Up@dawn 2.0

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Locke in American Government: How We Have Set Ourselves Up To Fail (H3)

This report is meant to highlight the use and application of Western philosophical ideas into the formation and growth of America, and how the failure to adhere to the ideas the country was originally based upon has contributed to the corruption and institutionalization that we still face today. This focuses mostly on John Locke but touches on other fundamental ideas throughout.

Many Western world governments and policy have been based upon the ideas of the great early modern European philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Locke, in particular, in his Second Treatise of Government addresses the formation and purpose of government in society, as well as the nature of property and labor. His ideas, if executed and understood correctly, could have been used to create the ideal operational society. This makes it crucial that political leaders aim to implement this philosophy as the central focus of society through government and social standard. The formation of America and its government, though may have been well intentioned, has fallen short of conforming to these ideas, and the conflict that arose between the republic’s erection and the sectional crisis in the late 1800’s has shown that without these basic founding principles, the American system will never be a balanced commonwealth.

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               From the very start of the American republic, the erection of this commonwealth went against Locke’s philosophy on government formation. Locke said outright that, “…all men being born under government, are to submit to that, and are not at liberty to begin a new one.” America was formed out of revolution against the British monarch and created as a democracy, and later the Confederacy tried to break away from the Union to form their own country. Locke saw that from the beginning of humanity, before any area was populated enough to need a government, the basic family unit was all that people had to look to for protection and support. The father was the head of the house who ruled over his household. He taught the children while exercising love, as the children were his own blood. Whatever regulations they were restricted by were for the sake of the child’s own protection and well-being. Therefore, it is reasonable that the family would remain obedient under the father, as they recognize his experience and love for them makes him qualified to look out for the well-being of all, and his decision reflect their own best interest. The only way that people would be subject to the political power of someone other than their blood, would be if people came together as a community and decided to make one body to act on behalf and with the consent of the majority. This is why Locke believed that a monarchy had been such an effective form of government, because it stemmed from both of these concepts. If a fatherly figure was the head of this community, that he and his family had an invested interest in, then there would be no concern that the leader would have any ulterior motives behind his actions. He would always be doing what is best for his family as a part of the majority of his domain. As this community grew into an empire and, in turn, its own country, the leader would still have the investment in his people, as he and his family are represented within this population. This is why a new king or queen is usually directly descended from the past monarch; keeping the power in the family keeps the ties to his people.  The American system of democracy was going to create a detachment between the government and the governed. This did not guarantee the best interest of the people to always be at the center of the ruling policies. The entire reason that the American colonies sought independence was because of disconnect between the policies the King was placing on colonists, with representing them or understanding the needs of his people in this new land. The controversy surrounding the Jacksonian era is a prime example of this discord in America, after failing to recognize this conflict of interest in government hierarchy. The Second National Bank was under speculation as it had a monopoly of the funds of the American people and the country. There was a protective tariff that was limiting the free trade abilities of citizens. Beneath these surface issues, many American’s believed that these policies were put in place to benefit large corporations and their investors, not the good of the common man. The secession of the southern states that resulted in the Civil War, could also be viewed as a result of the government not being able to represent and function with the consent of the majority, as Locke said they must do. With the country divided into taking two very distinct standpoints on the issue of slavery, the Union government no longer embodied the values of the Southern majority. This made them feel as if they should form their own government that would support their best interest as a commonwealth.

               The Confederate government, however, was basing itself off of ideas that contradict Locke’s principles just as much as that of the Union. The foundation of all of Locke’s philosophy on government is that “Men being, as has been said, by nature, all free, equal and independent, no one can be put out of this estate and subjected to the political power of another without his own consent.” Slavery, which is what the vice president of the Confederacy claimed to be the cornerstone of their new nation, went against the very building blocks of civilization in society. Perhaps this was part of the underlying reason of the movement to rid the Union of slavery overall. Thomas Jefferson saw this contradiction early on as he used the Declaration of Independence itself to speak out against the wrongs of the slave trade and how it creates a domestic enemy within the republic. This country could never function as one with an entire population in bondage and stripped of their right to liberty. Though Jefferson did theorize that the biological differences between white and black made them learn and labor differently in their environment, he never suggests they are anything but human beings with rights of their own. The racist thought that they were by nature different and inferior to whites, and therefore needed to be managed in order to control their brutish nature. They would not be able to handle the responsibility of freedom and liberty as the more sophisticated whites did. They took on ideas similar to Darwin’s in regard to race before his time, as they believed that blacks were less evolved. Jefferson recognized that they were people who had done nothing to offend the British or American people to deserve the fate that their race would endure for the generations to come, and it was immoral to strip them of their basic human rights, just as Locke had stated.  In Jefferson’s letter to Edward Cole, he more directly addresses slavery in America, and realizes that the basic colonial life was disrupted by slavery and it caused no alarm of the people at their lack of value for liberty because they had always been considered property, not people. He states that people are not carrying through these principles of liberty that they themselves invoked in the formation of the republic. “Every man being, as has been shewed, naturally free, and nothing being able to put him into subjection to any earthly power, but only his own consent…”

This is a quick video on a basic overview of Locke's political theory:


  1. (H3) Just on a historical note I'm pretty sure that the south was never a majority, even when you counted the slaves, most of whom would prefer not to be slaves. Also was the confederacy set up on grounds contrary to Locke? The Confederacy made a government that took a lot of power away from the federal government and gave it back to the states. It made each state more equal with each other. Although the war is often taught to be about slavery that wasn't what it was all about, there was also states rights, which mattered just as much to the CSA as slavery, in fact slavery as considered part of state rights. I' not saying this as a defense of the south or it's slavery. Only to ask you to question deeper the implications of Locke in the historical context. Yes their slavery was wrong but was their government, was their other reasons? Especially when you talk about society and civilization, which weren't whole natural to lock, these were outside the state of nature.

  2. "Whatever regulations they were restricted by were for the sake of the child’s own protection and well-being. Therefore, it is reasonable that the family would remain obedient under the father, as they recognize his experience and love for them makes him qualified to look out for the well-being of all, and his decision reflect their own best interest." Boy, does that sound like a self-serving apologia for patriarchy! I think we've all met enough fathers to know that only a fraction of them measure up to the raised pedestal described here, and enough mothers to know that at least as many of them are fully competent to "look out for the well-being of all" etc. And, we all know enough benevolent non-blood relations to realize that a literal kinship bias is unjustified.

    Locke's emphasis on liberty and consent, though, remains our bedrock. Interesting question to follow up on: how did Locke's "pursuit of property" become Jefferson's "pursuit of happiness"?

  3. Anonymous11:40 AM CST

    Side note: I am in no way justifying whether Locke's idea were right or wrong in terms of forming our country. I am merely pointing out that our country claims to be founded on his principles, and when we only pick and choose which ones to follow, it has created an inner conflict and discord within.

  4. I admire your courage in asserting such a narrow and affective claim. You may want to evaluate some of the assumptions made in your essay, though.