Welcome to Part 2 of on the Basis of Democracy with John Locke. If you missed Part 1, you should read that first. The purpose of this blog post is to simply figured out the origins of Democracy and how it works within our American democracy. In Part 1, I went over some of the ideas of democracy from Aristotle. Political theory is a pretty easy theory to follow because each political philosopher usually builds off philosopher’s of time past. Therefore, the more ancient political scholarship you understand, the more modern/current political thoughts you can understand. In Part 2, we will be discussing John Locke and his ideas on democracy.
Who is John Locke? He is an english born political philosopher. Born in the early 1600s. He was influenced by Aristotle. Locke has a deep range of writings. He is often considered to be one of the fathers of the enlightenment. Similar to part 1, I won’t give a full biography but go to straight to Locke’s ideas about democracy. Starting from his first writing and going forward, Locke’s main premise is the consent of the governed. In his first writing called “Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina”. In this piece, Locke and his mentor, wrote a constitution meant for the Providence of Carolina in England. It was never adopted. However, the ideas that he mentioned became the basis of political philosophy going forward.
The most influential of Locke’s writings came in his Two Treatises of Government. Instead of trying to paraphrase his great words, I will just show you. Then I will explain how the founding fathers use Locke’s ideas especially in the Declaration of Independence. Here is just a few excerpts of Locke’s Two Treatises of Government:
Sect. 95. 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. The only way whereby any one divests himself of his natural liberty, and puts on the bonds of civil society, is by agreeing with other men to join and unite into a community for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living one amongst another, in a secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security against any, that are not of it. This any number of men may do, because it injures not the freedom of the rest; they are left as they were in the liberty of the state of nature. When any number of men have so consented to make one community or government, they are thereby presently incorporated, and make one body politic, wherein the majority have a right to act and conclude the rest.
Sect. 96. For when any number of men have, by the consent of every individual, made a community, they have thereby made that community one body, with a power to act as one body, which is only by the will and determination of the majority: for that which acts any community, being only the consent of the individuals of it, and it being necessary to that which is one body to move one way; it is necessary the body should move that way whither the greater force carries it, which is the consent of the majority: or else it is impossible it should act or continue one body, one community, which the consent of every individual that united into it, agreed that it should; and so every one is bound by that consent to be concluded by the majority. And therefore we see, that in assemblies, impowered to act by positive laws, where no number is set by that positive law which impowers them, the act of the majority passes for the act of the whole, and of course determines, as having, by the law of nature and reason, the power of the whole.
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Locke’s main point is that the governed hold the power of the government. Locke believes that a government cannot operate without the consent of the government. This is a basis of democracy. The reason why Locke believes that the consent of the governed is so important is because of the freedom or liberty that it offers. If the government is ruled by the people it can prevent tyrants and better rule the people. Locke is also coming from a monarchy in England and in a time when the dark ages we’re not that far off. In the dark ages, it was a small oligarchy who wealthy that ruled over the poor and working class who had no say. Locke’s ideas are perhaps best expressed in Thomas Jefferson’s document.
Thomas Jefferson was a philosopher in his own right. Jefferson also understood that Locke’s philosophy fit perfectly with the American cause for revolution. If you didn’t pay attention in history class then you want to know to that one of the rallying cries was “no taxation no representation”. The American people were clamoring for representation in the British parliament. The unilateral rule of the British Monarchy over the American colony was directly what John Locke was trying to get at. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson took a page for Locke and wrote this:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Thomas Jefferson essentially took Locke’s words and used it as a justification for the revolution of the American people. Locke’s vision for democracy did not just end with Jefferson but kept going. Locke’s idea that the consent of governed is needed in democracy still holds true today. Unfortunately, in today’s America we have gotten lazy. We seem to have ignored the fact that our democracy is supposed represent the people. Many people blame our representatives. We should look at the majority of governed who don’t vote. I think in a very indirect way, Locke is also advocating for participation in government. I feel that political participation has gone down as politics has become more polarizing.
We can blame Trump. We can blame Hillary. We blame our politicans. However, I think that democracy in the words of Locke lies with “the consent of the governed.” I think to wrap up this series, I want to just conclude a few major considerations for the basis of democracy. One basis that Aristotle outlined is the authority over aduits. In other words, Aristotle thought that the people should hold purse strings and keep the government accountable. Aristotle gave us a second basis that is the foundation of our judicial system. The right to a fair trial with a jury of your peers. Locke gives us the basis of the consent of the governed. The theory that democracy should always be run by the people and for the people. The majority of people should have the power to control the government. This means everyone must vote. Everyone must participate. These are the three main bases of democracy as written by Aristotle and John Locke.
This will be end of this series for now. I may continue it with different philosophers at another time. Below you will find my sources especially for the quoted stuff. Thank you for reading!