Sunday, April 10, 2011


by James Craig Green

Part 2 - John Locke

The first of our builders, not only in time but in importance, was the English philosopher John Locke. He described the essential nature of private property to establish and preserve the proper relationship between the individual and government. John Locke’s elegant ideas on property would find their way into the American Declaration of Independence almost a century after he presented them.

In Two Treatises of Government, published in 1689, John Locke (1632-1704) set forth revolutionary principles of society and government that would shake the world, including the principle that government exists to serve people, rather than the other way around. Other astounding views he expressed at the time were equal rights for women, the right of the people to rise up and cast out government that does not serve their purposes and ideas of private property that would help fuel the independent spirit of the American Revolution.

In a chapter entitled, Of Property, Locke summarized his ideas on the subject:

Though the earth and all inferior creatures be common to all men, yet every man has a ‘property’ in his own ‘person.’ This nobody has any right to but himself. The ‘labour’ of his body and the ‘work’ of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that Nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with it, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state Nature placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it that excludes the common right of other men. For this ‘labour’ being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good left in common for others.

Locke’s ideas on property came from his wider philosophy on the relationship between man and government. His idea that government should be based on the consent of the governed was widely known by the time the Declaration of Independence was drafted, although Thomas Jefferson claims to have not referred to any source when drafting it.

In early 1600's colonial America, when the Jamestown (Virginia) and Plymouth (Massachusetts) colonies were founded, property rights were communal instead of individual. This meant that everyone who produced food, for example, was required to place it into common storage for use by anyone who wanted it. Because the communal system prohibited the people who produced food from allocating it, there was little incentive to produce food just so someone else could have it without (or for less) labor. As a result, starvation was the most common cause of death until a system of private property was implemented, which immediately solved the problem. Because food had to be produced before it could be used or distributed, early American settlers quickly learned (the hard way) the need for the private property rights that Locke would later champion in England.

A growing American economy prospered, with little interference by the British government at first. But, that interference would grow, causing a resentment that would eventually erupt in violence. The British government would increase taxes, tariffs and other trade restrictions on the Americans, until Locke’s revolutionary ideas would take hold in the 1700s, reminding them that their relationship with Britain was a losing proposition.

John Locke defined property in a different way than kings, conquerors and tyrants had historically viewed it, more consistent with the hard lessons learned by early American pioneers. His idea was that it took one’s own labor to create property and that legitimate claims to property should be limited to one’s ability to use it. He promoted the elegant but revolutionary idea that you own yourself, including your labor. This was the basis of his idea that governments should exist only for the purpose of protecting people and the fruits of their labor (property), and that citizens have the right to abolish any government destructive to these ends. If these sound familiar, it's because the same sentiments would be repeated in the Declaration of Independence in 1776, almost a century after Locke’s treatise.

Our next builder, Thomas Paine, proposed that such a document be written, at a time when it was very dangerous to do so. He lit the fuse under the powder keg that was the 13 British colonies in America.

The great and chief end... of men's uniting into commonwealths... is the preservation of their property - John Locke

PREVIOUS - Introduction

NEXT - Thomas Paine

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