Andrew T. Post, gun owner and 2nd Amendment supporter
I’m going to answer this question literally.
See this dude?
His name’s John Locke.
Born 1632, died 1704. English physician and political theorist. One of the most prominent thinkers of the Enlightenment. Considered “the founder of liberalism.”
America’s Founding Fathers, people like Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, cribbed heavily from Locke’s work when they were building the moral and philosophical basis for the United States of America and writing the Declaration of Independence and The Federalist Papers and the Constitution and whatnot. And so did the 1st United States Congress when they were ratifying the Bill of Rights.
Locke wrote extensively on the topics of natural rights, the balance of power, and the origin and purpose of government. His liberal ideas were used as building blocks by America’s Founding Fathers to craft their new nation—the freest, purest, and most just republic the world had ever seen.
How did Locke come into these revolutionary ideas?
He built upon the work of philosophers who had gone before him, of course. Hobbes and Machiavelli and the like.
But in addition, some interesting things happened during Locke’s lifetime.
One of these was the English Civil War (1642–1651).
This was a war between the king of England (Charles I) and his royalist supporters (“Cavaliers”) vs. the English Parliament and their supporters (“Roundheads”). Charlie wasn’t a very good king, you see, and Parliament became unhappy with his repeated abuses of his royal powers.
Back in those days, Parliament didn’t really have the powers it has now. It was basically a cabinet the king convened at his sole discretion. But it did have the power to levy taxes, which came in handy for a total spendthrift like Charles I.
But anyway, Charlie got to feeling a bit too free and easy for Parliament’s liking. He went and married a French (and Roman Catholic) princess named Henrietta Maria in 1625. Then Charlie decided to send an expeditionary force to France to relieve the French Huguenots besieged at La Rochelle in 1627. Parliament began to breathe easy—despite marrying a Catholic, the king was showing support for the Protestant Huguenots. Then Charlie went and ruined everything by giving command of the expedition to the hugely unpopular Duke of Buckingham. The expedition was a complete shambles. Parliament opened impeachment procedures against Buckingham. King Charles responded by dissolving Parliament—which was the king’s prerogative at the time.
But now Charlie was in a bind—Parliament was the only way he could raise taxes to support his extravagant lifestyle. So he went ahead and convened a new Parliament. This new bunch (which included Oliver Cromwell) drew up a Petition of Right, which was basically a list of rights the king was forbidden from infringing upon.
Sound familiar, my fellow Americans?
Parliament submitted the Petition of Right for Chuckie’s approval. Chuckie approved it, but only so Parliament would give him his royal subsidy. Then he dissolved Parliament.
Chaz avoided calling a Parliament for the next eleven years. He practically bent over backward to make sure he didn’t have to reconvene it, in fact. He went so far as to make peace with France and Spain so he wouldn’t have an expensive war on his hands. He also resorted to some fairly tricky means to raise money for himself. He started fining people who failed to show up at his coronation and receive a knighthood. “Ship money” was a tax traditionally levied against English citizens in coastal districts, and which funded the Royal Navy’s anti-piracy efforts. Chuck started charging inland English counties for anti-piracy and anti-privateering measures. Naturally, this illegal and arbitrary tax made a lot of people angry, and some of them refused to pay it.
Once again, my fellow Americans—doesn’t this sound familiar?
There was also some religious crap that went down, as usual, but neither you nor I care about that.
For these and various other reasons, those eleven Parliament-less years were called “the personal rule of Charles I” or more bluntly, the “Eleven Years’ Tyranny.”
An emergency in Scotland caused Charles to reconvene Parliament in 1640. A majority of this new body decided to use Charles I’s desperate need for money against him. They pressured him to redress Parliament’s grievances against him and to abandon the war in Scotland. Charles, outraged, again dissolved Parliament. It had lasted only a few weeks. It came to be known as “the Short Parliament.”
Without Parliament’s approval, Charles I attacked Scotland. He suffered an embarrassing defeat. The Scots turned right around and invaded England, eventually occupying almost the entire northern region. Charles was soon forced to pay the Scots £850 a day to keep them from advancing further.
Well, this put ol’ Chuckie back in desperate financial straits, so he had no choice but to reconvene Parliament. As you may imagine, this new Parliament—the Long Parliament, as it came to be known—was even more hostile to him than the Short Parliament had been. And this time, they really had him over a barrel. They forced the king to agree to all kinds of demands. A raft of new laws was passed. Henceforth, Parliament would convene at least once every three years—whether or not the king had summoned them. The king could no longer impose taxes without Parliament’s express consent. Parliament could now review and censure the conduct of the king’s ministers. Oh, and here’s the kicker: the king could no longer dissolve Parliament without its consent, even after the three years were up.
My fellow Americans, does this sound familiar yet?
(I’ll give you a hint: the phrase “checks and balances” should be running through your head right about now.)
Anyway, tensions between Charles I and Parliament eventually reached their breaking point. Charles resented all the concessions he’d been forced to make to Parliament, and the Long Parliament suspected Charles of wanting to shut Parliament down and rule by military force. (They were also worried that he wanted to reintroduce Catholicism—okay, more like episcopalian Anglicanism, but close enough—to England.)
So the English Civil War broke out.
The outcome was pretty interesting. The Parliamentarians won. King Charles was put on trial and executed and his son Charles II exiled. England ceased to be a monarchy and became the Commonwealth of England, and then the Protectorate (ruled over by Cromwell as “Lord Protector”—essentially a military dictator). Then, finally, the monarchy was restored in 1660 when Charles II returned from exile. But it was restored only with Parliament’s consent. Constitutionally, a new day had dawned for England. Monarchs could only rule if Parliament gave ’em the green light. Britain was now on course to become the constitutional monarchy it is today.
The English Civil War, its causes, and its outcome were all extremely interesting to John Locke, that gaunt and mournful-looking fellow whose image adorns the top of this increasingly long-winded Quora answer.
Locke’s most influential work, perhaps, was his First and Second Treatise of Civil Government. The treatises were written in 1689, in defense of the Glorious Revolution the year prior, during which Mary II and her Dutch husband William of Orange deposed Mary’s father King James II and VII of England, Scotland, and Ireland (that’s, uh, just one guy, by the way—yeah, I know it’s confusing). William and Mary then turned right around and accepted Parliament’s invitation to become joint sovereigns of England and gave their royal assent to the English Bill of Rights, which finally established the authority of Parliament over the Crown.
(If you’ve ever wondered why Queen Elizabeth II doesn’t actually rule the United Kingdom, and Parliament and the prime minister are the ones who make all the important decisions, the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution are the reasons.)
Contained within the English Bill of Rights were a couple of things that Americans might find hauntingly familiar—the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, the banning of taxation without Parliament’s assent (taxation without representation, in other words), and the right of Protestants to keep and bear arms for their defense.
You’re beginning to see where I’m going with this, aren’t you?
In his defense of the Glorious Revolution, John Locke philosophized that men and women, back in the savage days, had the anarchistic freedom to pursue their own interests, which resulted in violent and brutal warfare. To put a stop to this chaos and protect people’s inalienable rights, governments were established to keep the peace. This peace was maintained by laws. This principle is something Locke referred to as the “social compact”—governments are established by mutual agreement of individuals for the purposes of protection and the security of their individual liberty.
The so-called first principle of the social compact is this: since governments are instituted by the people, governments necessarily derive their power from the consent of the governed. Since the government’s purpose is to protect people’s inalienable rights, a government has no power beyond what’s necessary to protect those rights. A just government is, therefore, a limited government.
Locke argued that the definition of liberty is freedom from restraint or violence by other people, and this cannot be accomplished without laws. Anarchy repulsed him. But tyranny repulsed him even more. A just government, in Locke’s view, was one with checks and balances—where the legislative branch of government had the power to check the executive, and the people were armed and ready to defend themselves against tyranny from either the legislative or executive branches. Or both.
I’m currently reading a book called The Philosopher’s Handbook (edited by Stanley Rosen). In his introduction to Part One (Social and Political Philosophy), Paul Rahe wrote something about Locke that I found rather interesting. (Emphasis mine.)
Locke was perfectly prepared to acknowledge the horrors of anarchy, but he doubted very much that they so exceeded those of tyranny that human beings could be persuaded to give up the right to organized self-defense. A well-ordered government would include a monarchical executive armed with a prerogative enabling him to execute the laws, defend the realm, and respond to emergencies; it would include a representative assembly empowered to lay taxes, make laws, and examine the conduct of the executive's ministers. But it would rest ultimately on an enlightened citizenry prepared, in the face of executive and legislative abuse, to take up arms in defense of the right to life, liberty, and property.
MY FELLOW AMERICANS, DOES THIS SOUND FAMILIAR YET?
Like I said, America’s Founding Fathers stole a hell of a lot of Locke’s ideas. They used Locke’s principles of the social compact, consent of the governed, and the right to keep and bear arms to form a near-perfect union—to shape (and philosophically defend) the fledgling United States of America. The Declaration of Independence says “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” It also says that “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”
And the Second Amendment, which is part of the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution), says “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
That’s not something the 1st United States Congress pulled out of their asses. It comes straight from Locke.
And at long last, ladies and gentlemen—that is why America “allows the general public to keep guns.” Because the right to keep and bear arms was seen as being necessary to the security of the free state envisioned by John Locke, and early American statesmen, heavily influenced by Locke’s writings and philosophy, saw fit to enshrine the inalienable right to keep and bear arms in the Bill of Rights.