Given the simplicity of Locke’s fundamentals and the popularity of his works as 18th century events cascaded into our Revolution, one doesn’t need a PhD in philosophy to grasp the elements of his theory. America would do well to relearn the principles of the man who so influenced our revolutionary era, for within his framework is the salvation of the American experiment in free government.
In his Two Treatises of Government, Locke’s starting point was not seriously questioned in America until recent decades: “When men think of themselves as organized with each other they must remember who they are. They do not make themselves, they do not own themselves, they do not dispose of themselves, they are the workmanship of God. They are his servants, sent into the world on his business, they are even his property.” To Locke, this was biblical and common sense. It is the initial proposition of a work that appeals to our Christian heritage and reason.
Second, we are naturally born in a state of nature, of perfect freedom, in which we may act and dispose of our possessions as we see fit, subject only to the Law of Nature. Here, no man need ask permission of, nor depend upon the will of, any other man. This is also a state of equality because God does not create one man with power and jurisdiction over another. The Law of Nature is, equivalently, the Law of Reason, and reason informs us that freedom and liberty are not license; we may not harm ourselves, others or their property as manifest in one’s life, health, liberty or possessions. For evidence, Locke pointed to England’s distant Celtic ancestors and American Indians as living in a state of nature.
In the state of nature all men are duty-bound to enforce the Law of Nature. When one assaults the property (person, life, liberty, estate, possessions) of another, the victim may resist with deadly force. Individual enforcement of the Law of Nature, to punish transgressors of it, constitutes the executive power within each of us. This Natural Law, the Law of Reason, applies to all men at all times.
Needless to say, there are what Locke regarded as “inconveniences” associated with life in the state of nature. Not only are individuals charged with executive power to enforce the Law of Nature, all must use judgement to arrive at executive decisions. In this, in judging their own situations, men are often deficient and prone to misapply Natural Law.
To deal with these inconveniences, men gather in society. The unmistakable evidence of civil society is when every individual resigns up to society his individual duty to exercise the executive power within the Law of Nature to protect his property. Society forms a compact, a constitution of government that sets up legislative, executive and judicial powers to put the Law of Nature into practice. Governing powers are always twice limited: first, by the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God, and second, by the consent of the governed.
So, governors are only entrusted with the powers granted for attaining certain ends. If those ends are neglected, government is dissolved and its powers devolve to the society that granted them. Locke defined usurpation as the exercise of power entitled to another; tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right. It is for the sovereign people through their society to decide when their servants in government have acted contrary to their trust. Should the governors resist such judgement or threaten the people, they become rulers and outlaws. Under rulers’ oppression, society is rendered into a confused multitude and the people are once again cast back into a State of Nature.
In this extreme situation, when government and society are gone, individuals are subject once again to only the Law of Nature and no earthly judge, but rather, as our Founders declared, “The Supreme Judge of the World.” This isn’t speculative theory; we can see pockets of life in the state of nature, where government is largely absent, in areas of Chicago and Detroit, and when mayors turn their streets over to rule by gangs.
What passes for legitimate government, one that comports with Natural Law and our consent left the American scene long ago. Usurpation of Article I legislative powers by the executive branch developed quickly under FDR, when his scotus judges condoned executive branch lawmaking. THAT was the time for an Article V state amendments convention, to deal with usurpations, with breaches in our governing form. Since then, usurpation devolved into outright tyranny, where governors became rulers unencumbered by the Constitution or Natural Law. This breach of trust forfeits the power the sovereign people put into their hands.
It devolves to the sovereign people, who have the Natural Law right to resume their original liberty and establish a new legislative to provide for their safety and security. Without this, the nation is reduced to a situation worse than the state of nature. In this anarchy, the inconveniences are all as great and as near, while the remedy is further off and more difficult as rulers increasingly use raw force to remain in power.
Having endured a destructive revolution, our Framing generation provided peaceful means in Article V to deal with usurpation and tyranny. History will not look well upon a people who skulked and avoided their obligations to themselves and future generations.
Locke, J. (2010). Two Treatises of Government, Edited by Peter Laslett. Cambridge: University Press.