Enlightenment Thinking Creates the American Problem John Locke and the American ideas of proper government

It’s the time of the Boston Tea Party. The date is 16 December 1773. Get that date in your mind. This is the time the different interpretations of John Locke’s ideas led to fighting.

The American colonists and the British have different ideas. They have different ideas about the Rights of Englishmen. They have different ideas about how government should operate. They have different ideas about the rights of men. The rights of men because women have few rights at this time. Of course, African slaves have no rights. They’re property. They’re just like the horse, cow, or pig you own.

Both the British and the Americans start their thinking with one man. That man is John Locke.

Before Locke, the idea of government is the divine right of kings.

God has created kings to rule over us, was the idea. Hobbes, an Englishman, pushed this idea. It is the idea that inspired how King Charles II ruled. It also inspired how his brother, King James II, ruled. The English might have accepted this idea. There is a fly in the ointment. Charles II is a secret Roman Catholic. Okay. A wink and a nod at Anglicanism. A secret mass. No rubbing it in the face of the protestant English. His religion slides by with Charles.

His brother is a fool. He is openly Roman Catholic. There is resistance to him becoming king. When he finally has a son, things blow up.

The angered protestant English public chases him out of England. He escapes to France. In England, Parliament meets. They offer the crown to his eldest daughter. She is a devout protestant. She is married to the Dutch Calvinist Protestant, William of Orange. He is the ruler of the Netherlands. They will become joint rulers of England and Scotland.

Theirs is the crown if, and only if, they agree to certain terms. The most important of these is the English Bill of Rights. It states in writing the rights of all Englishmen. These are rights the King and his government may not violate. William and Mary agree to the Bill of Rights.

This is IMPORTANT. The English Bill of Rights is built on the ideas of John Locke. It rejects the idea of the divine right of kings. It says that the king rules because the people agree to it. Parliament represents the people. Parliament chooses William and Mary. Parliament makes them King and Queen of England. No divine right to the job!

This event, the selection of William and Mary, is so important. It’s called the Glorious Revolution in English history. News of the Glorious Revolution comes to the colonies. So too does the text of the English Bill of Rights. Next comes the complete writings of John Locke. Colonists buy into John Locke’s ideas. Why?

John Locke starts by saying there is no second class citizen. All men are created equal in terms of freedom and rights.

Next Locke says men give up some of these rights. They give government some power over them. Why? Because individuals need protection. They need protected from other evil men. They need protected from invasion. They need protected from harm. They need their lives, their remaining liberties, and their property protected. There are so many who would steal their liberties and property. There are so many who would steal away their life. Only a government can protect the people.

It’s a deal. The deal is called the Social Contract. Some liberty is given away. It’s given to a government in exchange for protection.

Protection. That is the key word.

Government is allowed ONLY in order to protect. It must protect an individual’s life and remaining liberties and property. The king’s job is to protect his subjects. It sounds very medieval doesn’t it. The knights and nobles were given power in order to protect the people of the villages from barbarians.

Locke is adding one new idea. He’s changing the role of medieval feudal rulers. He says they are rulers only because the people choose to give them power. That’s because liberty is a man’s by birth. He only gives up any liberty in exchange for protection. That’s the social contract, he says.

How this plays out in government is the issue. The English and then the British are very conservative. They move very slowly. They change government little by little over long periods of time.

The colonists are used to making quick changes. That’s how you survive on the frontier. You change now to meet the challenges. If you don’t? You’re dead! The colonists like to experiment.

The colonists apply the ideas of Locke. The apply them to the tradition of representation in English history.

First the nobles in England were represented in Parliament. That is the House of Lords. Then the knights and towns people got representation in the House of Commons. Over centuries, more Englishmen could elect the members to the House of Commons. At the same time, the House of Commons becomes more powerful. It is the House of Commons making the laws. It is the House of Commons challenging the king. It is the House of Commons that chose William and Mary.

The colonists come to believe that representatives should rule them. Representatives should make policy. When the British government replaces elected governors with appointed governors, there’s trouble. And the colonists resent having their judges appointed in London. They want to choose their own judges.

The battle line is over representation. What is the proper use of representation in government? How many representative officials should there be in government? How many officials appointed by the King and his ministers?

Who makes policy? Only representatives? Representatives and the King together? Which representatives make policy? Representatives in Parliament? Representatives in colonial legislatures? Who is supreme in saying just what is the law of the empire?

This comes from different ways of applying Locke’s ideas to running a government. Britain has one approach. The colonies have another approach. Each accuses the other of lying about Locke’s ideas. They say each is lying about what are the rights of Englishmen. Neither is willing to see the others point of view.

The Boston Tea Party is a tipping point. The closure of Boston Harbor sets the battle line. It seems this dispute can’t be argued to a conclusion. Each side says, “Let’s just fight it out.”

That happened once before in English history. Parliament and Charles I couldn’t agree on how government operated. It led to the English Civil War. That war ended with Charles I having his head cut off.

Violence again seems the way a political question will be answered.

Yours to use as your choose
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