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The Influence of John Locke’s Political Philosophy on the Formation of a Revolutionary Spirit in America

Hausarbeit 2016 13 Seiten

Didaktik - Englisch - Literatur, Werke


The Influence of John Locke’s Political Philosophy on the Formation of a Revolutionary Spirit in America

The Revolution was American but it was influenced by many books from France, the Netherlands and England which were used as weapons by the colonists to fight the inequality and the oppression by the British Crown. One of the most influential philosopher and who is “often referred to as the philosopher of the American Revolution”[1] is John Locke. Locke’s critical concept of the social contract, the natural and inalienable rights and that men are born free and equal served the colonists as a basis to justify their revolutionary thoughts and the independence. Several documents of that period testify the remarkable influence of John Locke’s political philosophy on the formation of a revolutionary spirit. In his most important document Two Treatises on Government[2] he justifies the deposition of James I. and introduces his political philosophy. The First Treatise disapproves the theory of the Divine Right of Kings, whereas the “Second Treatise develops Locke’s contract theory of government, which would eventually be evoked again and again in pro-revolutionary tracts and pamphlets”[3] in the 1760s and 1770s. Considering the great influence one may ask: “How did the ideas of such writers as John Locke get transformed into action and carried out?” To answer this question this paper examines some documents of that time to analyze how John Locke’s philosophy influenced the way people thought about their rights and those of a government. Furthermore, explicit references to Locke’s theory by influential characters of that time and with that some controversies that occur in the documents will be discussed.

Firstly, the main aspects of the political philosophy of John Locke, especially those of the Second Treatise, have to be introduced in order to start with the analysis of the documents and recognize the references made in the pamphlets. Locke points out that people possess particular “‘natural rights’- Life, Liberty and Property”[4] given to them by God within the state of nature. “The State of Nature has a Law of Nature to govern it, which obliges every one”[5] and in the state of perfect freedom all men are free “to order their Actions, and dispose of their Possessions and Persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the Law of Nature”[6]. Although it is a “State of liberty, yet it is not a “state of license” because having all liberties and “being equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions”[7]. Subordination, which may allow the people to destroy one another, is not possible in the State of Nature. They are “Servants of one Sovereign Master, sent into the World by his order […], they are his Property”[8] and having different abilities, they all share it in one community. Locke says that God has not “by any manifest Declaration of his Will set one above another”[9]. Since “the Law of Nature […] is the Law of Reason”[10] it is our reason which introduces us to the Law of Nature and makes us free. This reason gives us the liberty to act according to our own will[11]. Thus Locke says, that “every one has the Executive Power of the Law of Nature”[12] and live together in a state. This state has some disadvantages as it leaves every man judge in his own case. “[H]ence nothing but Confusion and Disorder will follow and […] therefore God hath certainly appointed Government to restrain the partiality and violence of Men”[13]. He uses these claims as part of the argument to understand that there has to be a social contract between the people and the government in the form of a legitimate political government. Locke claims that people leave the state of freedom and are willing to join a society giving their rights to a government “for the mutual Preservation of their Lives, Liberties and Estates, which [he calls…] Property”[14]. These governments are chosen by the people to make Laws, which protect the property of all members of the society, and to limit the power and reduce the dominion of every member. Their goal is to act according to the law of nature to protect the rights of their citizens in inner as outer affairs[15].

Locke accepted monarchical and aristocratic elements in the legislative power but he wanted all men to have representatives with enough power to go against attacks on their liberty and raise their voice when they are taxed without justification. Since governments are in power by the consent of the people, governments that fail to protect the rights of the people and promote the public good can be resisted and replaced with new governments. “[W]henever the Legislators endeavor to take away, and destroy the Property of the People, or to reduce them to Slavery under Arbitrary Power […] they forfeit the Power, the People had put into their hands, for quite contrary ends”[16]. Thus, the people have the right to change their government, so the power falls back to the people and they “have a Right to resume their original Liberty, and, by the Establishment of a new Legislative […] provide for their own Safety and Security, which is the end for which they are in Society”[17]. As soon as a just leader breaks the law of the legislative and starts acting for his own benefit, he becomes a tyrant, according to Locke. However, Locke defines tyranny as “the exercise of Power beyond Right, which no Body can have a Right to. And this is making use of the Power any one has in his hands, not for the good of those who are under it, but for his own private separate Advantage”[18]. Rebellion, Locke argues, occurs when people fall under tyrannical rule and revolutions only happen in the event of the ruler’s “breach of trust”[19]. A system that allows people to dissolve their government is a protection against rebellion, which is a righteous process as people have the right to rebel against unjust oppression[20]. Probably, these thoughts and the concept of Locke used by influential persons inspired the colonists and gave them courage to go against the British Crown and his unjust taxation. In the next step some of the widely distributed pamphlets will be analyzed in terms of if and how Locke’s philosophical ideas were used.

James Otis (1725-1783) who was famous for his phrase “No Taxation without Representation” was an active Patriot. In his pamphlet Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved[21] he made some explicit references to Locke’s theory and thereupon denied Parliament’s authority to tax the colonies[22]. He based his claims on the understanding of English liberties at that time and on the political philosophy of Locke[23]. Another very important American political figure was Samuel Adams (1722- 1803) who supported the complete American independence at an early stage. He was also very beneficial while promoting American opposition to the British taxations as he formed a citizens’ committee to oppose the actions together with James Otis and Joseph Warren[24]. The committee worked out a document known as the “Boston Pamphlet” (1772). This document consists of three parts, and the first part The Rights of the Colonists is considered to be written by Adams, which will be analysed in the following together with Otis’ pamphlet.

These two opponents of the British oppression adopted many ideas of Locke’s political philosophy, especially in the documents mentioned above. Otis and Adams name the natural rights of men as their first argument for the allowance to change the government. While Adams makes direct reference to Locke’s three natural rights at the beginning: “[f]irst, a Right to Life; secondly, to Liberty; thirdly to Property” and also defines them as “absolute Rights of Englishmen and all Freemen in or out of civil Society”[25], Otis refers to the government “on whom the sovereignty is conferred by the people [and who] shall incessantly consult their good”[26]. Furthermore, he attacks the authority of a king as he points out that it is an illusion “to think that a single mortal should be able to hold so great a power”[27]. They both take up Locke’s notion that governments are created by the will of the people and should act for the well-being of the people. Otis makes clear that a government is created because of “the necessities of human natures, and ultimately on the will of God”[28] and Adams points out that “government was instituted for the purposes of common Defense”[29]. Locke’s concept is taken into action when it explicitly comes to taxation and representation: “The Supreme Power cannot justly take from any Man any Part of his Property without his Consent in Person or by his Representative”[30] ; “[…] the consultations and operations of a large body of people, have made it necessary to transfer the power of the whole to a few: This necessity gave rise to […] a right to representation”[31]. The influence of Locke’s philosophy is also visible when both authors use Locke’s definition of the duties of a government: “to provide for the security, […] enjoyment of life, liberty, and property”[32] ; “grand End of civil government […] is for the Support, Protection and Defense of those very Rights”[33]. Otis bases his argument on the Lockean philosophy that God has given the people their rights which “justly belong to [them] either by charter or by birth”[34], and that a government that denies people those rights is opposing God’s Law. Adams speaks of “[a]ll Persons born in the British American Colonies are, by the Law of GOD and Nature and by the common Law of Britain […] declared to be entitled to all the natural, essential, inherent, and inseparable Rights”[35]. Both authors, as they wanted the colonists to stand up for their right to be represented in Parliament and not taxed, talk about the right to dissolve the government based on Locke’s arguments. “All Men have a Right to remain in a State of Nature […] [a]nd in case of intolerable Oppression […] to leave the Society they belong to and enter into another”[36]. Otis, too, makes the argument of all men having the right that “[w]henever the administrators […] deviate from truth, justice and equity, they verge towards tyranny, and are to be opposed”[37]. Otis goes further and points out the injustice by stating that "[i]n a state of nature no man can take my property from me without my consent: if he does, he deprives me of my liberty and makes me a slave”[38]. With the notion of becoming a slave he got the attention of the colonists easily because the colonists sought for their rights as “Englishmen” and did not want to be treated differently than the British in Great Britain. Among the English liberties the protection from internal taxation without representation in Parliament was the most important one and Otis saw any act of Parliament which violated against the natural right as invalid. With this he again reflected John Locke’s thought which also forms one of Adams main arguments “Governors have no Right to seek and take what they please; by this […] they would soon become Absolute Masters, Despots, and Tyrants”[39]. Otis puts the deposing of a king on a level with the change of an administrator and demands for a change with democratic and monarchical elements[40]. Adams transfers Locke’s idea about political liberty and political rights as he asks “[…] what Liberty can there be where Property is taken away without Consent? […] Have they, all together, any more Right or Power to return a single Member to that House of Commons”[41]. Locke’s influence was great as the analysis of these documents showed that in the revolutionary period Locke’s ideas played a major role.


[1] Jeffrey, D. Schultz; et al. Encyclopedia of Religion in American Politics. Vol 2. (Greenwood Publishing Group, 1999), p. 148.

[2] Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. A critical Edition with an introduction and appendix), critical by Peter Laslett. (Cambridge: University Press, 1967)

[3] Engler & Scheiding (Eds). Key Concepts in American Cutural History: From the Colonial Period to the End of the 19th Century. 2nd Edition. (Trier: WVT Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2007), p. 260

[4] Mays, Terry M. Historical Dictionary of the American Revolution. (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 1999), p.172

[5] Locke, John Two Treatise of Government, 2nd Tr. §6

[6] Ibid., 2nd Tr. §4

[7] Ibid., 2nd Tr. §6

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid. 2nd Tr. §4

[10] Locke, John Two Treatise of Government, 1st Tr. §101

[11] Locke, John Two Treatise of Government, 2nd Tr. §63

[12] Ibid. 2nd Tr. §6,7,8,13

[13] Ibid. 2nd Tr. §13

[14] Ibid. 2nd Tr. §123

[15] Ibid. 2nd Tr. §135

[16] Locke, John Two Treatise of Government, 2nd Tr. §222

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid. 2nd Tr. §199

[19] Ibid. 2nd Tr. §222

[20] Ibid. 2nd Tr. §227

[21] Otis, James. The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved. By James Otis, Esq.: The third Edition, corrected. ([London], 1766. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale.

[22] Cf. Engler & Scheiding. Key Concepts in American Cutural History: From the Colonial Period to the End of the 19th Century

[23] Ibid.

[24] Fremont-Barnes, Gregory, et al. The encyclopedia of the American Revolutionary War: a political, social, and military history. Vol. 1. (Santa Barbara, California: Abc-Clio Inc, 2006), p. 39 – 43.

[25] Adams, Samuel. The Rights of the Colonists (1772). Old South Leaflets no.173. (Boston: Directors of the Old South Work, 1906), p. 420

[26] Otis, James. The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved, p. 13

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.: p. 15

[29] Adams, Samuel. The Rights of the Colonists (1772), p. 419

[30] Otis, James. The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved, p. 421

[31] Ibid. p. 19

[32] Ibid.: p. 14

[33] Adams, Samuel. The Rights of the Colonists (1772), p. 419

[34] Otis, James. The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved, p. 105

[35] Adams, Samuel. The Rights of the Colonists (1772), p. 420

[36] Ibid.: p. 417

[37] Otis, James. The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved, p. 18

[38] Ibid.: p.57

[39] Adams, Samuel. The Rights of the Colonists (1772), p. 419

[40] Otis, James. The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved, p. 19

[41] Adams, Samuel. The Rights of the Colonists (1772), p. 422

[42] Jefferson, Thomas. “The Declaration of Independence. In Congress, July 4, 1776: The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America”, in Englehart, F. et al, ed., Three Beginnings: Revolution, Rights and the Liberal State (New York: Peter Lang Publishiing, 1994), p. 195.


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Englisch John Locke John Locke American Revolution The Influence of John Locke’s Political Philosophy on the Formation of a Revolutionary Spirit in America influence american revolution literature political philosophy two treatise america



Titel: The Influence of John Locke’s Political Philosophy on the Formation of a Revolutionary Spirit in America