Political Philosophy and the US Constitution: Influences of Locke and Mill

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Political Philosophy and the US Constitution: Influences of Locke and Mill

The US Constitution offers an arrangement of the American governmental system. Interestingly, it was influenced by political philosophers whose works too had inspired people across the globe especially on the values of democracy. This essay is devoted on providing an account of how two men inspired the framers of our constitution namely, John Locke and John Stuart Mill. John Locke was one of the great political philosophers who would defend the existence of a government in our society.

It is quite interesting how intellectuals like him begin the journey toward a parsimonious theory by looking deeply into the state of nature. Locke’s state of nature is one where humans have freedom. His was an optimistic view of how men, being equal amongst them establish order in the law of nature which is governed by reason. This reason guides men to avoid doing harm on anyone else’s liberty, health, life and possessions. Yet, men give up their state of nature to preserve their lives, liberties and estates or what he called- property.

Property is created by labor. The human effort mixed with natural resources is the criterion that justifies private property. Man’s desire to avoid the disadvantages of the state of nature given the scarcity of resources threatening life and freedom or his “state of war” is the root of man’s will to form a society and eventually a government, which is established not by a contract but by fiduciary trust. People consent to a political power for three reasons: the establishment of law, an impartial judge for law enforcement, and a penalty to punish law violators.

Men formed government in order to preserve these liberties, lives and properties and since they are born with them then no government can take that away from them. Man has inalienable rights and liberty that must be protected- anyone who transgresses the law of nature and whose act causes injury upon others will ought to be penalized. He considers the legislature the highest body of government since it is the one hat preserves the society and creates the laws. According to Locke, the people become trustor and beneficiary while the legislature is the trustee.

The legislature holds the supreme power according to Locke upon which the executive must be subordinate, yet the people remain above all organs of the government. These ideas were contained in his “Second Treatise of Government”, which were likewise adopted in the US Constitution. Locke argued that people has the sovereignty not the rulers. In the Declaration of Independence it was stated that, “governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. ” This is an illustration of how Locke influenced the US Constitution by ensuring that the rulers are accountable to the people.

The legislature assures that the law must apply to all; they must not be arbitrary and not oppressive; they must not raise taxes without people’s consent and; must not transfer its law-making body to anyone else. A presidential democratic system of government was preferred since Locke himself did not believe in the divine supremacy of a monarchy. The government does not have rights, only the people have. Locke asserts that the people have supreme power to remove or alter the legislative when they find a legislative act contrary to the trust reposed in them.

Since property precedes government, and considering that it is the end to which men unite into a political society, the state then cannot take away any of his property without his consent. This is manifested in the Fourteenth Amendment to the constitution of the United States saying that, “no state shall deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process. ” The Constitution itself that was chartered by the majority is higher than the rulers. The Supremacy Clause of Article VI establishes the “rule of law,” which supports the idea that the government itself, with the Congress and the Executive, must abide by the law.

Locke too conceptualized on the “separation of powers” and governmental “checks and balances”. Locke believed that the importance of rationality as a human faculty, could overrule the interests of the public good if left unchecked in the legislature. He was also pessimistic of the concentration of powers in only one body of government as it could lead to tyranny and abuses. Locke’s theories of disobedience also shed light to the right of individuals to political association and political opinion.

Accordingly, revolution is not only a right but also an obligation. It must be noted that people’s obedience to the government is due to the latter’s protection of their values. When government encounters dissolution from within- for instance when the president overrides the laws and defeats the legislature, the people are at liberty to erect a new government by changing persons, form of government or both. Failure of the state to provide or sustain that protection would result to people’s replacement of the government.

There are three types of commonwealth according to Locke-democracy, monarchy, or oligarchy. Treating the Commonwealth as not necessarily a democracy for any type can be considered one if it promotes the public good, people always have the power to change government type determined by the holder of legislative power. Yet rebellion however is justified in the instances where the people are made miserable, could be avoided if free communication channels are maintained; besides revolution doesn’t occur in little mismanagement of the public affairs.

There are better ways as initialized by the Constitution on how to formally replace ineffective leaders that is through impeachment and through peaceful elections. Hence, the overall contribution of John Locke to the US Constitution are the following; limited government, inalienable individual rights, and inviolability of property. The First Amendment of the US Constitution protects freedom of speech and expression. This is probably John Stuart Mill’s greatest contribution in political philosophy with application to US politics.

Mill focused on how the practice of one’s absolute freedom like freedom of opinion and sentiment, which is an essential component of liberty, should prevail, as it is critical to the determination of truth and justice. According to him, unless absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment- scientific, moral and theological- is guaranteed, a society is not completely free. Mill guards against a tyranny of opinion and feeling. He guards against the tyranny of the majority, which is a result of ethical norms proposed by society.

Hence, he referred to eccentricity as a character when and where strength has abounded, perhaps as a result of courage to pronounce one’s belief albeit there is already one that is generally accepted. Democracy should arise from a condition where majority has been able to show genius, courage and vigor-which are personalities of eccentrics. Mill calls for individualism and creativity. Mill explains his defense of expression of opinion using a utilitarian perspective- that maximization of one’s freedom is for the benefit of the society as it breeds human progress due to competition of ideas.

First, Mill states that the “opinion which we silence may be true and in silencing it we assume our own infallibility; though the silenced opinion may be erroneous on the whole, it may be partly true, and because the prevailing opinion on any matter is rarely the complete truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of truth has any chance of being supplied; even if the prevailing opinion be the complete truth, it will inevitably become dogma, prejudice and formula unless it is exposed to the challenge of free discussion” (Ebenstein, 2000).

Mill opposes majority rule, as it appears to him a domination of a specific class. He prefers representative government as it brings about representation of the minorities. This suggestion was adopted in the US Constitution specifically on the election of presidents and vice-presidents by Electoral College and by creating a legislature consisting of district representatives. Locke and Mill’s insights are useful in our political environments up to this date.

They have enabled democracy to flourish in America by insisting on their liberal traditions. In international relations, their principles are similarly utilized in the promotion of rights and freedom as well as the protection of every state’s territory and the designation of international institutions, which are tasked to protect nations from abuses and external threats. References: Amar, Akhil Reed.

America’s Constitution – A Biography. New York, NY: Random House, 2005. Ebenstein, William and Alan Ebenstein. Great Political Thinkers: Plato to Present. 6th Edition. Thomson Wadsworth. 2000. “John Locke”. Democracy and the Origins of Constitution. In http://www. sullivan- county. com/bush/constitution. htm Shields, Currin. “The Political Thought of John Stuart Mill. ” In http://www. ditext. com/mill/rg/shields. html


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  • University/College: University of California

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 23 October 2016

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