John Locke and the Foundations of British and American Democracy

Locke Portrait

Career and the Constitution of Carolina

One of the founders of the British and American democratic tradition was the English philosopher, John Locke. Born in 1632, it was Locke who established the modern liberal idea of government by defending the right of the nation to choose their government through elected representatives against the claims for the monarchy to have absolute power, advocated by royalists such as Sir Robert Filmer. From 1668 to 1675 he was Secretary to the Lords Proprietors of Carolina, and from 1673 to 1675 he was Secretary to the Council of Trade and Plantations. Locke helped draft the Fundamental Constitutions for the Government of Carolina in 1669. This contained Locke’s own ideas, that he had previously expressed in his Essay Concerning Toleration of two years previously. He believed that no-one should be a freeman in Carolina, or possess any land or dwelling there, who did not believe in a God. If they did believe in the Almighty, however, they not only had the right to live in the colony, but also to the authorities’ protection for their person, property and religious beliefs. Locke was certainly not in favour of complete religious toleration. He excluded Roman Catholics, who were associated with continental absolute monarchies, such as France and Spain, as well as atheists. In the event, his proposed constitution was never enacted, yet some of the ideas it contained were strong enough to be put into practice. Carolina thus offered a greater protection to emigrants fleeing religious persecution than either Pennsylvania or Massachusetts. Locke stated that everyone possessed the fundamental rights of ‘life, liberty and property’, which inspired the American Revolutionaries to enshrine the basic rights of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ in the American Constitution.

Political Ideas in the Two Treatises of Government

Locke himself saw his arguments for representative democracy as part of the English tradition of political liberty that stood staunchly opposed to the absolute monarchy of Filmer’s Patriarcha. The first part of Locke’s classic political text, Two Treatises of Government, consists in demolishing Filmer’s arguments. It is arranged in several books, the first of which has the title ‘An Essay Concerning Certain False Principles’. The first chapter is ‘On Slavery and Natural Liberty’. It begins

‘Slavery is so vile and miserable an estate of man, and so directly opposite to the generous temper and courage of our nation, that it is hardly to be conceived that an “English,” much less a “gentleman”, should plead for it.’

He later defined political power as

‘that power which every man having in the state of Nature has given up into the hands of the society, and therein to the governors whom the society hath set over itself, with this express or tacit trust, that it shall be employed for their good and the preservation of their property… it can have no other end or measure, when in the hands of the magistrate, but to preserve the members of that society in their lives, liberties, and possessions, and so cannot be an absolute, arbitrary power over their lives and fortunes, which are as much as possible to be preserved … And this power has its original only from compact and agreement and the mutual consent of those who make up the community’.

Locke’s Family’s Homes of Wrington and Pensford, Somerset

Locke was born in Wrington, in Somerset, and his family came from the village of Pensford. This is also in Somerset, not far from the city of Bristol. The great British travel writer, Arthur Mee, described Pensford as follows:

‘It has a character, and a good one; could any tiny place be more crowded with quaint loveliness? Perhaps we found it at its best, for it was a glorious spring day and the aubrietia was creeping down the stone walls through which the river runs, ten feet down from the cottage gardens to the water, and it is all bridges- three little stone ones and a colossal viaduct dwarfing the village, the tower, the roofs and everything with its 16 great arches carryinig the trains 100 feet up in the air. A perfect miniature is the little domed lock-up looking down the street. Wandsdyke which runs close by is hardly noticed.

The 14th century church is nearly moated with the little river; in its long history the nave has been flooded four feet deep. It has a 15th century font with quatrefoils and roses; a Jacobean pulpit of which every inch is carved with swaures and circles and leaves, and in the tower we found an odd little man most certainly winking, though winking at nothing we could see.

In this small place there live two people whose son was to join our immortals, father and mother of our philosopher John Locke’.

According to Mee, there is also a bust of Locke in Wrington parish church. It was taken there after his uncle’s house in the village was torn down.

Since Locke’s time, democracy and liberal, representative government has spread to many more countries than just Britain and America. The largest democracy on Earth is now India. Black Britons, American and West Indians may well consider Locke’s comments on slavery profoundly wrong, considering their own peoples history of enslavement by Europeans. Nevertheless, Locke’s ideas on government firmly laid the foundation for modern, constitutional democracy and the replacement of absolute monarchy by liberal regimes.

Sources

John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd 1924).

Arthur Mee, ed. Somerset: County of Romantic Splendour (London: Hodder and Stoughton 1940)

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6 Responses to “John Locke and the Foundations of British and American Democracy”

  1. Mike Sivier Says:

    Reblogged this on Vox Political and commented:
    Beastrabban\’s Weblog is written by my brother, the eminent Doctor David Sivier. Here he discusses the origins of British and American democracy, as found in the thoughts and writings of fellow West Country boy John Locke.
    Of particular note to our current Conservative/Liberal Democrat government should be the quotation about political power: “It can have no other end or measure, when in the hands of the magistrate, but to preserve the members of that society in their lives, liberties, and possessions, and so cannot be an absolute, arbitrary power over their lives and fortunes, which are as much as possible to be preserved.” As much as possible, to be preserved.
    Oh dear. It looks as though our Coalition friends need to hit their history books and learn what it means to be a representative of the people again.
    If they ever did it before.

  2. thepositivevoice Says:

    Reblogged this on thepositivevoice.

  3. aussieeh Says:

    HEAR HEAR
    Then we come to todays lot of miscreant career politicians, who are there only to increase their own personal wealth at the expense of the nation and its people.Where lies, corruption, perversion of law, even treason are used to that end.

  4. Ilíon Says:

    Black Britons, American and West Indians may well consider Locke’s comments on slavery profoundly wrong, considering their own peoples history of enslavement by Europeans.

    Only if they are either:
    1) ignorant (which is curable);
    2) stupid (which is not curable);
    3) intellectually dishonest.

    Locke:‘Slavery is so vile and miserable an estate of man, and so directly opposite to the generous temper and courage of our nation, that it is hardly to be conceived that an “English,” much less a “gentleman”, should plead for it.’

    In other words: “How can a man call himself an Englishman, much less a gentleman, if he would argue *for* slavery?

  5. rainbowwarriorlizzie Says:

    Reblogged this on HUMAN RIGHTS & POLITICAL JOURNAL.

  6. John Locke and the Foundations of British and A... Says:

    […] Career and the Constitution of Carolina One of the founders of the British and American democratic tradition was the English philosopher, John Locke. Born in 1632, it was Locke who established the …  […]

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