Locke and Jefferson on the Dissolution of Political Society

July 2007

In The Second Treatise of Government, John Locke enumerates circumstances under which a ruler violates the trust of his people. Under those circumstances, it is the responsibility of the people to judge whether their trust has been violated, and, if they judge it has been, it is the people’s right to dissolve and reform the government. Unable to convince the British people that the “repeated injuries and usurpations” of King George III merit a drastic upheaval, Thomas Jefferson implies in The Declaration of Independence that it was necessary to circumvent the dissolution of the government of George III by instead dissolving the underlying bonds of political society, bifurcating the British commonwealth into two separate political societies: the people of the United States of America; and the loyalists and people of Britain. In order to make The Declaration of Independence more consistent with The Second Treatise, Jefferson must explain how it could be “necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another” while Locke holds that “[the] world is too well instructed in, and too forward to allow of, this way of dissolving of governments.” Alternatively, Jefferson could argue, as I will, that as of the drafting of The Declaration, political society had already been dissolved by the actions of George III and the British people.

Locke begins chapter XIX of the Second Treatise, “Of the Dissolution of Government,” by drawing a distinction between the dissolution of government and the dissolution of society. Men bring themselves out of a pre-political “state of nature” and into a political society by a unanimous agreement “to incorporate, and act as one body.” Locke writes that political societies are most commonly dissolved by a foreign force invading in conquest. Although the dissolution of society is a sufficient condition for the dissolution of the government sustained by that society, it is neither a necessary condition, nor is it a particularly favorable one. The dissolution of society is unfavorable because it “[separates] the subdued or scattered multitude from the protection of, and dependence on, that society which ought to have preserved them from violence. The world is too well instructed in, and to forward to allow of, this way of dissolving of governments, to need any more to be said of it.” Jefferson seeks to justify the dissolution—on behalf of the colonists—of the “political bands” between the colonists and their “British brethren.” I offer an argument consistent with Lockean political philosophy that shows that George III and the “British brethren” had already dissolved political society with the colonists as of the writing of The Declaration of Independence. This relieves Jefferson of the task of defending a declaration of political independence, making The Declaration more consistent with The Second Treatise.

According to Locke’s characterization of the state of nature and Jefferson’s account of George III’s transgressions against the colonists, the colonists have been forced into a de facto state of nature, and therefore out of political society by the actions of George III. Locke gives three criteria that characterize the state of nature. The first criterion is that the state of nature lacks “an established, settled, known law, received and allowed by common consent to be the standard of right and wrong, and the common measure to decide all controversies between them.” According to Jefferson, George III has refused to assent to laws, to allow his governors to pass laws, or to facilitate meeting of the legislative powers. The second criterion characterizing the sate of nature is that in the state of nature there is no “known and indifferent judge, with authority to determine all differences according to the established law.” George III “has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.” The third criterion characterizing the sate of nature is that there is often no “power to back and support the sentence [to be carried out against those who have broken the laws] when right, and to give [the sentence its] due execution.” George III has “protected [British soldiers], by a mock Trial, from Punishment for any murders” committed against colonists. These injuries satisfy the three criteria for the state of nature given by Locke; thus, George III has made it so that the state in which the colonists live is equivalent to the state of nature. The state of nature is a pre-politcal state, so for all intents and purposes political society can be considered dissolved by the actions of George III.

It remains to be shown that the actions of the British people also contributed to the dissolution of political society. On the ends for which a political society is created, Locke writes,

The only way, whereby [one enters into political society,] is by agreeing with other men to join and unite into a community, for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living one amongst another, in a secure enjoyment of their properties…

Locke explains that people incorporate into political societies on terms of peaceful cooperation. Locke goes on to introduce government as an effective means of ensuring that these terms are observed by society. According to Locke, when a ruler fails to ensure that these terms of peaceful cooperation are observed, either by ignoring, altering, or impeding the enforcement of laws, the government must be reformed. In order to be reformed, the government must first be dissolved. It follows that if a political society—in the absence of an effective government—is not observing the terms of peaceful cooperation for which the society was formed, political society itself should be reformed. As with the reformation of government, before political society can be reformed it must first be dissolved. A political society, in absence of an effective government, that is not operating under terms of peaceful cooperation, is exactly how Jefferson describes the British people:

We have warned [our British brethren] from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondences. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

The British people have violated the terms of political society by treating the colonists as a politically separate population and by ignoring the colonists’ cries for help. By violating these terms in absence of a government willing or able to ensure them, the British people have effectively “[dissolved] the political bands which have connected them with” the colonists.

Although The Declaration of Independence was heavily influenced by The Second Treatise of Government, it seems that Locke and Jefferson diverge on the matter of the dissolution of society; Locke says that society should not be dissolved as a means of reforming government, whereas Jefferson writes that it was necessary to dissolve political society with the British to gain independence. To remedy this apparent contradiction and make the documents more consistent, I have argued that as of the writing of The Declaration, political society between the colonists and the British people had already been dissolved by the actions of George III and the British people.