The Political Philosophy of John Locke
and Its Influence on the Founding Fathers
and the Political Documents They Created
Part One: The Political Philosophy of John Locke
In his works "A Letter Concerning Toleration" (1689) and
"The Second Treatise On Civil Government" (1690), philosopher
John Locke created what would become the philosophical source for the
founding principles of the United States. In what follows, I will
summarize the central arguments presented in the Letter, followed by the
arguments presented in the Treatise. Following the summaries, I will
demonstrate the influence that these works had on the thinking of the
founding fathers and the political documents they created.
Although not strictly a political work, "A Letter Concerning
Toleration" presents a view of the means of understanding moral
truths that has strong political implications. For although its specific
focus is the separation of church and state, in essence it deals with a
much wider issue, which is that it is impossible for the state to compel
moral behavior. Thus, when more broadly applied, it provides a philosophic
foundation for free speech and for the freedom of action that follows from
In the letter, Locke maintains that there must be an absolute separation
between the church and the state, that "the whole jurisdiction of
the magistrate reaches only to
civil concernments," so that
"neither can nor ought [it] in any manner to be extended to the salvation
of souls." The power of the government "consists only in outward
force; but true and saying religion consists in the inward persuasion
of the mind
And such is the nature of the understanding, that
it cannot be compelled to the belief of anything by outward force. Confiscation
of estate, imprisonment, torments, nothing of that nature can have any
such efficacy as to make men change the inward judgment that they have
framed of things
It is only light and evidence that can work a change
in men's opinions
" In other words, a human understanding of
truth requires a volitional relationship between an individual mind and
reality; which requires political freedom. Locke's argument for the separation
between church and state is in essence an argument for the separation
between government force and mind.
Further, since this relationship only exists between an individual mind
and reality, political leaders are in no superior position to grasp the
truth than any other men are, and therefore have no right to even attempt
to force their opinions on others. "For there being but one truth
what hope is there that more men would be led into it if they had no rule
but the religion of the court and were put under the necessity to quit
the light of their own reason, and oppose the dictates of their own consciences,
and blindly to resign themselves up to the will of their governors and
to the religion which either ignorance, ambition, or superstition had
chanced to establish in the countries where they were born?" Again,
the precondition of thought, and thus truth, is freedom.
Finally, Locke maintains that there must be a separation between church
and state since the state exists not to enforce public morality, but to
protect man's rights from being violated by other men. "Covetousness,
uncharitableness, idleness, and many other things are sins by the consent
of men, which yet no man ever said were to be punished by the magistrate.
The reason is because they are not prejudicial to other men's rights,
nor do they break the public peace of societies
the business of
laws is not to provide for the truth of opinions, but for the safety and
security of the commonwealth and of every particular man's goods and person
A year after publishing "A Letter Concerning Toleration," Locke
published "The Second Treatise On Civil Government." Below is
my summary of the essential ideas of that work.
Political power entails the right to make laws backed by the threat of
force. There is no way to prove that one has a right to hold political
power by reference to one's ancestry. Since forming a government on such a
basis leads to rule by brute force, and consequently, to civil disorder,
another way must be found to choose political leaders, one derived from an
understanding of men's relationships to each other before the existence of
government, i.e., of men's relationships to each other in a state of
In a state of nature, each man, as the possessor of reason and free
will, is cognitively independent and equal, and so, by implication,
politically independent and equal. According to Locke, "being
furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of Nature,
there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us that may
authorize us to destroy one another." Thus, "the fundamental law
of Nature" is what Locke calls the law of reason, i.e., the law that
men must deal with each other through the use of persuasion (reason), as
opposed to coercion, so that "all, as much as may be, should be
preserved." In summary, Locke's conception of the state of nature
implies a law of nature, which is that "no one ought to harm another
in his life, heath, liberty or possessions." Natural law, then,
implies natural rights to life, liberty and property.
Thus, according to Locke, the basis of the equality, independence, and
ultimately, the freedom that exists between all individual men is their
mutual possession of reason. As an example of this principle, he notes
that children do not possess the freedoms possessed by adults until they
have reached the age whereby their reason has developed: "Thus we are
born free as we are born rational; not that we actually have the exercise
of either: age that brings one, brings the other with it too."
Accordingly, the restrictions of freedom which parents place upon their
children are only present to the degree to which the children are unable
yet to fully exercise their rational faculties, and as the children
mature, the domain of their freedom is progressively enlarged, until they
are equal in their freedoms to their parents.
It must be noted that although the foregoing provides a secular or "natural"
defense of rights, the ultimate defense of rights, according to Locke,
is religious: that since men are "all the workmanship of one omnipotent
and infinitely wise Maker
they are His property, whose workmanship
they are made to last during His, not one another's pleasure."
A corollary of the natural law is the right to private property. This
right is rooted in Locke's premise that "god, who hath given the
world to men in common, hath also given them reason to make use of it
to the best advantage of life and convenience." Yet "though
all the fruits it naturally produces and beasts it feeds, belong to mankind
there must of necessity be a means to appropriate them
some way or other before they can be of any use, or at all beneficial,
to any particular men." How is this appropriation justified?
Though the earth and all inferior creatures be common
to all men, yet every man has a "property" in his own "person."
This nobody has any right to but himself. The "labor" of his
body and the "work" of his hands, we may say, are properly his.
Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that Nature hath provided
and left it in, he hath mixed his labor with it, and joined to it something
that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed
from the common state nature placed it in, it hath by this labor something
annexed to it that excludes the common right of other men. For this "labor"
being the unquestionable property of the laborer, no man but he can have
a right to what that is once joined to
Property belongs to those who, by their labor, bring such property into
being, since "God gave the world
to the use of the industrious
and rational (and labor was to be his title to it); not to the fancy or
covetousness of the quarrelsome and contentious." Locke further maintains
that the legal possession of this property is a precondition of freedom:
"till they are allowed their due property
men under any government
are not in the state of free men, but are direct slaves under the force
of war." Yet, according to Locke, this right to the possession of
that which one has mixed one's labor with is not unlimited. Rather, it
is limited to "as much as any one can make use of to any advantage
of life before it spoils, so much he may by his labor fix a property in.
Whatever is beyond this is more than his share, and belongs to others.
Nothing was made by God for man to spoil or destroy."
In contrast to the state of nature, is what Locke calls "the state
of war," which results whenever someone chooses to disobey the law
of nature: "he who attempts to get another man into his absolute
power [i.e., deals with another by means of force] does thereby put himself
into a state of war with him." The state of war directly or indirectly
threatens the very lives of those on whom it is imposed, because "he
that in the state of Nature would take away the freedom that belongs to
anyone in that state must necessarily be supposed to have a design to
everything else [i.e., all that is valuable to the other person, up to
and including the other person's life], that freedom being the foundation
of all the rest." Since "to be free from such force is the only
security of my preservation," "it is reasonable and just I should
have a right to destroy that which threatens me with destruction
for the same reason that he [I] may kill a wolf or a lion, because they
are not under the ties of the common law of reason, have no other rule
but that of force and violence." Thus, self-defense is a corollary
of the natural law that "men, being once born, have a right to their
The right to self-defense, however, is actually an application of a wider
right of punishment, which right belongs equally to all those who obey
the law of nature. "In transgressing the law of Nature, the offender
declares himself to live by another rule than that of reason and common
equity, which is the measure God has set to the actions of men for their
mutual security, and so he becomes dangerous to mankind; the tie which
is to secure them from injury and violence being slighted and broken by
him, which being a trespass against the whole species, and the peace and
security of it, provided for by the law of nature, any man
or where necessary destroy things noxious to them
is based on the above principle that the magistrate gains the right to
punish criminal offenses; however, "the municipal laws of countries
are only so far right as they are founded on the law of Nature, by which
they are to be regulated and interpreted."
Men leave the state of nature and establish a civil society when they
voluntarily give their natural right to self defense to a common public
authority. They do this in order to acquire mutual protection of their
"lives, liberties, and estates" from those who in a state of
nature would be of danger to them, by means of placing the retaliatory
use of physical force in under "established, settled, known law,"
interpreted by an "indifferent judge," with the "power
to support the sentence when right."
Thus underlying the laws of the government are the powers granted to
individuals in the state of nature by the law of nature, transferred by
their common consent to a government authority. "The obligations
of the law of Nature cease not in society, but only in many cases are
drawn closer, and have by human laws, known penalties annexed to them
to enforce their obligation." Locke maintains that the proper function
of law is to create, rather than restrict, personal freedom, that the
law of a government is not an instrument to restrain the freedom of a
rational being, but is a framework required to preserve and enlarge it.
For "where there is no law, there is no freedom. For liberty is to
be free from restraint and violence from others, which cannot be where
there is no law." In other words, law, in Locke's view, exists only
to stop the deeds of those who would transgress on another's freedom,
for the purpose of preserving that freedom. Such laws are not arbitrary,
since "nobody can transfer to another [i.e., the government] more
power than he has in himself."
Such a government is legitimate, because its powers derive from its citizens,
who give their consent to its formation. By "agreeing 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,"
such men have given their "express consent" to the government
of such a community. In addition, any man who is born within a particular
government and accepts the protection provided by it, thereby gives a
"tacit consent" as to the legitimacy of that government.
In Locke's conception, a proper government exercises three distinct and
separate powers, the "legislative, executive, and federative power
of the commonwealth."
The first power of government to be established is "the legislative
power," which "is that which has a right to direct how the force
of the commonwealth shall be employed for preserving the community and
the members of it." There are several conditions by which it maintains
its legitimacy. First, those exercising the legislative power are chosen
and appointed by the citizens. Second, they govern by "declared and
received laws [i.e., the "rule of law"], and not by extemporary
dictates." Third, these laws are only interpreted by "known
authorized judges." Forth, it "cannot take from any man any
part of his property [i.e., collect taxes] without his own consent"
[i.e., "taxation without representation"], since "the preservation
of property" is " the end of government." And finally,
it "cannot transfer the power of making laws to any other hands,
for it being but a delegated power from the people, they who have it cannot
pass it over to others."
Once the legislative force creates laws, there arises the need of an
executive power "which should see to the execution of the laws."
"For the legislators not being able to foresee and provide by laws
for all that may be useful to the community
till the legislative
can conveniently be assembled to provide for it
the good of society
requires that several things should be left to the discretion of him that
has the executive power."
The third power of government, the federative, arises from the fact that,
although in relation to one another the members of the commonwealth "are
governed by the laws the society, yet
the whole community is one
body in the state of Nature in respect of all other states or persons
out of its community," i.e., "all commonwealths are in the state
of Nature one with another." Out of this consideration, the power
of the federative branch, "which one may call natural, because it
is that which answers to the power every man naturally had before he entered
contains the power of war and peace, leagues and alliances,
and all the transactions with all persons and communities without the
The last major topic treated by Locke in the Second Treatise is the right
of the citizens to revolt against tyrannies, i.e., governments wherein
makes not the law, but his will, the rule, and
his commands and actions are not directed to the preservation of the properties
of his people, but the satisfaction of his own ambition, revenge, covetousness,
or any other irregular passion." Such a ruler "ceases in that
to be a magistrate, and acting without authority may be opposed, as any
other man who by force invades the right of another." Thus "it
is plain that shaking off a power which force, and not right, hath set
over any one, thought it hath the name of rebellion, yet is no offence
before God." "Prince's
owe subjection to the laws of God
and Nature," so that "the use of force without authority [i.e.,
the authority deriving from the law of nature] always puts him that uses
it into a state of war as the aggressor, and renders him liable to be
treated accordingly." "
By this breach of trust they forfeit
the power the people had put into their hands for quite contrary ends,
and it devolves to the people, who have a right to resume their original
liberty, and by the establishment of a new legislative
their own safety and security, which is the end for which they are in
society." In short, the people "are absolved from obedience
when illegal attempts are made upon their liberties or properties"
because "self-defense is a part of the law of Nature."
Part Two: The Influence Of The Political Philosophy Of John Locke On
The Founding Fathers And The Political Documents They Created
In considering the influence of Locke's thought on the founding fathers,
I will focus my attention on the ideas of George Mason and Thomas Jefferson
as the intellectual sources of the Declaration of Independence, and James
Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams as among the creators and defenders
of the ideas underlying the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
As the author of the document that states the fundamental values for
the attainment of which the United States of America was created, Thomas
Jefferson is the most fundamental source of American political ideology.
It is therefore significant that Jefferson considered Locke (along with
Bacon and Newton) to be one of "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." It is also significant that Jefferson declared that the
Second Treatise, along with Sidney's "Discourses on Government,"
provides the "general principles of liberty and the rights of man,
in nature and in society
approved by our fellow citizens of
the United States."
Jefferson's advocacy of Locke's ideas is evident both in the Declaration,
and in his position paper addressed to the Assembly Of Virginia, written
two years earlier, "A Summary View Of The Rights Of British America."
In this latter document, Jefferson, in Lockean style, describes Americans
as "a free people claiming their rights, as derived from the laws
of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate," and asserts
that the ancestors of current Americans "possessed a right which
nature has given to all men, of departing from the country in which chance,
not choice, has placed them, of going in quest of new habitations, and
of there establish new societies."
As Locke maintains property as a natural right, so by extension does
Jefferson maintain the "the exercise of a free trade with all parts
of the world, possessed by the American colonists, as of natural right."
As Locke maintains that the powers exercised by the government are delegated
to it by the citizens, so Jefferson refers to legislative bodies "to
whom the people have delegated the powers of legislation
they are dissolved by the lopping off one or more of their branches, the
power reverts to the people
" Like Locke, Jefferson maintains
that the initiation of force is incompatible with natural rights, that
"force cannot give right."
The second paragraph of Declaration of Independence is by far the most
philosophically significant of all of American's founding documents.
what it consists of, by and large, is a condensation of the opening of
"The Virginia Declaration of Rights," written one month earlier
by George Mason, which is itself a condensation of nearly all of the
points of the Second Treatise. As a condensation of a condensation, made
by the best writer from among the founding fathers, the wording of the
Declaration is eloquent and concise in its statement of Locke's ideas.
Just as Locke maintains that in the state of nature all men are enjoy
a freedom and equality, and Mason maintains that "all men are by
nature equally free and independent," Jefferson, having earlier
made reference to "the laws of nature," maintains that "all
men are created equal." Just as Locke locates the foundation of
rights in god, so Jefferson maintains that men "are endowed by
their creator with certain inalienable rights." Just as Locke
sees the fundamental natural rights as consisting of life, liberty
and property, and Mason
"life," "liberty" and "the means of acquiring
and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety,"
so Jefferson similarly lists the rights to "life, liberty, and the
pursuit of happiness." While Locke says that rights belong to individual
men and thus precede government, and Mason "that all power is
vested in, and consequently derived from, the people; that magistrates
trustees and servants, and at all times amenable to them," Jefferson
says that "to secure these rights, governments are instituted among
men, deriving their just power from the consent of the governed."
Finally, while Locke writes of the right of citizens to revolt against
repressive governments, and Mason that "whenever any government
shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority
community hath an indubitable, unalienable, and indefeasible right to
reform, alter or abolish it," Jefferson writes that "whenever
any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right
of the people to alter or abolish it and to institute new government."
Just as Locke maintains that need for revolt becomes evident when "a
long train of abuses, prevarication's, and artifices, all tending the
same way, make the design visible to the people," Jefferson's likewise
maintains that the need for revolt becomes evident when "when a
long train of abuses and usurpation's, pursuing invariably the same
evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism."
Of course, after the Declaration of Independence, America's most important
founding document is the Constitution. And since the Constitution provides
a bridge between the principles of political philosophy and the principles
of law, Locke's influence also pervades it, though less directly. Developing
Locke's arguments in general, and his argument for private property in
particular, James Madison, the primary architect of the constitution,
wrote that the major purpose of government is "the protection of
different and unequal faculties of acquiring property." Speaking
at another time of property in its extended sense, what Locke called "that
property which men have in their persons as well as goods," Madison
wrote that government "is instituted to protect property of every
sort: as well that which lies in the various rights of individuals, as
that which the term particularly expresses."
According to writer Walter Berns, "Locke was in fact the first to
delineate the elements of what we know as the separation of powers, probably
the most formal of constitutional forms." Not surprisingly, the system
of checks and balances and the separation of powers written into the constitution
were ultimately designed, according to John Adams, to achieve the Lockian
goal of protecting the "life, liberty, and property" of the
Reducing the tenure in office by means of frequent elections was necessary,
according to James Mason, because "all power was originally lodged
in, and consequently is derived from, the people." Thus public officials
must be made to frequently depend on the "body of the people
for their approbation or dissent." The founding fathers' recognition
of the necessity of the separation of church and state and the right to
freedom of speech as expressed in Article 1 of the Bill of Rights was
derived from the arguments Locke presented in his "Letter on Toleration."
This is clear when one examines the arguments presented in James Madison's
"A Memorial and Remonstrance on the Religious Rights of Man,"
and Jefferson's "Act for Establishing Religious Freedom" (1779)
and "Notes on the State of Virginia," (1787). For example, Madison
argues that religious choices "can be directed only by reason and
conviction, not by force or violence." In the Notes, Jefferson maintains,
like Locke, that the sphere of the magistrate extends only to "civil
concernments": "The legitimate powers of government extend to
such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for
my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks
my pocket nor breaks my leg." In the Act, Jefferson argues for religious
freedom, but is also quick to perceive and apply the implications of Locke's
argument for the freedom of speech generally: "
truth is great
and will prevail if left to herself; that she is the proper and sufficient
antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless
by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument
and debate; errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely
to contradict them." Like Locke, he sees that the government officials
are no less fallible, and therefore no more qualified to force their opinions
on others, than are private citizens: "Galileo was sent to the inquisition
for affirming that the earth was a sphere: the government had declared
it to be as flat as a trencher, and Galileo was obliged to abjure his
error. This error however at length prevailed, the earth became a globe
As all of the above should make abundantly clear, John Locke was the
intellectual founding father of the United States of America, without
whose ideas there would have been neither a revolution, nor a revolutionary
ideology of political freedom to implement at that revolution's conclusion.
It is fundamentally to him that America, and the world, should owe its
gratitude for such political and economic freedom as has existed in the
past few centuries, as well as for the ideas, art, and material prosperity
that that freedom has made possible.
Bailyn, Bernard, editor. The Debate on the Constitution The Library of
Berns, Walter Taking the Constitution Seriously Lanham: Madison, 1987
Binswanger, Harry The Political Philosophy Of John Locke, Oceanside:
Second Renaissance, 1991
Cassara, Ernest The Enlightenment In America, Lanham: The University
Press of American, 1988
Gerberg, Mort The U.S. Constitution For Everyone. New York: Perigee Books,
Hamilton, Alexander and Madison, James and Jay, John The Federalist Papers,
New York; Bantam, 1982
Hummel, Jeffery Rogers The Bill of Rights and Additional Amendments,
Nashville: Knowledge Products, 1987
Locke, John A Letter Concerning Toleration. Internet document (written
Locke, John. The Second Treatise on Civil Government. Buffalo: Prometheus,
Mason, George Virginia Declaration of Rights Internet document (written
McElroy, Wendy The Constitution, Nashville: Knowledge Products, 1987
McElroy, Wendy The Ratification Debates, Nashville: Knowledge Products,
Pangle, Thomas The Spirit Of Modern Republicanism, Chicago: The University
of Chicago Press, 1988
Peterson, Merrill D., editor Thomas Jefferson, Writings The Library of
Smith, George The Federalist Papers, Nashville: Knowledge Products, 1987