The Locke-Box, Part 2

Recently, I discussed the curious fact that a steady stream of books and articles by conservatives argue that the thinking of the American founders was based on the writings of the British philosopher John Locke. I maintained it is as easy as going to a dictionary to demonstrate that the founders “were un-Lockeans, that it was Locke’s thinking specifically they had left behind.”

To break out of the Locke-Box, all that is required is to look up the word “alienable.” It

 . . . 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.

As you know, the founders’ thinking on political liberty was illuminated by the idea of unalienable rights. Virtually everything in the American experiment proceeded from the idea that we possess unalienable rights—and by embracing unalienable rights the founders were rejecting Locke’s doctrine of rights. 

According to Locke, our rights to life and to liberty are our property; in the Declaration and everywhere in their writing and speeches, the founders declared that our rights to life and to liberty are among our unalienable rights. To declare that those rights are unalienable is to declare that they are not property. In the founders’ generation, every educated American and every even somewhat informed American understood that perfectly well.

So, where did the founders and the founders’ generation get the idea of unalienable rights? It is a fascinating story, the result of that rarest of things: a philosophical breakthrough that changed the world, and did so virtually overnight. Francis Hutcheson, in his 1755 treatise A System of Moral Philosophy, presented that breakthrough to the world: “Our rights are either alienable or unalienable . . . our right to our goods and labours is naturally alienable.”

The distinction between alienable rights and unalienable rights is only one element of Hutcheson’s discovery of a profound new way of thinking about humankind. The idea of unalienable rights was a direct consequence of that new way of thinking. That idea and that way of thinking arrived just in time to provide the American founders with the intellectual tools they needed to conduct the American experiment.

The new way of thinking Hutcheson set in motion is known today as common-sense realism. It was the philosophical system that Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton learned at William and Mary, at Princeton, and at the college now called Columbia. In fact, all the young Americans who had attended college in America and who rode off to fight the British had been educated in the thinking of Hutcheson and his followers.

Hutcheson’s influence on the founders was profound. There is no need to try to stuff the founders in a Hutcheson-Box. The fit between the thinking of the founders and the thinking of Hutcheson is perfect. Hutcheson even drew for the founders the direct connection between unalienable rights and their passion for limited government: “Unalienable rights are essential limitations in all governments.”

Hutcheson is here making a philosophical point, not making a claim about any government then existing. He showed that unalienable rights entailed limited government philosophically, though no government then existing recognized unalienable rights. It was left to the founders to create the government that did.

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