John Locke

John Locke (1632-1704), an English moral philosopher whose Two Treatises of Government (1689) is regarded as having ‘delivered the philosophical coup de grâce to James II’s absolutist regime’, helped shape the concept of a liberal democracy and secular state. That his intellectual approach was influenced by contemporary Protestant doctrine in no way diminishes its value.

Two rival constitutional arguments competed for dominance in the latter part of the seventeenth century and beginning of the eighteenth. The ascendant, the Whig view, held that England was governed by a constitution rooted in established custom that could be traced back to Anglo-Saxon times. From this perspective, constitutional governance was the product of a notional balance between the legislature – the King, the Lords and the Commons – and the subjects of the realm, who enjoyed an implicit right to resist autocracy and tyranny. The structure had checks and balances to prevent royal absolutism, and examples of popular resistance seeded a narrative that stretched from before Magna Carta to encompass the Glorious Revolution.

John Locke extended this thesis. His Two Treatises of Government argued that an absolute monarchy by definition made slaves of its subjects and that a legitimate government was established by consent and served to secure the rights to life, liberty and property. In Locke’s analysis, a government exercised power legitimately only if it did not encroach on the natural rights of the governed. Where such rights had been breached, ‘the people’ had the moral authority to resist and the legal right to dismiss the government and establish a successor:

The great end of men’s entering into society being the enjoyment of their properties in peace and safety and the great instrument and means of that being the laws established in that society, the first and fundamental positive law of all commonwealths is the establishing of the legislative power…

To this end it is that men give up all their natural power to the society they enter into and the community put the legislative power into such hands as they think fit with this trust that they shall be governed by declared laws or else their peace, quiet, and property will still be at the same uncertainty as it was in the state of Nature…

The legislative cannot transfer the power of making laws to any other hands, for it being but a delegated power from the people, they who have it cannot pass it over to others. The people alone can appoint the form of the commonwealth which is by constituting the legislative and appointing in whose hands that shall be. And when the people have said ‘We will submit and be governed by laws made by such men and in such forms’, nobody else can say other men shall make laws for them, nor can they be bound by any laws but such as are enacted by those whom they have chosen and authorised to make laws for them.

Locke’s definition of the nature of government was radical and had narrow support in its unvarnished form. It was disavowed by many of those in power who were disinclined to support any ideas that could challenge their authority. And in the late 1680s it was of course never intended or asserted that the consent of the public at large was required to approve the transfer of the crown to William and Mary, nor that ultimate sovereignty rested with the mass population. These were alien concepts in a society where the franchise was based on narrowly defined property rights. This, in effect the mainstream Whig historical perspective on constitutional history, was encapsulated by Edmund Burke towards the end of the eighteenth century when he wrote that the Glorious Revolution was to be celebrated precisely because it had restricted political change to the minimum needed to reinstate the ‘ancient constitution’.

Locke’s ideas were nonetheless central to the concept of a freemason submitting to the authority of the ‘supreme legislature’, an amalgam of constitutional monarch, elected parliament and independent judiciary, and to the promotion of religious tolerance. Locke argues cogently that the power of a supreme legislature is restricted to civil matters and that the realm of religion is exempt from any such authority. The same concepts provide part of the philosophical foundations that underpin America’s Declaration of Independence and the United States’ Constitution.