Locke to the Rescue

Locke to the Rescue

It's impossible to understand America's founding without John Locke's philosophy of individual natural rights.

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“Natural Rights and Imperial Constitutionalism: The American Revolution and the Development of the American Amalgam” by Michael Zuckert, in Social Philosophy and Policy (Winter 2005), Social Philosophy and Policy Center, Bowling Green State Univ., Bowling Green, Ohio 43403.

Once celebrated for his central role in shaping American political culture, John Locke (1632–1704) has been pushed into the scholarly shadows in recent decades, as many historians have stressed the significance of classical republicanism and communitarianism in the American founding. The problem with that, argues Zuckert, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame, is that it’s impossible to understand the founding without the Lockean philosophy of individual natural rights.

The conflict leading up to the American Revolution was a battle over the true character of the largely unwritten British constitution. The British insisted that Parliament had the right to legislate for the colonists “in all cases whatsoever,” as the Declaratory Act of 1766 stated. The rebellious Americans maintained that Parliament did not have that right at all—that the colonists were represented, not in Parliament, but in their own legislative assemblies.

The Americans claimed their rights as British subjects. But their case had definite weaknesses, as they knew. Like the North American colonies, Ireland and two English Channel islands were not represented in Parliament, yet they were clearly subject to parliamentary authority. Why not the American colonies? The colonists had let Parliament legislate for them in the past. Why not now?

The British argued that the constitution provided for representation not of individuals but of “estates.” The Americans were part of the “Commons,” and they were represented in the House of Commons, even if they didn’t elect any of its members, insisted Thomas Whately, the secretary to the British Treasury, in 1765. Indeed, 90 percent of all Britons—including the wealthy merchants of London—did not enjoy the right to vote. “Although the Americans greeted the theory of virtual representation with scorn,” Zuckert writes, “it is in fact an extremely plausible application of the underlying theory of the constitution, as contained in the [1689] Bill of Rights.”

To trump that theory of virtual representation and the inconvenient precedents in their own colonial history, Americans drew on the Lockean theory of individual natural rights, combining it with as much of the historical constitution as possible. Our laws, said John Adams, derive “not from parliament, not from common law, but from the law of nature, and the compact made with the King in our charters.” In this way, says Zuckert, persuading themselves “that the British were nefariously innovating and that the colonists had every right, as loyal subjects, to resist those innovations,” the Americans proceeded on to the Revolution. And the Revolution then cemented their case, giving “the nascent American political culture a fundamentally Lockean orientation.”

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