The Reading Room

John Locke Foments Revolution in the Name of “The Rights of Man”

In his years as physician to and political collaborator with Shaftesbury, leader of the English Whigs, John Locke had many roles, among them as a fellow of the New Royal Society, conducting medical research, and as Shaftesbury's appointee to manage the North American colony of the Carolinas. In the latter role, Locke helped to draft The Fundamental Constitutions for the Government of the Carolinas (1669), guaranteeing freedom of religion (except for atheists).
To trace all the roles and achievements of Locke is beyond the scope of this essay. But, while serving in Shaftesbury’s household in Exeter, Locke kept in touch with old friends from Oxford whose discussions had planted the idea for his historic philosophical work, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.
It may have begun at an undergraduate bull session on revealed religion. Locke’s position was that first one must know what the human mind can comprehend. He agreed to prepare a paper on this topic for their next get together. That paper was a first draft of one of the most influential works in philosophical history.
Meanwhile, how was the restoration working out for Shaftesbury? In 1672, he was made a peer of the realm, first Earl of Shaftesbury, and then appointed lord chancellor. He did not last long, perhaps because Shaftesbury’s views approved of a constitutional monarchy, but also supremacy of Parliament, civil liberties, religious tolerance, and Protestant succession.
Shaftesbury lost favor with Charles II and was dismissed as chancellor, and he and all his associates, including Locke, were in danger. Locke departed for France, by this time a physician, and remained in France for four years, much of it spent at Montpellier, largely Protestant, and with Europe’s foremost school of medicine. His journals record ideas on medicine, his reading of the French Catholic philosophers, and his observations on the contrast between French poverty and the extravagance of Louis XIV at the Palace of Versailles.
Back home, Shaftesbury had been imprisoned for a year in the Tower of London. He was released, however, the year before Locke returned and restored to favor. The bone of contention was Charles II’s brother, James, who was a Roman Catholic. Could Parliament pass a law excluding him from succession to the throne? Yes, maintained Shaftesbury and Locke. The controversy provoked hysteria, including the famous Popish Plot.
Shaftesbury again was dismissed and in 1681 arrested and tried for treason. Acquitted, he had had enough. He fled to Holland, where he died in 1683. None of his friends and associates were safe in England. Ever realistic, Locke sailed to Holland, too, in 1683, remaining there until 1689, making influential friends, including exiles from England.
During this interval, Locke published his great work of political philosophy, Two Treatises on Government (1689). Contemporaneously, it addressed the politics of the “exclusion” controversy and, also, as Locke explains, justifies what history now calls the Glorious Revolution, which brought William III of Holland, a Protestant, and Mary II, to England with forces that drove the Catholic James II to France. Locke sailed back to England on the ship that brought Mary II, too.
As the two treatises begin, it is difficult not to view Locke as employing a rationalist approach to establish his framework. He reasons from his religious convictions. God is the creator, and humans, his creation, are his servants. God created them to live by God’s laws and achieve salvation. The gifts to humans of intellect and other abilities enable them to do so. With the gift of reason, humans can know all of this and thus understand and perform their duties and live happy and successful lives. They can know, too, what is contrary to natural law—the law of God—such as neglecting to care for one’s children. For other, more specific moral guidance, law, he referred readers to the Bible or the Quran. 
Historian Winthrop S. Hudson proposes an explanation of the appeal of citing Locke’s ideas on government. Where did he get them? “They were being shouted from the housetops during the years he was at Westminster and Oxford. . . . explicated again and again by the sons of Geneva with whom he was in contact throughout his life.”
In other words, the source was Puritan philosophy, but Locke carefully concealed this fact. For the American colonists and their defenders to quote a Puritan’s ideas would give opponents the easy cry of “rebellion.” Locke, by contrast, was “respectable,” an Anglican (unlike his father) and an apologist for the Glorious Revolution. Championing the ideas of Locke, writes Hudson, had considerable propagandistic values, though “few of his contemporaries in either Britain or America were misled” about the source of the ideas. 
Natural law became the foundation of the new American republic’s concept of individuals and their contract with government. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, a deist, believing in a god known only as creator of the universe, wrote: “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.” Locke had written: “Being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”
Later interpreters have said that the importance of Jefferson’s remarks is that man, by his nature, has characteristics (e.g., reason as a means of survival) that to exercise successfully he requires freedom from compulsion. Thus, we can know based on natural law that rights are moral principles to guide us in formulating legitimate human law and limits on the police power of government, which is exactly what the U.S. Constitution does, of course. 
Take just one example of Locke’s reasoning on human rights: the central importance of property. Our primal property is our own person; we own our body. But with our many capacities, we can acquire additional property by our labor. The classic formulation is that we “mix our labor” with objects in the world and acquire a right. Succinctly, he wrote: “All wealth is the product of labor.” 
Students of economics will recognize here what came to be called the “labor theory of value,” expounded later by David Ricardo and Karl Marx. Here, as so often, Locke’s religious views hold sway. Yes, we may, in a state of nature, claim the right to as much of our property as we need to survive, but natural law dictates that we cannot hoard our surplus while others have too little. For God has “given the World to Men in common . . . to make use of to the best advantage of Life, and convenience.”
The language, here, is undeniably “collectivist,” with men making use of the world God has given them to benefit “Life.” With that, a twenty-first-century environmentalist might not have any problems. But another way to describe Locke’s language and perspective, here, is “conservative.” His views beyond question qualify as “radical,” in that they inspired the American Revolution and the French “Declaration of the Rights of Man” and subsequent revolution. 
But Locke’s are views erected on the foundation of Puritan theology and doctrine. Locke seems to argue from his religious convictions to establish his basic premise that natural law, created by God, can guide human reason to a legitimate morality, view of rights, and government. Profoundly conservative premises launched Locke upon what in his time was a radical view of the derivation of morality, rights including property, society’s social contract, and government. 
I think it is fair to say that the “radical” Locke has transformed the modern world, beginning with the inspiration of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington—among so many others. And the conservative Locke of his father’s Church of England has been forgotten.
The same cannot be said about Locke’s pronouncements on the nature of “human understanding,” how knowledge is attained. But that is for another essay.