Posts Tagged ‘John Filmer’

Books on British Constitutional History and Democracy: John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government

January 19, 2014

John Locke Government

This is one of the most fundamental texts for the development of modern, British constitutional government and democracy. In the first of the Two Treatises Locke attacked the traditional arguments for absolute monarchy advanced by the royalist Filmer in his Patriarchia. These stated that as the father was the head of the family, so the king had patriarchal power over the nation. Filmer used quotations from Scripture in an attempt to show that this patriarchal power had existed ever since the creation of the first human couple, Adam and Eve.

in the second Treatise Locke advanced his own theory of government. Like the other contract theorists, Locke believed that governments had been set up by the early human community in order to protect their natural rights to life, liberty and property. Locke was responsible for drafting the constitution of the new British colony of Carolina in 1669, and his belief that humans have the above fundamental rights influenced the American Founding Fathers and the declaration of the American Constitution that everyone has the right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’. Unlike Hobbes, he believed that power was still held by the human community, and there were natural limits to government that it could and should not exceed. The supreme power in the state was the legislature, which governed by the consent of the people. This could not transfer its powers to any other body, and can only govern through proper legislation and authorised judges. It cannot seize someone’s property without their consent, and taxes can only be raised with the consent of the people. Its fundamental duty is to govern for the people’s benefit. When it does not do so, the people have the right to dissolve it:

‘There remains still in the People a supreme power to remoave or alter the Legislative, when they find the Legislative act contrary to the Trust reposed in them’.

Locke wasn’t a democrat. His constitution for Carolina was still strongly hierarchical, with the largest landholdings reflecting the various grades of the British aristocracy, so that some of the largest were termed ‘baronies’, for example. In his discussion on the forms of government, he states that nations should be free to choose whether they are democracies, oligarchies, or elective monarchies, or mixtures of all three, as it suits them. In the case of Carolina, the franchise was still restricted to men of property, and the constitution permitted slavery. Nevertheless, Locke’s work is of vital importance for its statement that political power and authority still lies in the people, on whose behalf and by whose authority monarchs and parliaments govern, and that there must be and are constitutional limits to their power. In 1769 the constitutional theorist, Blackstone, developed this into the theory that parliament was the supreme power. His theory of the origin of political power are the basis of both American and British democracy, and the liberal view of political freedom. This is that freedom consists in the people’s right to govern themselves and make their own laws through their representatives. It is opposed to the ‘Conservative’ view of freedom, expressed by absolute monarchs like Charles I, that politics is the sole business of absolute monarchs, who should in practice interfere as little as possible in the lives of their subjects. Unfortunately, this idea of liberty is coming under increasing attack from an authoritarian Coalition, which is liberal in name only.

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John Locke and the Foundations of British and American Democracy

July 4, 2013

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)