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John Locke, the glorious revolution and the emergence of modern democracy

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Canto: So I’ve heard from various American pundits, who are concerned about the current move toward despotism over there, that their constitution and their war of independence were all for the purpose of breaking away from such despotism, namely the British monarchy. ‘So how in tarnation can this be hapnen in our country’, they mutter half-tearfully. So please explain.

Jacinta: Well, we can explore rather than explain. I’m no expert on the American constitution, but my general feeling without looking at it in detail would be that it was magnificently revolutionary and forward-thinking for its time, but that time was over 200 years ago. Every structure needs to be renovated now and then.

Canto: Also, though of course I accept that their fight for independence was a just one, their description of the British monarchy as a tyranny was a little over-simplified. It doesn’t take into account the fact that, in the century and a half before American independence, the Brits beheaded one king and chased another out of the country and didn’t accept his successors, William and Mary, until they agreed to conditions restricting their power, including a clear separation of powers. And these restrictive conditions have tightened over the years.

Jacinta: Yes but powerful states, such as the Britain of those days, tend to be more despotic over distant territories than over their home territory, where uprisings are more directly threatening.

Canto: Good point. But what’s interesting, when you look at history, is how much the more spectacular movements towards democracy in the late 18th  century, that’s to say the American independence war and its new state, and the revolution in France, owed to the outcome of the ‘Glorious Revolution’ that ousted James II, and to the philosopher of the new approach to governance, John Locke.

Jacinta: And yet the USA today is suffering under the burden of a potential if not actual despot, and they appear uncertain how to deal with him. It just seems unthinkable that such a character would ever achieve this position under the Westminster system, or in any western European polity.

Canto: Yeah, so wha’s hapnen?

Jacinta: Well, when I listen to the pundits on CNN and MSNBC, and on some of Sam Harris’s podcasts, they tend to talk of an increasingly polarised nation, echo-chambers of ideology enabled by social media sites, lack of civil discourse and the like. That’s to say, issues of today, usually with a tone of ‘it’s not like it used to be’. I suspect that this is a little exaggerated, and that a change of system might be in order.

Canto: So what can the Americans learn from the Westminster system, and from Locke?

Jacinta: Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government was published in 1689, significantly just after the ousting of James II, the installing of a constitutional monarchy, and the establishment of the English Bill of Rights – which, admittedly, was more about parliamentary than individual rights. It’s worth noting that absolute monarchy was then at its height in France under Louis XIV, who naturally felt it incumbent on him to support his ‘divine right’ colleague’s bid to regain the throne. In those days political philosophers were rather thin on the ground, and they liked to compare life under some kind of organised state with life in ‘the state of nature’, which was rather a playground for their imaginations. Locke’s predecessor, a generation or two earlier, Thomas Hobbes, described his ‘natural state’ as a war of all against all, which was nasty, brutish but at least mercifully short. People apparently decided one day to substitute this free-for-all for a scenario in which they’d bestow power on some entity, a Leviathan, in return for safety and protection. In giving up their freedom to this absolute authority they would preserve their lives from the depredations of the other, and what they gained would be better than what they lost. This was, of course, an argument for absolute monarchy just at the time it was being directly challenged. Locke’s perspective was very different, having come out of the experience of civil war between the forces pro and con Charles I, and then later James II – a rabid and very unpopular Catholic.

Canto: Yes, this makes me think of the accidents of history. Had James II been more like his older brother – that is, religiously liberal (or indifferent), more wary of the French, and more ‘indulgent’ with parliament, constitutional monarchy would have been delayed for who knows how long.

Jacinta: Yes, and Locke may not have written the political philosophy that later inspired, or partially inspired, the American and French democratic movements.

Canto: Or partially democratic movements.

Jacinta: Yes, democracy has always been partial, it seems to me. Certainly the constitutional monarchy agreed to by William and Mary in 1688 was far from democratic, but interestingly the upheavals of the period, and the more immediate dissemination of information in the form of political pamphlets – a product of the civil war in the 1640s – led to the emergence of radical democratic groups such as the Levellers, who wanted complete adult suffrage and annual parliaments, and also the Diggers, who demanded communal ownership of land so that no-one might starve. Starvation, by the way, was actually happening due to the harsh enclosure system that protected the landed aristocracy from the canaille. 

Canto: Anyway, I’ve never been sure about how much democracy is enough. Recent history suggests that directly electing a single leader, by national popular vote, can be an unmitigated disaster.

Jacinta: Yes, because it seems that, no matter how hard we try, we can’t get a general populace to make an informed decision. Education has always been touted as the answer, but it can’t be imposed on people, and it’s extraordinary how intractable so many people are to the charms of learning… Anyway, returning to Locke and the late seventeenth century, it’s fascinating to read some of the documents being written at this time, envisaging, in what seems to us today to be thoroughly moderate and reasoned language, changes to the political system that would take another two centuries or more to enact.

Canto: Because ruling powers or classes are, as a whole, extremely reluctant to give the slightest ground, and always think that the position of power granted to them is for the best or ‘natural’. So change generally needs to be incremental, or less, so as not to scare the aristocratic horses.

Jacinta: Anyway, Locke was no radical, and his Second Treatise was designed to justify what had already taken place in the Glorious Revolution. He begins, like Hobbes, with a state-of-nature ‘theory’, in which everyone has equal status and ‘rights’, especially the right to self-preservation, but nobody has the means to enforce those rights. Also, attached to those rights is the obligation to respect and protect the rights of others, which of course speaks to the means in some sense.

Canto: Suggesting some sort of social contract?

Jacinta: Yes, if you like, or the basis of a civil society, a ‘common-weal’ or commonwealth. Here’s a quote from the Second Treatise:

Having in the state of nature no arbitrary power over the life, liberty or possession of another, but only so much as the law of nature gave him for the preservation of himself, and the rest of mankind; this is all he doth, or can give up to the common-wealth, and by it to the legislative power, so that the legislative can have no more than this. Their power in the utmost bounds of it, is limited to the publick good of the society.

What Locke is pointing to here, notably in that last sentence, is that a government’s legitimacy is tied to the public good, and that an illegitimate government, one that doesn’t contribute to the public good, has lost its right to govern and should be dispensed with, one way or another.

Canto: Basically, this argument would’ve been used as a justification for the overthrow of James II, and as a means of limiting the power of his successor.

Jacinta: Government by the consent of the people, through the parliament (which was then hardly representative of the people, but a little more representative than a single absolute monarch), an idea which, with variations, inspired many figures of the 18th century ‘enlightenment’. The words and ideas of Locke were much employed during the 18th century uprisings against the French ancien regime and the British tyranny in America. But in Britain, they were used to justify the people’s fight against Charles I and later James II, in the 17th century. Of course the democratic process progressed by small steps from there, and it’s still progressing, but the work of Locke certainly helped it along. So I’ll end with some more words from the Second Treatise, on people power:

Who shall be the judge whether the Prince or the Legislative act contrary to their trust?…. The people shall be judge, for who shall be judge whether his trustee or deputy acts well, and according to the trust reposed in him, but he who deputes him, and must, by having deputed him have still a power to discard him, when he fails in his trust?


The age of genius: the seventeenth century and the birth of the modern mind, by A C Grayling

The second treatise of civil government, by John Locke

Written by stewart henderson

May 29, 2018 at 1:22 am