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Essay on Early American Political Thought

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To write the Constitution, American leaders took from the philosophical work of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, often accepting their ideological framework above any other political thought of the time. This sample philosophyessay from Ultius highlights the similarities between the ideas of American democracy and the great English philosophers, noting how their ideas helped shape US governance.

American Governance and Democratic Framework: Ideological Roots from Locke and Hobbes

After dealing with the tyrannical rule of England and the monarchy, the American colonies were free to organize their own government. In doing so, the founding fathers utilized their own personal experiences with England in terms of the broad injustices that took place. However, there was much discourse regarding how the newly formed government of America should be structured. In an effort to prevent malice and unjust uses of absolute power, the founding fathers relied on ideas and concepts from notable figures like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Montesquieu. Surely, their works helped shaped the framework for democracy that would make up the United States Constitution and the subsequent Bill of Rights. The US Constitution was heavily influenced by philosophical ideas from Hobbes and Locke regarding balance of power, and equality; moreover, these principles defined the core tenets of American culture and political rule.

John Locke

Both Locke and Hobbes iterated that effective and legitimate forms of government handled power relations between the state and the people (and amongst themselves) in a balanced and structured manor. In his Second Treatise of Civil Government, Thomas Locke (1690) discussed many facets of government such as the state of nature, revolution and representation. A common theme was the balance of power whereby order is established when a common-wealth has the authority to execute laws that are representative of the public’s good (X). For this to happen, the state had to have sufficient power in order to regulate both itself and the citizens that inhabit the state. Locke also discussed specific facets of an effective government such as the different branches. Their roles would be limited to their purpose:

"Their power, in the utmost bounds of it, is limited to the public good of the society” (Locke 1690, XI).

Thomas Hobbes

Hobbes’ (1651) Leviathan also remarked that sufficient power had to be delegated to people as well as the government. Indeed, his notion of twelve principles of a common-wealth in Chapter XVIII reflected existing Constitutional rights such as power of:

  • War
  • Promoting peace
  • Law making (Hobbes 1651)

In asserting that governments must have stable control that is not challenged by competing groups, both Locke and Hobbes suggested the notion of a powerful government that was unified enough to stay in power while having the versatility to change in accordance with the demands of the people. Finally, both works strongly reinforced the notion that tyranny and coercion among all parties was not an acceptable means of attaining power.

The View of Man and Society

The roots of the US Constitution also heavily stemmed from Locke and Hobbes’ notions of the nature of men. The core right to leading one’s life without interruption or coercion stemmed from Locke’s characterization of men sharing space in

“a state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more [power] than another” (Locke 1690, II).

Such notions of equality reflect a viewpoint that all men deserve an equal voice in participation of citizenship. Hobbes (1651) also supported this philosophy through his social contract theory by advocating for a government focused on fostering peace in exchange for obedient citizens, thus neutralizing some of the inherent selfish morality of man. With a consistent form of power in charge and responsible for the well-being and equality of citizens, injustices and the misery of man can be avoided. Surely, these principles of rule and government structure reflected a modern form of government where it was acknowledged that people would need to be defended from each other as well as the government.

Influence of Locke and Hobbes on the structure of government

Given that the previously mentioned themes of equality and balance of power were heavily mentioned in the Federalist papers, they were highly influential in the shaping of the US Constitution. Much discourse regarding the structure and organization of the federal government stemmed from articles and essays written by our founding fathers regarding their views on an effective government. For example, Locke’s notion of ensuring the will of the people was met was evident in The Federalist No. 47 by James Madison (1788). Madison cited and clarified the words of Montesquieu in defending the balance of power between the different branches of government:

“he did not mean that these departments ought to have no partial agency in, or no control over, the acts of each other” (Madison 1788).

The whole notion of balancing power among different branches stemmed from Locke’s need for a government that is effective to the extent that it can efficiently serve justice to its people. This ensures that those without power would not be taken advantage of in the case that one branch of government overwhelmed another. Again, Locke’s and Hobbes’ themes of equality were expressed in Madison’s ideal governmental structure. 

The balance of power

The Federalist No. 51 and No. 48 also reflected the theme of equality through separation and balance of power. Following the American Revolution, James Madison (1788) published these two essays in order to explain how the real threat to a legitimate government was the private interest of groups that seek to gain an advantage over others for power. As such, Madison (1788) built upon Locke’s notion of a strong, centralized government that was committed to fostering equality:

“it is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part.”

This foresight regarding interest groups, political parties and disruptions to power balances stemmed from Locke’s analysis of the nature of man and how they are inherently prone to commit such actions against one another. However, Madison took it one step further by addressing that while the evil of men cannot be eliminated altogether, it can be heavily mitigated through a strong government that has the capacity to defend and uphold individual liberties.

The Constitution as an American stronghold

As a result of these core themes, the Constitution has heavily contributed to developing many of the core cultural tenets to which most Americans adhere. The tenets of liberty and equality have come to encompass American ideals through the idea of equal representation mediated by a fair and responsible government. These ideals have proven to withstand even time and intense duress as exemplified by the way in which slavery was dealt with through Manifest Destiny and the trying time of the Civil War (Wilentz 2005). Given that the founding fathers took into account the potential misuse of interest groups against specific segments of society, it is no wonder that the Constitution proved to be a framework versatile enough to endure. As the United States’ values and attitudes towards racial minorities changed over time, the democratic foundation of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness was extended to include all people. The tenets were surely shaped by the nature of man that Locke and Hobbes mentioned in their works because the individual’s role was clearly defined in context to the governing body.

Social contract in American government

The tenets of popular sovereignty and popular consent were also heavily shaped by the Constitution’s focus on integrating the political philosophy of social contract theory. As Hobbes iterated in his work, a nation state’s legitimacy is defined by the extent to which its people consent to the governing body’s rule. This theme of popular sovereignty is thus engrained in the American mentality of being part of a free nation that is for the people, by the people. Akhil Amar (1994) posited that a central pillar of our government is that our legal framework is:

“derived from the people and legally alterable by a majority of them” (749).

He also cited several troubling times in our nation’s history whereby these core tenets were truly tested and proved to be indicative of America’s sustainability for social justice. Indeed, the themes of majority rule and popular consent also reflect a strong foundation based on the philosophy of Locke and Hobbes. For a legitimate government to be effective in both controlling its people and ensuring social injustice does not occur, the majority must consent to their relationship with the government and agree to be bound by its terms and conditions. These tenets reflect core American values that society chooses to uphold through regular elections, abiding by laws and punishing those that infringe on those universal freedoms to which everyone is entitled.

Protective duties of government

Finally, it is important to consider that the government’s role as a protectorate of its people does come under question when political interest groups impede on civil liberties. As a result of the United States’ checks and balances over government power, private interest groups are not beyond a measure of control. This is not an arbitrary characteristic of our constitutional framework; instead, it was instituted and developed by design as a result of the founding father’s ability to realize that the nature of man would inevitably want power over other groups for the sake of their own. Luckily, the general welfare of various segments of society are duly protected and accounted for because they fall into the jurisdiction of a nation built on a foundation of liberty and freedom for all. The roots of American political issues and threats to liberty are addressed by a solid foundation regarding the nature of man, groups and governments. 

Conclusion

As discussed, the political philosophy of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes helped develop a strong foundation for the founding fathers to construct a Constitution that would foster a legitimate government based on civil liberties and protection from tyranny. Their works reflected the core themes of balancing government power as well as equality among members of society. The Constitution was shown to have roots in these themes based on Madison’s Federalist Papers. They emphasized America’s need for not only protecting individuals from the potential tyranny of government through checks and balances, but also protecting individuals from one another in the case of interest groups.  These themes have further defined core American values and tenets such as:

  • Liberty
  • Equality
  • Majority rule
  • Popular sovereignty
  • Popular consent

America’s difficult and at times troubling history has given evidence that suggests the Constitution’s versatility and penchant for radical change is inherent by design. As a result, the theoretical roots of American democracy via Locke and Hobbes’ work and its implementation into our Constitution have proved to be effective, sustainable and indicative of an effective means of governing people.

References

Amar, Akhil. 1994. "The Central Meaning of Republican Government: Popular Sovereignty, Majority Rule, and the Denominator Problem." University of Colorado Law Review 65: 749-86.

Hobbes, Thomas. 1651. Leviathan. Project Gutenberg. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3207/3207-h/3207-h.htm (accessed August 4, 2012).

Locke, John. 1690. "John Locke: Second Treatise of Civil Government." The Second Treatise of Civil Government. http://www.constitution.org/jl/2ndtreat.htm (accessed August 9, 2012).

Madison, James. 1788. "The Federalist No. 47." The Federalist No. 47: The Particular Structure of the New Government and the Distribution of Power Among Its Different Parts. http://constitution.org/fed/federa47.htm (accessed August 4, 2012).

Madison, James. 1788. "The Federalist No. 48." The Federalist No. 48: These Departments Should Not Be So Far Separated as to Have No Constitutional Control Over Each Other. http://constitution.org/fed/federa48.htm (accessed August 6, 2012).

Madison, James. 1788. "The Federalist No. 51." The Federalist No. 51: The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances Between the Different Departments. http://constitution.org/fed/federa51.htm (accessed August 3, 2012).

Wilentz, Sean. 2006. The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln. New York, NY: Norton & Company.

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