Front Page Titles (by Subject) II: Locke and The Tradition of Dissent - Literature of Liberty, Spring 1980, vol. 3, No. 1
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
II: Locke and The Tradition of Dissent - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Spring 1980, vol. 3, No. 1 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
This work is copyrighted by the Institute for Humane Studies, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, and is put online with their permission.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Locke and The Tradition of Dissent
John Locke (1632–1704) evolved his political philosophy in the seventeenth century’s English civil war and turbulent debates which pitted the divine right of kings against the popular right of tyrannicide and royal absolution against popular sovereignty. The radical liberal vision of government limited by consent, contract, and natural rights, found classical expression in Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1689–1690). As his English biographer, Maurice Cranston, points out in John Locke: A Biography (1957), Locke was no headstrong radical in his temperament and, in fact, slowly evolved from an earlier authoritarian attitude requiring complete obedience to magistrates to his later more liberal positions on tolerance, civil rights, the people’s right of political resistance and government by popular consent. Yet, in many respects Locke did not choose to perceive the full radical implications of many of his radical liberal ideas, including the right to rebellion. Loçke, like his patron Lord Shaftesbury, was a colonialist and imperialist in his belief that it was just to subject Ireland and the American colonies to the King of England. His principle of tolerance did not extend itself to allow atheists or Roman Catholics to live in England. His endorsement of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 was for what he considered “in many respects a conservative rebellion.” Likewise, Locke never endorsed an absolute or unqualified “right to liberty.” As Cranston observes in his Introduction to Locke on Politics, Religion, and Education (1965), pp. 13–14:
Indeed, his whole political philosophy sets out to show how much liberty men can have by pointing out the limits that must be set on their liberty. The limits that are set on liberty are dictated by the nature of political societies as such. One man’s freedom stops short at the point where it would jeopardize another man’s freedom. Hence freedom in political society is freedom under law. . . . Locke set men on the path of the greatest possible freedom by teaching them the impossibility of absolute freedom. The great apologist of rebellion was also the champion of authority.
In spite of these qualifications, Locke’s liberal credentials are still impressive for his encouragement to modernity (see the Zuckert summary on Locke’s First Treatise) and for the radical implications of his theory of property in promoting individual rights and in restricting government to their protection (see Richard Tuck’s summary). Locke looms even more radical in his subsequent influence on radical tradition of dissent from his death to the present day. Thus, Albert Goodwin discusses the significant role that Locke’s writings play in “The Radical Tradition in the Eighteenth Century” [The Friends of Liberty: the English Democratic Movement in the Age of the French Revolution (1979), pp. 32–64.]. Lately, scholarship has shown a renewed interest in the influence of Locke on the revolutionary ferment in the eighteenth century reaching from Trenchard and Gordon’s Cato’s Letters to the American Revolution.
The following summaries deal with the tradition of dissent, freedom, and rights before, during, and after Locke’s major works. Locke himself is studied in relation to his theory of property, tacit consent, his First Treatise and his views on the political executive. The remaining summaries deal with those political and religious radicals who have dissented from the prevailing orthodoxy and have followed their reasoning to its conclusions which are anti-authoritarian and favorable to consistent respect for human rights and freedom of conscience.
Grotius, Locke, and Property
“The Recovery and Repudiation of Grotius.” In Natural Rights Theories: Their Origin and Development. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1979, pp. 156–173.
Natural rights theories could be developed in either a conservative or a radical political direction. Thus, Hugo Grotius had invoked the “principle of interpretative charity” to defend the political resistance and common ownership property claims in some extreme circumstance to preserve human life. (This principle implied inalienable rights: Logically, free men were able in the state of nature to renounce all their natural rights to survival or to freedom, but charity requires us to assume that they have not done so. Our ancestors, being rational, could not have wished to leave us completely bereft of our rights through forfeiting theirs.
During the English civil war of the mid-1600s the puritan radicals had exploited this principle to argue for inalienable individual rights against government. After the Restoration of the monarchy following 1660, more conservative theorists such as Matthew Hale and Richard Cumberland sought to defuse the radical possibilities concerning resistance and property of interpretative charity. These Restoration conservatives developed less radical grounding of property rights and obligation on the basis of Grotius’s theory of property. Ingeniously, John Locke, likewise avoiding the principle of interpretative charity, was able to turn the Grotian arguments of Hale and Cumberland in a more radical, liberal direction in order to challenge political absolutism.
Samuel Pufendorf in his 1672 work De Jure Naturae et Gentium altered his former adherence to Grotius’s theory of property and obligation. He went beyond Grotius’s prudential basis of legal obligation (fear of the lawgiver’s punishment) by stressing the need of a legitimate lawgiver who could rightfully obligate man’s conscience. Pufendorf also attacked Grotius’s account of the primary or original natural rights to property in the state of nature and substituted his “correlative thesis” of rights: A person cannot assert an exclusive “right” to possessions unless others give their express or tacit consent. Pufendorf stressed that mankind’s general agreement in order to secure social utility conferred rights; no prior “rights” could be pleaded against this necessary original agreement. This view could support authoritarian governments.
In Restoration England, Hale, Cumberland, and Locke sought to rehabilitate Grotius’s theory of property. Against Hobbes and Selden, the Restoration authors sought to prove that property rights existed in the state of nature and antedated any alleged need for a formal contract of all commoners.
In the 1660’s Matthew Hale’s Treatise of the Nature of Lawes in Generall attempted to synthesize Selden’s prudential theory of obligation and Grotius’s theory of property. With Grotius, Hale agreed that even in the state of nature man would need exclusive rights to private property.
In 1672 Richard Cumberland’s De Legibus Naturae Disquisitio Philosophica also supplied a Grotian account of property and law of nature. The law of nature would require private property since it requires those necessary institutions to sustain man as a social being and to maximize his utility. He also used Selden’s prudential account for the obligatory force of such a law of nature. But Cumberland has God, the lawgiver, only gradually promulgating his binding laws to man as man slowly discerns that the promotion of the general social good through property also promotes his individual egoistic good. God’s obligatory edict to maximize the general utility enjoins all men to respect private property.
Locke employed these Grotian private property arguments to support a far more radical political philosophy. Locke’s theory of obligation in the state of nature is loose since he avoids specifying how and when men perceive this obligation. More definite is his theory of property, which, at the end of the 1670’s, resembled the English post-Restoration Grotians. Collaborating with his friend James Tyrrell in Patriarcha non Monarcha (1681), Locke justified exclusive private property as the necessary means for man to fulfill his divinely imposed obligation to preserve himself and his species. Every man will rationally agree (expressly or tacitly) to abstain from violating another’s property in order to secure personal and social utility. An explicit contract of man in the state of nature to create property would be an absurd and impossible requirement that would thwart God’s law to form life-sustaining property.
Locke went beyond the conservative Cumberland who sought to justify the existing distribution of property and political power. Locke and Tyrrell gave a more radical twist to the Grotian theory of property. They held that the right to property, even as defined by governmental law, “cannot exclude the natural right every man hath to his own preservation and the means thereof. . . .” In extreme need the industrious poor were entitled, by the same natural law of God which ordained property, to take “the superfluous necessities of life” from the more fortunate. God established property to sustain human life, and men in each age must consent to property distributions only if they fulfill their natural function. Locke also undercut government absolutism by denying the morality of agreeing to the sovereignty of a regime which violated the just purposes of civil government.
Locke, Consent, State, and Property
“A Note on Locke’s Theory of Tacit Consent.” The Philosophical Review 88 (April 1979): 224–234.
John Locke’s effort to establish individual consent as the foundation of all government authority led to numerous difficulties which the philosopher was at great pains to resolve. Bennett views Locke’s theory of tacit consent in the Second Treatise (1690) as a significant example of Locke’s convoluted and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to establish the principle of consent.
At first, Locke’s principle seems unexceptionable: power legitimately exercised requires the assent of the naturally free men upon whom it is exercised. A basic problem arises, however, owing to the territorial nature of states. How many British subjects in Locke’s time, for example, had ever acquiesced to their sovereign’s authority over the theory of tacit consent was intended to resolve. Locke asserts that anyone wishing to enter the territory of an established government has tacitly agreed to obey its laws.
At the very outset, an analysis of this theory requires a clear understanding of what the term tacit means. By discussing a series of hypothetical examples, Bennett strives to refine this notion. He essentially concludes that an action (or even omission) signifying agreement should be of significance only as a sign. Raising or lowering one’s arm, for example, is normally an action of neutral import. Thus, raising one’s hand has served long and well as a sign of unspoken agreement.
Following the logic of this clarification of the term ‘tacit’, Bennett asks whether the simple desire to enter a particular country might signify motives other than assent to the nation’s legal code. Obviously it might. How does Locke then justify prohibiting entry into a country of those who have not so consented? To answer such an objection, Locke advanced a theory of property.
The Lockean state is formed by the voluntary association of independent landowners. These holders of property establish uniform rules by which others may have access to their land. Thus, in response to the question of the right of entry, Locke affirms that anywhere a person goes in a country he is on land that belongs to someone. The conditions under which the property owner holds his land allows him to bar entry to anyone who does not consent to the established rules (laws)of proper conduct. To enter his land without granting such assent constitutes trespass.
Locke’s justification of political power creates, in Bennett’s view, as many problems as it purports to solve. Can a person really consider himself “free,” Bennett asks, if he is born into a territory entirely owned by others? While he may theoretically withhold consent and not be subject to the landowners, he would violate the natural law in so doing. In the state of nature, Locke’s landowners behave as little despots, exercising all the powers governments will eventually acquire. A commonwealth only makes this power collective. As a result, anyone wishing to avoid subjection as well as an affront to the law of nature has but one choice open to him: he must acquire land which is not owned by anyone else.
Prof. Bennett goes on to question Locke’s account of the origin of property. He denies that rights of ownership can exist apart from governmental or social institutions.
Thus, Bennett concludes that Locke has failed to reconcile the consent doctrine with the territorial character of government. Locke’s implausible doctrine of property undermines the appeal of the consent doctrine. Considering the flimsiness of these two essential links in Locke’s argument, there exists no satisfactory union between consent and the territorial nature of the state.
Locke’s First Treatise and Modernity
“An Introduction to Locke’s First Treatise.” Interpretation 8 (January 1979):58–74.
Locke’s First Treatise has suffered a long but undeserved history of neglect in comparison to his Second Treatise. Peter Laslett, however, has shown that both Treatises need to be read together as part of an essential unity. Locke’s Two Treatises together were not post hoc justifications of the Glorious Revolution (1688), but revolutionary tracts “on behalf of the devoutly hoped for revolution to come, to be sponsored by his patron Shaftesbury, at the time of the Exclusion Crisis about a decade earlier.” Leslett also shows the unity of both Treatises in their polemical target, Sir Robert Filmer.
The First Treatise seeks both to refute Filmer’s Patriarcha with its theory of the divine right of patriarchal kingship and to vindicate the Lockean “consent of Men” doctrine with its belief in the inalienable natural rights and freedom of men. Locke criticizes Filmer’s scriptural and natural arguments that absolute monarchs derived by direct inheritance their non-democratic rule from Adam’s patriarchal sovereignty. God gave dominion not solely to Adam but also to Eve; this dominion was personal not political; and we cannot even trace any alleged rights of inheritance.
On a deeper level the issue between Locke and Filmer is whether a scriptural beginning point is justifiable or helpful in political methodology. Filmer believed that he needed to refute Bellarmine’s defense of the “natural liberty of the subject” since Bellarmine, alone of his opponents, vested his arguments for popular political power on scriptural basis. Locke believed that a scriptural orientation is not the proper epistemological beginning point for establishing natural freedom and popular sovereignty. “Filmer is a surrogate for the Bible” and “Locke uses Filmer to get at the Bible itself.” Locke concentrates on the Biblically related themes of Filmer’s theory and deliberately ignores Filmer’s more naturalistic arguments. In fact Locke’s misrepresentation of Filmer’s arguments shows that his chief concern is not Filmer but an examination of Scriptures. “The beginning of wisdom about the First Treatise is a distrust bordering on disregard of the surface structure and surface argument of the First Treatise.” The “issue of the First Treatise is the Hobbesian right of nature—the right of everyone to everything in nature—against the Scriptural understanding.” Scriptural understanding is a variant of a broader moral and intellectual orientation, the “pre-modern consciousness.” Locke, in the First Treatise, champions the right of nature and the post-Cartesian “new way of ideas” in political philosophy against the Biblical, pre-modern awareness that inadequately understood human freedom, property, and creation by making man subordinate to a primitive, inadequate notion of God.
Locke interpreted revelation and the Bible not as divine, but as human things in terms of his Essay of Human Understanding. His modern scientific method and epistemology aimed at translating and reducing scriptural, precritical modes of expression into the naturalistic words, ideas, and things. “Whereas the Biblical God enjoins in man freedom to obey, the Lockean substitute for God—the “wise and god-like prince”—ordains simply ‘laws of liberty’.” Man, to be truly free, must transcend the pre-scientific view of himself as the primitive Biblical God’s creature. Similarly, man must modernize his understanding of property as God’s “donation” to him in order to possess human clear title. “Locke’s intention is to emancipate man from the restraints in his freedom and in his ability to appropriate the world for his own.” Man’s culture and choices and labor provide him with the gifts of property and freedom, they are not given by outmoded concepts of God or nature.
Locke and the Executive
“‘The God-Like Prince’: John Locke’s Executive Prerogative and the American Presidency.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 9(Spring 1979): 121–130.
Many American presidents have claimed the right to exercise extraordinary powers to respond to national crises. Nonetheless, the legal status of this claim remains unclear. An analysis of John Locke’s radical theory of prerogative reveals the difficulty of reconciling this privilege with constitutional government. Abraham Lincoln’s frequent abuses of executive prerogative further highlights this difficulty. Finally, we may question whether the U.S. Constitution makes adequate and legal provisions for emergency powers.
John Locke contended that the sluggishness of legislatures and the rigidity of law hamper a government’s efforts to cope with the flux of human affairs. These qualities are particularly obstructive in crisis situations. On the other hand, the flexibility and decisiveness of the executive make it the natural branch of government to deal with an always fluid reality. Indeed, in Locke’s view, government originally consisted of executive privilege alone. Only with the tyrannical practices of “weak princes” did the people turn to the protection of parliaments and laws. Were it not for these abuses, Locke thought, the naturally torpid populace would never have withdrawn its consent from their sovereign’s absolute discretionary powers. Clearly, the unrestricted prerogative envisioned by Locke has little in common with the checks and balances rooted in the American system.
Nonetheless, Abraham Lincoln offered an almost Lockean defense for his suspension of habeas corpus and his assumption of sweeping military powers at the onset of the Civil War. To counter charges of illegality, Lincoln replied that, “whether truly legal or not,” his actions were in response to “a popular demand and a public necessity.” In cases of emergency, Lincoln argued, the President has the right to step outside the constitution and appeal directly to the people as his source of power. Secondly, Lincoln stated that, in order to carry out his oath to “protect and defend” the Constitution, the President might, in dire emergency, violate a provision of the document lest it perish entirely.
To the first of Lincoln’s arguments, Prof. Arnhart replies that, in a constitutional system, it is not public opinion but the Constitution itself which serves as the ultimate source of authority—discretionary or otherwise. As for the second argument, it is, in Arnhart’s view, strange to argue that, in order faithfully to execute the laws of the land, the President may break them.
Arnhart maintains that evidence from both the Federalist Papers and the Constitution itself demonstrates that the Founding Fathers sought to provide for all necessary discretionary powers within the constitutional document. In the American system, however, prerogative was to be a shared responsibility of the executive and legislative branches of government. Thus, in the Constitution’s war provisions, the President’s prerogatives as commander-in-chief are checked by the discretionary powers of Congress to declare war, to raise troops, and to allocate funds.
The framers of the Constitution, Prof. Arnhart asserts, were well aware of the dangers inherent in inflexible restrictions which would be unobservable in times of emergency. The shared prerogative which they devised, however, insured that, even in times of dire crisis, the Republic would remain a republic.
Religion, Regicide, and Resistance
“In Defense of Regicide: John Cotton on the Execution of Charles I. “The William and Mary Quarterly 37(January 1980):103–124.
King Charles I was executed on January 30, 1649. Months later New Englanders learned that the regicide had been sanctioned by an English Parliament purged of over one hundred members by the troops of Colonel Thomas Pride (Pride’s Purge), and that a republic or Commonwealth had replaced the monarchy. We can discern how these English events were interpreted by some in New England through a newly edited sermon of John Cotton (1584–1652). A radical Puritan from England, Cotton became an American Congregationalist preacher of the First Church of Boston. The occasion of his 1651 sermon was to give thanksgiving for Oliver Cromwell’s victory over Charles II and his Scottish supporters in 1650.
In the sermon, “Cotton strove to allay any doubts his listeners might have still entertained about the purge of parliament, the execution of the king, and the continuing progress of the English Revolution.” His case rested on biblical exegesis and on theories of resistance to tyrants that had entered English Protestant dissent a hundred years earlier. Cotton sought to support his English coreligionists in bringing about the apocalyptic millennium. His sermon also clarifies Cotton’s political views and those of early New England eschatology.
During the English Reformation such dissenters as John Knox had justified resistance to magistrates by choosing divine authority over Mary Tudor’s Catholicism. These theories of resistance and regicide were revived during the Puritan Revolution. Thus in The Keyes of the Kingdom of Heaven (1644), Cotton had endorsed the right of revolution against unjust and godless magistrates.
In his 1651 sermon, Cotton justified Pride’s Purge by identifying the army as the people’s legitimate guardian to preserve England from the anti-Christ and the papacy. He extended the right of resistance to New Englanders in Massachusetts who might purge the General Court should it ever accept an English governor-general. He also approved of a “lawful and loyal conspiracy” to preserve English liberties and religious truth.
In the crisis times of the struggles between the Stuart monarchs and their non-conformist subjects, New Englanders expected the near approach of the millennium. These expectations give Cotton’s sermon an hysterical eschatological confidence. Cotton’s sermon also tried to patch up differences between English Congregationalists and Presbyterians. Besides the many biblical proofs of the right of regicide, Cotton also adapts a passage from the Roman History of Dio Cassius: “It is a wise speech of Trajan when he committed the sword to any; Use it for me, saith he, while I rule according to law and justice, but against me when otherwise.”
William Penn: Religious Liberal
“William Penn, Model of Protestant Liberalism.” Church History 48(June 1979):156–173.
William Penn (1644–1718), English Quaker and founder of Pennsylvania (1681), typifies Protestant liberalism in his union of a universalist humanism and radical religious freedom of conscience. Trusting as an ultimate source of knowing in the anti-authoritarian and highly individualistic “Light within” of private judgment, Penn sought to remake mankind and society by removing selfishness. Against a backdrop of an immoral society and anti-Quaker political persecution, Penn combined the ethical concerns of rational humanism, millennarian religious urgency, and a shrewd pragmatism in his views of history, toleration, theology, and ethics.
Penn’s historical views progressed from a conservative sectarian separatism for the Quakers to a more universal humanistic sympathy for all mankind. Convinced that the Friends were a “saving remnant” he also showed concern for non-Quakers. “He did not feel inconsistent in campaigning for his agnostic friend, the republican Algernon Sidney, in the two parliamentary elections of 1679 despite the misgivings of many Friends, since it seemed the best hope in a generation for achieving toleration through Parliament.”
Throughout his life Penn crusaded for religious and political toleration. Thus, his universalism, liberalism, and humanism becomes apparent in the shifts in his various arguments for toleration. Penn argued for toleration more from pragmatic, economic, rational grounds (together with the universal value of free conscience) than from the doctrinal or sectarian claims of the Quakers’ “Light within.” On humanist grounds he held the rationalist’s faith in tolerating dissent, since inquiry and debate would sift truth from falsehood. Increasingly he stressed that it was in the pragmatic interests of the would-be intolerant persecutors and of men in general to promote toleration on behalf of the civil interest in tranquillity. Penn’s pragmatism in achieving toleration appears in his switching to political allies who could best advance his goal of toleration. Penn tended to identify the “Light within” and free conscience with individual reason as a basic principle of individual freedom and pluralistic liberalism.
Penn’s theology interacted with his ethical and social liberalism. He balanced a liberal openness of the Light’s power in every person’s experience with a need for atonement through Christ. Like most Quakers, Penn was a Sabellian who fused the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit into one God rather than a Socinian who denies the divinity of Christ. In his The Christian Quaker (1674, 1699) he affirmed the Quaker belief in the universality of Light’s reach in touching all men’s hearts, but he recognized the difficulty of exercising radical moral judgment to extirpate pride and selfishness from the heart. His latitudinarian conviction of how the Light was available to all men including pagans may have been influenced by such Cambridge Platonists as Jeremy Taylor. The Cambridge Platonists “rooted religion in a direct intuitive knowledge of God,” an understanding that they identified with reason.
“Today’s Quakers are still faced with Penn’s dilemma, how to recognize and affirm truth insofar as it may be shown in any man, and yet respond to man’s need for moral challenge and social transformation.
Samuel Gorton: Antinomian Radical
“The Radical Ideology of Samuel Gorton: New Light on the Relation of English and American Puritanism.” The William and Mary Quarterly 36(January 1979):78–100.
Samuel Gorton (1592–1677), the antinomian Puritan who preached during the English Civil War of the 1640’s among the radical Puritans, soon stirred up New England’s deepest fears that his mystical independence would transport political, social, and religious unrest to the new world. He raised political questions of civil disobedience and resistance by denying the jurisdiction of magistrates over individual conscience. For Puritans committed to an “Independent” or Congregational ecclesiastical policy, Gorton raised the problem of non-conforming political resistance based on mystical religious faith. Eventually Gorton and his civil disobedient followers would see that their ideas were embodied in Quakerism.
Gorton’s first “offense” was his principled defense in 1638 of his maidservant’s smiling at a Sabbath meeting. The established ministry of Plymouth tried Gorton “for religious and civil insubordination.” Exiled from Plymouth, he was in turn whipped and banished from Portsmouth for refusing to honor the local government’s authority in a trespassing complaint. Even in Roger Williams’s Providence, Rhode Island, a haven for dissenters, Gorton stirred up opposition through his civil disobedience in rejecting Massachusetts Bay Colony’s jurisdiction over him. Gorton and his followers were eventually arrested in Warwick and tried in Boston as “heretics and enemies of civil government.” Once released, he sailed to England to preach his dissenting ideas and to protest his treatment by Massachusetts.
The heart of Gorton’s “heresy”—which excited the civil authorities of the Bay Colony, Plymouth, and Rhode Island— resembled the antinomian anti-authoritarianism of the dissenters in England which later became a key part of Quaker theology. “He argued for an essential divinity in all human beings, a divinity that was defined by the Holy Spirit’s presence and that precluded any arbitrary distinctions (be they religious or political) between saints and sinners.” The believer’s personal connection with God exempted him or her from obedience to all mankind’s perverse laws. Gorton’s theology linked him with some of Oliver Cromwell’s chaplains in the New Model Army. The inner experience of God, not laws, bestowed true freedom. God had not “made man to be a vassal of his own species.” To display personal responsibility to civil or religious authority was idolatry and postponed the millennium. If Christ were a “sufficient King and Ruler in his Church, all other Authority and Government erected therein is superfluous and a branch to be cut off.”
Gorton’s anti-authoritarian ideology threatened the political-religious hierarchy of New England with the ideal of individual liberty and the egalitarian priesthood of all believers. His radical democratic beliefs provoked a 1649 pamphlet against him, entitled The Danger of Tolerating Levellers in a Civil State. Gorton himself published counter-tracts in England between 1644 and 1648 against social hierarchy and moved in the complex radical community that revolved around the preachers in the New Model Army.
Gorton returned to America and War-wick, bringing with him the radical unrest of the English Civil War. Having absorbed the spirit of toleration in England, Gorton protected American Quakers. He is best understood in the context of “English radical spiritualism.” He affronted New England’s complaisant sense of inner stability and rightness.
Harrington’s Aristotelian Republicanism
“James Harrington as Aristotelian.” Political Theory 7(August 1979):371–389.
James Harrington (1611–1677), the English political theorist so influential among constitutional framers in the eighteenth century, derived much of his political thought directly from Aristotle. In his Constitutional blueprint, The Commonwealth of Oceana (1656), Harrington’s Aristotelian borrowings extend from matters of constitutional detail (rotation of offices, agrarian laws limiting the extent of farm holdings, etc.) to Harrington’s principle of political “balance” and his emphasis on property distribution to achieve a polity’s balance and stability. Oceana, consistent with Aristotle’s ideas on the nature of the good state, is not, as Leo Strauss maintains, an example of a “modern” utopia and republic.
In Oceana and The Prerogative of Popular Government, Harrington follows Aristotle in the notion of “the Balance,” the idea that inequalities of wealth which make for political instability should not be allowed to “overbalance” the equilibrium of harmonious social classes. No economic or social class should exercise a disproportionate political pull and thus provoke envy and subversion. Going beyond Aristotle, Harrington endorsed agrarian laws that reallocated land when property inequalities threatened social unrest. Aristotle never countenanced a simplistic leveling of property to achieve constitutional harmony.
Harrington more closely derives from Aristotle (and Livy) the anti-Hobbesian notion of a “government of laws” as opposed to a government of men. One Aristotelian device in Oceana intended to counteract a government by men is rotation of citizens in office to allow a variety of talents and resist corruption. In Harrington’s bicameral legislature, he limits the role of the popular legislative house (“Prerogative Tribe” or the “foot”) to “resolve” on issues that are formulated and debated by the Senate (the “horse”). This distinction is based on property differences in the ability of citizens to equip themselves for the militia as either foot soldiers or cavalry. Men of property were presumed to be men of virtue. The bicameral legislature would thus balance oligarchic and democratic elements.
Oceana is Aristotelian also in defining what is the good life for the state. The Olphaus Megaletor, the state lawgiver and general, would reallocate property to secure a stable social balance of goods of the mind and of fortune. Oceana imitates not Aristotle’s “best” state but rather “polity” or the mixed regime whose stable middle class outweighs the influence of either masses or notables. Although only those who possess arms enjoy constitutional rights, it seems that this class includes all in the independent middle class or above.
Leo Strauss claimed that Harrington’s republicanism and utopia were “modern” rather than ancient. Strauss viewed the “classical republicans” of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as excessively democratic in contrast to the ancients. Yet Harrington is not a partisan of modern democracy since his property qualifications restricts and tempers “popular” consent and participation in politics. Harrington, in ancient fashion, expected superior virtue from the gentleman class. Finally, Harrington’s utopia is intended as realizable as Plato’s ancient “second best” utopia in the Laws.
Burgh: the Ambivalent Lockean Radical
“The Making of a Radical: The Case of James Burgh.” Journal of British Studies 18(Spring 1979): 90–117.
James Burgh (1711–1775) is best known as one of England’s foremost publicists for advocating radical political reform, Lockean human rights, and virtual universal manhood franchise. His magnum opus, Political Disquisitions, climaxed fifty years of political agitation by British Commonwealthmen (champions of the republican ideals of the seventeenth century English Revolution), and served as an influential reference work and inspiration for eighteenth and nineteenth century reformers in England and America. Yet although Burgh was a spokesman for radical reform and popular participation in political decision-making, he disavowed radical goals and revolutionary methods. This paradox in his behavior—revealing the ambivalences within eighteenth-century British radicalism—flowed from Burgh’s religious conservatism which encouraged deference to authority and social stability.
The son of a Church of Scotland minister, the moralistic Burgh’s early political philosophy was a mixture of Common-wealthman radicalism and Lord Boling-broke’s social conservatism. Gradually Burgh came to deemphasize both Bolingbroke’s notions of an aristocratic social hierarchy and the hope that George III would be the “patriot king” who would lead the masses to greater political participation. He imbibed the revolutionary ideals of the Glorious Revolution and the radical implications in the writings of James Harrington, Algernon Sidney, John Locke, Lord Shaftesbury, Hugo Grotius, and Samuel Pufendorf. Particularly influential in his radicalization was Locke’s contract theory of government with its defense of individual liberties, popular sovereignty, and the revolutionary implications for changing government through popular agitation, petition, and initiatives.
Burgh’s initial radicalization occurred after the failure in 1754 of his “Grand Association,” which hoped to achieve popular representation by naively enlisting the leadership of the English social elite. Burgh moved in radical political circles and was an intimate of Richard Price, the salon of Catherine Macaulay, and the “Honest Whigs,” whose members included Joseph Priestley and Benjamin Franklin. In 1764 he published An Account of the Cessares, a utopian reform proposal urging limited monarchy and the end of political corruption. In 1767, in response to the American Stamp Act crisis, Burgh wrote Crito, which defended the Lockean concept of the “inalienable right of a free people to call their governors to account” and urged popular political associations and petitioning. In 1768–1770, he reached a wide audience through newspaper articles on such topics as annual parliaments, adequate popular representation in Parliament, and the unconstitutional denial of a parliamentary seat to the popular spokesman, John Wilkes. Stressing the consistent application of constitutional liberty, Burgh saw the interdependence of American colonial and domestic English grievances. He thus evenhandedly supported the petition movement to seat Wilkes in parliament as well as the attempt to repeal the Townshend tax duties on the American colonies.
Ambivalence undercut some of Burgh’s radicalism. Although he wished to extend the vote to the industrious poor and form popular associations to pressure government to reform, Burgh would have excluded from the vote able bodied men who refused to labor and would punish them by transporting them to the plantations. In the same ambivalent vein, Burgh was not an egalitarian and did not rest his defense of virtual universal manhood franchise on any theory of the natural political rights of all men (or women) but rather on the traditional principle that property confers special political and social rights. Agreeing with Locke that the people had the right to alter their government, Burgh’s social conservatism and fear of revolutionary instability induced him to seek leadership from men of property and status.
Price on Moral and Civil Liberty
“A Question of Human Freedom: Richard Price.” In Liberty and Empire: British Radical Solution to the American Problem, 1774–1776. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1978, pp. 90–102.
By championing liberty, Richard Price (1723–1791) endeared himself to the American Revolutionaries as well as British and Continental radicals for freedom. His American friends included Benjamin Franklin and John Winthrop. In England, he associated with Joseph Priestley, Adam Smith, and the Earl of Shelburne. Among the radical “Honest Whigs” his fellow devotees of freedom included James Burgh, John Horne Tooke, and Joseph Jeffries. An “apostle of liberty,” and son of a dissenting minister, Price functioned as an English moral and political philosopher to glorify God and improve humanity’s lot by stressing the lifegiving qualities of human liberty. (It was his sermon on the liberating currents of the early French Revolution that provoked Burke’s conservative denunciation in Reflections on the Revolution in France.)
Price’s moral philosophy of “rational intuitionism,” and moral liberty laid the foundations for his ideas on civil liberty. Reacting against British empiricism, he maintained that moral truths are knowable through the intuition of self-evident ideas. Man can make moral judgments by reason, not sensation. As a free moral agent, man is not subject to deterministic forces. By grounding his moral philosophy on God’s law he created a more religious basis for political ideas. Thus, the religious dimensions of Price’s moral and political ideas were more congenial to Americans than the “cold, impersonal deism which infuses the Declaration of Independence.”
The American Revolutionary generation inherited a legacy of religious dissent and suspicion of authoritarian government which found congenial support in Price’s writings, particularly his Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty (1776). The Observations sold over 60,000 copies just weeks after its publication, and went through forty editions during its first two years. Price’s Observations “approaches the American crises from three distinct vantage points— the critical issue of human liberty which pervades the whole imperial crisis,  the wisdom of a British policy which seeks to settle the matter by force of arms, and  an alarming calculation of the national debt followed by estimates of how much the war will threaten the government’s fiscal stability.”
In Part I of the Observations Price engages in political analysis of Britain’s imperial crisis with the American colonials from the moral framework of the supremacy of liberty. Man’s liberty is of four kinds: (1) physical liberty (or man’s freedom to be morally responsible for his actions), (2) moral liberty (the freedom to act according to one’s reasoning about right and wrong), (3) religious liberty (the freedom to follow one’s conscience in doing God’s will), and (4) civil liberty. Civil liberty, which forms the major theme of Part I of Price’s Observations, is conceived of “as the freedom of people to govern themselves under laws made with their assent and intended for the general welfare.” Since the liberty of individuals is the chief reason for having government at all, the freedom of a people is more sacred than the authority of governments to maintain law and order. A free state is allowed (contrary to British imperial practice in America) to govern by the consent of its members’ will.
Part II of the Observations criticizes the British imperial policy that would violate the fundamental morality of liberty by subjugating the American colonials against their will in a “just war.” Price pointed out that Americans were fighting England over the very principles of liberty in whose name Englishmen themselves had opposed King Charles I in the seventeenth century. Furthermore, Price weighed how slim were the chances for a British military success against colonials who were fighting on their own ground for their homes and families.
In Part III of the Observations Price shocked England by his accurate calculations of the ruinous national debt and how a war against America would cripple England’s financial health.
Price’s Observations thus skillfully interwove his moral philosophy of liberty with a sharp analysis of the American crisis in philosophical, military, and economic terms. For Price the Anglo-American crisis centered on human freedom. He demonstrated that imperialism subjugated people and abridged their freedom. His Observations handed down a legacy of anti-imperialism and love of civil liberties.
Priestley and Liberty
“Joseph Priestley and American Independence.” History Today 29(April 1979):221–229.
Joseph Priestley (1733–1804), the English radical dissenting minister, scientist, and political philosopher, belongs to the pantheon of “Atlantic Revolutionaries,” who advanced science, freedom, and American Independence. He moved in a cosmopolitan circle of friends who included the American revolutionaries, (Franklin, Jefferson, John Adams), fellow English radicals (such as Richard Price and Tom Paine), and such Enlightenment philosophes and scientists as Condorcet and Lavoisier.
Priestley’s political philosophy foreshadowed the American Declaration of Independence in its Enlightenment commitment to freedom, progress, popular sovereignty, and the right of the people to alter any government which violated rights. His 1768 Essay on the First Principles of Government, which articulated these views, deeply influenced the utilitarian radical Jeremy Bentham as well as many American liberals. Priestley’s own dedication to the principles of liberty of the French Revolution made him the target of an Anti-French Birmingham mob which rioted in 1791, destroying his scientific apparatus and motivating him to emigrate to America in 1794 after a brief time spent teaching at a new Dissenters’ College in London.
Thomas Jefferson befriended Priestley in 1797, valued his liberal political principles and his rationalistic approach to religion in Socrates and Jesus Compared. Earlier Benjamin Franklin had struck up a warm friendship with his fellow scientist and philosophe Priestley in London during 1766. In fact, Priestley’s History of Electricity preserved Franklin’s account of his famous kite experiments with lightning and electricity. Franklin also encouraged his friend to publish the widely read tract on English and American liberties, Address to Protestant Dissenters of All Denominations on the Approaching Election of Members of Parliament, With Respect to the State of Public Liberty in General and of American Affairs in Particular (1774). Priestley’s pamphlet showed how the principles of liberty united the right of religious dissent in England with the right of the American colonies to a measure of political independence and freedom from taxation without representation in parliament. He prophesied that British injustices to the colonies would lead only to resistance and eventual political independence.
1774 was Priestley’s annus mirabilis. He produced not only his political Address but also the scientific discovery of oxygen, which eventually won him membership in the French Academy of Sciences. By 1773 he had left his dissenting ministry at Leeds, and from 1773–1780 he served as librarian to Lord Shelborne at Calme, a post that enabled him to equip his scientific laboratory and travel through Europe to meet philosophes and the eminent scientist Lavoisier. In England he was a member of the radical Honest Whigs Club where he conversed with such notables as Richard Price and Franklin.
Never taking American citizenship after his emigration in 1794, Priestley died in Pennsylvania in 1804, having throughout his life professed freedom in science, religion, and politics.
Stateless Defense of Rights
“Society Without A State.” In Anarchism. [Nomos XIX: Yearbook of the American Society for Political and Legal Philosophy. Eds. J. Roland Pennock and John W. Chapman.] New York: New York University Press, 1978, pp. 191–207.
Can an anarchist society—a society which prohibits one agency from holding a coercive monopoly in defense services such as courts, police, army, and law—function successfully? It is conceptually possible for private, nonstate, nonmonopoly agencies to supply these defense services. Historically, this possibility has been realized. Ethically, private agencies would not have to resort to the immorality of coercing taxes from unwilling individuals to acquire their income. Since state coercion (aggressive violence or its threat) violates human rights, we need to explore the possible mechanisms by which a free, stateless society could efficiently provide protection services for person and property. These mechanisms would dissolve the present state-provided services into social and market arrangements.
How then would a market society settle disputes over alleged violations of persons or property? No problems arise if the plaintiff and defendant voluntarily submit their case to an arbitrator (chosen after a dispute has acquired or beforehand according to the terms of a contract). In fact the private American Arbitration Association which has created a body of private law, often makes the government court system play a secondary role. Similarly the effective law merchant and admiralty law developed outside the government system of justice. These private courts enforced acceptance of their decisions by threat of social ostracism and commercial boycott against the offending party. A party who refused to abide by the private court’s decision would risk losing his trustworthiness and credit ratings. Private arbitrators would be chosen in a free market on the basis of reputation for expertise and fairness. Through competition they would not owe loyalty to vested interests or political connections. In the arbitration process, the parties could provide in advance for a set number of courts of appeal.
But what mechanism would the market employ for torts or crimes of aggression which involve no prior contractual procedures for arbitration? Or how would a market system be able to enforce decisions against contract breakers who refuse to honor arbitration awards?
The principles to be followed are not to violate rights and to use socially accepted procedures. It is likely that police and court services would be provided by crime insurance companies to their clients. These insurance companies would pay their clients who were victims of crime or contractual violations and then seek to recoup their losses by pursuing the aggressors in court. “Courts might either charge fees for their services, with the losers of cases obliged to pay court costs, or else they may subsist on monthly or yearly premiums by their clients, who may be either individuals, or the police, or insurance agencies.” Market prudence would make it likely that rival court and police systems would have prior contractual arrangements to deal with conflicts between clients who use different protection agencies. The police and court systems could employ “defensive force—force in defense of person and property—” to enforce legitimate decisions against guilty parties.
Severe market checks of competition would minimize the possibility that private courts would become corrupt and dishonest, or that private police would become criminally coercive. Private agencies would not possess the mystique of legitimacy now possessed by the monopoly government courts and police. Thus clients would feel free to do business with only those agencies with the best reputation for honesty and peaceful procedures. The evolving law code a free market would prohibit aggression against person and property, and would arrive at detailed legal principles on the basis of custom, reason, justice, rights, and social acceptability.
Mill, Communism, and Human Nature
“Libertarian Communists, Malthusians, and J.S. Mill Who Is Both.” The Mill News Letter 15(Winter 1980):1–16.
Paradoxically for a Malthusian spokesman, John Stuart Mill’s social philosophy defends a form of “libertarian communism” on grounds that parallel William Godwin’s argument for abolishing private property in his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. Both Mill and Godwin believed that communal property could be accompanied by man’s moral development. He would prefer public to private interest and thus be motivated to restrain sexual passion and population growth.
The theoretical issue is whether human nature should be viewed as fixed and unvarying on the basis of past observations, or as developmental and perfectible and thus capable of living up to a “higher” altruistic morality than it has in the past. Mill argued that “successful libertarian communism would inculcate an altruistic moral motivation replacing self-regarding motivation.” He defended libertarian communism by challenging the foundations of Malthusian “economic reductionism,” which claimed that human motivation and goals were fixed, and therefore, open to scientific analysis and prediction.
The background of Mill’s position involves the debate between William Godwin and T.R. Malthus over the desirability of private property and the related issue of parental responsibility in limiting population. John Locke’s Second Treatise had endorsed private property appropriation so long as it does not reduce the amount left in common for others to use (the famous “Lockean proviso” on appropriation). Hume had criticized Locke’s innuendo of economic abundance and noted that property exists only in conditions of scarcity. Entering this older debate Godwin countered that scarcity itself was an artificial creation of property. Abolishing property would remove scarcity and foster general benevolence. Egalitarian distribution of income would codetermine the new altruist morality.
Malthus next entered the debate and counterargued that scarcity is natural and cannot be altered by reforming social institutions (such as property) since human motivation is fixed: human wants and passions are always insatiable. Thus, if Godwin’s libertarian communism were to substitute communal for private responsibility in supporting one’s offspring, the “tragedy of the commons” would result. Potential parents would be more prone to indulge their passion and beget extra children since they could pass on the costs of support to society at large. Communism, in effect, creates “perverse incentives” that encourage excessive population growth. The natural check to population was rather to make every man provide for his own children.
Mill’s fellow Malthusian, Nassau Senior, had reasoned that the poor laws could be so devised that they would create no perverse incentives to higher birth rates. Similarly, Mill believed that under libertarian communism individuals would act out of social concern in their family-forming decisions. Against the economic reductionists he affirmed that past human motivation in sex and family matters need not be constant for the future but could be transformed by human moral development. In the new communist society of evolving moral development, we might expect social unity, the suppression of narrow self-interest, and an improvement over the contradictory morality of Christianity. In effect, Mill’s argument is a secularized version of theological utilitarianism or Pascal’s wager argument: any gamble to attain an infinite goal (not God, but social moral development) is worth the cost.
Spain and Political Ideology
“La ideodinámica politica española, entre Rousseau y Marx.” Revista de Estudios Politicos 3(May-June 1978):121–132.
Professor Beneyto traces the diffusion of revolutionary ideas in Spain from the middle of the eighteenth to the beginning of the twentieth century. He also describes the zealous efforts of certain regimes during this period to halt the spread such notions. Beneyto thus provides an overview of Spain’s contact with European intellectual currents over a century and a half.
The last half of the eighteenth century witnessed the Spanish government’s most concerted efforts to suppress revolutionary ideas in Spain and in its far-flung colonies. During this period, ministers of the Spanish kings attempted to establish a military “cordon sanitaire” across the Pyrenees. In so doing, they hoped to stem the flow of books and pamphlets from the increasingly free-thinking capital of France. Yet, despite this formidable barrier, seditious material crossed the frontier in large quantities, often in the most unexpected ways—in the linings of hats, as wrapping paper, etc.
Precautions were also taken to prevent ‘contamination’ from other Spaniards. In 1790, King Carlos IV forbade any of his vassals to study abroad without his express permission To discourage the desire to travel or to read subversive literature, Carlos imposed severe restrictions on the teaching of foreign languages. In 1791, the government ordered all newspapers to cease publication—with the sole exception of the authorized Diario de Madrid.
Nonetheless, the idea of popular sovereignty continued to make inroads among Spaniards of all classes. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, a new genre was invented to popularize anti-monarchist ideas—the Catecismos, question-and-answer propaganda manuals modeled after Roman Catholic catechisms. They often contained revolutionary liturgies and Credos, one of which began: “I believe in the French Republic, one and indivisible, creator of equality and freedom. And in General Bonaparte, its only son, our defender. . .”
The books of foreign authors circulated in editions printed abroad, in manuscript form, or in abridged translations. The most avidly read writers included Rousseau, Montesquieu, Benjamin Constant, Destutt de Tracy, De Pract, and Jeremy Bentham. During periods of relative intellectual freedom, the Ateneo de Madrid, a major center of liberal thought, undertook translations of these authors’ principal works. Later in the century, Lamennais, De Maistre, De Toqueville, Vico, Gibbon, and Thiers enjoyed periods of wide circulation, often in spite of official disapproval.
The final great ideological influence from abroad was that of Marxism. The Communist Manifesto appeared in the Madrid weekly La Emancipación in 1872, as well as in the Barcelona weekly El Obrero ten years later. Translations of Das Kapital would be issued successively in 1883, 1906, and 1931. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Spanish Socialist Workers Party distinguished itself as the most informed exponent of Marxist thought.
Intellectual life in Spain from 1850 to 1930 offers the fascinating spectacle of determined censorship alternating with almost unbridled freedom. The head-or-tail pattern makes Spanish intellectual life a most difficult, yet worthwhile field of study. This and other articles penned by Prof. Beneyto are aimed at elucidating this significant, but neglected chapter in the ideological history of the West.