History Lessons in Democracy

June 1st, 2010
by George S. Crimmin

[private] v8-6-george crimminDuring my college, even high school years, I was always captivated by philosophy – of course there were the great Greek philosophers, Aristotle, Plato and Socrates, but my favorite was the English philosopher John Locke. John Locke was born on August 29, 1632 – a very long time ago, yet many of his ideas are still relevant today. John Locke believed in the sovereignty of the people. His convictions and writings were crucial to the American Revolution. It was Locke who helped the founding fathers of the revolution turn the myth of popular sovereignty into reality. Before Locke – and the American Revolution he guided (through his writings) – the belief that government rests on the consent of the governed, or that “the people ruled” or that “power belongs to the people” (as the popular 1960’s slogan went) was rubbish, or utter nonsense. The people weren’t the rulers; the rulers were the rulers, especially in monarchies and dictatorships. It wasn’t until the founding fathers of the American independence movement established a government that granted the people powers, in some cases even higher than those granted the rulers, that things began to change and true popular sovereignty was established. And their inspiration most scholars agree came from Locke’s book, the Second Treatise on Civil Government, which affirmed that there are two kinds of power that the people possess, Legislative Power and Constitutive Power. Of the two, Constitutive Power is more important Locke said that Constitutive Power is the right of the people to establish, alter or abolish government, as well as spell out to the government’s elected representatives certain God given rights the people possess that cannot be tampered with, ever! Among the rights listed were life, liberty and owning property. Thomas Jefferson must have been a Locke disciple. Locke said this Constitutive power based as it is on protecting rights we are all born with, is above legislative power, which can be temporary. After all, through elections, legislatures come and go, and through repeal, so do the laws that they pass. But constitutive power doesn’t change unless the government itself is changed. I would wager that the fathers of the American Revolution must’ve thought, this is awesome stuff! They were able to combine Locke’s tenets with their own experience in self-government. They created a system that checked the “rulers” in two ways. First, their system insured frequent elections, so if the rulers pursued policies unpopular with the ruled (the people), they could be voted out of office quickly. And second, their system included a constitution and later a Bill of Rights that enshrined certain constitutive powers. The Bill of Rights guaranteed certain constitutive powers or rights in stone. For the common man this is his most effective weapon against abuse of power by the rulers. Among the powers granted are the freedoms of speech, to assemble, and be safe in your homes, to cite some examples. And, if these rights are violated, the people have the right, and the power to abolish that government altogether. My reaction to this was a resounding, yes! The door that historically had been barred to establishing a government truly based on popular sovereignty was finally, pardon the expression, un-Locked!

The success of the American Revolution set in motion a chain of events that swept through the Americas – paving the way for other countries to sever the chains of colonialism – including the original five Central American Republics of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. John Locke was centuries ahead of his time. He demonstrated incredible courage, considering the period in which he lived. We are told that courage is a result of reasoning; a brave mind is always impregnable. [/private]

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