Sunday, May 31, 2015

John Locke and the Modern Whig Revolution of 1688

In many posts, I have written about the two great revolutions in human history--the Neolithic Revolution, in which human beings moved from foraging to farming, and the Modern Revolution, in which human beings moved into commercial societies.  The Modern Revolution became most manifest in the first half of the 19th century with the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain and North America.  But the move towards the Industrial Revolution can be seen as early as the 17th century in Holland and England. 

John Locke saw this.  In his Two Treatises of Government, he suggested that human history broadly conceived could be divided into three eras--the foraging era, the farming era, and the commercial era.  As a radical Whig, Locke promoted the moral, economic, political, and philosophical ideas that would justify the Modern Revolution.  The most transformative turn in that direction during his life was the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89, in which James II was forced to abdicate the throne, and William and Mary took the throne.

To see the Glorious Revolution as part of the Modern Revolution is contrary, however, to the general view of many historians that the Revolution of 1688-89 was actually an un-revolutionary revolution, because it is seen as a bloodless and conservative revolution that restored the ancient constitution.  Thus, many historians have adopted Edmund Burke's argument (in Reflections on the French Revolution) that Richard Price was wrong to support the French Revolution of 1789 as following in the tradition of the Glorious Revolution, because that English revolution was a conservative restoration of English traditions, against the radical changes sought by King James II in his pursuit of absolute power.

And yet I have been persuaded by Steven Pincus (in 1688: The First Modern Revolution) that the Glorious Revolution really was a revolutionary transformation that prepared the way for the Industrial Revolution.  I have also been persuaded by Richard Ashcraft (in Revolutionary Politics & Locke's "Two Treatises of Government") that Locke saw this revolution as the fulfillment of his political thought and political activity as a radical Whig, and that the Two Treatises should be understood as the political manifesto of the radical Whig movement.

Locke's life as a radical Whig began in 1667, when he joined the household of Anthony Ashley Cooper, later the first Earl of Shaftesbury.  Locke became the tutor of Shaftesbury's son and grandchildren as well as Shaftesbury's personal physician, secretary, political advisor, close friend, and co-conspirator in plots for overthrowing Charles II.

Shaftesbury was one of the most prominent and controversial political leaders of the Restoration period.  Although he had fought with the Royalists in the Civil War until 1643, he joined the parliamentary side and became a member of Cromwell's Council of State.  After the Restoration in 1660, he came a strong defender of parliamentary authority and critic of royal absolutism.  He also supported the religious interests of the Dissenters and the argument for religious toleration.  And he was deeply involved in matters of trade, colonial expansion in North America, and in the advancement of the interests of merchants and traders.  As a Whig leader, he led an alliance with the lower classes of artisans and tradesmen to resist absolute power and to defend religious and political liberty.

What we today identify as Locke's liberalism was the liberalism that Locke learned from Shaftesbury.  The evidence for this is that while prior to 1667, Locke wrote essays defending royal absolutism and rejecting religious toleration, he reversed himself after 1667.

Locke shared Shaftesbury's fear that Charles II was plotting with French King Louis XIV to introduce a French Catholic absolutism to England.  In 1679-1681, they led the Whigs in agitating for the passing in Parliament of an Exclusion Bill that would exclude the brother of Charles--the Duke of York, the future James II--from succeeding to the throne.  The Whigs won three parliamentary elections, and the House of Commons passed an Exclusion Bill in 1680.  But Charles II frustrated their agenda by dissolving Parliament, and beginning in 1681, he refused to call Parliament into session for the rest of his reign.

Charles II set out to suppress his Whig opponents while supporting the Tories.  Most of the Whigs retreated and withdrew into inactivity.  But Shaftesbury led a small group of radical Whigs who were prepared for active revolutionary resistance to the King.  It was during this time that Locke began writing the Two Treatises as a theoretical defense of the radical Whig plan for violent revolution against Charles II.  The crucial doctrine for his argument was that in the state of nature, "every man hath a right to punish the offender, and be executioner of the law of nature," and when a ruler becomes an absolute tyrant, this dissolves the government, restores the state of nature, and thus restores the natural right of all men to defend themselves against those who threaten their lives, liberties, and properties (ST, 7-13).

Shaftesbury was arrested and charged with treason in 1681, but he was acquitted by the grand jury.  By the summer of 1682, Shaftesbury was actively planning a violent uprising.  In November of that year, fearing for his safety, Shaftesbury left England for Holland, where he died in January of 1683.

The plotting for overthrowing the King continued without Shaftesbury.  During this time, Locke was reading and taking notes on books about the history of political conspiracies, including Machiavelli's account of conspiracies in The Prince and the Discourses.  Locke was involved in the Rye House conspiracy, which was a plan to assassinate both Charles II and his brother James.  When the government learned about the Rye House conspiracy from informers, Locke left London in June of 1683, and went into hiding in the west of England.  In August, he left for Holland.  Throughout his time in Holland, he was in fear of being arrested and extradited to England to be tried for treason.  He moved in secret from one house to another in Holland.  An English envoy in Holland collected intelligence on the movements of Locke and the other radical Whig exiles in Holland.

Some of the Rye House conspirators were executed for treason, including Algernon Sydney, who had written his Discourses on Government as a defense of popular revolution for overthrowing tyrannical monarchs.  Sydney's arguments were similar to those in Locke's Two Treatises.

Locke had a studentship in Christ Church, Oxford University.  So he could have chosen to withdraw from political activity into a life of academic study at Oxford.  Instead, he chose to continue his participation in underground radical Whig plotting against the King.  As a consequence of this, he was expelled from his studentship at Oxford in 1684.

On February 6, 1685, Charles II died; and James II took the throne.  The radical Whigs planned a rebellion that would put the Duke of Monmouth, the son of Charles II, on the throne.  In July of 1685, Monmouth's Rebellion was defeated, and Monmouth was executed.

James II promoted a policy of religious toleration that would protect Catholicism in England.  Under the Penal Laws, anyone who did not participate in Anglican services could be fined and imprisoned.  Under the Test Acts, those who were not Anglicans could not serve in the military or in governmental offices.  In the Act of Indulgence of 1672, Charles II had used his prerogative power to suspend these laws.  James II wanted to continue this policy.  In 1687, James issued the Declaration of Indulgence that established a policy of toleration for Protestant Dissenters and for Catholics.  This created a dilemma for the proponents of religious liberty--Dissenters and radical Whigs.  On the one hand, they benefitted from the policy of toleration.  On the other hand, they rejected the King's claim that his royal prerogative included the power to dispense with the laws of Parliament.

Locke began writing his Letter Concerning Toleration in 1685, which resolved this dilemma by arguing that since "the care of each man's salvation belongs only to himself," religious belief is a matter of private conscience that is beyond any political authority (LCT, 13, 26).  Consequently, in demanding toleration, the Dissenters did not have to endorse the illegal power of the King to dispense with the laws, because they could see themselves as exercising their natural rights in rejecting any political authority over religious belief.  When any government denies religious liberty, it exercises force without right, which returns people to a state of nature, in which they may "resist force with force" in armed resistance to such oppression (LCT, 60).

With this kind of reasoning, Locke and other radical Whigs argued that in 1688, England had returned to a state of nature, because of James II's exercise of force without right, and thus the people were free to resume their natural right defend their life, liberty, and property, and to consent to the establishment of a new government.  But the moderate Whigs who joined the Tories in forcing James II to leave England and in crowning William and Mary did not agree with this radical Whig interpretation of the revolution.  When Locke returned to England in 1689, he took the side of the radical Whigs.

My point here in recounting this history is that Locke's philosophical writing was part of his active engagement in radical Whig political activity, including the Whig conspiracies for violent revolution.  So Locke's claim that all human beings have a natural executive power to defend themselves against aggressive attacks, including attacks on their rights from government, is not just a principle of abstract theorizing but a practical strategy of violent resistance to tyranny.  Locke himself chose to become an outlaw; and if he had been captured by Charles II or James II, he would have been beheaded, like Algernon Sidney and other radical Whig theorists. 

Moreover, this history also shows that Locke saw appeals to natural right as ultimately appeals to the force of arms, so that disagreements over right are settled by conspiratorial violence and military conflict.  Contrary to the common belief that the Glorious Revolution was a bloodless revolution, there were many violent clashes in the revolution; and the revolution would have failed if the military forces of James II had defeated the military forces of William III.

In a certain sense, therefore, Locke believed that "might makes right."  We can identify natural rights as those conditions for human life that cannot be denied without eventually provoking violent rebellion.  We might say that human rights are natural rights in so far as they are enforced by the natural human propensity to retaliate and take vengeance against, and feel revulsion towards, great injustices. 

This thought is developed here, here, here, and here.

To be continued . . .

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