John Locke and the Declaration of Independence Essay

In 1689, John Locke published, what proved to be, a valuable document for the American Revolution as well as life in present day America, known as the Second Treatise of Government. In his document he creates a model of his ideal civil government, which is created by the people to ensure their “natural rights” of life, liberty, and property. This government may also be dissolved upon the decision of the people, when it is believed that the sovereignty has ceased to function properly.

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Locke’s model government is based on his idea of the “state of nature”; perfect freedom, the state all men are in naturally. This idea infers that all men will govern themselves accordingly; however chaos and anarchy would always occur. Men, in the “state of nature”, all have the drive and want to acquire more than which they already possess. Men, also, have the same capabilities of doing so, which ultimately creates conflict between men. This is where the idea of the “politic society” comes into play.

The “politic society” is where men forfeit their individual right to govern themselves, and instead create a “social contract” amongst one another. The “social contract” is a binding agreement between the government and the governed, in which the governed agree to sacrifice their individual political power and obey laws, while the government agrees to provide protection of property and enforce/create laws that promote the common good. The government is prohibited from doing which the governed does not consent nor comply with.

Once government goes above or beyond its prescribed capabilities, it is then that it should be dissolved. Locke insists the government may be dissolved in any instance, if does not receive consent from its governed during: legislative alteration, executive hindering its legislative, alteration of elective process the executive, failure to enforce existing laws, and subjection to foreign powers.

It is evident that, while Thomas Jefferson was formulating his document, The Declaration of Independence, he was highly influenced by Locke’s views within his Second Treatise of Government. In fact, the preamble to The Declaration of Independence encompasses Locke’s ideas of the “state of nature” and the “politic society” as demonstrated here:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing it powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their safety and happiness.”

This is directly parallel to what Locke states in his Second Treatise to the Government, with the insertion of property in place of happiness, when he says: “Men being, as has been said, by nature, all free, equal, and independent, no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent…”

Another instance of parallelism is within the Declaration of Independence’s list of grievances and Locke’s grounds for dissolution. Jefferson states that: “He (The King of Great Britain) has refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good. He has refused for a long time, after such dissolution, to cause others to be elected… He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burned our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people”. All of these grievances are considered by Locke, to be just reasons for the dissolution of the current government.

Even though, both documents appear to be quite similar, there is a slight difference. Locke’s views are more individualistic. He concentrates on the rights and duties of the individual. While on the other hand, Jefferson’s main focus is on the government and its rights and limitations. Both proved to be highly effective in each owns instance. Case in point, on July 4, 1776, that The Declaration of Independence was formally adopted by the Continental Congress and the American Revolution officially began.

Another important issue to be discussed is slavery. In the Second Treatise of Government, Locke maintains that the “perfect condition of slavery” is based upon consent. That “man is to be free from any superior power on earth, and not to be under the will or legislative authority of man, but to have only the law of nature for his rule” yet” having by his fault forfeited his own life by some act that deserves death, he to whom he has forfeited it may, when he has him in his power, delay to take it and make use of him to his own service…” Locke essentially is saying slavery is a consensual debt to someone and should not be used in any other instance.

The topic of slavery was not included within the embodiment of The Declaration of Independence. In America, slavery was not consistent with Locke’s view of doubtful servitude. Instead, slaves were brought over from other countries, or born into it themselves and it became a common, harsh way of life for African Americans of that time. A prime example would be Frederick Douglass; a self educated, escaped slave, who was a part of the abolitionist movement during the pre-civil war era. He believed that the Declaration of Independence, the document itself and its ideas, did not apply to he and his people, for they were not free. In his oration, what to Say to the Slave is the Fourth of July, he declares that:

“I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common— the rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence… is shared by you and not by me.”

It is clear that Frederick Douglass shows a great deal of discontent towards the 4th of July and what it represents to Americans because it doesn’t represent anything for African Americans but after a great deal of effort and a civil war, slavery was abolished in 1868 with the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.

During the abolitionist movement, there was another prominent cause in America, the women’s movement. The women of the time, Lucretia Mott for example, felt that women shared a similar cause with the African Americans, in that they were treated unfairly and suffered from inequality in society. They wanted equal rights, mainly the right to vote. The Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions was a Mott’s response to the Declaration of Independence; a parody of the rights of man, the Caucasian man in particular. It is in this document that she demonstrates how women are deprived of the rights to liberty, justice, and property. After many rallies and protest, women were granted the right to vote in 1919 under Amendment XIX.

The next great movement of America’s history was the Civil Rights Movement. This forged many great leaders such as Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Both men shared t opposite views on which actions to take to promote their cause. Dr. King advocated the non-violent approach. He and his followers held rallies and protests and tried to educate America about this current state of inequality and segregation through pamphlets and orations. One of Dr. King’s most famous pieces was a Letter from a Birmingham Jail. He too, like Mott, used words in order to express the current condition of deprivation of life, liberty, and property.

All of these great movements would have been impossible, if it were not for Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. This document created what became a domino effect of social revolutions in the post years after its publication and is a valuable source of model democratic system still today.

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