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John Locke and the founding fathers

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The founding fathers possessed a vision of liberty illumined by philosophy and religion. In order to best understand their vision, it is wise to investigate which writers and thinkers inspired John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert R. Livingston, and especially Thomas Jefferson in the drafting of the constitution.

John Locke, philosopher and physician, anonymously published his book on political philosophy, Two Treatises of Government in 1689. It is indisputable that the United States constitution was largely influenced by Locke’s work. Jefferson wrote later, “Neither aiming at originality or principles or sentiments, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American Mind.” While the constitution is not explicitly drawn from any one work, it was the culmination of much influential political thought and philosophy. J.W. Peltason states in his book Understanding the Constitution, that Locke’s Two Treatises of Government “was thought to be an authoritative pronouncement of established principles. Locke’s ideas provided ready arguments for the American cause, and they were especially embarrassing to an English government whose own source of authority was based on them.”

The United States constitution states that the rights of men are unalienable, intrinsic. The government is put in place to protect these rights, not provide them by substituting philanthropic institutions. “These ideas were based on the concepts of a state of nature, natural law, natural rights, and the social compact. As John Locke wrote, prior to the establishment of society people lived in a state of nature.” Without government, do men act without direction or conscience? Human nature is certainly corrupted by sin, but Locke argued that sin had not obstructed the natural law written on man’s heart, because “even in a state of nature there was a law governing conduct-there was the natural law, compromising universal, unvarying principles of right and wrong, and known to men through the use of reason.” Constitutional independence grants men their natural rights and so as not to impede upon these rights, governance is elected by consent of the people.

Locke wrote heavily on the importance of the people’s consent:

Man being…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 whereby any one devests himself of his Natural Liberty, and puts on the bonds of Civil Society is by agreeing with other Men to joyn and unite into a community for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living amongst another

The Natural Liberty of Man is to be free from any Superior Power on Earth and not to be under the will of Legislative Authority of Man, but to have only the Law of Nature for his Rule. The Liberty of Man, in society, is to be under no other Legislative Power, but that established, by consent, in the Common-wealth, nor under the Dominion of any Will, or Restraint of the Law, but what the Legislative shall enact, according to the trust put in it.

Democracy built upon the natural rights of men and enacted out in consensual governance were concepts which served as the building blocks of the founding fathers’ declaration. Donald L. Doenberg writes in We the People: John Locke, Collective Constitutional Rights, and Standing to Challenge Government Action that “It would be difficult to overstate John Locke’s influence on the American Revolution and the people who created the government that followed it.” John Locke’s expansive influence on history is incalculable and it is evident that some of the most important framework for the founding of America originated from Locke.

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Caroline Roberts has a B.A. in English from Grove City College and produces the Acton Institute’s podcast, Acton Line.