Term Paper: John Locke's Political Theories

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Locke

One of the single most influential characters in the history of nation building is John Locke. His theories and writings demonstrate a basis for support of actions that had already been taken to eliminate monarchical rule as well as in the development of doctrine for new nations that came from such changes. This work will be a summation of the three foundational principles associated with Locke and his works; social contract theory, natural rights theory and Locke's express concerns regarding the need for the separation of religion and state. Most of the concepts regarding these three theoretical motivations can be found in Locke's seminal work, the Second Treatise of Government though the First Treatise on Government, (in which he discusses the falsehood of divine monarchical rule) and the Letter on Toleration (in which he discusses the concept of religious tolerance and the bilateral separation of religion and state) also contain crucial information regarding Locke's beliefs and theories.

Locke's ideas were not necessarily independent to other ideas of the time his name as become synonymous with both the term social contract theory and natural rights theory. His Second Treatise on Government has become the seminal work of the period regarding the impetus for the institutional adoption and changes that are indicative of the development of the U.S. government. According to Locke the development of government was in many ways a positive outgrowth of social situations that furthered the success of nation and individual as a result of the protections and rights that the nation afforded the individual, in addition to those he or she was born with. For the most part there is a rather simple way to explain Locke's arguments; his natural rights theory claimed that there are rights which the individual is born with and therefore has the right to defend and uphold, his social contract theory on the other hand claims that the individual came together in a group and decided that the natural order was not everything he needed and therefore he ceded some of his rights to a government. "The state of nature is where people are "without a common superior on earth, with authority to judge between them."

Brown points out rather eloquently that Locke's theory of consent of the governed or even natural rights was nothing terribly new, but that he stepped away from the crown as the central authority (i.e. perpetual power) and contended that each generation had the right to consent or de-consent from the government that was formed prior to his or her time at any time in the existence of the government.

Social Contract Theory

Social contract theory, according to Locke offered each individual and group the right to form government based on the consensus of the needs of the group. The group according to Locke, comes together and decides that the state of nature is not the ideal state of society, as there is no common overriding justice, or ability of one individual to decide disputes and therefore disputes frequently end in violence. From this consensus the group forms a government that at its core has the responsibility to decide disputes in a civil and fair manner. "Force and violence are the terms which appear throughout the book as the vehicles of disruption to the peace of the state of Nature." Each individual had the right to legitimize the historical government (i.e. The one formed by his ancestors) or begin anew by building government basically form the ground up to meet the needs of the present situation. The individual then had both the right and obligation to meet the demands of said government based on the legitimate manner in which the group hade decided it would be so. In other words live with the judgment of that civil government.

The natural rights conceded to this process will be discussed later in the work, but can be briefly pointed out here as they are crucial to the development of the social contract theory, because those which Locke specifically points out are the ones he thinks require the most protection, and the ones he chooses to point out as ones the individual can relinquish form the basis for the idea of what the individual will give up to live in legitimate civil government.

The idea of each generation having the right to affirm or reverse the decisions of the former generation is significant in Locke's theory of social contract and it also forms the basis for constitutional law, where in each subsequent generation has the right to affirm, or amend the constitutional developments of the past. It is also grounded in common law, as the law of precedents converges to make a basis of legal rulings in the future but each subsequent judge has the right to offer a different opinion than that of the previous court, given the nature of the current state of society. Uzgalis in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy asks what makes Locke a social contract theorist and answers himself by saying that all of Locke's scholarship logically leads to the social contract as he wishes not to give the individual the idea that all government is formed by force and that a legitimate civil government must in fact be formed by consensus.

Those who make this agreement transfer to the civil government their right of executing the law of nature and judging their own case. These are the powers which they give to the central government, and this is what makes the justice system of civil governments a legitimate function of such governments."

Locke demonstrates through his theory that the right to change government is independently held, making the individual the most important player in the development and overthrow of government. The people had supremacy over the government and only chose to relinquish certain rights to allow dispute resolution by a central authority and the like otherwise the individual was in charge.

The two facts illuminated above, that Locke deemed the people as supreme, and the right of the next generation to accept or rescind the rights of the government given to it by the generation before (potentially even to the point of revolution) are the facts that make Locke's social contract theory different from others of his time, which for the most part all fell back on the idea of the supremacy of the government which in most cases was the crown.

This is not to say the Locke did not have a grounded tradition in the monarchical tradition as some of his work was done in a specific sentiment to support the return of one "legitimate" monarchy from another. His contention was not that monarchy was an inherently bad form of government but that it was a viable form of government if the people chose it as the form of government that best suited them. In other words it is not contrary to form a monarchy it is simply not a preordained position of assertion dominated by ones link to Adam, the first man. "That if even that had been determined, yet the knowledge of which is the eldest line of Adam's posterity, being so long since utterly lost, that in the races of mankind and families of the world there remains not to one above another the least pretence to be the eldest house, and to have the right of inheritance."

It must also be pointed out that according to Locke's treatise the development of government then also resides with the people and yet it is not a complete consensus that determines who rules but a majority, who have the right then to execute the will of the people completely when it is necessary to do so. This in theory establishes a representative, rather than consensus government and even in such circumstances as are necessary allows the representation of the whole by a monarchy or another form of central government much smaller in number than a true majority.

MEN being, as has been said, by nature all free, equal, and independent, no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power, of another, without his own consent. The only way by which any one divests himself of his natural liberty and puts on the bonds of civil society is by agreeing 1 with other men to join and unite into a community for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living one amongst another, in a secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security against any that are not of it. This any number of men may do, because it injures not the freedom of the rest; they are left as they were in the liberty of the state of nature. When any number of men have so consented to make one community or government, they are thereby presently incorporated, and make one body politic, wherein the majority have a right to act and conclude the rest.96. For when any number of men have, by the consent of… [END OF PREVIEW]

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"John Locke's Political Theories."  Essaytown.com.  March 27, 2008.  Accessed May 23, 2019.
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