The Words and Wisdom of John Locke

EACH July 4th, Americans celebrate the “birthday” of the Declaration of Independence. But little is ever said on August 29th about another birthday—that of John Locke, in 1632, without whom the Declaration of Independence as we know it would not exist. Locke’s 1689 Second Treatise on Government was the origin of so much of the reasoning in our founding document that Richard Henry Lee accused Thomas Jefferson of plagiarizing from him. The Declaration of Independence is based on the concepts of natural law; equal, inalienable rights; strictly limited government; the consent of the governed; and the right to reject a government which has exceeded its just powers. These all connect back to Locke.

“All men are naturally in … a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they see fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man. But though this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of license: though man in that state have an uncontrollable liberty to dispose of his person or possessions.… The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it … that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”

“Man … hath by nature a power … to preserve his property, that is, his life, liberty and estate, against the injuries and attempts of other men. No body has an absolute arbitrary power … to take away the life or property of another … having in the state of nature no arbitrary power over the life, liberty, or possession of another.”

“Their power, in the utmost bounds of it, is limited to the public good of the society. All men by nature are equal … that equal right, that every man hath, to his natural freedom, without being subjected to the will or authority of any other man.”

“The power of the society, or legislative constituted by them, can never be supposed to extend farther than thecommon good; but is obliged to secure every man’s property. The legislative acts against the trust reposed in them, when they endeavor to invade the property of the subject, and to make themselves, or any part of the community, masters, or arbitrary disposers of the lives, liberties, or fortunes of the people.”

“Every man has a property in his own person: this nobody has any right to but himself. Nobody can desire to have me in his absolute power, unless it be to compel me by force to that which is against the right of my freedom. The end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom … for liberty is, to be free from restraint and violence from others … a liberty to dispose, and order as he wish, his person, actions, possessions, and his whole property.”

“Man … seeks out, and is willing to join in society with others … for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by their general name, property. The great and chief end, therefore, of men’s uniting … and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property.”

“For all the power the government has, being only for the good of the society … ought to be exercised by established and promulgated laws; that both the people may know their duty, and be safe and secure within the limits of the law; and the rulers too kept within their bounds, and not be tempted, by the power they have in their hands, to employ it to such purposes, and by such measures as they would not have known, and own not willingly.”

“Political power … can have no other end or measure … but to preserve the members of that society in their lives, liberties, and possessions; and so cannot be an absolute, arbitrary power over their lives and fortunes, which are as much as possible to be preserved. Political power … has its original only from compact and agreement, and the mutual consent of those who make up the community.”

Gary M. Galles, Lines of Liberty

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