A Comparison of John Locke’s and Edmund Burke’s influence in the creation of America

  It is a common misunderstanding that everybody in colonial America was a die hard revolutionary.  Our current ideals and our notion of the enlightenment have gotten in the way of a true assessment of what the real mindset was during the late 18th century.  Just like today it was a full of division and everybody had their own perspective on the issue.  Since the Enlightenment there were always equally strong powers of thought at odds with each other.  By the time of the American Revolution not everybody on American soil was against the crown and not everybody in Britain was a royalist.  Two thinkers (though they were not in the same periods) during this time, who were not necessarily polar opposites, but certain contenders were John Locke and Edmund Burke.  They would not have hated each other, but they did differ greatly in ideas and solutions.  What made them different?  Who was more influential?  What long terms affects did they have?  John Locke was a rights of man advocate, a devoted enlightenment thinker and a huge influence on modern liberalism and libertarians.  Edmund Burke was a conservative whig and an enemy of the French Revolution.  They both shared various thoughts but arrived at severely different conclusions.  The question: What were these men in relation to their times, the American Revolution and how are we affected by them today?
            John Locke was born August 29, 1632 and began attending Christ Church College in Oxford in 1652.  During this time Cromwell was Chancellor; this was a time of great tension and political thoughts piercing every young man’s mind.  While at Oxford Locke became more intrigued with political questions.  He attacked the subjects like the social constitution, separation of church and state and religious toleration; this of course was a huge topic post reformation.  Locke would later be accidentally pulled into the political world by accident through a friendship with Lord Ashley.  By 1672 he obtained the title of “secretary of presentations” all of this coming down to a perfect storm of powers, ideology and ambitions.  Edmund Burke came much later in history and may be described as more intellectually reserved.  Burke was born January 12, 1729 which would make him just in time to be an adult for the revolutionary war.  He received his education at Trinity College, Dublin and then to Middle Temple, London to study for the Bar.  But he didn’t see a career in law as all that attractive so he found himself in Parliament.  By this time he already wrote some of his popular pieces such as A Vindication of Natural Society and An Abridgement of English History.  He became well known for his many speeches in Parliament which he would later publish.  And so these two men would prove themselves and backgrounds to their contemporaries, governments, Kings, and future readers to decide who it was that argued or pandered better to our personal interests.  John Locke as the enlightened scientist of human nature or Edmund Burke as the level headed historian and political theorist.  The comparison will only tell.
            John Locke lived for the bulk of the 17th century where in he lived to see many failed attempts at colonization in the Americas.  So he was given a lot material to argue against and to form his own ideas.  He also came into a world where the enlightenment was winning the hearts and minds of common folk everywhere.  Usually, when we think of enlightenment thinkers we go straight to Rousseau or Voltaire, but what often goes unnoticed is that these men venerated Locke.  They went as far to say that Locke was the “greatest of all philosophers since Plato”.  Though we cannot be sure of his influence, because correlation does not imply causality, it is reasonable to believe that Locke paved the way for his foreign successors.  Then again it is said by Howard R. Penniman in his introduction to some of Locke’s writings that “His name would have been relegated to the footnotes of English history books if his fame had depended merely upon his varied activities in politics and science” (Penniman 5).  Who were his opponents?  It is easily imagined those who were in positions of power, found Locke detestable.  Cardinal Newman in his presentation On the Idea of a University attacked Locke.  Newman proposed a more classical design for the education system while Locke was a believer in modern schools.  But what was His relation towards America?  Interestingly, he was not hugely involved with American affairs.  There are only two businesses that may be pointed out.  First, he was an investor in the slave trade with the Royal African Company; this is a fact that has made his present day followers uneasy.  Second, he was a contributor in drafting up Carolina’s Constitution which puts another black mark on his resume, because he gave absolute power to slave owners over their slaves.  Locke has been accused of hypocrisy, but one must consider the conditions.  Slavery was the game of the day and his theories on toleration were not developed for everyone, but for natural citizens being white males.  He would not have been embarrassed by this contradiction, because he was not arguing the same conditions that modern day thinkers do.  Locke minded the enslavement of English citizens, but he had no problem with enslaving anybody else.
            Burke, of course, was just in time for the American Revolution.  The world that he grew up in was a magnificent one.  England had been dominating the surrounding inhabitants whether it was the Indians or the French.  The prosperity was great and the influence was lasting, but this later became a criticism that the royalists would have against the revolutionaries.  Burke during this time refined his ideas in England and as mentioned before, got a reputation as a clear and rational thinker.  The prosperous age he lived in could be credited as what got him thinking in different terms from Locke.  Burke did not posture that he knew the metaphysics of man, nor did he claim that they had any rights.  Rather he would say the opposite that man is not born with any inherent rights.  He was not met with much opposition other than difficulties with King George III.  It would be him and William Pitt that would support the repeal of the Stamp Act that greatly ruffled the feathers of the American colonists.
            Mere definition can help tell of the differences between Locke’s and Burke’s life experiences.  Locke was an ideologue, hence we get the term “Lockian”.  Burke was a simple statesman philosopher.  The difference in influence is clear: Locke had a much easier time.  All that Locke had to do was feed a problem through the enlightenment equation and that would provide him a solution.  He gained popularity because he agreed with the tide of the times.  He says in A Letter Concerning Toleration, “The commonwealth seems to me to be a society of men constituted only for the procuring, preserving, and advancing their own civil interests.  Civil interests I call life, liberty, health, and indolency of body . . .” (Locke 25).  These things became very important to the proletariat, very likely on the inspiration of Locke.  Burke had a tougher audience.  Just before the American Revolution there was plenty of pride to be English and a member of the British Empire.  Some of this hung on during the war creating a divide of royalists, rebels and neutrals.  Burke being well bred and quite wealthy wouldn’t want to wage too harshly against the governing officials.  In his speech titled Conciliation with the Colonies he is constantly referring to how we ought to govern the colonies.  He says, “In this state of things, I make no difficulty in affirming that the proposal ought to originate from us” (Burke 10).  Soon after he gives two leading questions saying, “First, whether you ought to concede; secondly, what your concession ought to be” (Burke 10). All this is being said to Parliament, and not to American rebels.  But the biggest proof for Burke’s non-ideologue nature is in this quote: “We must govern America according to that nature and to those circumstances, and not according to our own imaginations, nor according to abstract ideas of right – by no means according to mere general theories of government” (Burke 11).  Burke is very Pauline in thought and in tone here imploring the decision makers to be rational in the specific circumstance.  Sadly, his influence was not significant enough when the British government went against his warnings that “the use of force alone is but temporary” and “a nation is not governed which is perpetually to be conquered” (Burke 23).  Burke’s overall desire was to make Britain a “true friend” of America.  F. P. Lock points this out in his biography of Edmund Burke saying “This is what Burke meant by being a ‘true friend’ of America.  ‘Misunderstandings and heats’ had arisen, in his view, because on neither side of the Atlantic had sufficient heed been paid to the opinions of ‘temperate men’” (Lock 350).  Burke knew the difficulty of his position which is why he did not want to be identified as part of the Rockingham Party; they were the temperate men.  F. P. Lock points out that “Burkes querulousness was aggravated by anxiety about his own position . . . . for he wanted, if possible, to maintain his independence” (Lock 369)
            Locke’s mindset was much more adopted by the rebels than any other.  The inherent rights of man were bouncing around the minds of all fighters who felt suppressed as.  In The Second Treatise on Civil Government he explicitly suggests at the start that rulers do have a right to their citizens.  He says, “Adam had not, either by natural right of fatherhood or by positive donation from God, any such authority over his children, nor dominion over the world, as is pretended” (Locke 75).  This suggestion gives a metaphysical argument for rebellion and revolution; Locke attempts to put to rest the concept of Divine right of Kings.  Even though the idea of a monarchy was wholly repugnant to the Americans, but their decision to have a presidency was definitely based on the difficulty to have checks and balances on kings.  John Locke only heightened the concern by pointing out how easily it would be for a king to think he had a God given position.  Locke was clearly more referenced in the continental congresses.  Some parts of Locke were directly copied into the Declaration of Independence, using the exact phraseology of the Second Treatise (Penniman 9).  Thomas Jefferson was an avid reader of Locke.  Jefferson used what was originally termed as certain unalienable rights invented by Locke; these were Life, Liberty and Property which Jefferson changed to the pursuit of happiness.  In all reality, America was built on Locke’s principles.  Burke, for all of his supplications to the Parliament, could not break through to the American mind set and he was there in the thick of it.  He suggested all kinds of ways for the British to get along with the colonists, but it went against the Scots-Irish mentality to fight to get your way.
            Over the years America has been shaped into perhaps a mixture of both men and their approach.  In popular media we see an attempt to introduce Burke’s method of governing.  It is supposed to be calm, cool and collected.  Force is only to be considered as a last ditch effort and should not be considered permanent.  We are always promoting civility and it was a serious problem for us when Joe Wilson shouted “you lie” at President Obama.  He had to apologize, but in comparison to other government’ congresses they would see this as business as usual.  Observe a session of Parliament and you can see not only the wit but the ruthless accusations towards a person’s intellect.  Burke wanted also wanted to do away with theories of government especially for the crucial questions.  Today we might call it “working together” or “bi-partisanship”.  Burke may have inspired the public face of America, but to what avail?  The populus at every turn will provide a life or death argument on how to govern a nation.  Sects develop in the citizenry.  Some preach violence and others violently preach non-violence.  Why are these sects today?  Everyone has interpreted Lockian philosophy differently.  What one man who grew up in California considers to be “inalienable rights” will be a farce to whatever a South Carolinian thinks “inalienable rights” are.  It has become so confused and muddled from debate over the past centuries that former enemies have eventually found common ground.  As mentioned before, Locke is the father of Liberalism and Libertarianism; this manifests itself when they both agree that Marijuana should be legalized.  Suddenly, Ron Paul does not seem like such a bad candidate for Liberals.  But the big questions are left unanswered.  Is health care a right?  Is education a right?  Are jobs a right?  What would John Locke say to this?  Edmund Burke would not be the person to ask since he pleads ignorance when he says, “The rights of men are in a sort of middle, incapable of definition . . .” (gmu.edu).  Also, he does make suppositions in other works as to whether or not these rights are inherent and makes a resounding “no”.  Burke is very unappealing for any modern American.  Locke might have pandered to these desires, though we cannot know what he would have said.
            Overall, John Locke with all of his enlightened sensibilities shall be crowned most influential.  Even for Burke’s valuable mind and ideas was too uninspiring to lead a nation’s spirit.  Burke was concerned with the status quo.  Locke had posthumously gathered the minds of white land owning men all over the colonies and sparked an empire’s government and its history.  America was born out of rebellion and Locke gave a distant nod of approval.
1. Locke, John.  The Second Treatise on Civil Government. Roslyn, New York: Walter J. Black Inc. 1947
2. Penniman, Howard. “On Politics and Education”: Introduction. 1-20. Roslyn, New York: Walter J. Black Inc. 1947
3. Burke, Edmund. Conciliation with America. New York: The Macmillan Company. 1914
4. Newsom, Sidney. “Conciliation with America”: Introduction and Notes. ix- xxxviii. New York: The Macmillan Company. 1914
5. Harris, Ian. Edmund Burke. Stanford: Stanford University of Philosophy, 2010. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/burke/. Also available in print form.
6. Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France. Fairfax, Virginia: George Mason University, 2013. http://chnm.gmu.edu/revolution/d/563/.
7. Lock, Francis. Edmund Burke. New York: Oxford University Press. 1998
8. Uzgalis, William.  John Locke. Stanford: Stanford University of Philosophy, 2012. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/locke/. Also available in print form.