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17th Century England Index

Introduction : Constitutional Government
James I and the Divine Right of Kings
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Extract from John Locke's "Two Treatises on Government", London 1690

To correctly understand political power we must first consider in what condition men are naturally in: that is, a state of perfect freedom to do and say as they wish, limited only by the law of nature, without having to ask permission of anyone.

It is also a state of perfect equality in which no one has more power or authority than anyone else. Nothing is more obvious than that creatures of the same species, endowed with the same gifts of nature and the same abilities, should be completely one to another.

The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it : this is reason. This teaches anyone who enquires of it that, being equal and independent, no one ought to harm anyone else in his life, lhealth, liberty or possessions ...... All men are naturally in this state, and remain so, till, by their own consent, they make themselves members of some political society.

If man in this state of nature is as free as has been said, if he is absolute lord of himself and his possessions, equal to the greatest and subject to nobody, why would he part with his freedom and place himself under the control of any other power? The answer is that, although in the state of nature he has a right to perfect freedom, the enjoyment of it is very uncertain and is constantly being threatened by others. For every man being equally free and not many being concerned with justice, the enjoyment of the property he has in the state of nature is not at all secure. It is quite reasonable, then, that man looks for, and is willing to join in society with others for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberty and property.

The main reason, then, for man uniting into political society is the preservation of their property.......

When people submit themselves to a legislature of their own making, it is obvious that they cannot let that legislature destroy that which they had hoped to secure in entering into society. Whenever the legislature tries to take away or destroy the property of the people, or reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power, it puts itself into a state of war against the people, who are then immediately justified in rejecting it. Whenever, therefore, the legislature, by ambition, fear, folly or corruption tries to grasp for itself, or put into the hands of any other, an absolute power over the lives, liberties and property of the people, by breaking the trust placed in it by the people, it forfeits the power the people had put into its hands. The people then have the right to resume their original liberty and establish a new legislature to provide for their safety and security.

What I have said here concerning the legislature in general is also true of the executive which has a double trust placed in it, both to take part in the legislature and to carry out the law, and which acts against both when it uses its arbitrary will as the law of the society.

 

 

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17th Century England

John Locke and the "Treatises on Government"

 

John Locke

Portrait of John Locke by Godfrey Kneller

 

John Locke was, to English philosophy, the equivalent of Sir Isaac Newton in science. The son of a Puritan, he found a patron in the Lord of Shaftesbury, the great Whig politician and architect of the 1679 Habeas Corpus Act.

Locke's "Treatises on Government" were, in fact, written before the "Glorious Revolution" of 1689, but came to be known after the revolution as a kind of explanation and apology for the overthrowing of James II. He denied that people were born into political subjection just because they were born into the subjection of their parents. On the contrary, he said that men were born free and equal, and that God had not put any one man above any other. He was concerned to show that hereditary monarchy and the Divine Right of Kings did not belong to the natural order of things.

 

Treatises of Government

The title page of John Locke's "Treatises of Government" (1690)

 

According to Locke, if a government created by society is not doing its job properly, that is, in the interest of those who created it, then it ought to be overthrown. There was nothing new in this idea. Since the Middle Ages and during the Reformation, kings and emperors had overthrown each other, claiming that their enemies on the throne were not governing justly. Locke, however, went further by stating clearly exactly what a government's role was.

A government's job, in Locke's view, was to protect life, liberty and, above all, property. When it fails to protect these, it should be replaced.

To prevent power being abused, Locke insisted that the legislative (Parliament), executive (king) and judiciary (courts) be independent of each other and constantly checking on each other.

After 1689, the ideas in the "Treatises on Government" spread rapidly. They were brought to France by Voltaire and Montesquien. They also formed the basis of the American Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution. Locke's ideas became the characteristic philosophy of the governing classes in Britain, America and, amongst certain thinkers, France for the next two hundred years.

 

 

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