Government at the consent of the governed. It is a principle we assume today and demand. It was not always so. For centuries in the medieval and early modern era the dominant European philosophy of government was the “divine right of kings”—the idea dating back to Augustine that the monarch held a sacred right to be monarch and was above the law because the monarch was the law. It was the principle held by King Charles I of England. A generation after Hobbes’s Leviathan, England didn’t have the absolute sovereign Hobbes had prescribed as the antidote to political chaos. King Charles II had, as Hobbes had hoped, ascended to the English throne in 1660, but it didn’t end the strife over who should rule England. There was another removal of a monarch, James II, and another civil war, again over the balance of power in the nation-state between the nobles and the monarch.
John Locke was an ideas person, a kind of a 1600s think tank fellow who advised politicians and governmental officials. He himself was not a politician or governmental official, but he did work for Lord Ashley, the first Earl of Shaftesbury. His boss was very involved in government and politics, late in life, as a staunch opponent of the king, James II—a cause Locke wholeheartedly supported. It was the principle of the right of political opposition that captured Locke’s attention. The need to philosophically justify the removal of the rightful monarch, James II, moved Locke to develop his theory of political philosophy. His magnum opus on political philosophy, Two Treatises of Government, was likely written while he was evading capture and prosecution for his association with Shaftesbury. Locke had to go into exile in Holland beginning in 1683.
The Political Background for Locke’s Philosophy
Locke was writing his political philosophy in a political environment that was dominated by the perceived Catholic threat. In 1685, French king Louis XIV revoked the 1598 Edict of Nantes that had granted tolerance and rights to French Protestants. Louis was a keen proponent of the theory of absolutism. Louis found the idea that all citizens of a country were not of the same religious confession as their king disruptive to the unity of the country. Louis’ revocation of the Edict made loyalty to the king’s views on religion compulsory. The king was Catholic, so the state and you had to be Catholic.
Also in 1685, the openly Catholic brother of Charles II, James, became king, Charles I having no heir on his death. James was not an exclusionary Catholic like Louis, but English fears, real and imagined, of a Catholic king were strong. Earlier, forces in parliament, including nobles such as Shaftesbury, had unsuccessfully tried through legislation to prevent James from become king. Anti-Catholic forces attempted several rebellions shortly after James’s coronation. James responded with excessive force that, along with his restructuring of the army and local governments, further stirred up distrust of James’s intentions among both the English aristocracy and the common people.
By 1687, a group of English nobles reached out to the Dutch nobleman William of Orange, a Protestant and fierce enemy of Louis XIV. William was married to James’s daughter, Mary. The English nobles invited William to become coruler, with Mary, of England if he would raise an army to depose James. William, recognizing a great opportunity, did raise an army to invade England, and James, correctly seeing that he didn’t have enough support to stay in power, fled the country. Parliament, members of which plotted the whole thing, declared that James had abdicated the throne, and William and Mary were named co-monarchs.
The victors named it “The Glorious Revolution.” The aristocracy in Parliament restructured English law to decrease the power of the monarch and increase the power of Parliament. It settled the political power struggle between the monarch and the nobles that had led to so much strife earlier that century, and the political arrangement of a constitutional monarchy remains the governmental system in the United Kingdom to this day. Locke, who played a small part in the revolt against James, crafted his political philosophy to justify a right of people to revolt against a king they saw as a threat to their well-being.
Locke’s Natural Right of Property
Despite the strife over the Catholic question, Locke was largely unconcerned about religious issues. By all accounts, Locke was motivated by a desire for religious tolerance. He displayed it when he was a university student at Oxford and wrote that most religious disputes were over matters of no great import and should not disturb peaceful coexistence. He displayed it when he published his first major work, A Letter Concerning Toleration (1685), in which he argued for restraint from political leaders instead of trying to dictate the personal religious beliefs of the people. It is certainly possible that Locke’s opposition to James II was motivated by a desire for religious peace within England. But in his major work on political philosophy, Two Treatises of Government (1689), he didn’t present religious tolerance as a major argument.
Instead, Locke’s primary concern in the Two Treatises is the question of what rights people have, especially in resisting authority. Locke had earlier argued that individuals had the right to believe however they wished on matters of no great import. Locke now extended that idea to who should rule a country, which was clearly a matter of very great import. He felt the people had the power, at least to a degree, to choose who their leader should be. His argument for the right to rebel was made by establishing individual rights within a framework of property rights. That sounds like an odd approach, but Locke’s argument is ingenious and takes into account philosophical and political history.
Locke accepted as natural law what almost everyone accepted—that acts such as murder and stealing are wrong. Where Locke broke with the social conventions of his time was on his theory of property, primarily “real” property, or land. (Still today we use the idea of “real property” or “real estate.”)
The prevailing idea in the 1600s about what justified ownership of land was the notion of the divine right of kings. Expressed best philosophically by the Dutch natural law philosopher Hugo Grotius (1583–1645), the argument was that the earth was created by God who granted ownership of various pieces of land to particular rulers. The king thus owned the land and could do what he wanted with it, including granting it to whomever he wanted. It wasn’t really biblical, but that wasn’t the point, really. It was an explanation of how things had worked for a very long time. It was “natural.” The monarchies of both Britain and France operated in this way, as did most European states. The entire realm was considered to be owned by the king, who granted parts of it to various lords and barons, and people who lived on the land effectively belonged to the lord or baron who owned that land. This was how the feudal system worked. Grotius gave the philosophical explanation and defense of this reality, expressing it in terms of natural law.
Locke argued against Grotius that property was, in reality, something that humans earn through their own efforts. Locke made a distinction between natural rights and legal rights. Legal rights are granted by a government’s authority, and the government can take them away. But natural rights are not subject to governmental authority. It would be wrong for a government to try to take away any of our natural rights.
The theory of the divine right of kings assumes that the monarch possesses the original natural right of use of the land. Locke disagreed. Nature and all of its resources are given to humanity as a whole by God, Locke says, repeating a view first proposed by William of Ockham in the 1300s. Locke’s innovation was to extend the idea of natural rights to the property held by individuals.
Locke’s labor theory of property holds that when people mix their labor with the land, they create property that is theirs alone. One’s labor, the work of one’s own hands, is one’s own property, and one acquires a right to it as one’s own property. Locke lists hunting, gathering, and cultivating the ground as examples of how a person acquires the right to the material that the person’s labor has produced.
It makes some sense. God made all the trees in the forest for human use, so if you go into the forest, chop down a tree, drag it back, and build something out of it, your labor gives you the right to the product of that labor. The apples on a tree may belong to everyone, but by going and picking the apples you make them yours. This is the condition of human life, Locke says. To survive, we need to mix our labor with the raw materials in nature to provide ourselves with food and shelter, and this necessarily introduces private possessions.
Earth’s natural resources are humanity’s common property, free to everyone to use as they need. The king has no inherent entitlement to the land over anyone else, Locke said. When I mix my labor with a part of nature, it becomes my property. Sounds great, but his view was not quite egalitarian. As Locke puts it:
Thus the grass my horse has bit; the turfs my servant has cut…become my property, without the assignation or consent of any body. The labour that was mine, removing them out of that common state they were in, hath fixed my property in them. (Two Treatises of Government, II.V.28)
If you are paying any attention at all, something in Locke’s passage should jump out at you: “the turfs my servant has cut become my property.” Locke talks about the power of the people, but he is operating under 1600s assumptions about who “people” are. He still considers the lord of the manor to be the one who owns the land by virtue of the labor his servants expend on it because the servants belong to the lord. Locke’s passage places the horse and the servant on the same level.
Nevertheless, for Locke, human labor is what distinguishes what belongs to all from what belongs to one; as long as that one person is of the aristocracy, thus, of course, excluding working people. Regardless, the philosophical point is that obtaining property is a natural product of living, and property properly acquired through one’s labor is one’s own by natural right.
Locke’s State of Nature Thought Experiment
Having established property as a natural right, Locke engages in a thought experiment similar to Thomas Hobbes’s. He also imagines a state of nature without government, but Locke had a very different view of human nature. Hobbes thought we are inherently selfish, and without coercive control, we would be in a constant state of war. Locke saw human beings as individuals with free will and rational capacity who also possessed sentiment for their fellow humans and were capable of altruism.
From this different view of human nature, Locke imagined the state of nature quite differently than did Hobbes. He thought a life without government would be one of general peace, goodwill, and mutual assistance. Most humans would act based on reason and benevolent sentiments and get along with each other, respecting each other’s property and personal natural rights.
The problem would be the minority of people who acted contrary to reason and natural law. To preserve the peace, we would have to deal with those miscreants who ruin it. How do we deal with those who do harm to others? In a Wild West situation of the state of nature, we’d have to do it ourselves, resorting to vigilante justice. This is possible, but inconvenient and chaotic. Besides, Locke says, even though we could live in the state of nature without society, we humans are naturally inclined toward living in an ordered society.
This is Locke’s conception of a social contract: We agree to form and live within a government that establishes and enforces laws that make our lives better. Locke’s idea of government is one based on the principles of natural law, which are written down and enshrined in civil law, to resolve controversies among individuals. From a written law and constitutional government, individual human bias will not enter into judgments concerning individual cases. Rather than force each individual in the state of nature to enact justice and punish wrongdoing, a government can officially appoint indifferent judges who can apply the laws of the land in a manner more equitable than can a person whose interests are at stake.
A crucial element of Locke’s social contract is that it is between the citizenry of a nation and their government. This is different from Hobbes’s social contract which is among the people that creates a sovereign outside of the contract. For Locke, the government is bound by the contract. Locke’s social contract is like when you hire someone to do work for you. You dictate the terms, and the people hired to do the work perform based on the terms of the contract. Government serves the people in Locke’s social contract. We agree to hand over some of our rights and freedoms to the government in exchange for the convenience of having government administer justice and handle the running of daily life on our behalf. The role of government, then, is to defend people’s natural rights. Locke was blind to the rights of working people, women, and minorities to be involved in government, but he did state that one role of government was to protect the powerless from abuse. Ensuring social stability for the working class was essential to peace and stability for the nation.
Locke’s Right to Revolt
How does the labor theory of property relate to the right to revolt against a king? It transforms the idea of government. For Locke, government is a convenience. It is not necessary, and it is not divinely ordained. Rational people established government because they find it preferable to live in a society rather than in a state of nature. Hobbes viewed the social contract as among the people—“I surrender my rights, if you surrender yours, and we hand over all rights to the sovereign.” Locke viewed the social contract as between the people and the government—“we appoint you to rule as long as you serve our interests.” This difference in vision explains why Locke can accept revolt against the monarch, but Hobbes cannot. For Locke, if the monarch, or government in general, breaks the terms of the social contract, they have lost any right to remain in government. The people have a right to replace them. In fact, Locke argued that, to preserve society, revolt against tyranny was not only the right but also the duty of every person.
Locke was no anarchist. He believed in morality, laws, and that people should obey authority and keep the peace within a society. Nevertheless, he asserts that there is a right to resist unjust authority and in the last resort to rebel against and overthrow that authority. Just as you would fire someone you hired who proved to be corrupt or incompetent, a people should fire rulers who proved to be corrupt or incompetent. The basis of sovereignty is the law. A ruler is not above the law; therefore, a ruler can be fired. People have a right to change rulers when they see fit.
Locke wrote Two Treatises of Government in response to the Glorious Revolution of 1688. This revolution was purely political and served the interests of a group of wealthy British landowners. Locke was part of that group, as an employee of Shaftesbury. Locke’s primary purpose in his book was to provide philosophical justification for the act of treason committed by his allies. This is why he uses his labor theory of property to explain why the king has no inherent rights to the land but does not extend the right of property to the people lower in social class than the aristocracy. It is also why Locke’s formula of the primary law of nature is that no one ought to harm another in his life, liberty, or possessions. Only later, in the United States, was this formula changed from “possessions” to “pursuit of happiness.”
To be fair to Locke, his political philosophy contains more than a rationale for revolt. He was genuinely interested in how government can be structured to be stable and serve the interests of the people. The government, in Locke’s conception, should have a separation of powers split into three branches, the roles of each being clearly delineated by a written constitution. The legislative branch had supreme power and had the ultimate authority over how the force of the state should be used. The executive branch was in charge of enforcing laws and how they are applied to specific cases. The federative power was to act internationally according to the law of nature. The United States, in establishing its form of government ninety years later, patterned its basic structure after Locke’s ideas; this, after justifying its revolt against the king by referencing Locke.
Locke’s faults and blindness aside, we can’t dismiss the importance of his political philosophy. The basic ideas that there is a social contract between the people and their government, that government exists to serve the people, that government should be divided and limited by a constitution, and that government should enforce the laws on behalf of the powerless are ideas that are now central to our notion of a democratic society. Locke is an example of how terms such as “liberal” and “conservative” are relative to their time and place. Locke’s ideas were, for his time, liberal. For our time, because they do not extend rights to the working class, women, and minorities, his ideas would be considered conservative.
Regardless of how you label Locke’s political philosophy, his central ideas that governments should serve the interests of the people and that politicians should see themselves as servants of the people, have had a lasting effect on our society. Alas, those two central ideas have not had enough effect on governments and politicians.