The Locker Room

Locke and the Founders

Posted by Mitch Kokai at 06:51 AM

If you’ve wondered why a group committed to limited government, personal responsibility, and free markets would name itself after a 17th-century British philosopher, you’ll get an inkling from Matthew Spalding’s book, We Still Hold These Truths: Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future.

Spalding tells us that John “Locke was especially influential in America, so it is important to understand how the Founders viewed him and his work.” Spalding dubs Locke the “expositor par excellence” of an argument that England’s Glorious Revolution represented “a legitimate, popular resistance to government tyranny based on what was then a new idea of the consent of the governed.”

In his Two Treatises of Government, Locke taught that all men were by nature free and equal, that legitimate government came into existence through a social contract, that political power required consent, and that government should be constitutionally limited to protecting fundamental rights of life, liberty, and property. The Americans learned these political ideas both directly from reading Locke and through intermediaries. … Most Americans learned the argument in popular form through the writings of their own political thinkers — Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, Madison, and others. These arguments even showed up in American church sermons, right alongside and understood to be perfectly consistent with the arguments of biblical theology.

Throughout these American writings, Lockean arguments for natural rights are presented not in the context of the Enlightenment per se but rather as part of the larger intellectual horizon that encompassed the American mind. … [T]he American Founders understood Locke in light of classical political reason and biblical revelation, as part of the English Whig republican thinking and natural law tradition in which they understood themselves.

For more on the Glorious Revolution, see Michael Barone’s excellent book on the topic. For more on John Locke’s history and influence, see George M. Stephens’ outstanding essay for the JLF Web site.

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