about the conditions under which tyranny existed: when a king or ruler used his power in ways that benefited his or her interest instead of the common interest, that ruler was a tyrant; and when a ruler exercised his power or used force in a way that exceeded his or her authority, that ruler was tyrannical. Under conditions of tyranny, citizens had the right and the obligation to overthrow the ruler, but because the ruler was the one who had violated the contract, the citizens who rebelled were not strictly rebels (a term that implies extralegal activity) but citizens taking back the power they had previously ceded to the ruler. The king, said Locke, was the one in rebellion.

For Locke’s contemporaries, political authority came from one of two places: God or the people. Locke rejected the Divine Right school of thought and believed that ultimate authority, whether by king or some other executive, rested in the people. The logical extension of that argument placed Parliament (indeed, any elected legislative body) properly as sovereign over a king. A Divine Right king, as conceived of by Locke and his contemporaries, had undue power over a legislature: he could refuse to call the legislature into session; he could veto legislative activity; or he could apply undue influence or pressure to ensure a specific legislative outcome. All were unsatisfactory under a proper state of society.

Locke published his philosophies in a series of essays, the most important of which were the Two Treatises on Government and An Essay on Human Understanding. Both were read widely in the American colonies, but even more colonists were exposed to Lockean thought when public leaders incorporated Locke’s ideas in pamphlets, sermons, and public speeches. Without question, the idea that citizens could lawfully rebel under conditions of tyranny, and without question American colonists saw parallels between Locke’s theoretical construction of popular sovereignty and the political situation in London.


References and Further Reading

  • Brown, Gillian. The Consent of the Governed: The Lockean Legacy in Early American Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.
  • Chappell, Vere, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Locke. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.


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