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Political Thought in England from Locke to Bentham By Harold Joseph Laski Characters: 58444

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The English Revolution was in the main a protest against the attempt of James II to establish a despotism in alliance with France and Rome. It was almost entirely a movement of the aristocracy, and, for the most part, it was aristocratic opposition that it encountered. What it did was to make for ever impossible the thought of reunion with Rome and the theory that the throne could be established on any other basis than the consent of Parliament. For no one could pretend that William of Orange ruled by Divine Right. The scrupulous shrank from proclaiming the deposition of James; and the fiction that he had abdicated was not calculated to deceive even the warmest of William's adherents. An unconstitutional Parliament thereupon declared the throne vacant; and after much negotiation William and Mary were invited to occupy it. To William the invitation was irresistible. It gave him the assistance of the first maritime power in Europe against the imperialism of Louis XIV. It ensured the survival of Protestantism against the encroachments of an enemy who never slumbered. Nor did England find the new régime unwelcome. Every widespread conviction of her people had been wantonly outraged by the blundering stupidity of James. If a large fraction of the English Church held aloof from the new order on technical grounds, the commercial classes gave it their warm support; and many who doubted in theory submitted in practice. All at least were conscious that a new era had dawned.

For William had come over with a definite purpose in view. James had wrought havoc with what the Civil Wars had made the essence of the English constitution; and it had become important to define in set terms the conditions upon which the life of kings must in the future be regulated. The reign of William is nothing so much as the period of that definition; and the fortunate discovery was made of the mechanisms whereby its translation into practice might be secured. The Bill of Rights (1689) and the Act of Settlement (1701) are the foundation-stones of the modern constitutional system.

What, broadly, was established was the dependence of the crown upon Parliament. Finance and the army were brought under Parliamentary control by the simple expedient of making its annual summons essential. The right of petition was re-affirmed; and the independence of the judges and ministerial responsibility were secured by the same act which forever excluded the legitimate heirs from their royal inheritance. It is difficult not to be amazed at the almost casual fashion in which so striking a revolution was effected. Not, indeed, that the solution worked easily at the outset. William remained to the end a foreigner, who could not understand the inwardness of English politics. It was the necessities of foreign policy which drove him to admit the immense possibilities of the party-system as also to accept his own best safeguard in the foundation of the Bank of England. The Cabinet, towards the close of his reign, had already become the fundamental administrative instrument. Originally a committee of the Privy Council, it had no party basis until the ingenious Sunderland atoned for a score of dishonesties by insisting that the root of its efficiency would be found in its selection from a single party. William acquiesced but doubtfully; for, until the end of his life, he never understood why his ministers should not be a group of able counsellors chosen without reference to their political affiliations. Sunderland knew better for the simple reason that he belonged to that period when the Whigs and Tories had gambled against each other for their heads. He knew that no council-board could with comfort contain both himself and Halifax; just as William himself was to learn quite early that neither honor nor confidence could win unswerving support from John Churchill. There is a certain feverishness in the atmosphere of the reign which shows how many kept an anxious eye on St. Germain even while they attended the morning levee at Whitehall.

What secured the permanence of the settlement was less the policy of William than the blunder of the French monarch. Patience, foresight and generosity had not availed to win for William more than a grudging recognition of his kingship. He had received only a half-hearted support for his foreign policy. The army, despite his protests, had been reduced; and the enforced return of his own Dutch Guards to Holland was deliberately conceived to cause him pain. But at the very moment when his strength seemed weakest James II died; and Louis XIV, despite written obligation, sought to comfort the last moments of his tragic exile by the falsely chivalrous recognition of the Old Pretender as the rightful English king. It was a terrible mistake. It did for William what no action of his own could ever have achieved. It suggested that England must receive its ruler at the hands of a foreign sovereign. The national pride of the people rallied to the cause for which William stood. He was king-so, at least in contrast to Louis' decision, it appeared-by their deliberate choice and the settlement of which he was the symbol would be maintained. Parliament granted to William all that his foreign policy could have demanded. His own death was only the prelude to the victories of Marlborough. Those victories seemed to seal the solution of 1688. A moment came when sentiment and intrigue combined to throw in jeopardy the Act of Settlement. But Death held the stakes against the gambler's throw of Bolingbroke; and the accession of George I assured the permanence of Revolution principles.


The theorist of the Revolution is Locke; and it was his conscious effort to justify the innovations of 1688. He sought, as he said, "to establish the throne of our great Restorer, our present King William, and make good his title in the consent of the people." In the debate which followed his argument remained unanswered, for the sufficient reason that it had the common sense of the generation on his side. Yet Locke has suffered not a little at the hands of succeeding thinkers. Though his influence upon his own time was immense; though Montesquieu owed to him the acutest of his insights; though the principles of the American Revolution are in large part an acknowledged adoption of his own; he has become one of the political classics who are taken for granted rather than read. It is a profound and regrettable error. Locke may not possess the clarity and ruthless logic of Hobbes, or the genius for compressing into a phrase the experience of a lifetime which makes Burke the first of English political thinkers. He yet stated more clearly than either the general problem of the modern State. Hobbes, after all, worked with an impossible psychology and sought no more than the prescription against disorder. Burke wrote rather a text-book for the cautious administrator than a guide for the liberal statesman. But Locke saw that the main problem of the State is the conquest of freedom and it was for its definition in terms of individual good that he above all strove.

Much, doubtless, of his neglect is due to the medium in which he worked. He wrote at a time when the social contract seemed the only possible retort to the theory of Divine Right. He so emphasized the principle of consent that when contractualism came in its turn to be discarded, it was discovered that Locke suffered far more than Hobbes by the change so made. For Hobbes cared nothing for the contract so long as strong government could be shown to be implicit in the natural badness of men, while Locke assumed their goodness and made his contract essential to their opportunity for moral expression. Nor did he, like Rousseau, seize upon the organic nature of the State. To him the State was always a mere aggregate, and the convenient simplicity of majority-rule solved, for him, the vital political problems. But Rousseau was translated into the complex dialectic of Hegel and lived to become the parent of theories he would have doubtless been the first to disown. Nor was Locke aided by his philosophic outlook. Few great thinkers have so little perceived the psychological foundations of politics. What he did was rather to fasten upon the great institutional necessity of his time-the provision of channels of assent-and emphasize its importance to the exclusion of all other factors. The problem is in fact more complex; and the solution he indicated became so natural a part of the political fabric that the value of his emphasis upon its import was largely forgotten when men again took up the study of foundations.

John Locke was born at Wrington in Somerset on the 29th of August, 1632. His father was clerk to the county justices and acted as a captain in a cavalry regiment during the Civil War. Though he suffered heavy losses, he was able to give his son as good an education as the time afforded. Westminster under Dr. Busby may not have been the gentlest of academies, but at least it provided Locke with an admirable training in the classics. He himself, indeed, in the Thoughts on Education doubted the value of such exercises; nor does he seem to have conceived any affection for Oxford whither he proceeded in 1652 as a junior student of Christ Church. The university was then under the Puritan control of Dr. John Owen; but not even his effort to redeem the university from its reputation for intellectual laxity rescued it from the "wrangling and ostentation" of the peripatetic philosophy. Yet it was at Oxford that he encountered the work of Descartes which first attracted him to metaphysics. There, too, he met Pocock, the Arabic scholar, and Wallis the mathematician, who must at least have commanded his respect. In 1659 he accepted a Senior Studentship of his college, which he retained until he was deemed politically undesirable in 1684. After toying with his father's desire that he should enter the Church, he began the study of medicine. Scientific interest won for him the friendship of Boyle; and while he was administering physic to the patients of Dr. Thomas, he was making the observations recorded in Boyle's History of the Air which Locke himself edited after the death of his friend.

Meanwhile accident had turned his life into far different paths. An appointment as secretary to a special ambassador opened up to him a diplomatic career; but his sturdy commonsense showed him his unfitness for such labors. After his visit to Prussia he returned to Oxford, and there, in 1667, in the course of his medical work, he met Anthony Ashley, the later Lord Shaftesbury and the Ahitophel of Dryden's great satire. The two men were warmly attracted to each other, and Locke accepted an appointment as physician to Lord Ashley's household. But he was also much more than this. The tutor of Ashley's philosophic grandson, he became also his patron's confidential counsellor. In 1663 he became part author of a constitutional scheme for Carolina which is noteworthy for its emphasis, thus early, upon the importance of religious toleration. In 1672, when Ashley became Lord Chancellor, he became Secretary of Presentations and, until 1675, Secretary to the Council of Trade and Foreign Plantations. Meanwhile he carried on his medical work and must have obtained some reputation in it; for he is honorably mentioned by Sydenham, in his Method of Curing Fevers (1676), and had been elected to the Royal Society in 1668. But his real genius lay in other directions.

Locke himself has told us how a few friends began to meet at his chamber for the discussions of questions which soon passed into metaphysical enquiry; and a page from a commonplace book of 1671 is the first beginning of his systematic work. Relieved of his administrative duties in 1675, he spent the next four years in France, mainly occupied with medical observation. He returned to England in 1679 to assist Lord Shaftesbury in the passionate debates upon the Exclusion Bill. Locke followed his patron into exile, remaining abroad from 1683 until the Revolution. Deprived of his fellowship in 1684 through the malice of Charles II, he would have been without means of support had not Shaftesbury bequeathed him a pension. As it was, he had no easy time. His extradition was demanded by James II after the Monmouth rebellion; and though he was later pardoned he refused to return to England until William of Orange had procured his freedom. A year after his return he made his appearance as a writer. The Essay Concerning Human Understanding and the Two Treatises of Government were both published in 1690. Five years earlier the Letter Concerning Toleration was published in its Latin dress; and four years afterwards an English translation appeared. This last, however, perhaps on grounds of expediency, Locke never acknowledged until his will was published; for the time was not yet suited to such generous speculations. Locke was thus in his fifty-eighth year when his first admitted work appeared. But the rough attempts at the essay date from 1671, and hints towards the Letter on Toleration can be found in fragments of various dates between the twenty-eighth and thirty-fifth years of his life. Of the Two Treatises the first seems to have been written between 1680 and 1685, the second in the last year of his Dutch exile.[1]

[1] On the evidence for these dates see the convincing argument of Mr. Fox-Bourne in his Life of Locke, Vol. II, pp. 165-7.

The remaining fourteen years of Locke's life were passed in semi-retirement in East Anglia. Though he held public office, first as Commissioner of Appeals, and later of Trade, for twelve years, he could not stand the pressure of London writers, and his public work was only intermittent. His counsel, nevertheless, was highly valued; and he seems to have won no small confidence from William in diplomatic matters. Somers and Charles Montagu held him in high respect, and he had the warm friendship of Sir Isaac Newton. He published some short discussions on economic matters, and in 1695 gave valuable assistance in the destruction of the censorship of the press. Two years earlier he had published his Thoughts on Education, in which the observant reader may find the germ of most of Emile's ideas. He did not fail to revise the Essay from time to time; and his Reasonableness of Christianity, which, through Toland, provoked a reply from Stillingfleet and showed Locke in retort a master of the controversial art, was in some sort the foundation of the deistic debate in the next epoch. But his chief work had already been done, and he spent his energies in rewarding the affection of his friends. Locke died on October 28, 1704, amid circumstances of singular majesty. He had lived a full life, and few have so completely realized the medieval ideal of specializing in omniscience. He left warm friends behind him; and Lady Masham has said of him that beyond which no man may dare to aspire.[2]

[2] Fox-Bourne, op. cit. Letter from Lady Masham to Jean le Clerc.


Locke's Two Treatises of Government are different both in object and in value. The first is a detailed and tiresome response to the historic imagination of Sir Robert Filmer. In his Patriarcha, which first saw the light in 1680, though it had been written long before, the latter had sought to reach the ultimate conclusion of Hobbes without the element of contract upon which the great thinker depended. "I consent with him," said Filmer of Hobbes, "about the Rights of exercising Government, but I cannot agree to his means of acquiring it." That power must be absolute, Filmer, like Hobbes, has no manner of doubt; but his method of proof is to derive the title of Charles I from Adam. Little difficulties like the origin of primogeniture, or whence, as Locke points out, the universal monarchy of Shem can be derived, the good Sir Robert does not satisfactorily determine. Locke takes him up point by point, and there is little enough left, save a sense that history is the root of institutions, when he has done. What troubles us is rather why Locke should have wasted the resources of his intelligence upon so feeble an opponent. The book of Hobbes lay ready to his hand; yet he almost ostentatiously refused to grapple with it. The answer doubtless lies in Hobbes' unsavory fame. The man who made the Church a mere department of the State and justified not less the title of Cromwell than of the Stuarts was not the opponent for one who had a very practical problem in hand. And Locke could answer that he was answering Hobbes implicitly in the second Treatise. And though Filmer might never have been known had not Locke thus honored him by retort, he doubtless symbolized what many a nobleman's chaplain preached to his master's dependents at family prayers.

The Second Treatise goes to the root of the matter. Why does political power, "a Right of making Laws and Penalties of Death and consequently all less Penalties," exist? It can only be for the public benefit, and our enquiry is thus a study of the grounds of political obedience. Locke thus traverses the ground Hobbes had covered in his Leviathan though he rejects every premise of the earlier thinker. To Hobbes the state of nature which precedes political organization had been a state of war. Neither peace nor reason could prevail where every man was his neighbor's enemy; and the establishment of absolute power, with the consequent surrender by men of all their natural liberties, was the only means of escape from so brutal a régime. That the state of nature was so distinguished Locke at the outset denies. The state of nature is governed by the law of nature. The law of nature is not, as Hobbes had made it, the antithesis of real law, but rather its condition antecedent. It is a body of rules which governs, at all times and all places, the conduct of men. Its arbiter is reason and, in the natural state, reason shows us that men are equal. From this equality are born men's natural rights which Locke, like the Independents in the Puritan Revolution, identifies with life, liberty and property. Obviously enough, as Hobbes had also granted, the instinct to self-preservation is the deepest of human impulses. By liberty Locke means the right of the individual to follow his own bent granted only his observance of the law of nature. Law, in such an aspect, is clearly a means to the realization of freedom in the same way that the rule of the road will, by its common acceptance, save its observers from accident. It promotes the initiative of men by defining in terms which by their very statement obtain acknowledgment the conditions upon which individual caprice may have its play. Property Locke derives from a primitive communism which becomes transmuted into individual ownership whenever a man has mingled his labor with some object. This labor theory of ownership lived, it may be remarked, to become, in the hands of Hodgskin and Thompson, the parent of modern socialism.

The state of nature is thus, in contrast to the argument of Hobbes, pre-eminently social in character. There may be war or violence; but that is only when men have abandoned the rule of reason which is integral to their character. But the state of nature is not a civil State. There is no common superior to enforce the law of nature. Each man, as best he may, works out his own interpretation of it. But because the intelligences of men are different there is an inconvenient variety in the conceptions of justice. The result is uncertainty and chaos; and means of escape must be found from a condition which the weakness of men must ultimately make intolerable. It is here that the social contract emerges. But just as Locke's natural state implies a natural man utterly distinct from Hobbes' gloomy picture, so does Locke's social contract represent rather the triumph of reason than of hard necessity. It is a contract of each with all, a surrender by the individual of his personal right to fulfil the commands of the law of nature in return for the guarantee that his rights as nature ordains them-life and liberty and property-will be preserved. The contract is thus not general as with Hobbes but limited and specific in character. Nor is it, as Hobbes made it, the resignation of power into the hands of some single man or group. On the contrary, it is a contract with the community as a whole which thus becomes that common political superior-the State-which is to enforce the law of nature and punish infractions of it. Nor is Locke's state a sovereign State: the very word "sovereignty" does not occur, significantly enough, throughout the treatise. The State has power only for the protection of natural law. Its province ends when it passes beyond those boundaries.

Such a contract, in Locke's view, involves the pre-eminent necessity of majority-rule. Unless the minority is content to be bound by the will of superior numbers the law of nature has no more protection than it had before the institution of political society. And it is further to be assumed that the individual has surrendered to the community his individual right of carrying out the judgment involved in natural law. Whether Locke conceived the contract so formulated to be historical, it is no easy matter to determine. That no evidence of its early existence can be adduced he ascribes to its origin in the infancy of the race; and the histories of Rome and Sparta and Venice seem to him proof that the theory is somehow demonstrable by facts. More important than origins, he seems to deem its implications. He has placed consent in the foreground of the argument; and he was anxious to establish the grounds for its continuance. Can the makers of the original contract, that is to say, bind their successors? If legitimate government is based upon the consent of its subjects, may they withdraw their consent? And what of a child born into the community? Locke is at least logical in his consent. The contract of obedience must be free or else, as Hooker had previously insisted, it is not a contract. Yet Locke urged that the primitive members of a State are bound to its perpetuation simply because unless the majority had power to enforce obedience government, in any satisfactory sense, would be impossible. With children the case is different. They are born subjects of no government or country; and their consent to its laws must either be derived from express acknowledgment, or by the tacit implication of the fact that the protection of the State has been accepted. But no one is bound until he has shown by the rule of his mature conduct that he considers himself a common subject with his fellows. Consent implies an act of will and we must have evidence to infer its presence before the rule of subjection can be applied.

We have thus the State, though the method of its organization is not yet outlined. For Locke there is a difference, though he did not explicitly describe its nature, between State and Government. Indeed he sometimes approximates, without ever formally adopting, the attitude of Pufendorf, his great German contemporary, where government is derived from a secondary contract dependent upon the original institution of civil society. The distinction is made in the light of what is to follow. For Locke was above all anxious to leave supreme power in a community whose single will, as manifested by majority-verdict, could not be challenged by any lesser organ than itself. Government there must be if political society is to endure; but its form and substance are dependent upon popular institution.

Locke follows in the great Aristotelian tradition of dividing the types of government into three. Where the power of making laws is in a single hand we have a monarchy; where it is exercised by a few or all we have alternatively oligarchy and democracy. The disposition of the legislative power is the fundamental test of type; for executive and judiciary are clearly dependent on it. Nor, as Hobbes argued, is the form of government permanent in character; the supreme community is as capable of making temporary as of registering irrevocable decisions. And though Locke admits that monarchy, from its likeness to the family, is the most primitive type of government, he denies Hobbes' assertion that it is the best. It seems, in his view, always to degenerate into the hands of lesser men who betray the contract they were appointed to observe. Nor is oligarchy much better off since it emphasizes the interest of a group against the superior interest of the community as a whole. Democracy alone proffers adequate safeguards of an enduring good rule; a democracy, that is to say, which is in the hands of delegates controlled by popular election. Not that Locke is anxious for the abolition of kingship. His letters show that he disliked the Cromwellian system and the republicanism which Harrington and Milton had based upon it. He was content to have a kingship divested of legislative power so long as hereditary succession was acknowledged to be dependent upon popular consent. The main thing was to be rid of the Divine Right of kings.

We have thus an organ for the interpretation of natural law free from the shifting variety of individual judgment. We have a means for securing impartial justice between members of civil society, and to that means the force of men has been surrendered. The formulation of the rules by which life, liberty and property are to be secured is legislation and this, from the terms of the original contract, is the supreme function of the State. But, in Locke's view, two other functions still remain. Law has not only to be declared. It must be enforced; and the business of the executive is to secure obedience to the command of law. But Locke here makes a third distinction. The State must live with other States, both as regards its individual members, and as a collective body; and the power which deals with this aspect of its relationships, Locke termed "federative." This last distinction, indeed, has no special value; and its author's own defence of it is far from clear. More important, especially, for future history, was his emphasis of the distinction between legislature and executive. The making of laws is for Locke a relatively simple and rapid task; the legislature may do its work and be gone. But those who attend to their execution must be ceaseless in their vigilance. It is better, therefore, to separate the two both as to powers and persons. Otherwise legislators "may exempt themselves from obedience to the laws they make, and suit the law, both in its making and its execution, to their own private wish, and thereby come to have a distinct interest from the rest of the community, contrary to the end of society and government." The legislator must therefore be bound by his own laws; and he must be chosen in such fashion that the representative assembly may fairly represent its constituencies. It was the patent anomalies of the existent scheme of distribution which made Locke here proffer his famous suggestion that the rotten boroughs should be abolished by executive act. One hundred and forty years were still to pass before this wise suggestion was translated into statute.

Though Locke thus insisted upon the separation of powers, he realized that emergencies are the parent of special need; and he recognized that not only may the executive, as in England, share in the task of legislation, but also may issue ordinances when the legislature is not in session, or act contrary to law in case of grave danger. Nor can the executive be forced to summon the legislature. Here, clearly enough, Locke is generalizing from the English constitution; and its sense of compromise is implicit in his remarks. Nor is his surrender here of consent sufficient to be inconsistent with his general outlook. For at the back of each governmental act, there is, in his own mind, an active citizen body occupied in judging it with single-minded reference to the law of nature and their own natural rights. There is thus a standard of right and wrong superior to all powers within the State. "A government," as he says, "is not free to do as it pleases ... the law of nature stands as an eternal rule to all men, legislators as well as others." The social contract is secreted in the interstices of public statutes.

Its corollary is the right of revolution. It is interesting that he should have adopted this position; for in 1676 he had uttered the thought that not even the demands of conscience[3] can justify rebellion. That was, however, before the tyranny of Charles had driven him into exile with his patron, and before James had attempted the subversion of all constitutional government. To deny the right of revolution was to justify the worst demands of James, and it is in its favor that he exerts his ablest controversial power. "The true remedy," he says, "of force without authority is to oppose force to it." Let the sovereign but step outside the powers derived from the social contract and resistance becomes a natural right. But how define

such invasion of powers? The instances Locke chose show how closely, here at least, he was following the events of 1688. The substitution of arbitrary will for law, the corruption of Parliament by packing it with the prince's instruments, betrayal to a foreign prince, prevention of the due assemblage of Parliament-all these are a perversion of the trust imposed and operate to effect the dissolution of the contract. The state of nature again supervenes, and a new contract may be made with one more fitted to observe it. Here, also, Locke takes occasion to deny the central position of Hobbes' thesis. Power, the latter had argued, must be absolute and there cannot, therefore, be usurpation. But Locke retorts that an absolute government is no government at all since it proceeds by caprice instead of reason; and it is comparable only to a state of war since it implies the absence of judgment upon the character of power. It lacks the essential element of consent without which the binding force of law is absent. All government is a moral trust, and the idea of limitation is therein implied. But a limitation without the means of enforcement would be worthless, and revolution remains as the reserve power in society. The only hindrance to its exertion that Locke suggests is that of number. Revolution should not, he urges, be the act of a minority; for the contract is the action of the major portion of the people and its consent should likewise obtain to the dissolution of the covenant.

[3] King, Life of Locke, pp. 62, 63.

The problem of Church and State demanded a separate discussion; and it is difficult not to feel that the great Letter on Toleration is the noblest of all his utterances. It came as the climax to a long evolution of opinion; and, in the light of William's own conviction, it may be said to have marked a decisive epoch of thought. Already in the sixteenth century Robert Brown and William the Silent had denounced the persecution of sincere belief. Early Baptists like Busher and Richardson had finely denied its validity. Roger Williams in America, Milton in England had attacked its moral rightness and political adequacy; while churchmen like Hales and Taylor and the noble Chillingworth had shown the incompatibility between a religion of love and a spirit of hate. Nor had example been wanting. The religious freedom of Holland was narrow, as Spinoza had found, but it was still freedom. Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Massachusetts had all embarked upon admirable experiment; and Penn himself had aptly said that a man may go to chapel instead of church, even while he remains a good constable. And in 1687, in the preface to his translation of Lactantius, Burnet had not merely attacked the moral viciousness of persecution, but had drawn a distinction between the spheres of Church and State which is a remarkable anticipation of Locke's own theory.

Locke himself covers the whole ground; and since his opinions on the problem were at least twenty years old, it is clear that he was consistent in a worthy outlook. He proceeds by a denial that any element of theocratic government can claim political validity. The magistrate is concerned only with the preservation of social peace and does not deal with the problem of men's souls. Where, indeed, opinions destructive of the State are entertained or a party subversive of peace makes its appearance, the magistrate has the right of suppression; though in the latter case force is the worst and last of remedies. In the English situation, it follows that all men are to be tolerated save Catholics, Mahomedans and atheists. The first are themselves deniers of the rights they would seek, and they find the centre of their political allegiance in a foreign power. Mahomedan morals are incompatible with European civil systems; and the central factor in atheism is the absence of the only ultimately satisfactory sanction of good conduct. Though Church and State are thus distinct, they act for a reciprocal benefit; and it is thus important to see why Locke insists on the invalidity of persecution. For such an end as the cure of souls, he argues, the magistrate has no divine legation. He cannot, on other grounds, use force for the simple reason that it does not produce internal conviction. But even if that were possible, force would still be mistaken; for the majority of the world is not Christian, yet it would have the right to persecute in the belief that it was possessed of truth. Nor can the implication that the magistrate has the keys of heaven be accepted. "No religion," says Locke finely, "which I believe not to be true can be either true or profitable to me." He thus makes of the Church an institution radically different from the ruling conceptions of his time. It becomes merely a voluntary society, which can exert no power save over its members. It may use its own ceremonies, but it cannot impose them on the unwilling; and since persecution is alien from the spirit of Christ, exclusion from membership must be the limit of ecclesiastical disciplinary power. Nor must we forget the advantages of toleration. Its eldest child is charity, and without it there can be no honesty of opinion. Later controversy did not make him modify these principles; and they lived, in Macaulay's hands, to be a vital weapon in the political method of the nineteenth century.


Any survey of earlier political theory would show how little of novelty there is in the specific elements of Locke's general doctrine. He is at all points the offspring of a great and unbroken tradition; and that not the least when he seems unconscious of it. Definite teachers, indeed, he can hardly be said to have had; no one can read his book without perceiving how much of it is rooted in the problems of his own day. He himself has expressed his sense of Hooker's greatness, and he elsewhere had recommended the works of Grotius and Pufendorf as an essential element in education. But his was a nature which learned more from men than books; and he more than once insisted that his philosophy was woven of his own "coarse thoughts." What, doubtless, he therein meant was to emphasize the freshness of his contact with contemporary fact in contrast with the technical jargon of the earlier thinkers. At least his work is free from the mountains of allusion which Prynne rolled into the bottom of his pages; and if the first Whig was the devil, he is singularly free from the irritating pedantry of biblical citation. Yet even with these novelties, no estimate of his work would be complete which failed to take account of the foundations upon which he builded.

Herein, perhaps, the danger is lest we exaggerate Locke's dependence upon the earlier current of thought. The social contract is at least as old as when Glaucon debated with Socrates in the market-place at Athens. The theory of a state of nature, with the rights therein implied, is the contribution, through Stoicism, of the Roman lawyers, and the great medieval contrast to Aristotle's experimentalism. To the latter, also, may be traced the separation of powers; and it was then but little more than a hundred years since Bodin had been taken to make the doctrine an integral part of scientific politics. Nor is the theory of a right to revolution in any sense his specific creation. So soon as the Reformation had given a new perspective to the problem of Church and State every element of Locke's doctrine had become a commonplace of debate. Goodman and Knox among Presbyterians, Suarez and Mariana among Catholics, the author of the Vindici? and Francis Hotman among the Huguenots, had all of them emphasized the concept of public power as a trust; with, of course, the necessary corollary that its abuse entails resistance. Algernon Sydney was at least his acquaintance; and he must have been acquainted with the tradition, even if tragedy spared him the details, of the Discourses on Government. Even his theory of toleration had in every detail been anticipated by one or other of a hundred controversialists; and his argument can hardly claim either the lofty eloquence of Jeremy Taylor or the cogent simplicity of William Penn.

What differentiates Locke from all his predecessors is the manner of his writing on the one hand, and the fact of the Revolution on the other. Every previous thinker save Sydney-the latter's work was not published until 1689-was writing with the Church hardly less in mind than the purely political problems of the State; even the secular Hobbes had devoted much thought and space to that "kingdom of darkness" which is Rome. And, Sydney apart, the resistance they had justified was always resistance to a religious tyrant; and Cartwright was as careful to exclude political oppression from the grounds of revolution as Locke was to insist upon it as the fundamental excuse. Locke is, in fact, the first of English thinkers the basis of whose argument is mainly secular. Not, indeed, that he can wholly escape the trammels of ecclesiasticism; not until the sceptical intelligence of Hume was such freedom possible. But it is clear enough that Locke was shifting to very different ground from that which arrested the attention of his predecessors. He is attempting, that is to say, a separation between Church and State not merely in that Scoto-Jesuit sense which aimed at ecclesiastical independence, but in order to assert the pre-eminence of the State as such. The central problem is with him political, and all other questions are subsidiary to it. Therein we have a sense, less clear in any previous writer save Machiavelli, of the real result of the decay of medieval ideals. Church and State have become transposed in their significance. The way, as a consequence, lies open to new dogmas.

The historical research of the nineteenth century has long since made an end of the social contract as an explanation of state-origins; and with it, of necessity, has gone the conception of natural rights as anterior to organized society. The problem, as we now know, is far more complex than the older thinkers imagined. Yet Locke's insistence on consent and natural rights has received new meaning from each critical period of history since he wrote. The theory of consent is vital because without the provision of channels for its administrative expression, men tend to become the creatures of a power ignorant at once and careless of their will. Active consent on the part of the mass of men emphasizes the contingent nature of all power and is essential to the full realization of freedom; and the purpose of the State, in any sense save the mere satisfaction of material appetite, remains, without it, unfulfilled. The concept of natural right is most closely related to this position. For so long as we regard rights as no more than the creatures of law, there is at no point adequate safeguard against their usurpation. A merely legal theory of the State can never, therefore, exhaust the problems of political philosophy.

No thinker has seen this fact more clearly than Locke; and if his effort to make rights something more than interests under juridical protection can not be accepted in the form he made it, the underlying purpose remains. A State, that is to say, which aims at giving to men the full capacity their trained initiative would permit is compelled to regard certain things as beyond the action of an ordinary legislature. What Stammler calls a "natural law with changing content"[4]-a content which changes with our increasing power to satisfy demand-is essential if the state is to live the life of law. For here was the head and centre of Locke's enquiry. "What he was really concerned about," said T.H. Green, "was to dispute 'the right divine of kings to govern wrong.'" The method, as he conceived, by which this could be accomplished was the limitation of power. This he effected by two distinct methods, the one external, the other internal, in character.

[4] Cf. my Authority in the Modern State, p. 64., and the references there cited.

The external method has, at bottom, two sides. It is, in the first place, achieved by a narrow definition of the purpose of the state. To Locke the State is little more than a negative institution, a kind of gigantic limited liability company; and if we are inclined to cavil at such restraint, we may perhaps remember that even to neo-Hegelians like Green and Bosanquet this negative sense is rarely absent, in the interest of individual exertion. But for Locke the real guarantee of right lies in another direction. What his whole work amounts to in substance-it is a significant anticipation of Rousseau-is a denial that sovereignty can exist anywhere save in the community as a whole. A common political superior there doubtless must be; but government is an organ to which omnipotence is wanting. So far as there is a sovereign at all in Locke's book, it is the will of that majority which Rousseau tried to disguise under the name of the general will; but obviously the conception lacks precision enough to give the notion of sovereignty the means of operation. The denial is natural enough to a man who had seen, under three sovereigns, the evils of unlimited power; and if there is lacking to his doctrine the well-rounded logic of Hobbes' proof that an unlimited sovereign is unavoidable, it is well to remember that the shift of opinion is, in our own time, more and more in the direction of Locke's attitude. That omnicompetence of Parliament which Bentham and Austin crystallized into the retort to Locke admits, in later hands, of exactly the amelioration he had in mind; and its ethical inadequacy becomes the more obvious the more closely it is studied.[5]

[5] Cf. my Problem of Sovereignty, Chap. I.

The internal limitation Locke suggested is of more doubtful value. Government, he says, in substance, is a trustee and trustees abuse their power; let us therefore divide it as to parts and persons that the temptation to usurp may be diminished. There is a long history to this doctrine in its more obvious form, and it is a lamentable history. It tied men down to a tyrannous classification which had no root in the material it was supposed to distinguish. Montesquieu took it for the root of liberty; Blackstone, who should have known better, repeated the pious phrases of the Frenchman; and they went in company to America to persuade Madison and the Supreme Court of the United States that only the separation of powers can prevent the approach of tyranny. The facts do not bear out such assumption. The division of powers means in the event not less than their confusion. None can differentiate between the judge's declaration of law and his making of it.[6] Every government department is compelled to legislate, and, often enough, to undertake judicial functions. The American history of the separation of powers has most largely been an attempt to bridge them; and all that has been gained is to drive the best talent, save on rare occasion, from its public life. In France the separation of powers meant, until recent times, the excessive subordination of the judiciary to the cabinet. Nor must we forget, as Locke should have remembered, the plain lesson of the Cromwellian constitutional experiments. That the dispersion of power is one of the great needs of the modern State at no point justifies the rigid categories into which Locke sought its division.[7]

[6] Cf. Mr. Justice Holmes' remarks in Jensen v. Southern Pacific, 244 U.S. 221.

[7] Cf. my Authority in the Modern State, pp. 70 f.

Nor must we belittle the criticism, in its clearest form the work of Fitz James Stephen,[8] that has been levelled at Locke's theory of toleration. For the larger part of the modern world, his argument is acceptable enough; and its ingenious compromises have made it especially representative of the English temper. Yet much of it hardly meets the argument that some of his opponents, as Proast for example, had made. His conception of the visible church as no part of the essence of religion could win no assent from even a moderate Anglican; and, once the visible church is admitted, Locke's facile distinction between Church and State falls to the ground. Nor can it be doubted that he underestimated the power of coercion to produce assent; the policy of Louis XIV to the Huguenots may have been brutal, but its efficacy must be unquestionable. And it is at least doubtful whether his theory has any validity for a man who held, as Roman Catholics of his generation were bound to hold, that the communication of his particular brand of truth outweighed in value all other questions. "Every Church," he wrote, "is orthodox to itself; to others, erroneous or heretical"; but to any earnest believer this would approximate to blasphemy. Nor could any serious Christian accept the view that "under the gospel '...there is no such thing as a Christian commonwealth'"; to Catholics and Presbyterians this must have appeared the merest travesty of their faith.

[8] Cf. also Coleridge's apt remark. Table Talk, Jan. 3, 1834.

Here, indeed, as elsewhere Locke is the true progenitor of Benthamism, and his work can hardly be understood save in this context. Just as in his ethical enquiries it was always the happiness of the individual that he sought, so in his politics it was the happiness of the subject he had in view. In each case it was to immediate experience that he made his appeal; and this perhaps explains the clear sense of a contempt for past tradition which pervades all his work. "That which is for the public welfare," he said, "is God's will"; and therein we have the root of that utilitarianism which, as Maine pointed out, is the real parent of all nineteenth century change. And with Locke, as with the Benthamites, his clear sense of what utilitarianism demanded led to an over-emphasis of human rationalism. No one can read the Second Treatise without perceiving that Locke looked upon the State as a machine which can be built and taken to pieces in very simple fashion. Herein, undoubtedly, he over-simplified the problem; and that made him miss some of the cardinal points a true psychology of the State must seize. His very contractualism, indeed, is part of this affection for the rational. It resulted in his failure to perceive how complex is the mass of motives imbedded in the political act. The significance of herd instinct and the vast primitive deeps of the unconscious were alike hidden from him. All this is of defect; and yet excusably. For it needed the demonstration by Darwin of the kinship of man and beast for us to see the real substance of Aristotle's vision that man is embedded in political society.


Once Locke's work had become known, its reputation was secure. Not, indeed, that it was entirely welcome to his generation. Men were not wanting who shrank from his thoroughgoing rationalism and felt that anything but reason must be the test of truth. Those who stood by the ancient ways found it easy to discover republicanism and the roots of atheistic doctrine in his work; and even the theories of Filmer could find defenders against him in the Indian summer of prerogative under Queen Anne. John Hutton informed a friend that he was not less dangerous than Spinoza; and the opinion found an echo from the nonjuring sect. But these, after all, were but the eddies of a stream fast burying itself in the sands. For most, the Revolution was a final settlement, and Locke was welcome as a writer who had discovered the true source of political comfort. So it was that William Molyneux could embody the ideas of the "incomparable treatise" in his demand for Irish freedom; a book which, even in those days, occasioned some controversy. Nor is it uninteresting to discover that the translation of Hotman's Franco-Gallia should have been embellished with a preface from one who, as Molyneux wrote to Locke,[9] never met the Irish writer without conversing of their common master. How rapidly the doctrine spread we learn from a letter of Bayle's in which, as early as 1693, Locke has already became "the gospel of the Protestants." Nor was his immediate influence confined to England. French Huguenots and the Dutch drew naturally upon so happy a defender; and Barbeyrac, in the translation of Pufendorf which he published in 1706, cites no writer so often as Locke. The speeches for the prosecution in the trial of Sacheverell were almost wholesale adaptations of his teaching; and even the accused counsel admitted the legality of James' deposition in his speech for the defence.

[9] Locke, Works (ed. of 1812), IX. 435.

More valuable testimony is not wanting. In the Spectator, on six separate occasions, Addison speaks of him as one whose possession is a national glory. Defoe in his Original Power of the People of England made Locke the common possession of the average man, and offered his acknowledgments to his master. Even the malignant genius of Swift softened his hate to find the epithet "judicious" for one in whose doctrines he can have found no comfort. Pope summarized his teaching in the form that Bolingbroke chose to give it. Hoadly, in his Original and Institution of Civil Government, not only dismisses Filmer in a first part each page of which is modelled upon Locke, but adds a second section in which a defence of Hooker serves rather clumsily to conceal the care with which the Second Treatise had also been pillaged. Even Warburton ceased for a moment his habit of belittling all rivals in the field he considered his own to call him, in that Divine Legation which he considered his masterpiece, "the honor of this age and the instructor of the future"; but since Warburton's attack on the High Church theory is at every point Locke's argument, he may have considered this self-eulogy instead of tribute. Sir Thomas Hollis, on the eve of English Radicalism, published a noble edition of his book. And there is perhaps a certain humor in the remembrance that it was to Locke's economic tracts that Bolingbroke went for the arguments with which, in the Craftsman, he attacked the excise scheme of Walpole. That is irrefutable evidence of the position he had attained.

Yet the tide was already on the ebb, and for cogent reasons. There still remained the tribute to be paid by Montesquieu when he made Locke's separation of powers the keystone of his own more splendid arch. The most splendid of all sciolists was still to use his book for the outline of a social contract more daring even than his own. The authors of the Declaration of Independence had still, in words taken from Locke, to reassert the state of nature and his rights; and Mr. Martin of North Carolina was to find him quotable in the debates of the Philadelphia Convention. Yet Locke's own weapons were being turned against him and what was permanent in his work was being cast into the new form required by the time. A few sentences of Hume were sufficient to make the social contract as worthless as the Divine Right of kings, and when Blackstone came to sum up the result of the Revolution, if he wrote in contractual terms it was with a full admission that he was making use of fiction so far as he went behind the settlement of 1688. Nor is the work of Dean Tucker without significance. The failure of England in the American war was already evident; and it was not without justice that he looked to Locke as the author of their principles. "The Americans," he wrote, "have made the maxims of Locke the ground of the present war"; and in his Treatise Concerning Civil Government and his Four Letters he declares himself unable to understand on what Locke's reputation was based. Meanwhile the English disciples of Rousseau in the persons of Price and Priestley suggested to him that Locke, "the idol of the levellers of England," was the parent also of French destructiveness. Burke took up the work thus begun; and after he had dealt with the contract theory it ceased to influence political speculation in England. Its place was taken by the utilitarian doctrine which Hume had outlined; and once Bentham's Fragment had begun to make its way, a new epoch opened in the history of political ideas.

Locke might, indeed, claim that he had a part in this renaissance; but, once the influence of Burke had passed, it was to other gods men turned. For Bentham made an end of natural rights; and his contempt for the past was even more unsparing than Locke's own. It is more instructive to compare his work with Hobbes and Rousseau than with later thinkers; for after Hume English speculation works in a medium Locke would not have understood. Clearly enough, he has nothing of the relentless logic which made Hobbes' mind the clearest instrument in the history of English philosophy. Nor has he Hobbes' sense of style or pungent grasp of the grimness of facts about him. Yet he need not fear the comparison with the earlier thinker. If Hobbes' theory of sovereignty is today one of the commonplaces of jurisprudence, ethically and politically we occupy ourselves with erecting about it a system of limitations each one of which is in some sort due to Locke's perception. If we reject Locke's view of the natural goodness of men, Hobbes' sense of their evil character is not less remote from our speculations. Nor can we accept Hobbes' Erastianism. Locke's view of Church and State became, indeed, a kind of stepchild to it in the stagnant days of the later Georges; but Wesleyanism, on the one hand, and the Oxford movement on the other, pointed the inevitable moral of even an approximation to the Hobbesian view. And anyone who surveys the history of Church and State in America will be tempted to assert that in the last hundred years the separateness for which Locke contended is not without its justification. Locke's theory is a means of preserving the humanity of men; Hobbes makes their reason and conscience the subjects of a power he forbids them to judge. Locke saw that vigilance is the sister of liberty, where Hobbes dismissed the one as faction and the other as disorder. At every point, that is to say, where Hobbes and Locke are at variance, the future has been on Locke's side. He may have defended his cause less splendidly than his rival; but it will at least be admitted by most that he had a more splendid cause to defend.

With Rousseau there is no contrast, for the simple reason that his teaching is only a broadening of the channel dug by Locke. No element integral to the Two Treatises is absent from the Social Contract. Rousseau, indeed, in many aspects saw deeper than his predecessor. The form into which he threw his questions gave them an eternal significance Locke can perhaps hardly claim. He understood the organic character of the State, where Locke was still trammelled by the bonds of his narrow individualism. It is yet difficult to see that the contribution upon which Rousseau's fame has mainly rested is at any point a real advance upon Locke. The general will, in practical instead of semi-mystic terms, really means the welfare of the community as a whole; and when we enquire how that general will is to be known, we come, after much shuffling, upon the will of that majority in which Locke also put his trust. Rousseau's general will, indeed, is at bottom no more than an assertion that right and truth should prevail; and for this also Locke was anxious. But he did not think an infallible criterion existed for its detection; and he was satisfied with the convenience of a simple numerical test. Nor would it be difficult to show that Locke's state has more real room for individuality than Rousseau's. The latter made much show of an impartible and inalienable sovereignty eternally vested in the people; but in practice its exercise is impossible outside the confines of a city-state. Once, that is to say, we deal with modern problems our real enquiry is still the question of Locke-what limits shall we place upon the power of government? Rousseau has only emphasized the urgency of the debate.

Wherein, perhaps, the most profound distinction between Locke's teaching and our own time may be discovered is in our sense of the impossibility that a final answer can be found to political questions. Each age has new materials at its command; and, today, a static philosophy would condemn itself before completion. We do not build Utopias; and the attempt to discover the eternal principles of political right invites disaster at the outset. Yet that does not render useless, even for our own day, the kind of work Locke did. In the largest sense, his questions are still our own. In the largest sense, also, we are near enough to his time to profit at each step of our own efforts by the hints he proffers. The point at which he stood in English history bears not a little resemblance to our own. The emphasis, now as then, is upon the problem of freedom. The problem, now as then, was its translation into institutional terms. It is the glory of Locke that he brought a generous patience and a searching wisdom to the solution he proffered to his generation.

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