Saturday, August 2, 2008

John Locke and other Beginnings

I have for some time contemplated the topic of my first post here at American Creation and the recurring theme running through my mind has centered on that of John Locke whose influence over Thomas Jefferson can best be described as instrumental to the formation of our great nation. We have seen Locke’s influence written into the Declaration even by near plagiarism on the part of Jefferson who reiterated that “ The object of the Declaration of Independence … was … not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject … Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind ... All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.”

Thus, can we deduce from this that the sentiment of the day not only espoused this form of thought but that this philosophy was undergirded by religious principles as John Locke’s own writings reveal?

“The obligations of the law of nature cease not in society, but only in many cases are drawn closer, and have by human laws known penalties annexed to them, to inforce their observation. Thus the law of nature stands as an eternal rule to all men, legislators as well as others. The rules they make for other men’s actions, must, as well as their own and other men’s actions, be conformable to the law of nature, i.e. the will of God, of which that is a declaration, and the fundamental law of nature being the preservation of mankind, no human sanction can be good or valid against it.”

Carl Becker, in his book The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas had this to say,” Not all Americans, it is true, would have accepted the philosophy of the Declaration, just as Jefferson phrased it, without qualification, as the ‘common sense of the subject’: but one may say that the premises of this philosophy, the underlying preconceptions from which it is derived, were commonly taken for granted. That there is a ‘natural order’ of things in the world, cleverly and expertly designed by God for the guidance of mankind” that the ‘laws’ of this natural order may be discovered by human reason; that these laws so discovered furnish a reliable and immutable standard for the testing of ideas, the conduct, and the institutions of men—these were the accepted premises, the preconceptions, of most eighteenth century thinking, not only in America but also in England and France.”

The Reformation had set a radical new course for religious principles in Western Europe through its priority in education and logical reasoning. To this extent today I recognize that many hold to an ill-conceived notion of what Christianity is, viewing it as merely an emotional response rather than a united front of heart, mind, and soul. Thomas Hooker, John Locke, and Montesquieu among others found in the Scriptures the basis for their philosophies of government and the more I examine the Scriptures and their works side by side I can see greater evidence of this.

Undertaking this topic I can see where my thoughts diverge and in the next couple of weeks I’d like to concentrate on aligning the works of the above named English and French contributors to America’s creation in addition to concepts provided for in the Scriptures that their philosophies echo.


Tom Van Dyke said...

"A human being naturally [naturaliter] has a right [ius] to his actions [actiones] and his
possessions [res], a right both to retain them and to alienate them: regarding life and
body, only to retain them. This right, flowing from the law of God [ius Dei], is
restricted by the law of God, by the law of nature [per legem naturalem], and by the
Bible and the revelation."

---Hugo Grotius [1625]

"...every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his."

---John Locke [1690]

Jonathan Rowe said...


Very nice. I wonder if you've read Jeremy Waldron's relatively new book out on Locke which is one of the best newer works that argues Locke grounded his ideas of Liberty and Equality in traditional Christian thought.

Waldron, a Columbia Law Professor, indeed one of the most distinguished law profs. in the nation, is a relatively liberal guy; so his book has the additional ammo of not being able to accuse him of having an axe to grind in favor of religious conservatism.

bpabbott said...


I have not read the work you mentioned, but am curious regarding "traditional Christian thought".

Do you refer to the traditions of today, the traditions of colonial America during the revolutionary period, the traditions of Locke's society or something else?

... and given that the history of Christianity includes a great deal doctrinal authority over the minds and opinions of men, do you find the interpretation/position that Liberty and Equality are founded in Christian tradition to be a cafeteria style view of the faith? ... meaning that Locke elevated reason over relevation ... which many would argue is not traditionally Christian.

Jonathan Rowe said...


I don't quite see eye to eye with Waldron's position and I think he argues the way he does because he is not (from what I can tell) an orthodox Christian and really doesn't see the big deal in Locke's lack of orthodoxy as it relates to the concept of "Christianity."

Locke is complicated: He was very religious; he was a "Christian" who believed in the Bible and that Christ was the "Messiah." Yet he was also likely an Arian heretic who emphasized man's reason more so than most orthodox Christians would. Further his notion of the "Tabla Rasa" put him at odds with orthodoxy and offered a view of man's nature that was far cheerier than most biblical Christians would find palatable.

Finally his concept of the "state of nature" was not (as far as I see it) "biblical," but a modified version of a Hobbsean idea.

Again: Locke is complicated.

Robert Cornwall said...

The issue of Locke's political and theological positions has long been the grist for debates. Indeed, Locke had tremendous influence on early American political ideas and religious ones as well.

One of the most important conveyors of his thought was an Anglican bishop by the name of Benjamin Hoadly. Hoadly was oft accused of heresy and of being an Arian. But making that accusation stick has always been difficult. The question ultimately is -- what and who defines heresy?

On Hoadly read the biography written by my good friend William Gibson. It's entitled -- "Enlightenment Prelate: Benjamin Hoadly, 1676-1761 (James Clarke, 2004).

Jonathan Rowe said...


You are right that Hoadly was an extremely important "Whig" influence on America's Founders. And his personal religious creed, I am quite interested in studying.

Phil Johnson said...

I don't know.
Maybe being a very well educated student--or even scholar--of history might be a disadvantage when it comes to thinking about the subject in a practical way.
And, we are required--I think--to do some serious thinking when it comes to the points that are at issue in this blog.
I liked the article, along with the a train in some of comments, because I had to do some thinking about the role more common Americans must have played in the Declaration of Independence. Not that they suggested the ideas involved; but, that they were living a big part of it.
All the Great Thinkers are important to us in our search for rational conclusions; but, what of this idea of nature? I mean, just how impressive does that sound to some one living in London at the time? Nature? What's that?
But, in America, men and women along with their off spring were quite used to the idea of nature and everything that went with it. Such things as having to clear land, wild animals, strangely civilized natives, harsh winters, and every sort of exigency arising out of the edge with which most Americans were so familiar. It was an agrarian society. In reading an account of one of my direct ascendants, he was out working in his fields one day when a band of naked native American men came out of the woods. They were laughing and joking with each other and he was frightened they might do him harm. They mentioned "whiskey" and he gave them his jug. They continued on laughing and joking. That took place around 1835 a little north of Ann Arbor, Michigan.
The God of Nature was very close to life for a great number of Americans; so, they knew the pressures involved in the issue of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness along with a clear cut understanding of what those "unalienable" rights were all about.
Europeans had no such understandings of what it meant to life on the edge of nature like the knowledge of our forefathers. And, it is with us still--subdued; but, still with us.

Tom Van Dyke said...

A unique point, worth serious consideration. England was politics up to the eyeballs in the 1600s [or up to the neck, if the headsman got involved]; America was the perfect place to get away from it.

Phil Johnson said...

And, the Americans didn't have far to go to get away from it and to be deep into the wild of the wilderness.
Thoreau's cottage on Walden Pond was only 2.5 miles from Concord, Mass, and he could easily walk in to have lunch with Emerson. Most Colonial Americans lived within a stone's throw of the wild.
That's a rare experience for anyone today and, so, it makes it difficult for us to understand the "God of Nature" and the "Unalienable Rights"..

Tom Van Dyke said...

Actually, I grew up in Pennsylvania, and there were still some of "Penn's Woods" left within walking distance.

I think you open up an important page here, Pinky, although it might go beyond the purview of this blog, [i.e., current politics].

If we examine voting patterns, urban America---and I don't use that as code for "African American," just city-dwellers---leans heavily blue, probably over 60%. Politics is all, a lot like "political" England in the 1600s.

The red American "heartland" still hates politics and wants to be left alone, which is why when Michelle Obama says Barack "won't leave us alone," there's a general cringe.

If I want to shoot my dinner or drive with my tires underinflated, then that's my right as an American, godammit. Why do you think we fought the Revolution and defeated the Kaiser and Hitler?!??

And don't get me started about the commies...

You're on to something here, Pinky. Cheers.

Phil Johnson said...

Re: TVD's post.
Jefferson is the Classical Republican and Hamilton is the Liberal Republican. They fought it out--Hamilton won.
Their differences were related to rural farming and urban commercial societies.