John Locke: Natural Rights to Life, Liberty, and Property | Jim Powell

A number of times throughout history, tyranny has stimulated breakthrough thinking about liberty. This was certainly the case in England with the mid-seventeenth-century era of repression, rebellion, and civil war. There was a tremendous outpouring of political pamphlets and tracts. By far the most influential writings emerged from the pen of scholar John Locke.

He expressed the radical view that government is morally obliged to serve people, namely by protecting life, liberty, and property. He explained the principle of checks and balances to limit government power. He favored representative government and a rule of law. He denounced tyranny. He insisted that when government violates individual rights, people may legitimately rebel.

These views were most fully developed in Locke’s famous Second Treatise Concerning Civil Government, and they were so radical that he never dared sign his name to it. He acknowledged authorship only in his will. Locke’s writings did much to inspire the libertarian ideals of the American Revolution. This, in turn, set an example which inspired people throughout Europe, Latin America, and Asia.

Thomas Jefferson ranked Locke, along with Locke’s compatriot Algernon Sidney, as the most important thinkers on liberty. Locke helped inspire Thomas Paine’s radical ideas about revolution. Locke fired up George Mason. From Locke, James Madison drew his most fundamental principles of liberty and government. Locke’s writings were part of Benjamin Franklin’s self-education, and John Adams believed that both girls and boys should learn about Locke. The French philosopher Voltaire called Locke “the man of the greatest wisdom. What he has not seen clearly, I despair of ever seeing.”

It seems incredible that Locke, of all people, could have influenced individuals around the world. When he set out to develop his ideas, he was an undistinguished Oxford scholar. He had brief experience with a failed diplomatic mission. He was a physician who long lacked traditional credentials and had just one patient. His first major work wasn’t published until he was 57. He was distracted by asthma and other chronic ailments.

There was little in Locke’s appearance to suggest greatness. He was tall and thin. According to biographer Maurice Cranston, he had a “long face, large nose, full lips, and soft, melancholy eyes.” Although he had a love affair which, he said, “robbed me of the use of my reason,” he died a bachelor.

Some notable contemporaries thought highly of Locke. Mathematician and physicist Isaac Newton cherished his company. Locke helped Quaker William Penn restore his good name when he was a political fugitive, as Penn had arranged a pardon for Locke when he had been a political fugitive. Locke was described by the famous English physician Dr. Thomas Sydenham as “a man whom, in the acuteness of his intellect, in the steadiness of his


Originally published at fee.org on August 1, 1996.