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Article & Narration By: Spencer Guier
Few documents possess more prestige than the United States Constitution (US 1776). Considered the supreme law of the land, the Constitution forms the basis of an important social contract between the citizenry and their government. Political philosophers, such John Locke, would describe this type of social contract as a necessary alternative to man’s natural state. Born in August of 1632, Locke wouldn’t live to see the adoption of this important document, yet his influence on the United States Constitution proves difficult to ignore.
The United States Constitution is a framework for a type of social contract which offers the protection of natural rights, such as life and property, at the expense of certain individual liberties that the populous deems generally unfavorable to the citizenry as a whole. John Locke, one of the early proponents of social contract theory, naturally held a strong influence over the developers of the Constitution. Locke’s Second Treatise of Government(1) outlines his views on the origins and structure of a legitimate, constitutionally elected government, and this work would frequently be cited leading up to the original drafting of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.
One obvious influence would be the ideas related to natural rights found in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration of Independence (US 1776) states, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” In Chapter II of Second Treatise, Locke argues for “a state also of equality wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no having more than another.” He then goes on to state, “no one ought to harm another in his life liberty or possessions.” Locke’s influence extends beyond the specific vocabulary of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness planted in the Declaration of Independence, but also extends to the idea that it is the responsibility of the state to ensure the protection and preservation of these natural rights as implied throughout both the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.
Locke believed a social contract, such as the Constitution, can only succeed when paired with the consent of the governed. In Chapter VIII of Second Treatise Locke claims the states power proves only justified when derived directly from the people over which that authority is exercised “or else it is impossible it should act or continue one body.” Locke claims that the authority to act as a whole is only justified when accompanied by the “consent of the majority” which he describes as a ”greater force” acting on the political discourse within society.
In Chapter XIII of Second Treatise, Locke goes on to discuss that when the legislative fails to protect the most basic of natural rights or “when they find the legislative act contrary to the trust reposed in them” it is the duty of the citizen to “dissolve” the current established government in favor of a more competent governmental body. Locke’s ideas regarding legislative power were the subject of frequent debate during the drafting of the Constitution. In Chapter XIII of Locke’s Second Treatise, Locke states “in a constituted common-wealth, standing on its own basis, and acting according to its own nature, that is, acting for the preservation of the community, there can be but one supreme power, which is the legislative, to which all the rest are and must be subordinate…” This passage reflects Locke’s belief that the legislative power should reign supreme in a, constitutionally elected, representative government “For what can give laws to another, must needs to be superiour to him.”
In Chapter XI of Second Treatise, Locke argues for the legislative as not only the supreme power, but as“sacred and unalterable in the hands where the community have once placed it.” This same ideology seems to be reflected in the bicameral Legislative Branch of government outlined within Article I of the Constitution. In the Legislative Branch, representatives are directly elected by the citizenry to act in the best interest of their safety and security. If a representative’s level of performance slips below satisfaction, it is the duty of the citizen to then elect a representative who can more accurately represent their interests. This allows the citizenry a direct influence over the political discourse within society by providing a method of change if they view their government as unsatisfactory. This close relationship with the people, Locke argued, provides the legislative branch the incite necessary to most accurately reflect the general will of the people, as it is a duty of the citizenry to only place the legislative power with those legislators who can do so.
Perhaps Locke’s greatest influence on the Constitution would be the idea that the power of government should be distributed among different institutions. In Chapter XII of Second Treatise Locke argues for a separation of governmental powers “as it may be too great a temptation to human frailty, apt to grasp at power, for the same persons, who have the power of making laws, to have also in their hands the power to execute them.” Locke identifies the powers to be divided as legislative power, “which has the right to direct how the force of the commonwealth should be employed,” the executive power to pursue the “perpetual execution” of established law, and a the federative power which “contains the power of war and peace, leagues and alliances, with all persons and communities without the commonwealth.”
This very idea of a separation of powers is outlined within the first three articles of the Constitution. Articles I, II, and III divides the federal government into three separate, but co-equal, branches of government. Each of these branches are given specific functions within government so that the powers of one branch aren’t conflicting with the powers associated with another. Each branch is also provided with a system of checks and balances which can be used on the others to prevent one branch from becoming supreme.
The executive powers described by Locke appear to be vested in the Executive Branch of government outlined within Article II of the Constitution. The Executive Branch is directly responsible for the execution of law and the administration of the state, and the Executive Branch, unlike the Legislative Branch, is “always in being.”
The final result is obvious. John Locke’s ideas regarding the consent of the governed and general expansion of social contract theory have surely acted as a strong influence on our founding fathers. The legislative, executive, and federative powers described by Locke seem to form much of the basis on which our own government is structured, and surely provided the original drafters of the Constitution valuable incite on the general role these powers play within a constitutional elected government. Although John Locke’s exact level of influence may never be known, his convictions on the social contract between a government and it’s citizenry surely live on within the fabric of our own United States Constitution.
1. John Locke (1992). Second Treatise of Government. In Classics of moral and political theory. (Morgan, M. L.). Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co.