Wednesday, August 24, 2011

James Madison's Opinion of John Locke

There is a reason why James Madison rarely quoted John Locke--JM's belief Locke was "warped" by England's government. Many believe Locke's work was the foundation of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Neither is true, especially the latter. Locke's Social Compact theory is enumerated in the Book of Exodus, based on  "Consent of the Governed." Likewise, Locke's understanding of the Laws of Nature come from a Calvinist Anglican named Richard Hooker. Here is Madison's unflattering words about John Locke:
Writers, such as Locke, and Montesquieu, who have discussed more the principles of liberty and the structure of government, lie under the same disadvantage, of having written before these subjects were illuminated by the events and discussions which distinguish a very recent period. Both of them, too, are evidently warped by a regard to the particular government of England, to which one of them owed allegiance1; and the other professed an admiration bordering on idolatry. Montesquieu, however, has rather distinguished himself by enforcing the reasons and the importance of avoiding a confusion of the several powers of government, than by enumerating and defining the powers which belong to each particular class. And Locke, notwithstanding the early date of his work on civil government, and the example of his own government before his eyes, admits that the particular powers in question, which, after some of the writers on public law he calls federative, are really distinct from the executive, though almost always united with it, and hardly to be separated into distinct hands. Had he not lived under a monarchy, in which these powers were united; or had he written by the lamp which truth now presents to lawgivers, the last observation would probably never have dropped from his pen. But let us quit a field of research which is more likely to perplex than to decide, and bring the question to other tests of which it will be more easy to judge.


1. The chapter on prerogative shows, how much the reason of the philosopher was clouded by the royalism of the Englishman.
--James Madison, Letters of Helvidius, nos. 1--4, 24 Aug. -- 14 Sept. 1793
Writings 6:138--77 No. I.



1 comment:

Miracle in 1787 said...

Though James Madison may not have directly quoted or even cared for John Locke, to disregard his influence none-the-less may be a bit much and a stretch.

John Locke, though inspired by a few different means, was the one who carried the concepts of Natural Law and Social Contracts and separating powers (Legislative-Executive) to the forefront in American Society. His writings had an admitted influence on many in the Colonies (by their own admission). Locke's influence in early American culture and thought is not absolute but is very significant, to much so to be dismissed. Because of his influence to also not imply at the very least a sympathetic influence on Madison by extension in other writings may be a bridge to far.

Though many in our society today may not care for our Founders, they are still very much influenced by them, in the Freedoms of speech and assembly, while criticizing those who enshrined them.