Locke, Montesquieu, & the Rights of Englishmen

The American colonists, as they moved toward independence, relied upon the writings of political philosophers of their era to help support their arguments against the British government’s intrusion upon the rights of Englishmen.

John LockeOne of those writers was John Locke, whose Second Treatise of Civil Government provided a bedrock explanation for why they could make their argument. Published in 1690, right after the expulsion of James II and the assertion of parliamentary prominence over the king, Locke laid out the following tenets:

  • There is no Scriptural support for divine right of kings; all men are equal before God;
  • The Law of Nature obliges everyone; we are all subject to it;
  • Reason and revelation confirm each other; both our God-given ability to think and the Bible are consistent with one another in our understanding of the world;
  • Man’s selfishness makes rule in a state of nature impossible; therefore, governments are established to protect individuals’ rights;
  • Whenever a government violates its obligation to protect those rights, people are justified in opposing such a government.

MontesquieuLocke was English, and the colonists normally looked to their own countrymen for the rationale to protest government overreach. However, they could also appreciate solid reasoning from elsewhere, even from France, where the philosopher Montesquieu wrote his treatise, The Spirit of Laws. Montesquieu favored the English system of government over what he saw in his native land. In his book, he formulated these concepts:

  • God must be recognized as the Creator, Preserver, and ultimate Lawmaker;
  • To avoid tyranny, government should be divided among three branches—the executive, the legislative, and the judicial;
  • Most government should take place close to the people at the local level and should involve representation;
  • A republic, which guarantees rights to the minority, is superior to a pure democracy, where majority rule can become a tyranny itself.

There was a lot of wisdom in what these two philosophers of government offered, and the educated among the colonists—both formally and informally—took comfort in knowing they had such support for their position.

They also had legal support. There was an English jurist of the Common Law who laid out the foundations for how government should operate. He will be the subject of my next installment on American history in light of Biblical principles.