John Locke: On Democracy

John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government provided the intellectual foundation for the concept of representative democracy, as we know it today.  Numerous developments that moved government in England closer to participatory democracy had taken place before Locke wrote.  The writings of other political philosophers writing at the time of the Enlightenment also contributed to the development and expansion of democracy.  But the ideas Locke expressed in the Second Treatise stand as the best and most forceful expression of the belief that democracy is the only legitimate form of government. 

After its original publication, Locke belatedly gave his Second Treatise the subtitle: “An Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent and End of Civil Government”.    

It was “original” in that, like several of his fellow Enlightenment-era political philosophers, especially Thomas Hobbes before him and Jean Jacques Rousseau after him, the starting point for Locke, in developing his theory of government, was reflecting on, and theorizing about, the way people were likely to have interacted in the state of nature – before civilization and governments.  He originally agreed with Hobbes that life in the state of nature was “nasty, brutish, and short”, that people living in the state of nature were in nearly constant danger and, therefore, owed complete obedience to rulers who protected them and made their lives more secure.  Over time Locke’s thinking evolved well beyond that gloomy and fatalistic point of view. 

In the Second Treatise, Locke made the clear and compelling argument that we are all born with natural rights to life, liberty, and property; that the primary purpose of government is to protect those rights; and that governments derive their “just powers” from the consent of the governed.  

Those ideas clearly served as the inspiration for Thomas Jefferson as he wrote the Declaration of Independence.  The relationship between Jefferson and Locke was mutually beneficial.  Jefferson is deeply indebted to Locke for providing the ideas that he expressed in what has become one of the most powerful and succinct summaries of principles of representative democracy and Locke’s position in the firmament of influential political philosophers was boosted and solidified by the promotion of his ideas and ideals in the document that provided the rationale for the American Revolution.