Victor Nuovo: Rule by the People comes from Locke
18th in a series
John Locke (1632–1704) was not an American, nor did he ever set foot on the American continent — although for a short time he owned property here and perhaps slaves. Yet there is wide agreement among historians that he was America’s philosopher, at least in the minds of the founders of this nation and framers of its Constitution. Therefore, he deserves a place in a series devoted to the life of the mind in America.
The meaning of the ideas of liberty, equality, power, civil society, the rule of law, and common sense that occupied the minds of the founders and framers, were Lockian ideas.
For example, compare these two quotations:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
“To understand Political Power right, we must consider what state all Men are naturally in, and that is a State of Perfect Freedom … a State also of Equality, wherein all the Power and Jurisdiction is reciprocal … there being nothing more evident, than that Creatures of the same species … should be equal one amongst another without Subordination or Subjection. … Every one as he is bound to preserve himself … so by like reason ought he as much as he can to preserve the rest of Mankind, [doing only] what tends to the Preservation of the Life, Liberty, Health, Limb or Goods of another.”
The first is taken from the Declaration of Independence, whose primary author was Thomas Jefferson; the second is from the “Second Treatise of Government,” whose author was John Locke.
All through the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution there are echoes of Locke’s “Second Treatise.” It is as though the founders and framers were using it as a textbook, as a sourcebook of reasons for revolution, and a guidebook for creating a durable Democratic Republic. It served them well. And it will continue to serve us well, if only we take the time to read it and ponder its message.
Chief among the ideas that Locke promotes is the notion of popular sovereignty. The people are sovereign, and no government is legitimate without the people’s consent, the consent of the governed. But the people are not a lawless mob, they are rational beings, and hence individually and collectively, bearers of the Law of Reason or Nature, which Nature and Nature’s God ordained from the very beginning of things and to which they and we are mutually bound. Reason, Nature and Nature’s God meant one and the same to Locke, and they were fundamental to his idea of a moral universe, which has become the foundation of the American political tradition, of American Power. It is our civil religion. It was Thomas Jefferson’s religion and others’ also, Federalists and Democrats.
This is a precious heritage, never more so than now when it has come under attack. Donald Trump and his lawless mobs represent the very antithesis of this idea. And on Jan. 6, 2021, they inflicted a serious wound on the American body politic that could have been mortal and from which it has not yet recovered. The healing must take place in the minds and hearts of the People. But I digress.
One of the great disappointments that readers of Locke’s “Second Treatise” experience is his failure to recognize that the People consist not only of men, but of women also. In fact, he did recognize this in his “First Treatise,” which is a long and tedious refutation of absolute monarchy. The defender of this misbegotten idea was Sir Robert Filmer, a staunch monarchist, who claimed biblical support for it. He argued that God gave the earth to Adam, the father of the human race, with the proviso “Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it.” (Genesis 1:28). But Locke noted that God was addressing not Adam only, but Eve and Adam together, the first couple and parents of mankind. Nevertheless, Locke and Jefferson after him, write of human equality as something that belongs to men only, which is false.
It is interesting to note Locke’s closest intellectual friendship was with a married woman, Lady Damaris Cudworth Masham (1659–1708), who was not his wife. She was the daughter of Ralph Cudworth (1617–88), a philosopher and professor of philosophy at Cambridge University and author of a massive work entitled “A True Intellectual System of the Universe,” which has become a classic of modern Platonism.
She was an early feminist and advocate of women’s education and argued that although women were wrongly excluded from public affairs, as wives and mothers they were the primary teachers of men, and therefore for that reason at least they should be educated. She taught herself Latin so that she could teach it to her son. She published two books of moral philosophy, which some scholars say show Locke’s influence, not recognizing that influence is a process that runs in two directions.
She made a second more substantial argument in favor of women’s education. She wrote that education was essential to the moral development of the self, to becoming a moral person, and it was evident to her, as it should be to us, that every woman has this right, as does every man, and this is the thought that should first come to mind whenever we reflect on the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.”
Locke spent his final years in Lady’s Masham’s house, where he was regarded as a member of the family. Isaac Newton was a regular visitor, and he and Locke spent hours studying the Bible, in particular, the Book of Revelation, which they took to be a key to the meaning of history. There is evidence that Damaris joined them. Locke had a large folio bible interleaved with blank sheets on which he could record notes and comments. And the marks of all three are there.
Postscript: Locke’s “Two Treatises of Government” should be read by every student beginning in high school civics, and it should be a household possession of every family. Visit your local bookshop. I recommend the edition by Ian Shapiro, which is available in an affordable paperback.
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