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John Locke

John Locke (Illustration) Government Philosophy American History American Revolution Law and Politics Famous People

This image depicts a portrait of John Locke, by Sir Godfrey Kneller, created in 1697.  The original portrait is maintained by the State Hermitage Museum, in St. Petersburg, Russia.

John Locke and his writings were very influential on America's "Founding Fathers," especially when it came to writing the "Declaration of Independence."  Let's examine some of his background.

Among other things, Locke believed that all humans have minds which are like blank slates at birth. People, in other words, are not born with "innate principles" in their minds.

Although Locke did not describe that blank-slate phenomenon with the words tabula rasa, others have used that phrase. It means, essentially, that people are born with empty minds, but everyone’s individual learning and life experiences will help to shape those individual lives and thinking.

From that concept, Locke further reasoned that people are the product of their own human nature, capable of creating their own individual character.

But ... what was so important about Locke and his political theories which caused America’s founding fathers to rely so heavily on his works (especially his Two Treatises of Government)?

Locke believed that all men are created equal. Human knowledge, Locke argued, comes from human senses and does not precede (or come before) human observation.

He also believed that everyone is entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of property. (Note that Thomas Jefferson, and his Declaration-of-Independence writing colleagues changed “property” to “happiness.”) The job of government, thus, is to make sure that people have those rights to make their own way in life (instead of dictating what people should do).

Locke also believed that no government should be absolute. Instead, there should be separation of powers. America’s founders followed that thinking when they created three separate branches of federal government: legislative, executive and judicial.

Here are some of Locke’s most-famous quotes:

But there is only one thing which gathers people into seditious commotion, and that is oppression.  (First Letter on Toleration.)

New opinions are always suspected, and usually opposed, without any other reason but because they are not already common.  (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Volume 1, at page xlii [42], published in London during 1828.)

I have always thought the actions of men the best interpreters of their thoughts. Expressed in today’s English: The actions of men are the best interpreters of their thoughts.  (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Volume 1, at page 45, subsection 3, published in New York during 1825.)

He that would seriously set upon the search of truth, ought in the first place to prepare his mind with a love of it. For he that loves it not, will not take much pains to get it; nor be much concerned when he misses it.  (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Volume 2, at page 248, published in Boston during 1813.)

The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.  (Second Treatise of Government, Chapter II, “Of the State of Nature,” at page 9, subsection 6; edited by C. B. Macpherson and published, in 1980, by Hackett Publishing Company in Indianapolis.)

The end of law [in other words, the purpose of law] is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom.  (Second Treatise of Government at page 179, subsection 57.)

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5124stories and lessons created

Original Release: Feb 16, 2014

Updated Last Revision: Jul 04, 2017


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Image, described above, online courtesy Wikimedia Commons.  PD

 

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