Increasingly, the predominant political traditions of our country are engaging in a steady abandonment, or at least a downplaying, of American liberalism. No, not modern liberalism but the classical liberal theories and institutions of the founders. Specifically, I have noticed that many are setting their rhetorical sights on John Locke.
John Locke was a 17th century English philosopher and is often considered the “Father of Liberalism.” Thomas Jefferson once spoke of Locke as one of the greatest men that ever lived. Due to many portions of the Declaration of Independence seeming to reflect ideas from Locke’s writings, the history books have typically cited Locke as the chief philosophical influence on the American Founding.
Recently, however, there has been an attempt to reel back just how much we should credit Locke for the way the American Founding unfolded. Many writers and pundits have unpacked Locke’s chief writings (namely the Two Treatises of Government) to reveal some of the ways the US Constitution, and the federal government it created, depart from aspects of his theories. The final conclusion being drawn by many is that Locke was abstract whereas the American Founding dealt with actual realities. Such a conclusion supposedly allows us to dispense with concerns of Lockean theory as we go about solving the issues of our day and reforming our government.
I can readily concede that in 1689, the ideas found in the Two Treatise of Government are indeed extremely abstract. At a time when kings ruled as sovereign monarchs with near-absolute authority over nations (and their churches) and claiming a decree from heaven for their rule, such ideas as the social contract, popular consent, separation of powers, separation of church and state, and the right (and duty) to resist and dissolve government that violated these principles were not only abstract in the extreme but were, quite frankly, radical notions.
But a little less than a hundred years later, ragtag British colonists rose up against the abuses of a King and a Parliament disinclined to respect their rights as Englishmen. It began with chants in the streets of “no taxation without representation” (popular consent) and eventually led to a document which declared “it is their right, it is their duty to throw off such government” (duty to dissolve) as violates the expectation that “Governments are instituted among Men” in order to “secure…rights” (social contract). Eventually, the government created by these rebels composed three branches of government (separation of powers) and constrained the government against a myriad of abuses of individual liberty (which included religious freedom).
It’s clear that the spirit of Locke is spread throughout America’s revolutionary period, both in the seeds of the rebellion, the justification for armed resistance, the formation of a new nation, and the form of government this new nation eventually adopted.
No, not everything about the American Founding reflects perfectly the theories of Locke. Some aspects of Locke’s writings the founders did well to ignore (other aspects we might do well to revisit). But it should be clear that while the theories of John Locke were abstract when first penned, the American experiment made sound a majority of those theories through successful application.
One can’t help but wonder if we can connect the rhetorical attempt to dispense with Locke’s importance to the recent trend of considering liberal politics, and liberal theories in general, as relics that stand in the way of progress. It would definitely prove easier to indulge in the post-liberal and illiberal appetites of much of the modern Left and Right if the legacy of John Locke were made to cast a smaller shadow.