My thesis is that the United States Constitution most closely reflects the views of John Locke (1672-1704) as compared with the views of Thomas Hobbes and Patrick Henry. The Constitution does reflect some of the views of Hobbes and Henry, but it mostly aligns with Locke’s.
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) writing in his book “Leviathan”, emphasized the natural rights of individuals, that all men are naturally created equal, and that all political power should come from the people. These key principles are embedded in the United States Constitution. Hobbes, using the concept of “social contract” developed by Plato, posited that government should only exist to serve the will of the people, who are indeed the true source of all political power. The people can choose to give or withhold this power. The idea of a social contract is at the foundation of the American political system. Hobbes believed that once power is given to the state by the people, the people relinquishes any right to that power. This last belief is at odds with the U.S. Constitution.
Patrick Henry (1736-1799) was an anti-Federalist who promoted limited government. He had a small but very important influence on the U.S. Constitution. He objected to the draft Constitution because it did not contain any freedoms or rights for individuals. This push for the inclusion of the Bill of Rights modeled on the Bill of Rights which he successful included in Virginia’s Constitution, eventually came to pass. The Bill of Rights has served to preserve the freedom of the American people as a counter measure to an ever-increasing Federal government. He felt that the three branches of government will compete for more power, resulting in an overpowering Federal government. He opposed the new Constitution because he feared the States would be crushed by the new powerful government. He felt the Executive Branch was given too much power, particularly since the President was put in charge of the army (Commander-in-Chief) and could conceivably take over by military force. During the June 1788 Virginia Convention he said “This Constitution is said to have beautiful features, but . . . they appear to me horribly frightful. . . Your President may become king . . . If your American chief be a man of ambition and abilities, how easy is it for him to render himself absolute!”. Also, he did not agree with the separation of church and state.
John Locke’s work greatly influenced the founding fathers (John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington) who played pivotal roles in the drafting the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, and held important positions in the early government of the United States. The U.S. Constitution is the embodiment of Locke’s theory of liberalism. Locke argued that people are born with certain “natural” or “inalienable” rights including the right to “life, liberty and property”. The legal possession and control of property is a precondition of freedom. Government did not give people these rights. They came from God and nature. People are born with these God-given rights which no government can take away. The duty of government is to protect these natural rights.
According to Locke, people entered into a social contract with government to protect their natural rights – that is, people agreed to follow the government’s rules and laws and in return government had the responsibility to protect peoples’ natural rights. Government is legitimate only when its powers are derived from its citizens, who give their consent to govern (Popular sovereignty). Civilized mankind abandoned their state of nature, and establish a civil society, by voluntarily giving up their natural right to self-defense to government, in exchange for the mutual protection of their “lives, liberties, and estates”. Locke argued that if the government failed to protect man’s natural rights, or abused its power, the people had the right to revolt and to replace the government with one that meets their needs.
Locke maintains that the proper function of law is to create, rather than restrict, personal freedom, that the law of a government is not an instrument to restrain the freedom of a rational being, but is a framework required to preserve and enlarge it. For “where there is no law, there is no freedom. For liberty is to be free from restraint and violence from others, which cannot be where there is no law.” In other words, laws exist only to stop the deeds of those who would transgress on another’s freedom, further purpose of preserving that freedom. Such laws are not arbitrary, since “nobody can transfer to another (or government) more power than he has in himself.” He believed government had a limited role.
Locke asserted that political power is not derived from ancestry or inheritance. Such a government would only survive by using brute force and would create civil disorder. He also did not believe in monarchs or Kings (absolute power) or subjugation of people by others. He believed that no man should be ruled by the power of one person or group and felt everyone had the right to protect their own rights.
Locke also supported separation between the church and the state. He wrote that “the whole jurisdiction of the magistrate reaches only to … civil concernments,” so that “neither can nor ought in any manner to be extended to the salvation of souls.”
He felt the government of his time had too much power, so he supported separation of powers such that the power of government should be distributed among different institutions. In Chapter XII of Second Treatise he argued “it may be too great a temptation to human frailty, apt to grasp at power, for the same persons, who have the power of making laws, to have also in their hands the power to execute them.” Locke suggested government be divided into
• A Legislative power which he considered the supreme power, with the right to direct how the force of the commonwealth should be employed and right to make laws. Under the U.S. Constitution all branches of government have equal power. The Legislative power could be in recess at times as its duties were not considered full time
• An Executive power to pursue the “perpetual execution” of established law. The Executive power would always be continuously in session (active) and can act as a stand in for the Legislative power.
• A Federative power with power over foreign affairs and war and peace. This was considered a part time function.
• Locke did not see the need for a separate Judicial branch. The interpretation and enforcement will be undertaken by the Legislative and Executive powers
The Constitution is the supreme law of the United States. It is also a social contract (effective 1789) embodying the protection of natural rights, such as life and property, at the expense of certain individual liberties. The constitution was formed to establish a perfect union, justice, and guarantee the basic right for its citizens. To make sure no group or person had the power they made it clear who had the power to do what and limitations in the constitution which are addressed in the seven articles. The constitution underpins the Declaration of Independence (1776) “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The constitution is based on six basic principles of government.
• Popular Sovereignty – all political power resides in the people. Leaders are chosen (elected) by the people to represent them. Locke believed a social contract, such as the Constitution, can only succeed when paired with the consent of the governed. The influence of Locke can be seen in the wording of the U.S. Constitution which starts with the words, “We the people…” thereby embodying the idea of popular sovereignty. The constitution also contains The Bill of Rights which has ten amendments that guarantee individual protections, such as freedom of speech and religion, and rights. Amendment one guarantees freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition. Amendments two and three were based on colonial disputes with Britain. Amendment two allows a citizen to own guns and Amendment three stops the military from forcing people to house soldiers. Amendment four protects people from unreasonable and stops, seizures and searches by the authorities. Amendments five to eight protect people accused of crimes. Amendment five also protects property rights. Amendments nine and ten addresses rights that are not specifically mentioned in the Constitution. Locke’s principle of a natural right to property is enshrined in the Constitution. Rights of people to own private property, enforce contracts, and engage freely in business activities are freedoms essential to the US free enterprise system.
• Limited government and the rule of law – no government is all powerful. Government and its officers must obey the law and are not above the law. The Constitution defines what powers the various branches of government have or do not have (National and State Government). The constitution all explicitly guarantees certain individual rights which cannot be denied or abridged by the government (the Bill of Rights or amendments)
• Separation of Powers – powers are divided between the Legislative, Executive and judicial branches of government. The Legislative branch (Congress) makes the law (Article 1), the Executive branch (the President) enforces and administers the law (Article 2), and the judicial branch (courts) adjudicates legal matters (Article 3). Article 1 addresses the Legislative branch, Congress. This consists of the house of representatives and the Senate. Congress has the power to tax, declare war, decided citizenship laws and create courts, among other things. Article I of the Constitution also gave Congress the power to regulate commerce. It ended tariffs on goods traded between the states and made the entire nation into one common market where business might thrive. In Article 2 covers the president who is voted in by the people, the vice president, and Federal officials. The Executive branch has the power to make treaties, enforces laws, and veto legislation. Article 3 covers the Supreme Court, Federal Courts and Magistrate’s Courts. The Judicial branch conducts trials and interprets laws. It and has the power to interpret and review laws and Executive acts. This branch also has judicial power over the other branches
• Checks and Balances – Each of the three branches of the national government are tied together by constitutional checks or restraints enforced by one of the other branches. The following example are examples – the President has veto power over laws passed by Congress. Congress approves funding of the President’s budgets. The president appoints Federal judges who must be approved by a majority in the senate.
• Judicial Review – This is also another check and balance. The court system can review the constitutionality (legality) of any government action or law and can declare them null and void (unconstitutional)
• Federalism – Power is divided by the constitution between the Federal government and the 50 states. This is also a form of separation of powers. Those powers which are not given explicitly to the Federal Government by the Constitution by default fall to the states.
The U.S. Constitution (and the Declaration of Independence) drew heavily on Locke. The US was one of the first nations to hold as self-evident truths that all men and women are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; and that government is instituted to protect those rights and derive its powers from the consent of the governed. America was founded on the Lockean model of unalienable rights and freedoms, including private property rights, equality, society’s social compact with government, limited government, divided government (separation of powers) and the right to overthrow an abusive government by revolution. While there are a lot of Lockean features in the U.S. Constitution, there were some big differences with Locke. Clearly the checks and balances implemented by the Constitution were not envisioned by Locke. Locke’s separation of powers was very weak. Locke also did not call for a separate judiciary or judicial review.
The U.S. Declaration of Independence explains that these foundational ideas were the philosophical underpinning of the American Revolution. Once independence was secured, the Founding Fathers labored to ensure that the Constitution became the living embodiment of a government based on these First Principles.
In conclusion John Locke and the U.S. Constitution share similar views towards protecting people’s natural rights and freedoms. Separation of powers and allowing people to have a say in their daily lives, in how they are governed and how society is organized are fundamental commonalities.