Monday, August 11, 2008

Locke, the Ultimate "Whig"

Thomas Jefferson identified "Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c. .." as the chief ideological sources behind the Declaration of Independence. Two of those sources, Locke and Sidney were part of the early "Whig" movement in Britain. (Later British Whigs like Joseph Priestley, Richard Price and James Burgh were contemporaries of and friends with America's Founders). So kudos to Tom Van Dyke for writing about both of those figures who greatly influenced America's Founding.

While, alas, not as many are aware of Sidney, most students of American history realize that John Locke's philosophy was central to the US Founding. So we go back and venerate him and turn him into a larger than like figure. I'd like more folks to appreciate just how radical and controversial Locke's and Sidney's ideas were for their time. Let us emphasize how Sidney was executed for his politically dissident ideas and Locke fled England for the continent and, consequently, published his political and religious tracts anonymously, lest he meet Sidney's same fate.

This well illustrates the difference between "common law" principles on the one hand and "Whig" on the other. Common law principles were those common "rights of Englishmen" that were very traditional and had been evolving for hundreds of years. "Whig" principles, on the other hand, were much more radical, revolutionary, dissident, and pro-political liberty. For instance jurist English William Blackstone, the most notable "common law" source, was a Tory and against the American side in the Revolution.

Those were two of five sources that Harvard Historian Bernard Bailyn identifies as making up the ideology of the American Founding. The other three were Christian principles, Greco-Roman principles, and Enlightenment principles. Not all of these sources were "mutually exclusive." One could argue that Locke represented "Christian," "Whig," and "Enlightenment" all three at the same time. Enlightenment and Whig were key in my humble opinion.

1 comment:

Tom Van Dyke said...

Is the "Enlightenment" what happened in revolutionary France? If so, I don't like it.

What is "Whiggism," anyway?

As for "Christian," there were at least 33,820 versions of it as of 2001. Surely a properly clever person could make the term somewhat intelligible.