John Locke is the one best suited with the honorary title “father of liberalism”. Although we can look backward to anyone from Aristotle to Machiavelli, or look forward to Rousseau, John Locke is properly credited with being the first to clearly express the ideas which form the foundation of classical liberalism.
John Locke, Father of Classical Liberalism
Specifically, Locke is the father of classical liberalism, a type of liberty-focused liberalism that grew out of the Enlightenment and was used to justify England’s Glorious Revolution. Classical liberalism stood against the state-controlled systems of kings and churches which dominated Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. It is the foundation upon which all Western ideologies and western powers are built. Specifically, it is the foundation upon which England’s Glorious Revolution, the American Revolution, and France’s Revolution are based. These three revolutions allowed for the rise of religious liberty, modern human rights, free trade, and modern banking.
Due to the importance of liberalism, John Locke is one of our most significant philosophers. His fame comes from political philosophy, economic philosophy, and epistemology. This can be seen in his Essays on Human Understanding and Education (Locke’s essays on symbolic language are just as fascinating and insightful on his essays on liberalism). Locke’s most famous work is his Second Treaties of Government, although his other works and letters all have important insights to offer.POLITICAL THEORY – John Locke.
TIP: The father of conservatism is a little harder to pinpoint, but in many respects, it is Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes, like Robert Filmer (the subject of Locke’s First Treaties), presents an argument for the absolute authority of kings. Earlier philosophers like Machiavelli (the father of political science) and later philosophers like Montesquieu help round out both sides of the ongoing argument, which can itself be traced back to the Romans, Greeks, and beyond.Thomas Hobbes and John Locke: Two Philosophers Compared.
Locke’s Key Theories
Locke’s major theories and consequently many of the essential theories of liberalism are:
- Work creates private property and value.
- All people have the inalienable rights of life, liberty, health, and property (where Jefferson got “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” from).
- All people are equal and free in a state of nature. A social contract is entered into via consent, whereby some amount of liberty and equality is traded for the benefits of the state.
- No one has the right to sell themselves or their children into slavery.
- No one has the right to commit aggression against a person or people, and people have the right to defend their health, liberty, or property (the non-aggression principle).
- Government powers should be separated (separation of powers).
- No one, including a King, has an absolute right over others that negates consent.
- God does not give rulers absolute power.
- There is no single true religion. Thus, people should have religious freedom.
- Children are born as a blank slate and it is the parent’s job to get them ready to participate as free agents in the state.
- Our language is semantic and symbolic of deeper meaning, this can lead to problems and can lead to greater understanding.
- All these truisms can be proved empirically (not just with pure reason).
Locke, Berkeley, & Empiricism: Crash Course Philosophy #6.
” . . . every man has a property in his own person. This nobody has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his . . . ” – Locke on property and value.
TIP: Another famous classical liberal is the father of classical liberal economics, Adam Smith. Other famous classical liberals are… America’s founding fathers.
FACT: Lifelong bachelor Sir Isaac Newton once accused his good friend John Locke of trying to “embroil him with women.” He later apologized before going on to become Warden of the Royal Mint. Both men were key figures in England’s history.
FACT: Classical liberalism is the original liberal position. From here we get social liberalism (like FDR, which says state intervention is needed) and radical liberalism (like the revolutionaries in France or Libertarians, who tend to favor a more anarchistic form of liberalism). This also is the foundation upon which socialism, a very authoritative type of liberalism, rests. Early forms of each type of liberalism can be seen throughout history, especially from the Greeks like Sparta and Athens forward, but the proper versions of social liberalism and socialism don’t arise until the mid-to-late 1800’s as a response to the rise of industrialization and the “robber barons.” Learn more about the history of liberalism and the types of liberalism and conservatism.