Today we will discuss the philosophy behind the American constitution. The American constitution didn’t come out of nowhere, it is based on the ideas the framers had about humans and human nature. Imagine you are one of the framers. It’s 1787. You’re about 25 years old and you have to write the most important legal document in American history. What would you write? How would the government be structured according to you? Would it have separate branches? Would this system include checks and balances? Are you designing a federalist system? What rights do people have in this scenario? These are all questions the framers tried to answer. A lot of concepts in the constitution seem incredibly self-evident today.
But where did the framers get their ideas from?
The most important philosopher from which the framers borrowed ideas was Locke. Locke lived from 1632 to 1704. The constitution was written and signed in 1787, long after Locke died. Thus, he never saw the constitution come to life. However, he is said to have helped write the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina in 1669.
Locke is and was a very influential philosopher that came up with wide range of ideas. He is one of the most important Enlightenment thinkers that inspired the ideology of liberalism. His ideas about natural rights, the social contract, and democracy were imperative to the creation of the American constitution. The Second Treatise of Locke’s work, which is called Two Treatises of Government was especially important to the framers. Let’s go over some of the concepts from this interesting philosophical work! I will be quoting bits and pieces from Locke’s second treatise and tie it to the American constitution.
Locke writes the following.
“Men all being naturally free, equal, and independent, no-one can be deprived of this freedom etc. and subjected to the political power of someone else, without his own consent.”
Locke starts with a premise that people are born free and that they have natural rights as a result. People possess agency over themselves. An idea that is so self-evident to us now that we almost take it for granted. Quote. “every man has a Property in his own Person”. Unquote. This means that every individual has ownership over his or her own body. The first ten amendments of the American constitution — also called the Bill of Rights — protect people’s individual liberties and they limit the powers of the government.
However, some natural liberties disappear once people live in a civil society.
“The only way anyone can strip off his natural liberty and clothe himself in the bonds of civil society is for him to agree with other men to unite into a community, so as to live together comfortably, safely, and peaceably, in a secure enjoyment of their properties and a greater security against outsiders.”
Thus in order to make civil society possible and to protect your property, people will not be able to exercise all of their natural liberties. But this way of living ensures comfort, safety and peace for all civilians.
On property, one of the framers, Madison, said the following.
“It is sufficiently obvious, that Persons and Property, are the two great subjects on which Governments are to act: and that the rights of persons, and the rights of property are the objects for the protection of which Government was instituted. These rights cannot well be separated. The personal right to acquire property, which is a natural right, gives to property when acquired a right to protection as a social right.”
Here we can see how Madison emphasizes that property AND individual rights ought to be protected by the government, an idea that Locke wrote about a century earlier.
Locke further writes that people have to consent to be a part of this community in civil society.
“When any number of men have in this way consented to make one community or government, this immediately incorporates them, turns them into a single body politic in which the majority have a right to act on behalf of the rest and to bind them by its decisions.”
Locke upholds the idea of a democracy where the majority gets a say. Furthermore, the consent that people give implies that the government exists to serve society. This idea can be found in the very first words of the preamble of the American constitution. It starts with the famous phrase “we the people”. The constitution and the government exist for the people.
In summary what we have just learned is that government is formed through the consent of the people. The people form a political body which will uphold values such as safety and peaceful living. Men are born free and equal with natural rights. However, this does not mean that people are entirely free to do what they want to do. They have to adhere to the common laws and in return they will receive protection from the government.
There is one last quote I would like to read out to you from Locke’s Second Treatise.
“But this is only an ‘entrusted’ power to act for certain ends, so that the people retain a supreme power to remove or alter the legislature when they find it acting contrary to the trust that had been placed in it.”
Thus, the government is responsible to society. And when the government no longer serves the people, then the people get to change the government. The framers protected people from a tyrannical government by incorporating checks and balances such as holding consistent elections and through the mechanisms of federalism.
My aim of this podcast was to show you that the constitution did not come out of thin air. It is based on the philosophical works that the framers deemed as important for governing a Republic. Philosophical ideas influence how we perceive things around us and what we think the world should be like. Locke’s ideas are normal to us now – but they were definitely revolutionary during Locke’s lifetime. I hope you learned something new today. If you would like to read the transcript, please go to my website at socialscienceblog.org. Thank you for listening.