John Locke's America

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John Locke is a seventeenth century English philosopher (1) whose ideas have had far reaching influence on many parts of western culture. It is a widely entertained notion that John Locke’s ideas and writings had heavy impact on the writing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 (2), and it can easily be understood that this may be one of the most important distinguishing factors setting American culture and idealism apart from that of powerful European empires and nations of the time. Locke’s works began their shaping of America with The Virginia Declaration of Rights, the ideas of which were then translated into the Declaration of Independence, and eventually into the Bill of Rights. (3) This inceptive influence has carried through American history and come to shape the modern American way. Indeed, even the ever sought after “American Dream” suggests that it dates back to Locke’s ideas, with concepts like equality, democracy, and material prosperity. America has achieved idealistic distinction from other nations, and remains to be held as a forward thinking, progressive nation because of the influence of John Locke, and the reflections of his ideas in the original American charters of freedom. On June 12, 1776, the Virginia Constitutional Convention adopted the Virginia Declaration of Rights (4)(henceforth referred to as the VDR). The document was written by George Mason (5) to express the rights of Virginian citizens, and is plainly tailored after the writings of Locke. The first section states that “All men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights […] namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” (6) This statement directly parallels ones that appear across Locke’s work, reflecting his theories on the state of nature and innate human rights and freedoms. In his Second Treatise of Government, Locke sums this theory up in an enduring and well recognized sentence that appears to have been the model for this first section of the VDR. Locke states here that “Being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” (7) The second and third sections carry on to claim that the duty of the government is to protect these rights (8), which echoes Locke’s statement that “The great and chief end, therefore, of men’s uniting […] and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property.” (9) Locke also states that by property he refers not only to estate, but also to these other inherent rights of man (10), and continues much later to say that “the first and fundamental natural law, which is to govern even the legislative [body] itself, is the preservation of society, and (as far as will consist with the public good) of every person in it.” (11) What Locke expresses here is the idea that the government should work toward the common good of the governed. These ideas, as well as countless others to be found, evidently show unquestionably strong resemblance to those in the VDR, and that Locke’s profound influence had thereby rooted itself deep within American history. The VDR began the events which have cemented Locke’s ideas within American society, by lending these ideas of his that it used to the writings of other documents. On July 4, 1776, Continental Congress representatives signed the Declaration of Independence, which was penned by Thomas Jefferson, in the interest of declaring America’s autonomy and separation from British rule. (12) The Declaration of Independence (hereby referred to as The Declaration) expresses many of the same ideas as the VDR, as well as many others about rights, governments, and order. Many ideas that are widely seen as taken from Locke which appear in The Declaration were actually modeled after the writing of the VDR. However, these do remain Lock’s ideas nonetheless – ones that Jefferson...
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