Living the American dream
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” This passage is from one of the greatest documents of all time in American history … the Declaration of Independence. In our modern form of Republican Democracy we hold certain truths to guide the ship of state. Some such truths would be Thomas Jefferson’s values of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness as stated in the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson’s ideas were great and expansive but not necessarily original. He drew these ideas from the English Scholar, John Locke.
It was Locke’s philosophical belief in a democratic constitution, which served as the basis for the American Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution. Jefferson and our forefathers, who shaped our system of government were students of John Locke, and when drafting the documents of state, relied on him for guidance. Our forefathers not only followed Locke, but also sincerely identified with his brand of thinking. Locke in many ways inspired the intellectual development of our colonial government, which has lasted peacefully for well over these 200 years.
Locke originally mentioned three rights of man, Life, Liberty and Property. Those rights were to be protected by the state, and if they were not, that state should rightly be overthrown. According to Locke, people are born into a “state of nature” where perpetual war takes place. Individuals enjoyed total autonomy in that state. When individuals are wronged they are the judge, prosecutor and executioner of those who infringe upon them. In this state, the punishment rarely fits the crime, and the justice system is unfair. It favors the strong at the destruction of the weak. It’s a state where exploitation and abuse is common and justice is rare. Slavery is allowed as a tool of the strong to oppress the weak. Locke advocated entering a “Social Contract” whereby individuals would agree to concede some of their autonomy to gain protection from each other. This “Social Contract” is the document, which delegates the duties of the state to the people, and the people to the state. It defines the relationship between individuals and their government. This contract ends the state of nature and allows for representative democracy and a fair and impartial judge to hear and resolve all disputes.
Locke also discusses the labor of people as something of their own. From this concept comes the basis of “property.” Property as defined by Locke is all that an individual can produce with his/ her labor. The bounty of that labor belongs to that person and no other individual. People entered the above stated “Social Contract” to protect their property from the exploitation and pillage of rouge folks and thieves. And if the thief was larger than you in a state of nature, your property became that of the thief. So then individuals created a state to protect themselves and their property from each other, under such a system property is protected and autonomy is preserved with only few limitations. And thus the social contract is fulfilled and people are safe, secure and then can truly enjoy the bounty of “Life, Liberty and Property.”
We would claim that there are many states in the world, and those states who know John Locke are the healthiest in liberty for free people. And those who do not know Locke’s principles are some of the most oppressed. In its day such philosophical principles were attacked as “extreme” and now all people of the free world thrive in liberty from the ideas that John Locke articulated some 300 years ago. On the Fourth of July, we celebrate the birthday of a nation. And that is how I see it FROM THIS PERSPECTIVE.
Dr. Robert L. Heichberger is a resident of Gowanda and Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at SUNY Fredonia.