Dinner Topics for Thursday
He that thinks absolute power purifies men’s blood and corrects the baseness of human nature, need only read history to be convinced to the contrary. ~John Locke
John Locke’s Influence on the U.S. Constitution and Founding Fathers
John Locke 29 August 1632 – 28 October 1704), widely known as the Father of Classical Liberalism, was an English philosopher and physician regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers. Considered one of the first of the British empiricists, following the tradition of Francis Bacon, he is equally important to social contract theory. His work had a great impact upon the development of epistemology and political philosophy. His writings influenced Voltaire and Rousseau, many Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, as well as the American revolutionaries. His contributions to classical republicanism and liberal theory are reflected in the United States Declaration of Independence.
Influence on Founding Fathers
The Constitutional Convention began deliberations on May 25, 1787.
Delegates used two streams of intellectual tradition, and any one delegate could be found using both or a mixture depending on the subject under discussion, foreign affairs or the economy, national government or federal relationships among the states. The Virginia Plan recommended a consolidated national government, generally favoring the big population states. It used the philosophy of John Locke to rely on consent of the governed, Montesquieu for divided government, and Edward Coke emphasizing civil liberties. The New Jersey Plan generally favored the small population states, using the philosophy of English Whigs such as Edmund Burke to rely on received procedure, and William Blackstone emphasizing sovereignty of the legislature.
The Convention devolved into a “Committee of the Whole” to consider the fifteen propositions of the Virginia Plan in their numerical order. These discussions continued until June 13, when the Virginia resolutions in amended form were reported out of committee.
All agreed to a republican form of government grounded in representing the people in the states.
Locke exercised a profound influence on political philosophy, in particular on modern liberalism. Michael Zuckert has argued that Locke launched liberalism by tempering Hobbesian absolutism and clearly separating the realms of Church and State. He had a strong influence on Voltaire who called him “le sage Locke”.
His arguments concerning liberty and the social contract later influenced the written works of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and other Founding Fathers of the United States. In fact, one passage from the Second Treatise is reproduced verbatim in the Declaration of Independence, the reference to a “long train of abuses.”
Such was Locke’s influence that Thomas Jefferson wrote: “Bacon, Locke and Newton … I consider them as the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception, and as having laid the foundation of those superstructures which have been raised in the Physical and Moral sciences”. Today, most contemporary libertarians claim Locke as an influence.
But Locke’s influence may have been even more profound in the realm of epistemology. Locke redefined subjectivity, or self, and intellectual historians such as Charles Taylor and Jerrold Seigel argue that Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) marks the beginning of the modern Western conception of the self.
Theories of religious tolerance
Locke, writing his Letters Concerning Toleration (1689–92) in the aftermath of the European wars of religion, formulated a classic reasoning for religious tolerance. Three arguments are central: (1) Earthly judges, the state in particular, and human beings generally, cannot dependably evaluate the truth-claims of competing religious standpoints; (2) Even if they could, enforcing a single “true religion” would not have the desired effect, because belief cannot be compelled by violence; (3) Coercing religious uniformity would lead to more social disorder than allowing diversity.
Locke also advocated governmental separation of powers and believed that revolution is not only a right but an obligation in some circumstances. These ideas would come to have profound influence on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.
Dinner Talk: Definition of Classic Liberalism vs. Modern Liberalism
John Locke is called the Father of “Classic Liberalism.” The Founding Fathers were considered liberal at the time of the American Revolution because they were in favor of liberty, and they wanted to change the form of government to allow more liberty.Tories were considered to be conservative, because they wanted to conserve the Britiish monarchy.
Today these definitions have almost reversed. Today’s liberals want to change the U.S. Constitution (or destroy it) to decrease the amount of liberty, give more power to the federal government, and remove responsibility from the individual. Today, the Founding Fathers would be considered to be conservative, because they would want to conserve the U.S. constitution which they created, with limited government, and freedom of the people, balanced with individual responsibility.