July 1, 2009
Behind Every Good Declaration of Independence
John Locke is not just a character on Lost. He's one of the most important philosophers of the last five hundred years on issues of the self and of political theory. When it comes to identifying how the United States came to be in the first place, Locke's Two Treatises of Government written in a hundred years beforehand, is a good place to begin.
As Greg Forster points out in The Contested Public Square, when we read, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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," we are not just reading Thomas Jefferson, we are reading Locke.
The entire opening section of the Declaration of Independence is drawn directly from Locke's Two Treatises. There we find (as Forster summarizes):
Governments are instituted by consent, to secure natural rights; when government becomes destructive of those rights, the people may alter or abolish it; people will suffer great evils rather than rebel; but when it is clear that the abuses are intentional, they will and should rebel.
In particular, the most important distinguishing feature of a revolutionary philosophy is its understanding of what, exactly, must happen before a rebellion is authorized. On this point, compare the founders' criterion, "when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism," with Locke's "if a long train of abuses, prevarications and artifices, all tending the same way, make the design [of tyranny] visible to the people." The overwhelming bulk of the Declaration is devoted to reciting a list of grievances against the king. The purpose of this list, as the Declaration itself states, is not simply to show the wrongs done to the colonists but to establish "a history of repeated injuries and usurpations all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states." (pp. 196-97)
The United States of America in particular (and other nations who have also inherited the tradition of liberal democracy) largely owe their existence to books and the ideas found in them. Buildings are great artifacts of nations and cultures, lasting hundreds of years. Books last just as long, often with greater impact.