John Locke v Thomas Jefferson
John Locke was an Oxford trained physician born in 1632. He is noted as one of the most significant thinkers of the Enlightenment era. In 1667, Locke moved into Lord Shaftesbury’s home in London to serve as a private physician. Shaftesbury, who is thought to be the founder of the Whig party, had great influence on Locke’s works. Locke was exiled to Holland in 1683 for suspicion of involvement in a plot to assassinate King Charles II of England. This allowed him plenty of time to return to his writing. While exiled, he writes The Letter on Toleration, which attempted to reconcile the separation of church and state. He writes Two Treatises on government that are directed towards his fellow Englishmen. He is responding to the notion of the divine rights of kings, as government was in England. In fact, he even begins by discussing the Christian creation story, explaining how God did not establish a kingdom, and even if there were, we lost that lineage—thus we could not know who had the divine right of lineage. This piece will compare and contrast the Second Treatise of Government, with the Declaration of Independence, signed in July of 1776 as a formal split between the colonies and Britain. Thomas Jefferson, who composed the document, drew much of his inspiration from Enlightenment thinkers, such as John Locke. It is clear that even after nearly one hundred years, the ideologies of Locke are relevant and key in the initial formation of the United States. Primarily, the ideas that Jefferson drew from include the significance of life and liberty, the notion that all men are created equal, and the dissolution of government. While much of both works are imperative in history, it is essential to understand the similarities and how they were manipulated or expounded as they translated from Locke to Jefferson.
Perhaps the most important part of the Declaration of Independence is this infamous line: ” We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (Jefferson). I feel that the biggest notation to be made is the substitution of the word “property” for “the pursuit of happiness”. Why did Jefferson choose to make this felicitous alteration? In his time, Locke articulated a radical opinion that the government is properly indebted to act for the community, specifically by protecting life, liberty, and property, “Man being born, as has been proved, with a title to perfect freedom, and an uncontrolled enjoyment of all the rights and privileges of the law of nature, equally with any other man, or number of men in the world, hath by nature a power, not only preserve his property, that is, his life, liberty and estate, against the injuries and attempts of other men” (Locke). Locke’s definition of property is much broader than the 21st century definition of property. As mentioned in the quotation, property is anything proper to you. Your property is what you own: passions, creativity, thinking abilities, things, estates, your labor abilities, etc. Further, when labor is added to common property, you have now turned that to private property without the consent of the other humans because god intended humans to cultivate the Earth (i.e. picking an apple from a tree). Locke insists that protecting this “property” is the primary role of the government. Thomas Jefferson’s idea of government begs to differ, “when he penned the Declaration of Independence, ratified on the Fourth of July, he edited out Locke’s right to ‘property’ and substituted his own more broad-minded, distinctly American concept: the right to ‘the pursuit of happiness’”(Brook): and distinctly American it is. Jefferson wanted to transcend familiar apprehensions of the moment and make what might be a fundamental and enduring definition of government. Jefferson chose a more comprehensive term that was a seamless fit, as contrasted to Locke’s “property”. Although John Locke’s original philosophies had great sway upon Jefferson and the Founding Fathers, in comparison, Locke does not capture the concept of the maximum human advancement.
As opposed to Rousseau and Hobbes, Locke believed that humans in their natural state are neither chaotic, nor a paradise. Rather, humans have a God given sense of right and wrong. This is called natural law, which all humans are responsible for restoring. In the second chapter of Second Treatise, Locke draws further on this theory, “To understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider, what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions…A state of also equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one has more than the another” (Locke). He explains how in a state of nature of equality, no one has more power or rule than another and all are equally free. In Locke’s state of nature, natural law oversees and reduces every person equal: all hold executive authority.
Similarly, Jefferson writes, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights” (Jefferson). It is safe to say that Jefferson’s interpretation of equality is the same as Locke’s. Both are implying that humans are equally entitled to basic individual certainties: we are all apt to receive equal justice under the law. Once again, we see Locke’s notorious theories be arguably plagiarized in The Declaration of Independence.
In the Second Treatise on Government, John Locke surveys the termination of government, how to rebuild and reconcile that government, and the natural and just rebellions that occur. In Chapter 19, he writes: “The reason why men enter into society, is the preservation of their property; and the end while they choose and authorize a legislative, is, that there may be laws made, and rules set, as guards and fences to the properties of all the members of the society, to limit the power, and moderate the dominion, of every part and member of the society” (Locke, 1690). Essentially, a social contract exists. Even with no government, we have a strong sense of right and wrong. However, this does not prevent laws from being broken. If one does break a law, they enter into a state of war. In fact, Locke describes these individuals as tyrants, those who break the law and act on their own behalf. Individuals have the right to take justice but may not have the ability to do so; thus, we need government. Locke addresses circumstances in which it may be time to form a new government as well, “Governments can be dissolved not only by being overturned from the outside but also by being dissolved from within…to conclude, the power that every individual gave to the society when he entered into it can never revert to the individuals again as long as the society lasts…but if they have set limits to the duration of the power, then it will revert back to the society and the people have the right to act as supreme, set up a new form of government, or retain the old form while placing it in the new hands they see fit” (Locke). In essence, when the government is no longer operating for the people, it is dissolved. Once dissolved, the people can recreate a government, before they undergo oppressive rule.
Jefferson did include this dissolution concept in the United States’ Declaration of Independence, “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 a new government… prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments longs established should not be changed for light and transient causes…but when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariable the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for future security” (Jefferson). Jefferson, like Locke, is direct in his declaration that if the government fails to uphold it responsibilities and fulfill its purposes then the people have every obligation to form a new one.
The intent of the Declaration of Independence was separation; it also attempted to embrace that government itself was not evil, unlike the monarch of Great Britain. Different and more effective forms of government would allow for a stronger established independence. The people must consent to be governed, which is also something that Locke contends. This creates legitimacy. In the Declaration, it is written: “That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” (“Declaration,” 1776). The government is inherently positive, but it should not overstep its boundaries. There are significant similarities between the Treatise and the Declaration; that being said, there are also differences. Each document was created for a singular purpose and the ideas are conveyed in their own manners. The Declaration of Independence declared the colonies a separate entity from the mother country, England. The Second Treatise on Government is thoughtful literature that assesses the rights of government and the rights of the people. While Locke conveyed the original thought, Jefferson’s point of view is certainly shaped in its own way, respectively.