What did you learn from this course? In your response, refer to a particular reading in a particular week, e.g., “In Week 6, I found the article on the Electoral College interesting because…” (this a discussion, no more then 150 words)
The concept of liberty was a revolutionary ideology. The notion of liberty did not come from one source. It was drawn from history and from classical political literature. The direct democracy of Greek city-states such as Athens and the form of democracy practiced in the Roman Republic were sources. English political writers and their ideas on good government helped shape the Founders of the American Constitution.
The first of these political writers to influence the colonists were John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon. These men were Whigs and became known as the Commonwealthmen. They were suspicious of power. In their minds, power equaled aggression. Power is always out to steal liberty and take away individual freedom.
To protect liberty, the people need to be vigilant, to always be on the lookout against power because liberty is always at risk. Liberty will and can only survive if the people protect it. This is an eternal battle. Those who treasure their liberty can never compromise with power.
In the eyes of the Commonwealthmen, the loss of liberty equaled slavery. This is not to be confused with chattel slavery (where the slaves were seen as personal property), but rather with the loss of control over one’s destiny and becoming subject to arbitrary power. The Commonwealthmen argued that men need to be independent, free from the control of government and arbitrary power. Central to this independence is property. Owning property is a sign of one’s independence. If a man owns his own land, grows his own food, and has a gun to protect his property, then he cannot be forced to submit to arbitrary power. He has the means to feed himself and protect himself. He is free. The “powerful” cannot starve a free man into submission.
The works of the Commonwealthmen were important in the formulation of “liberty” in the colonies, but they were not the only source for this doctrine. The political theorist John Locke also influenced the colonists. Locke argued that government was a contract between the governed and the governing.
According to Locke, government does not and cannot exist independent of the people.God did not create government; it has no life of its own. Government exists because people created it. At some point in the history of mankind, people realized that government was necessary to police society and protect the majority from criminals and threats from outsiders.
According to Locke, people only wanted a limited government. Government was to have the powers given to it by the people. The government was to be the servant of the people, not their master. The government had no intrinsic powers; it only had those powers given to it by the people in order to protect them.
According to Locke, government is a contract between the people and the King. The King is to govern for the people, not exercise authority they did not give him. In turn, the people are to submit to the laws of the King. It is important to note that monarchy was the only form of government in the world at the time Locke wrote his treatise.
So, any government is a contract between the governing and the governed. If the contract is broken by the King, then the people would have the right, the duty, and the obligation to rebel, overthrow the King and replace him. Once a King has tried to usurp powers not given him by the people, he has become a tyrant. The contract is broken. It is the duty of the people to overthrow the usurper of their rights and liberty and replace him with a law abiding King.
In Locke’s view, the aim of a legitimate government is to preserve the rights to life, liberty, health and property of its citizens. The government is also tasked to prosecute and punish those of its citizens who violate the rights of others. Finally it is the government’s duty to pursue the public good even where this may conflict with the rights of individuals. An illegitimate government on the other hand, does not protect the rights to life, liberty, health and property of its subjects. In extreme cases such governments will violate the rights of its subjects. The government in this case becomes despotic.
The American colonists read these works by the Commonwealthmen, Locke and others, and distilled all this down into their own American version of Liberty. They accepted thatgovernment was a contract. They believed that King George III had broken that contract and had become a tyrant. It was, therefore, their duty, obligation, and right to rebel and replace him.