Who was John Locke?

John Locke

John Locke (1632 – 1704) was an English philosopher. Locke is considered the first of the British empiricists, but is equally important to social contract theory. His ideas had enormous influence on the development of epistemology and political philosophy, and he is widely regarded as one of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers, classical Republicans, and contributors to liberal theory. His writings influenced Voltaire and Rousseau, many Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, as well as the American revolutionaries. This influence is reflected in the American Declaration of Independence.

His arguments concerning liberty and the social contract later influenced the written works of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and other Founding Fathers of the United States. In fact, several passages from the Second Treatise are reproduced verbatim in the Declaration of Independence, most notably the reference to a “long train of abuses.” Thomas Jefferson wrote; “Bacon, Locke and Newton. I considered them as the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception, and as having laid the foundation of those superstructures which have been raised in the Physical and Moral sciences”.

Locke uses the word property in both broad and narrow senses. In a broad sense, it covers a wide range of human interests and aspirations; more narrowly, it refers to material goods. He argues that property is a natural right and it is derived from labor. Locke believed that ownership of property is created by the application of labor. In addition, property precedes government and government cannot “dispose of the estates of the subjects arbitrarily.”

Locke’s political theory was founded on social contract theory. Locke believed that human nature is characterized by reason and tolerance. He believed that human nature allowed men to be selfish. This is apparent with the introduction of currency. In a natural state all people were equal and independent, and everyone had a natural right to defend his “Life, health, Liberty, or Possessions”, basis for the phrase in America; “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.

Locke assumed that the sole right to defend in the state of nature was not enough, so people established a civil society to resolve conflicts in a civil way with help from government in a state of society. Locke also advocated governmental separation of powers and believed that revolution is not only a right but an obligation in some circumstances. These ideas would come to have profound influence on the Constitution of the United States and its Declaration of Independence.