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Locke Holds the Key:

Locke Holds the Key:

Locke Holds the Key: What Jefferson’s July 4th Declaration Actually Declared.

By Dr. Jerome Huyler: author of LOCKE IN AMERICA:  The Moral Philosophy of the Founding Era.

Each July 4th Americans gather on the public square to recite and reflect on the founders’ hallowed words. Fearing the nation is heading in the wrong direction, many seek guidance and inspiration from Jefferson’s stirring ideas, as well they should.

Founding principles are fundamental.  They make it possible to reach the root of our difficulties rather than just deal endlessly in mere policy details. They accomplish this by raising the most basic of questions:  What is government for?  What must it do for the people and what must the people be allowed and expected to do for themselves (and one another)?  When should, when must¸ citizens say to their elected representatives this far and no farther?

Unfortunately, no surface reading of the founding documents will furnish any satisfactory answers to the basic queries.  Nothing so illustrates the point as the Presidential 2013 State of the Union Address.  “What makes us exceptional,” Mr. Obama demanded, “is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago.”  Precisely how is the abstract principle of “unalienable” individual rights to be applied?   It’s anybody’s guess. For, “when times change,  so must we.” Why is that?  Because “fidelity to our founding principles [will] require new responses to new challenges; [because] preserving  our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action?”  Mr. Obama famously pledged to fundamentally transform our political order.  So, Americans must “harness new ideas and technology to remake our government . . . [that] is what will give real meaning to our creed.”   Just how much change can a founding creed carry before it shatters into thousands of unmanageable policy pieces?

Hearing the President, one might conclude that the Declaration of Independence says whatever anyone wants it to say.  But, that isn’t so.  Jefferson’s revolutionary manifesto clearly enunciates the precise limit of government’s “lawful” power.  The needed guidance is there, but to grasp it fully one must learn to read between the lines.  Etched into the revolutionary parchment is a truly comprehensive political vision.  For, all other influences, notwithstanding, the founding generation was committed to a set of principles nowhere more fully enunciated than in the writings of the English philosopher, John Locke.[i]

Writing during the turbulent years leading up to England’s Glorious Revolution (1688), Locke spoke for the part of England that prized liberty and opposed the Stuart Monarchy’s claim of absolute power as conferred by Divine Right.  By 1760, a large part of that population had already settled in 13 far-off British colonies.  And many believed their liberties were again being invaded. Locke’s Second Treatise of Government defended the right of aggrieved citizens to resist “lawless” political power.

Compare Locke’s language to Jefferson’s.  Rebellion should not be started for “light and transient causes,” said Jefferson.  For, as Locke explained, “Great mistakes in the ruling part, many wrong and inconvenient laws, and all the slips of human frailty, will be borne by the people.”  But, here’s Jefferson, “when a long train of abuses and usurpations,’ and Locke, “[should] a long train of abuses, prevarications and artifices” reveal, in Jefferson’s words, a design to reduce [the people] under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty to throw off such government and to provide new guards for their future security.”[ii]

But with what should the old guard be replaced?  Here, too, Locke mentored the Americans.  Locke imagined a time without government, a “state of nature.”  But he really was describing “the state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit . . . without asking leave or depending upon the will of any other man (II, §4).”  Why is that?  Because of certain basic commitments Locke and Jefferson shared.  The Declaration’s thus declares,  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”  For Locke, “there [is] nothing more evident than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection” (II, §6).

You see, “the state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges everyone, and reason which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”  (II, 6).  As men are created equal, so they are “endowed with certain “unalienable” rights.  Locke designated these “Life, Liberty and Property.”  Jefferson replaced property with “the Pursuit of Happiness.”  All understood that happiness is not possible where there is no right to gain, keep, use, and dispose of one’s material possessions.  Jefferson later summed matters up this way:  “The first principle of society is a guarantee of the free exercise of industry and possession of the fruit acquired by it.”

What comes next is pivotal.  For, Jefferson explains that it is “to secure these rights that government is instituted among men, deriving it’s just powers from the consent of the governed.”  Consider all that this implies.  Since the powers of government are derived from the consent of the governed, it behooves us to discern precisely what range of rights the governed possess, and so may cede to government.  No government may claim the power to do what the citizens originally did not have the right to do, in the first place. So just which of man’s rights will men willingly delegate to their political institutions?

The answer will be found in exposing one additional right Locke finds in the natural make-up of man: the Right of self-defense.  If men could not defend their persons and possessions from being violated in the state of nature, they would have no rights, at all.   Upon establishing civil government, then, individuals do not surrender their fundamental rights.  It is to better protect their lives, liberties and possessions that they grant government the right to rule over them.  The original right of self-defense is transformed into government’s power to protect and defend all in the enjoyment of what is rightfully theirs.  Citizens pledge not to take the law into their own hands, not to become vigilantes, but to rely on the rule of law and the institutions of government to prevent or justly punish any assault on men’s liberties from all threats foreign and domestic.  For its part, government erects effective military, intelligence, police, judicial and correctional institutions to assure individuals the enjoyment of what is already theirs.  And that it is all political leadership is  authorized to do.  Locke, himself, was clear as crystal on the point.

“For nobody can transfer to another more power than he has in himself; and no Body has an absolute Arbitrary Power…over any other, to…take away the Life or Property of another….and having in the State of Nature no Arbitrary Power over the Life, Liberty or Possessions of another, but only so much as the Law of Nature gives him to the preservation of himself;…this is all he doth, or can give up to the Commonwealth…so that the Legislative can have no more than this” (XI, § 135).

No one had the right to restrain another from doing as he or she pleased or to abscond with what another earned by the sweat of his brow.  Having no such right, in the state of nature, no number of organized special interests or humanitarian pleaders can affect such a transfer.  Government was designed to serve as a Protector.  The moment it begins acting not to protect the interests of all, but rather to assist some at others’ expense, government transforms itself from Protector to Provider.  And what it provides, might as well be called welfare (whoever the beneficiary might be).

The Social/Corporate welfare complex and the Lockean/ Jeffersonian conception of ordered liberty and a laissez faire economy form two mutually exclusive social visions.  From the founders’ perspective, the wide range of social services, business subsidies and sundry other privileges doled out over the past two centuries constitute no lawful exercise of political power.

To champion the nation’s founding principles is to commit to a downsizing of government the likes of which can barely be imagined in today’s climate.  It’s an open question whether any lesser course will spare the nation the calamitous consequences that must one day catch up to ill-begotten causes.  But a due appreciation of the Lockean roots of American democracy will allow the July 4th revelers to more clearly appreciate:  (1) just when the country first veered off the founding course; and (2) how she got from that day to this.

By Locke’s reckoning, the fateful shift came with the second bill signed into law by the nation’s first President.  The Tariff Act of 1789 not only raised revenue, as sanctioned by the Constitution, but authorized Congress to “encourage domestic manufactures.”  It could impose a “protective” tariff, raising the price of goods coming from Europe, but not without raising consumer prices for farmers and planters and depriving many who made their living in the seafaring trades of their livelihood.  How did the country get from that day to this?

Once a nation decides that some of its citizens have a right not to go out and get, but to sit still and be given, it finds itself torn by two questions:  Just who should be given and exactly how much should they get?  There’s only one answer: Politics.  And, as the demand for benefits and privileges rise, so must the supply.  There’s no limit to what citizens, in the crucible of time, may not consider themselves “entitled.”


[i]  That is the central theme developed in my doctoral dissertation and subsequent volume, Locke in America:  The moral philosophy of the Founding Era (University Press of Kansas, 1995, 2000).

[ii] Jefferson’s quotes taken from The Declaration of Independence.  John Locke’texts drawn from  The Second Treatise of Government.  Universal chapter and paragraph locations are cited in text (e.g., II, §6).

Jerome Huyler Phd

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Jerome Huyler is a former assistant professor at Seton Hall University. He earned his PhD in political science from the New School University in 1992 and his bachelor’s degree from Brooklyn College, where he majored in philosophy. He is also the author of: Locke in America: The Moral Philosophy of the Founding Era. And Everything You Have: The Case Against Welfare.

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