Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Hobbes & Locke: Thinking about the American Revolution

"When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Law of Nature and Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."
Declaration of Independence, 1776

When Jefferson penned these words during the late winter/early spring of 1776, they were not new. They were based on a long tradition of liberalism and empiricism. More importantly, they were heavily based upon a concept of the 'Social Contract' developed separately by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke during the seventeenth century. This concept, in essence, described the ideal nature of government and what it was designed to do. Even more importantly, it defined when the people are entitled to demand a change in government. These thoughts formed the foundation upon which the Declaration of Independence was written and the American Revolution was legitimized.

While both Hobbes and Locke discuss the nature of man and what constitutes a legitimate government the two differed from each other in some very fundamental points. Let's take a brief look at the thinking and assumptions of each of these men.

Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679)

Hobbes believed that the inherent nature of man was " solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." In a word, "BAD." To him, man was not but nature, a social animal and therefore, a society of men cannot exist except by virtue of the power of the state. Man is inherently violent and 'brutish' — so he must be controlled by some master. His notion of the 'Social Contract' is that man will yield one's own freedom to a ruler of the state that then provides an environment in which man can survive. This environment requires that there be a master (Sovereign) who wields absolute power over the populace, including the power of life and death. The people have no right to revolt regardless of how capricious the master might be!

"Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man."

— Thomas Hobbes

In this sense, Hobbes was probably more of attuned to facism than to democracy. Since man was inherently 'bad' and would act in only their self-interest, they need a powerful overlord to keep society operating smoothly. While many of these ideas were developed in seminal form before the English Civil War, the rule in the Commonwealth was chaotic as compared to that under the monarchy! This change, along with his exile to Paris, no doubt led to the consolidation of his thinking. While in Paris, he wrote his most remembered work: The Leviathan.

"...Liberty of disputing against absolute power by pretenders to political prudence; which though bred for the most part in the lees of the people, yet animated by false doctrines are perpetually meddline with the fundamental laws, to the molestation of the Commonwealth..."

— Thomas Hobbes, 1651 Leviathan

This pessimistic view of man's inherent nature and his ability to govern himself was, no doubt, accentuated by the English Civil War and the fall of the monarchy. It may have also been behind the intransience of King George III who was on the throne during the American Revolution. The colonies were his vassels and needed to be ruled with an iron hand. This was the environment that made the colonies' redefinition of the 'Social Contract' necessary and the writing of the Declaration of Independence more or less inevitable...

John Locke (1632 – 1704)

"Freedom of men under government is to have a standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society, and made by the legislative power vested in it; a liberty to follow my own will in all things, when the rule prescribes not, and not to be subject to the inconstant, unknown, arbitrary will of another man.”
— John Locke

John Locke approached the nature of man and the 'Social Contract' from almost the opposite view from that of Hobbes. Locke viewed man as a inherently animal whose mind is essentially blank at birth ('tabula rasa'). Man learns through sensory experience with his environment. This is education. Man also is born with certain rights, including those related to his own freedom. Man, being a social animal, seeks to create social groups with others to by giving up certain certain of these freedoms in order to create an ordered society for the common good. When that state no longer serves this common good, the members of that society not only have the right to make changes in that government, but has the obligation to do so — to revolt...

“The reason why men enter into society is the preservation of their property.”

— John Locke

These ideals were hightly influential on Thomas Jefferson and many other of our founding fathers. As long as the British government preserves 'Natural Law,' it is legitimate. When the British parliament began oppressing the American colonies, as exemplified by the many regressive taxes levied upon the colonies during the second half of the eighteenth century. Therefore the colonists not only had the right to rebel against this oppression, they had the obligation to revolt against the British parliament AND the English monarch (King George III).

“Liberty is to be free from restraint and violence from others”

— John Locke

Thus, the colonies, in accordance with this 'Social Contract,' had the basis for throwing off the yoke of bondage placed uoon them them by the British. Jefferson relied heavily upon the teachings of Locke. He also included statements within the Declaration of Independence that used almost exact words found in Locke's Two Treatises of Government (1690). This gave the colonists...

"...the view that the state exists to preserve the natural rights of its citizens. When governments fail in that task, citizens have the right — and sometimes the duty — to withdraw their support and even to rebel."

Grolier Encyclopedia

Thus, the colonies took the drastic action of rejecting, in 1775, the legitimacy of the British parliament and, in 1776, the right of the English monarch (King George III) to impose his dominion over them. We had no choice but to move into a battle against this unjust government and establish a new government for the American colonies!

“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.”

— John Locke

Tomorrow: We continue to examine the philosophical foundations of the American Revolution by looking more closely at Voltaire and Rousseau. Join me for that adventure.

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