John Locke and the Root of the American Experience

No culture or civilization in the history of mankind has ever arisen from a vacuum. All histories are informed by that which came before them.  Even if that history (and perhaps even especially) happens to be the ascending culture in its time and space.  This cannot be said to more true than in the case of the United States of America, a country which prides itself on its freedoms and the right of one to dispose of one’s affairs as one sees fit.  The cultural philosophies  we hold today as normal were first sketched out and further laid in stone by the likes of great thinkers such as John Locke.  His influence over our cultural philosophies in regards to the right to life, property ownership, and even penal codes is greatly underappreciated. America owes a debt of gratitude towards Locke. Without Locke, many of the cultural norms we assume to be our birthright might have been lost in the mists of history.

Modern day America sees itself caught in between upholding the principles  John Locke laid down for us and the need to protect and maintain the national security.  This compromise is not a bit different from the concessions the Colonists had to make when faced with British domination. Therefore in today’s  reality, whether it be an attack from outside forces such as al-Qaedah or the influx of immigrants across the Rio Grande, Americans are still having to address the balance between “freedoms” and “security”.

One does not have to look too deeply at the American democratic process to see and feel the influence of Locke. Many of the democratic concepts we believe constitute a free society, the very need to form a civil society, itself can be traced back to Locke.  His clout can be also be perceived in the immediacy of his own time, counseling the pens of Jefferson, Madison and many others who came shortly after him.

Locke’s viewpoint from his time is one that straddles both modem and pre-modem sensibilities.  By this I mean that Locke perceives his world as one that is in constant turmoil; a chaos that constantly threatens the natural Free State in which man is born into.  Locke’s world demanded a philosophical outlook that would guarantee safety as a primary objective.  The Colonists shared no love for one another but the looming threat of the Royal Crown forced them to rally around a common cause: security and self-determination.

Like all of Locke’s points in Second Treatise, they are interwoven and complement one another, from self-determination to property ownership.  These two points in fact have had long lasting effects on how Americans look at the environment and the manner and extent to which they extract resources from it.  From legislation to the drafting of penal codes, Locke’s arguments accompany each other.  It is precisely this formation of government (or legislative commonwealth as Locke terms it) that seeks to preserve the right to property.  For Locke dictates that property extends beyond mere land ownership.  It encompasses one’s personal self, one’s liberties and the self-entitlement to dispose of them as one sees fit.

One of the most important liberties or freedoms that Locke informs us on is the right for men to own and appropriate property. Through one’s property one is able to extract sustenance from nature.  This process of extraction through one’s property is what Locke says entitles man to what product he extracts from it.  It is also here that Locke illustrates for us the role of the legislature in preserving individual rights to property ownership and the results of labors produced by them or on them.

Locke did not delegate the role of the legislature for simply scripting laws that govern the appropriation of land. They also functioned as the guardians against tyranny and transgression.  In Locke’s argument, man has the right to dispose of his property unmolested by extraneous powers.  This opinion is informed by both Locke’s past and present.  For centuries, Europe lay in the grip of powers that used religion as a tool to not just sway the masses but as a writing instrument to dictate the laws of the land.  And a powerful tool it proved to be.  After all, who could counter the authority of God, even if He chooses to remain “absent”?   Instead, Locke transformed this absentee lordship into a theological interpretation, giving leave to Locke and those who followed his line of thinking to authoring themselves a genuine philosophy for autonomy.

The environment that Locke was to live in would bear a great number of resemblances to that in which the Enlightenment philosophers were living in, namely the dominance of religiously mandated monarchies.  In Locke’s quest to give decree for the Colonists to lead a separate, dignified existence, he borrowed heavily in the form of Enlightenment language (which trumpeted the use of reason for determining destiny), subverting the Crown’s authority over their right to manage their own destinies.  Instead of a theocratic tyranny, Locke delivered a solution for man to simultaneously choose his own destiny and yet still recognize his Creator and God.  Locke himself relates to us that all mankind is the handiwork of one omnipotent Maker.

Any student of American democratic or governmental processes can inform one that the separation of Church and State are two essential components of democracy (as for democracy being essential to “good ruling,” that is up for debate).  Locke as well as many of the Colonists sought to escape religious tyranny in England and other parts of Europe.  Locke’s ideas on the role of religion in society would ultimately come to greatly influence how America legislature would remove the ability or authority of any one religious body from imposing its rule in American society.  Ironically, the fight for separation of Church and State, which Locke so adamantly stood for, is seen to be in jeopardy by many today.

Locke framed his argument against religiously mandated governments in language that was very similar to that of his antagonists.  By reinterpreting Christian theology, Locke presents the Christian god as a passive god; a god who established the Laws of Nature and set them upon a course, wherein man can forge his own destinies.  In modem day America, many feel this separation has been eroded and that despite calls for America to return to its “Christian heritage”, America should remain an inactive part of Revelation.

It is indeed a curiosity that many of the modem day politicians who seek to reintroduce religion back into the public space use many of the founding forefathers as evidence for the original Christian roots of America.  While there is no doubt that Locke is a man who’s  conscious does not stray far from thoughts on God, he clearly in no way sought to implement a theocracy nor lay the foundation for one to be built.  Indeed, it is hard to extract such ideologies from Locke’s Treatise as his disdain for European religious domination took on an almost preventative rhetoric.

The legacy of Locke’s philosophies can be clearly seen in the value that property ownership had maintains in American society. Locke himself was a landowner who made a great deal of wealth of his land ownership.   Even in today’s modem society, property ownership is something that is striven for in American society. It is one of the primary vehicles through which we express our freedom.  In contrast to European society at the time of Locke, where it was exceedingly difficult for one to own land, the Colonies were touted as a place where one could come and own land easily. For many Europeans, land or property ownership was the exclusive domain of the aristocracy or the very wealthy of society.  But Locke saw land should not just be owned but used and used to its full potential.  It is this concept, the idea of land cultivation, which Locke held as a necessary component that went hand in hand with one’s right to own property.

History has acted as a pasteurizing force; internalizing our cultural norms to such an extent that we could never image that there was never a time when they didn ‘t exist. We talk about the Laws of Nature today, as if they are policed by an unseen force.  But it was precisely this concept of Nature and man’s natural state that Locke used to lay the foundation for autonomy from Britain.  And while in the modern context no one thinks of his self as free from British dominance in America, we do believe that we are all born free, in a natural state to dispose as we see fit.  A classic American quote is, “it’s a free country.  You can do what you want.”

While Locke spends a great deal of time expounding on the virtues of absolute freedom, it is not possible to have these absolute freedoms in the context of a greater society.  According to Locke, man’s state of absolute freedom also runs side by side with vulnerability.  In exchange for some of man’s freedoms, he gains increased security in his surroundings.  The Colonists lived in tumultuous times.  Under constant threat of attack from the indigenous Native American tribes, naval threats from the British and even slave rebellions in their own midst, gave plenty of reason for Locke to give pause and provide compromise.   In contrast, our own era, dominated by a post 9/11 milieu, it is not hard to see the traces of what Locke spoke of between absolute freedom and the need for security.  Locke’s definition of government dictates that one of the primary goals of such a government is the safety and protection of the public.

John Locke introduced more than just concepts of property ownership.   Many of America’s modem sensibilities regarding its penal system can trace its genealogy back to Locke.  For Locke, freedom is the right and duty of all those who partake in civil society and uphold and the enforcement of the law.  This is one of the primary functions of Locke’s civil society: To protect the health, property and possessions of others from being accosted by another.  The American democratic system itself grew into an order where losing was an integral part of how the system functioned.  Representatives would be elected by the people and the public would need submit to the authority of the majority.  While minority opinions could still exist they could not oust the duly appointed government unless it took on unjust qualities (and even then it would have to prove those injustices over an extended period).

In all, John Locke gave America a tremendous endowment; a tradition of legislative philosophies and social moralities, thought not without its consequences. Despite being a man of deep thoughts, much of the havoc that has been wrecked upon the environment can be traced back to Locke as well. His attitudes towards nature had a tremendous impact on corporations and their philosophies regarding production, efficiency and progress.  Indeed, many point the finger now at Locke, his contemporaries as well as to Enlightenment philosophy as the smoking gun on why the planet seems to being killed off at an alarming rate. In addition, Locke has been criticized by some as a hypocrite, in terms of human rights, for his own ownership of slaves. He was, nonetheless, a man who gave inspiration to countless Americans to seek their own free destinies.  If not a debt of gratitude, America certainly owes him the responsibility of never forgetting his contribution to the formation of its society.