In my column dated March 18, 2010, I presented John Locke’s definition of Tyranny and his courageous explanation of what Tyranny implies for a civil or political society. His words were addressed to the People suffering under the English autocracies of Charles II and James II, monarchs both who had entered into their sacred office with strong popular support, but whose administrations had then moved decisively to overturn the rule of law and to oppress the People . Dangerous though his next step would be, John Locke did not flinch from drawing the relevant consequences for the People when they understood, in their own consciences, that a State of Tyranny had been imposed upon them. It is important to understand, when reading Locke’s carefully worded judgment, that he distinguished most clearly between the Dissolution of the Society and the Dissolution of the Government. The only way in which the Society might be dissolved, in his judgment, was through foreign conquest. Governments, however, might be dissolved by the People, whenever such Governments subjected them to Tyranny:
“The Reason why Men enter into Society, is the preservation of their Property; and the end why they chuse and authorize a Legislative, is that there may be Laws made, and Rules set as Guards and Fences to the Properties of all the Members of the Society, to limit the Power, and moderate the Dominion of every Part and Member of the Society. For since it can never be supposed to be the Will of the Society that the Legislative should have a Power to destroy that, which every one designs to secure, by entering into Society, and for which the People submitted themselves to the Legislators of their own making; whenever the Legislators endeavour to take away, and destroy the Property of the People, or to reduce them to Slavery under Arbitrary Power, they put themselves into a State of War with the People, who are thereupon absolved from any further Obedience, and are left to the common Refuge, which God hath provided for all Men, against Force and Violence. Whensoever therefore the Legislative shall transgress this fundamental Rule of Society; and either by Ambition, Fear, Folly or Corruption, endeavour to grasp themselves, or put into the hands of any other an Absolute Power over the Lives, Liberties and Estates of the People; By this breach of Trust they forfeit the Power, the People had put into their hands, for quite contrary ends, and it devolves to the People, who have a Right to resume their original Liberty, and, by the Establishment of a new Legislative (such as they shall think fit) provide for their own Safety and Security, which is the end for which they are in Society.” John Locke, The Second Treatise of Government, Chapter XIX, paragraph 222
“What I have said here, concerning the Legislative, in general, holds true also concerning the supreame Executor, who having a double trust put in him, both to have a part in the Legislative, and the supreme Execution of the Law, acts against both, when he goes about to set up his own Arbitrary Will, as the Law of the Society. He acts also contrary to his Trust, when he either imploys the force, treasure, and Offices of the Society, to corrupt the Representatives, and gain them to his purposes: or openly pre-ingages the Electors, and prescribes to their choice, such, whom he has by Sollicitations, Threats, Promises, or otherwise won to his designs; and imploys them to bring in such, who have promised before-hand, what to Vote, and what to Enact. Thus to regulate Candidates and Electors, and new model the ways of Election, what is it but to cut up the Government by the Roots, and poison the very Fountain of publick Security? For the People having reserved to themselves the Choice of their Representatives, as the Fence to their Properties, could do it for for no other end but that they might always be freely chosen, and so chosen, freely act and advise, as the necessity of the Commonwealth, and the publick Good should, upon examination, and mature debate, be judged to require. ibid., Chapter XIX, paragraph 224
“In both the forementioned Cases, when either the Legislative is changed, or the Legislators act contrary to the end for which they were constituted; those who are guilty are guilty of Rebellion. For if any one by force takes away the establish’d Legislative of any Society, and the Laws by them made pursuant to their trust, he thereby takes away the Umpirage, which every one has consented to, for a peaceable decision of all their Controversies, and a bar to the state of War amongst them. They, who change the Legislative, take away this decisive power, which no Body can have, but by the appointment and consent of the People; and so destroying the Authority, which the People did, and no Body else can set up, and introducing a Power, which the People hath not authoriz’d, they actually introduce a state of War, which is that of Force without Authority.” ibid., Chapter XIX, paragraph 227
John Locke’s seminal writings, as faithfully reproduced above, played an influential role in justifying the Glorious Revolution, the American Revolution, and the French Revolution. In my judgment, John Locke is the greatest social contract political philosopher of all time. His words constitute the best guidance available to all individuals, anywhere, who desire to preserve and to protect their inalienable rights to life and liberty, and their imprescriptible rights to property.