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 The American Declaration                  Commentary at


   Author of Locke In America:  The Moral Philosophy of the Foundiing Era

   Our True Founding Principles

How Limited Was Limited Government Meant To Be?


               During the bicentennial era (1960-1992), historians of the American Revolution debated anew the extent of John Locke's influence on the nation's birth.  Many scholars were quick to discount the earlier view that saw Locke as the philosopher who taught Jefferson and his generation the "self-evident" truths that counseled Independence and, less than a dozen years later, Constitutional reform.   

         It was a debate that never needed to be.

               The so-called revisionists chose to emphasize other notable influences who, too, taught the men who made America.  They noted the many revolutionary pamphlets and broadsides composed by patriots who took the pennames not of the preeminent 17th century natural rights philosopher, but of men who preceded him by more than a thousand years.   The Federalist Papers were written by Hamilton, Madison and John Jay to help ratify the Constitution.  The three wrote under the penname "Publius", a well-known Roman patriot.  Writers who supported and opposed the Constitution's ratification did so using such venerated ancient aliases as "Cato," Cincinnatus,"  "Bruutus,""Agrippa," etc.  Most striking was the fact that in crafting the Constitution it wasn't Locke the framers consulted, so much as the French political thinker, Montesquieu.  He mainly wrote not about men's natural rights, but about the forms governments can take.  That discourse belonged to a republican science of politics, not anyone's moral philosophy. A lively academic debate ensued.                  

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Benjamin Rush, the prominent Philadelphia physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence explained why both influences could operate side by side without contradiction.  

It is one thing to understand the principles and another thing to understand the forms of government.  The former are simple, the latter are difficult and complicated.  Mr. Locke is an oracle as to the principles.  Harrington and Montesquieu are oracles as to the forms of government (quoted in Locke In America p. 176)

               In constructing a new political frame, the founders consulted Montesquieu and other ancient and modern republican writers.  They needed to know which form is more suited to govern a free people bent on securing men's individual rights in perpetuity:  a pure democracy, a monarchy, or the complex constitutional republic conceived in 1787?  Montesquieu convinced them to adopt a mixed constitution, with power separated into three independent branches, each able to check the ambitions of the others.

             There was plenty to wrangle over.  But none of this cast a doubt over the distinctly Lockean truths that were accepted as "self-evident a brief 11 years earlier.  As the Constitution makes clear, it was to  "secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity" that the Convention of 1787 was convened. 

              Those who supported and those who opposed the Constitution's ratification wished to remain free.  The question was whether the Constitution was more or less likely to protect and defend the people's precious freedoms.  Those who supported its adoption and those who opposed it worked from the same Lockean outlook and differed only in whom they believed would use the Constitution to consolidate power and suppress liberty - the aristocratic men of wealth or the clamorous democratic mobs?

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    John Locke's political writings deal with the most basic questions of all: 

  For what purpose are governments formed? 

   From where do they derive their lawful powers?  (e.g., from God above or the people below)? 

         What exactly are those powers?  What must government do for the people, and what must the people be allowed and expected to do for themselves - and one another?  

          When may - when must - a people say to their government, this far and no farther? 


Americans, it should be said, saw nothing wrong with helping neighbors in need, especially those suffering through no fault of their own.


                      Locke notices that everywhere one looks men live under some form of government.  What makes the institution so essential, and how does it come to be?

                 So he imagines a time prior to the organization of civil governments, a time when men lived in a "state of nature."  In such a state there is no supreme authority to lay down the law or punish transgressors.  Every man, clan and community must go it alone.  As it turns out, this is no way to live.  Even if most men are good, uninterested in subjugating others and living on the backs of their neighbors, there will always be some miscreants to ruin it for the rest.  It's what inevitably happens when might makes right.

               The imaginary state of nature is actually Locke's estimate of the nature of man, as such. Locke's political speculations begin with a well-considered theory of human nature. It describes the state in which all men, whether in a political society or not, find themselves. That's the key to everything else.  Locke sums it up in two brief but profound observations:


               Locke needed a concrete concept that could serve as a stand-in for this abstract  principle of equal creation.  What he needed was the idea of a Right, something to which all men are entitled.  Ayn Rand, writing in a decisively Lockean vein, simply defined a Right as "a moral concept defining and sanctioning freedom of action in a social context."  This is what Jefferson had in mind when he wrote: 


"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among these Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.


               Because the anarchy that haunts the state of nature is inimical to human happiness, governments, as Jefferson put it, "are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."  They who are governed agree to abide by a social contract, as Locke called it.  Being equal and seeking to be both free and safe, it was the only move rational men could make.


               Political societies are thus formed possessing the lawful power to regulate human conduct.  Government, as Ayn Rand wrote, "is a social institution possessing a monopoly on the use of force."  In choosing to live under government, every individual agrees to abide by its established laws.

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               Now, it has been noticed that, unlike Jefferson, Locke identified "Property," not the "Pursuit of Happiness" as a natural right.  It's a distinction without a difference, since happiness depends, in large part, on every man's freedom to gain, keep, use, trade or otherwise dispose of his freely-acquired possessions.  Stating the common sense of the matter, John Dickinson, the "Pennsylvania Farmer," put it like this:


Let these truths be indelibly impressed on our minds - that we cannot be happy without being free - that we cannot be free, without being secure in our property - that we cannot be sure in our property, if, without our consent, others may, as by right take it away (LIA, p. 247)


               It is critical to understand exactly what status natural rights assume and what they do and don't allow men and their governments to do.  First, they are natural in the sense that all men are endowed with those rights at birth.  No one has to wait for a monarch, president or legislature to confer them. 


               The Right to Life is simply the right to live one's life as one pleases, without interfering with anyone else's equal right to do as much.  To live one's life is to be free to say and do what one pleases, i.e., to exercise Liberty.  In exercising Liberty one naturally acquires property, the just fruits of honest industry.  All that one acquires through one's individual effort and voluntary exchange is one's own to dispose of as he or she pleases.  None of it belongs to government.


               Now, it would be nice if every man actually respected his neighbor's rights.  But as we've already said, that is not the condition in which human beings find themselves.  The State of Nature is necessarily precarious because not all will respect the rights of others. 

              Society must find a way to protect itself from bullies, thugs, petty thieves, violent street gangs, and power-driven despots bent on world domination.  There will always be some who would rather plunder what others produce than take the trouble to labor and produce for themselves.   


               In fact, two good and decent neighbors may come to blows over a dispute not born of any malice.  If a tree from my yard is stricken by lightning and collapses on my neighbor's barn, he may well knock on my door in the morning, demanding restitution.  I may feel his pain, but deciding it was an "act of God" and not any act of mine, I might give him  sympathy, but nothing else. Absent government, there is no judicial authority to adjudicate the competing claims or executive to enforce a court's ruling.  It could still come to blows or even spark  an inter-generational family feud.

               What is needed is a sovereign power to establish rules of justice that, insofar as possible, will assure that everyone's rights are protected.  From where comes its legitimacy, its lawful power, its authority?


               Locke has the answer.  It lies in his recognition of a fourth natural right that everyone possesses.  Men not only have the right to live their lives, they have a right to protect their lives, liberties and possessions from any who would violate them.  No one can claim a right to violate another's rights.  That's the definition of a wrong.  Upon establishing government men delegate their collected rights of self-defense to the government they establish.  All agree not to become vigilantes, not to take the law into their own hands, but to rely on an objective rule of law to adjudicate all claims, settle all disputes and right all wrongs.  This signifies society's commitment, insofar as humanly possible, to see that the cause of justice is served - that every member gets what he or she deserves (for good or bad). 

               Now, as any American colonist who lived under British rule before 1776 knew and as everyone living today can easily see, governments, themselves, can pose the gravest threat to the freedom, safety and happiness of the people.  James Madison said it best in #51 of The Federalst Papers  


             While the people need government to prevent them from abusing each other, they also need a way to prevent government from abusing them all. 


               The powers of government must be clearly specified and limited.


How limited was limited government meant to be?  Surprisingly, a remarkably simple answer to this question can be confidently asserted  

               [It is to secure their rights that "governments are instituted among men deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed" (emphasis added). 


                The due limit of government's lawful powers is thus forever established and circumscribed.  Since no one has a right or lawful power to take away or give away what belongs to another, that is a power no government can ever claim or come by.  No one has ever said it better than Locke

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               It's plain as day, cut and dried.  The precept of equal creation begets the principle of equal protection.  And this applies to more than criminal and civil procedures.


                 For when Congress confers special benefits on SOME, it denies equal protection under law to ALL The power to pick winners and losers, to let some live at others expense, is a power governments may not exercise, as it is a power the individuals who agree to live under government, themselves, do not possess    It's as clear as crystal.  If all men are created equal and entitled, among other things, to gain, keep, use, trade or otherwise dispose of the possessions they produce or acquire not by force or fraud, but by voluntary trade, and if government's sole duty is to protect every individual in the enjoyment of what is his, then it may not benefit one faction, family or collection of special interests at anyone else's expense. 


               In a word, the fundamental principles enunciated by Locke and the founding fathers proclaimed meant for government to be a PROTECTOR not a PROVIDER.

               What about taxes?  Can government impose and collect revenue by this time-tested  method?   Yes, as long as the revenue taken is needed and used for a legitimate purpose. 


               Governments do not grow in nature.  Naval ves­sels, coastal installations, military posts and even standard-issue uniforms do not come without cost.  Anyone who expects and indeed enjoys the protection of the law (having taken up residence within the said territory), must be expected to support it.  For Locke, the power to tax is the power to protect, nothing else.  Thus he writes:

'Tis true, governments cannot be supported without great charge, and 'tis fit every one who enjoys his share of the Protection, should pay out of his Estate his proportion for the maintenance of it (LIA p. 157  ch 6, n. 23).


             But taxation aside, the principle of private property is the recognition that every individual's life and labor, along with the just rewards that flow from productive work and voluntary exchange, belong to every individual.  They are not the property of "society,"  to be disposed of by (1) any corrupt politician doing the bidding of  some special interest happy to "pay" him for the privilege, (2) the majority of inhabitants who may run to government for relief from their responsibilities, and not even (3) a duly-elected legislative body imagining it has the power to dispose of the people's lives, liberties and possessions howsoever it may please. 


          The founders embraced the principle of private property every bit as much as they embraced the principles of free speech, a free press, religious liberty and a government of strictly limited government. 


         How do we know?  Duriing the so-called "Critical Period," i.e,. the years leading up to the convening of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, there were few concerns more pressing than the manifest violation of property rights that no with eyes to see  could ignore.   


                The treaty that ended the war brought Independence and peace, but not prosperity.  Tough times ensued and widespread economic distress settled over the now-free land.  It resulted in manifest violations of rights considered sacred just a short time earlier.    Violations of  property rights, not free speech or a free press, say, became common place.  


                 For one thing, down to 1786, the young nation failed to repay the vast public debt that helped finance the Revolution.  Much was owed to financiers in France and Holland, but also to hardpressed Americans who were about to lose their homes, businesses and farms.  There was no honor in that.  Down to 1786, the debts the several states had incurred to support the Revolution were also left unpaid.   


               Private creditors, too, anyone who issued mortgages or lent large sums to farmers, start-up entreprises, and the like were left holding the bag.  Facing hard times and imminent foreclosure procedings, debtors in several states ran to their state houses to press for mortgage stay laws.  These were "legal" measures that protected debtors from foreclosure proceedings, all contractual terms notwithstanding.   

             Debtors also pleaded with legislative assemblies for more generous paper money emissions. Such easy money policies would seriously devalue the currency in circulation and allow them to repay their debts with money worth a fraction of what it was worth when they asked for loans to purchase their homes, farms lands or embarked on promising business ventures.   


               When creditors balked at accepting the depreciated paper, debtors ran back to their legislators to sue for legal tender laws.  These compelled creditors to accept the depreciated paper under penalty of law.   Creditors had no choice but to accept the effective loss of value for loans they expected to be repaid in full.  


               Americans who knew right from wrong spoke their minds in no uncertain moral terms.  Noah Webster thus pointed to "So many legal infractions of sacred right---so many public invasions of private property---so many wanton abuses of legislative powers."  Summing up the situation, another staunch defender of property and contract stormed: 


My countrymen, the devil is among you.  Make paper as much as you please.  Make it a tender in all future contracts, or let it rest on its own cred­it---but remember that past contracts are sacred things---and that legislatures have no right to interfere with them---they have no right to say, a debt shall be paid at a discount, or in any manner which the parties never intended....To pay bona fide contracts for cash, in paper of little value, or in old horses, would be a dishonest, attempt in an individual; but for legislatures to frame laws to support and encourage such detestable villainy, is like a judge who should inscribe the arms of a rogue over the seat of justice (LIA, p. 257-8).












It is agreed that the end of all government is the good and ease of the people in a secure enjoyment of their rights, without oppression.  But it must be remembered, that the rich are people as well as the poor; that they have rights as well as others; that they have as clear and sacred a right to their large property as others have to theirs which is smaller; that oppression to them is as possible and as wicked as to others  (John Adams quoted in LIA, p. 296,)


Though the will of the majority in all cases is to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate would be oppression (Jefferfson, LIA p. 296)  

              Thus Thomas Jefferson could depict "the sum of good government."  It is "a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned."  (Jefferson quoted in LIA, p. 296, n. 41).

           It is no wonder that Article I, Section 9 of the founders' Constitution expressly stipulated that "no state shall . . . coin money . . . make anything but gold and silver coin a tender in payment of debts; . . . [or]  [pass any . . . law impairing obligation of contract." 


   A Concluding Note


          Americans wonder whether this nation is and has always been a Lockean and/or Jeffersonian republic?  Sadly, taking (1) all social welfare entitlements, (2) crony capitalist/corporate welfare arrangements, and (3) the general run of graft and corruption that are a bona fide staple of American politics, it's hard to see how that could be. 


       Washington spends roughly 80¢ of every $1 on the entire universe of transfer payments.  Insofar as it is serving the people as a PROTECTOR, supporting national defense and law enforcement and justice, the federal government is merely moonlighting.  When did we first go amiss? How did we get from that day to this? 


For the rest of the story, open the link below


              This is why the founders were so fearful of pure democracies, why there are two Senators for each state, regardless the size of its population, and why there is an electoral college. 


Across the sands of time, they knew, popular mobs have been whipped up to overturn the iron rules of justice, to line their own pockets at others' expense. Madison expressed it well.  So did John Adams, the Federalist and Thomas Jefferson, the democratic republican:    



             Every Article, Section, and clause of the Constitution was designed to realize  the "self-evident" truths inscribed in Jefferson's July 4th Declaration.  Although the connection is not that obvious (Hint: To secure Liberty, Power had to be checked and Liberty, in its fullest sense, expressly proclaimed.  

            Because the demanding principles proclaimed in the Declaration never found their way into the Constitution, the founding principles would not survive the founding era

When did we first go amiss & how did we get from that day to this?

A democracy cannot exist as a permanent
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