Un-Lockeing the American Idea

In a very thoughtful recent piece at American Greatness, Adam Ellwanger argues that “Conservatism Is Over,” so it is time for the Right to adopt a new vocabulary. His subject is an important one. It is both true and important that the Left distorts the meaning of political words to their political advantage. 

Leftists have been able to get away with this because they can count on the complicity of the so-called news media. Leftists who promote shockingly illiberal policies are called “liberals,” and states notable for their patriotism are called “red states” as if they, and not the so-called blue states, are Marxist hotbeds.

But what if Americans who believe they are defending the founders have also contributed to the confusion in America’s political vocabulary? If conservatives have been contributing to the confusion, clearing up those confusions may turn out to be essential to the success of any project involving a new vocabulary for a new Right. Otherwise, there is the risk of adding to the confusion. 

In the preface to my book Common Sense Nation, I wrote: 

Americans on all sides of the debate agree that something has gone wrong in American politics. Many Americans believe that we have lost our way because we no longer guide ourselves by the ideas of the Founders. But guiding ourselves by the Founders seems to be easier said than done. Could it be that part of our difficulty is that we no longer use, or even really understand, the language the Founders used or why they used that language?

It is a remarkable fact that conservative thinkers and conservative journalists commonly use the vocabulary of the founders in ways that would have baffled them. Here’s one example, from Ellwanger’s column:

Civil rights are rights created and bestowed upon us by the state, and as such, are quite ‘alienable.’

Of course, it is true that what the state giveth, the state can take away. But that is not what “alienable” means.

This usage of “alienable” is no doubt familiar. We encounter it frequently. Take any book by a conservative from your shelves and you will almost certainly find the word used in just this way. But this is not how the founders understood the word. In fact, “alienable” is a word with an unusually precise definition, one that is unchanged from the founders’ day until our own. Here is how it is defined in my dictionary: “adj. Law. Capable of being transferred to the ownership of another” (emphasis mine). That is the complete definition in my dictionary. 

“Alienable,” in other words, is a term used in reference to our right to the property that belongs to us, not our abstract “right to property” but to actual property. Our right to our property is an alienable right because we can transfer it. It is because our right to our property is alienable that we can sell, exchange, and bequeath it. If I sell or give you my car, I have transferred the ownership of the car to you. You then become the rightful owner of that car, and, because your right to the car is also alienable, you may sell or give it to another. 

The founders would be baffled by the bizarre claim that civil rights are created and bestowed upon us by the state, and as such, can be transferred to the ownership of another. There was not then and there is not today a market where we can sell our civil rights or buy the civil rights of someone else. What would that even mean?

And yet the definition of “alienable” is not hidden. It is right there in the dictionary. Still, even very thoughtful and learned people make this mistake all the time.

This is an astonishing situation. How could it have come about? 

To make a long story short, conservative thinkers have sacrificed the actual thinking of the founders—and the founders’ vocabulary—to a narrative about the founders’ thinking. Evidence abounds. Open nearly any book by a conservative about the founders and you will almost certainly read that the Declaration of Independence is an expression of John Locke’s political philosophy. 

The founders would be as baffled by that claim as they would be by the claim that civil rights can be transferred from the ownership of one person to the ownership of another. The founders used the term “unalienable” constantly, and every time they did, they were declaring they were not Lockeans; in fact, they were proclaiming they were un-Lockeans, that it was Locke specifically they had left behind. 

As unbelievable as that may seem, it is simple to demonstrate. Those who spin the narrative that the founders were Lockeans make much of the fact that the Declaration borrowed “life and liberty” from Locke—but in fact, Jefferson deftly used “life and liberty” to declare that the founders were un-Lockeans. Putting Locke’s “life and liberty” list and the Declaration’s “life and liberty” list side-by-side will make this clear:

“Man . . . hath by nature a power . . . to preserve his property—that is, his life, liberty and estate.” 

“Men . . . are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, . . . among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Locke declared that life and liberty are property. The Declaration declared that life and liberty are among our unalienable rights. And, as we have seen, to declare that those rights are unalienable is to declare that they are not property, making it perfectly clear that the founders were declaring they had left Locke’s thinking behind. 

I like to think of it this way: the founders were declaring to the world they had broken out of the Locke-box. In our time, there is a steady stream of books and articles by conservatives trying to stuff them back in.

“Unalienable” occupies a commanding position in the vocabulary of the founders; it is missing from Locke’s vocabulary. There is no mystery; the Declaration of Independence is not an expression of John Locke’s political philosophy. As great as Locke’s enormous contribution to political philosophy was, the political philosophy of the founders encompassed Locke’s thinking and then surpassed it, taking political philosophy to a whole new level.

How the founders broke out of the Locke-box and how their breakout has been forgotten is the fascinating tale I tell in Common Sense Nation. In the preface, I wrote: “This book is dedicated to the proposition that we need to understand the language of the Founders if we want to understand the ideas of the Founders.” My suggestion here is that we need to rediscover the vocabulary of the founders if we are to make a success of a new vocabulary for a new Right. It might turn out that the founders’ vocabulary properly understood will provide much of what we need now.

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