Sunday, January 15, 2012

John Locke and the Historians

In Search of the Republic--24

John Locke wrote his Two Treatises on Government as a reply to an earlier work advocating absolute monarchy. In 1650, shortly after the English Civil War, Robert Filmer wrote Patriarcha: Or The Natural Power of Kings. Appealing to the Bible for support, Filmer argued that God vested monarchical power in Adam, based upon his paternal power as a father. This authority, according to Filmer, has been passed down to monarchs throughout the ages. According to Filmer, it is unnatural for the people to choose their leaders.

Locke's First Treatise addressed Filmer's argument. First, Locke denied that any such power was given to Adam. Paternal power is distinct for monarchical power. Second, Locke argued that even if God originally invested Adam with this authority, it could not be demonstrated that all monarchs, or any monarch for that matter, inherited that authority.

Locke wrote his Second Treatise to established to true origins and ends of civil government. Many of the ideas in the Second Treatise did not originate with Locke. He synthesized them, however, in a new, comprehensive, and compelling way. Moreover, he changed several fundamental concepts of republicanism. Indeed, some historians  consider that his writings do not constitute part of the classical republican tradition at all. They contend that Locke introduced a new model of political philosophy they call classical liberalism. These historians claimwhile Americans entered the Revolution within the classical republican tradition, that the writing of the Constitution of 1787 brought an end to classical republicanism and instead established the first liberal state.

That claim, however, would astonish our founders. They considered Locke's ideas an advancement of republican thought, not a deviation from it. The next few posts will look at some of those ideas.


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