John Locke and the U.S. Constitution
For the very boring people (lol) that like history or politics, here is a very short paper I did for Govt. DISCLAIMER: I’m not well-read on government, politics, and social issues & I don’t have a very steadfast opinion on much. But here we go.
The question posed by the professor: Something like, “both John Locke and Thomas Hobbes had theories that were prevalent around the time the Constitution was written. Which philosophy do you believe most influenced the writing of the Constitution?” Prof’s comments are at the bottom. Images (wikimedia.com) added for blogpost.
John Locke’s Philosophy and its Influence on the Constitution
At the time of the writing of the United States Constitution, many philosophies on the nature of man and the purpose of government were in circulation. Two of the most recognized philosophies were those of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. These two men differed greatly in their beliefs. Thomas Hobbes theorized that people are innately evil and intent on warring with each other to pursue their own gratification. He believed the purpose of government is to control the people, keeping them from acting on those base urges with the threat of punishment. John Locke, on the other hand, believed that people are essentially good and their natural state is one of equality and liberty. According to Locke, government should be set in place with the consent of the people and with the intent to preserve their life, liberty, and property. I believe that, of the two stances, John Locke’s stance was the most influential in the writing of the United States Constitution.
John Locke believed that, because people are good and their natural state is liberty and equality, they would reasonably want to preserve that state. For this purpose, people would consent to live under the umbrella of a government. By living peaceably together, they would preserve their right to freedom and property. Locke’s philosophy agrees with the intentions and desires of the writer’s of the United States Constitution. Eleven years before the writing of the constitution, the American people, then just a confederacy of states, declared their independence from the English monarchy. They desired a democratic form of government created by the people for the benefit of the people. In their understanding, a nation’s government should pay attention to the voice of the people and should not step on their rights. Most other forms of government, like monarchies, oligarchies and dictatorships, place their own authority ahead of the rights of the people, if they acknowledge those rights at all. This new democratic form of government was set in place with the intention to preserve the acknowledged inalienable rights of the people.
Some might theorize that it was Thomas Hobbes’ philosophy, not John Locke’s, that most influenced the writing of the constitution. According to Hobbes, people are evil and selfish and desire to fulfill their own needs and urges. The fact that people do often turn on each other and seek their own is undeniable. People fight and they war to secure what they believe are their rights. Hobbes stated that a government’s purpose is to keep the people under control, setting parameters for them; limits within which they can live and prosper. Citizens are kept within the parameters by the threat of punishment. For many nations throughout the world, this is indeed the case. People refuse to live in peace and thus the government keeps them in line by meting out discipline.
For all the reasoning behind Hobbes’ philosophy, it was not a valid influence for the writers of the constitution because it facilitates tyrannical rule. This philosophy places government in complete control and makes people out to be warmongers who are incapable of living at peace with one another without the threat of punishment looming over their heads. The last thing the writers of the constitution wanted was to be under another autocratic, tyrannical government. The people had just removed themselves from such a government when they proclaimed independence from England. Instead, the writers made sure to set up a system of checks-and-balances and other measures to create parameters for the government. They did this specifically to avoid the tyranny of an all-powerful, controlling government. They also amended the constitution and added the Bill of Rights to further protect the people and preserve their natural rights to equality, freedom, and property.
Of the two philosophies discussed, John Locke’s most agrees with the desires of the writer’s of the constitution. They wanted to preserve the liberty, equality, and property they believed to be their natural right. They consented to form a democratic government that would preserve those rights. That same government would be kept in check by previously agreed upon limitations. John Locke’s philosophy influenced those writers to piece together the constitution that the United States we live in now was founded on.
*“Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.” Essortment. 2011. Demand Media. 24 August 2011. <http://www.essortment.com/all/hobbeslockephi_rvjm.htm>
*Ginsberg, Benjamin, [et. al.]. We the People: An Introduction to American Politics. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2011.
PROF COMMENTS: While both philosopher’s believed that man was born with certain inalienable rights how can the issue of slavery be conflict with their world views. And while the 13th amendment abolished slavery and the 19th allowed women to vote..were they not also born with those same rights and equality? Also there is the 14th and 15th amendments as well as the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, 65 and 68. This would mean that equality had not been achieved. In respect to the nature of man…how would you explain the behavior of the human race when left without the basics such as following the hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti? Also Locke was the philosopher that also viewed the combination of religion and politics as bad for a system of government. It was Locke that had a great influence on Jefferson. The Declaration of Independence support life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness it is the 14th amendment to the Constitution that supports life, liberty and property. Over all good job but critically thinking one has to wonder if Hobbes had a point in his view that mankind would resort to self interest if left without the basics and void of the social contract..meaning government fails in it responsibility. You did fine!
Ya hear, I did fine! lol. I got a 95 on this. Not too shabby…
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- What are The Differences Between Locke and Hobbes’s Notions of The ‘State of Nature’? Discuss with Reference to The Second Treatise of Government and The Leviathan (socyberty.com)