Jonah Bennett

Palladium Magazine editor/entrepreneur/graduate student

Some Considerations on Mr. Locke’s Scheme of deriving Government from an Original Compact

[Editor’s note: The original a) from Google Books was modified to create a readable and OCR error-free copy of this circa 1792 work by George Horne. Please contact me if you notice any errors.]

Original source:


Some Considerations on Mr. Locke’s Scheme of deriving Government from an Original Compact.

Hooker allows, that “to fathers within their private families, nature hath given a supreme power; for which cause,” saith he, “we see throughout the world, even from the foundation thereof, all men have been taken as lords and lawful kings in their own houses.”[1] He also thinks it probable, with Aristotle, that “as the chiefest person in every household was always as it were a king; so when numbers of households joined together in civil societies, kings were the first kind of governors amongst them.” The question is, how these civil governors came by their power over a number of families dispersed, as mankind increased, and independent of one another? Here is supposed to be a necessity for compact to take place, in the appointment of one common head; and the chiefs of the several families are the peers between whom it is imagined to have been made, for their mutual interest and welfare.

As mankind multiplied, they were obliged to separate and disperse; which they did under their natural rulers the heads of families, clans, or tribes. This would fill the earth with little governments; and as there was land enough for them, who needed only to till the ground, and feed their flocks, thus they would continue, till quarrels arose, and one clan subdued others by force, and the larger governments arose by conquest, swallowed up the lesser into themselves, and then contended with and overthrew each other. In the Xth chapter of Genesis, we have an account of the families, clans, or lesser governments with which the earth was overspread, by the descendants of the sons of Noah; and ver. 8, 9, 10, we find the kingdom or larger government of Babel arising by means of Nimrod, a mighty one, i.e. a subdue, a conqueror, a hunter, or persecutor and oppressor. Soon after arose Ashur, the founder of the Assyrian monarchy, which afterwards fell into that of Babylon, and because universal: thence it passed to the Persians, Grecians, and Romans; and so down to the present state of things in this world. And all this without any necessity of supposing an original compact, and without any sign of such compact appearing in history.

Mr. Locke asserts the free consent of every individual necessary to be had in founding governments; but soon after tells us, such consent is “next to impossible to be had.” So that, according to his own account, his hypothesis stands on a supposition “next to impossible” to be realized; indeed, we may venture to say, altogether impossible, for the reasons he himself assigns. B. II. ch. 8.

The original compact being supposed to be made, each individual consents from thenceforth to be determined by the majority of the society. But as the majority may exceed the minority only by a single vote, consequently half the society may be enslaved by the other half, (that is, in fact, by the will of a single person, the casting voter) which seems to be an infringement on liberty, to which men born free and equal might scruple to submit.

Mr. Locke says, “no man can submit himself to the arbitrary power of another.” B. II. ch. II. Then can he not submit himself to any government whatsoever: for in every government the legislature is arbitrary, and is not bound by its own laws, which it can repeal, alter, dispense with, deny the benefit of habeas corpus, keep a man in Newgate, take his life by act of attainder, &c.

His farther reason (why no man can submit himself to the arbitrary power of another) is, that no man can give what he hath not, viz. a power over his own life. How then came any government possessed of a power of life and death? Divine right surely must come in here: what else can give to another that power over my life, which I have not in myself?[2]

He farther asserteth, that absolute subjection to any form of government is worse than anarchy, or a state of nature, “as he is in a much worse condition who is exposed to the arbitrary will of one man, who has the command of 10,000, than he who is exposed to the arbitrary power of 100,000 single men.” But which is best for the whole 100,000, that their general or king should now and then command or do an hard thing by one of them, or that they should all be turned loose to devour each other, a fortiori, with regard to a nation, or the whole world, which, in such a case, would be an aceldama.

He tells us, (B. II. ch. 19) that if a government become arbitrary, it is dissolved; the people are again in a state of nature, and may again proceed to election. 1. Government may pass from one contending party to another, but its dissolution is a whim and a dream. 2. Dissolve it in England and Scotland, and see when the individuals would agree on another form?[3]

It is observable, that among the instances of mal-administration which dissolve government, Mr. Locke reckons that of corrupting the representatives, or their electors. “This,” he says, “is to cut up government by the roots, and poison the very foundation of public security: it is a great breach of trust, and as perfect a declaration of a design to subvert the government as is possibly to be met with. To which if one shall add rewards and punishments visibly employed to the same end, and all the arts of perverted law made use of to take off and destroy all that stand in the way of such a design, and will not comply and consent to destroy the liberties of their country, it will be past doubt what is doing—and cannot but see, that he who has once attempted any such thing, cannot any longer be trusted.” B. II. ch. 19. p. 338. Now had Mr. Locke’s principles been universally received, and had the good people of England acted up to them, in the days of Sir Robert Walpole, the nation had been a scene of confusion from that time to this.[4]

Mr. Locke says farther, that “till mischiefs are grown general, &c. the people who are more disposed to suffer than right themselves by resistance, are not apt to stir.” Ibid. p. 345. “There is a slowness and aversion in people to quit their old constitution—and whatever provocations have made the crown to be taken from some of our princes’ heads, they never carried the people so far as to place it in another line.” p. 340. Here it is curious to see how great men differ. Mr. Hume thinks passive obedience should be preached, without mentioning any case wherein it is to give way to resistance; because the people are far more likely to rebel in the world place, than to omit doing it in the right; the bias of human nature being, in the judgment of that acute observer of it, towards rebellion. See his reflections on the reign of Charles I. at the close of his history of that reign. The same inference, by the way, follows from what Mr. Locke says, p. 340, that when people are oppressed, preach jure divine, and passive obedience, as much as you please, they will rebel. If this be so, we may very safely preach it; it can do no hurt to civil liberty. But surely conscience is some restraint; and if people will rebel as soon as rebellion is proper, though you preach obedience, they are in great danger of doing it before it is proper, if you preach resistance.

In the next page, Mr. Locke is again of opinion, that the people are not disposed to rebellion. “Great mistakes in the ruling part, many wrong and inconvenient laws, and all the slips of human frailty will be borne by the people without mutiny or murmur.” p. 341. Not if they were thoroughly persuaded, that all power was originally in them, and they might change the legislative as often as they pleased, but what wrong and inconvenient laws had Moses made, or of what slips of human frailty had had been guilty, when Datham and Abiram asserted a design to subvert the constitution, and to make himself arbitrary, was so plain, that the people must see it, unless he “put out their eyes!” Numb. Xvi. 13, 14.

To those who object the confusion, civil wars, &c. that must follow from Mr. Locke’s principle, he answers, by comparing a ruler, who violates the constitution, to a robber, a pirate, a wolf, a polyphemus (p. 343); and is very witty on a supposition that Ulysses, as a prudent man, for the sake of peace, preached passive obedience to his companions in the den, &c. But the cases are not parallel, as none of his worthies are invested with any authority of any kind, to which obedience is due. And, by the comparisons, one would really think nothing was more common than for kings to cut or tear the throats of their subjects, and suck the blood, as it ran warm from the jugulars.

He who places all power in the people, says Mr. Locke, makes the best fence against rebellion. P. 341. How so? Why, because the ruler who breaks his trust, is properly the rebel; he does rebellaire, bring back that war, force, or violence, which it was the design of the original compact to drive and to keep away: for rebellion is not against persons, but against the authority lodged in the constitution and the laws. But can authority exist without a person to exist in? or can the laws execute themselves? We have an equal right to take away from the other side the persons of rebels; then may we leave rebellion and authority, in the abstract, to settle the matter by themselves: there will be no bloodshed between them. Prerogative and privilege, considered in the same way, without a crown and a parliament, that is, without any subject to inhere in, may be the two seconds; and that the combatants may have room enough, let them fight in infinite space. If the right of government be not inherent in the persons of governors, there can be no such thing as government upon earth.[5]

To Mr. Locke’s scheme of founding government upon compact among peers in a state of nature, it had been objected, that men never were in such a state. Mr. Locke is so obliging as to favour us with some instances of men in that state. As first, the Floridans, Brasilians, and Cheroquees in America, who it seems have no kings, but chuse leaders as they want them in time of war. (p. 242.) It is probably that they may. But men at the beginning were not placed by their maker in so miserable a state. It is a state, to which, by the loss of revelation, and other knowledge, through the divine judgments upon them, some generations of men have been reduced to run wild, like brutes, in the words. This is not a state of nature, but the most unnatural state in the world, for creatures made in the image of God. And does a polite philosopher, in these enlightened days, send us to study politics under Cherokee tutors!

A second instance is the company that left Sparta, under the conduct of Palantus, whom by a free and equal vote they chose for their leader. The persons here alluded to were an extraordinary breed of bastards, begotten on the women of Sparta by certain young men sent home to cohabit with them promiscuously, from the Spartan army, detained at the siege of Messena, under a vow not to return till the city was taken. When the issue of this promiscuous concubinage came to years of maturity, partly having grace enough to be ashamed of their mothers, and partly afraid of being starved for want of an inheritance from their fathers, they chose Palantus, the pious author of the advice, for their general, seized upon Tarentum, drove out the original inhabitants, settled, grew seditious, and at last banished for ever that same Palantus, the cause of their birth, and the guide of their peregrinations. How many happy circumstances must concur to bring our posterity into this same Spartan state of nature, in order to erect a free and equal government? I say, our posterity; because we ourselves, having the misfortune to be already born of honest parents, must despair of so great a blessing.[6] Two other instances produced by Mr. Locke are the founders of Rome and Venice. The former were a gang of robbers; the latter were the inhabitants of Padua, Aquileia, and other cities on the continent of Italy, driven thence by the Goths in the fifth century; consequently obliged to shift as they could, and chuse governors in their distress, when they were deprived of their natural ones, in the places where they lived before. There is no question but some men have been, and some may again, either bring themselves, or be brought by others, into this state of anarchy; in which case, they must get out of it as well as they can. But all Mr. Locke’s instances are of men in an unnatural state; to which they were reduced by breaking or being forced away from civil government, which was in the world long before any of these instances happened. “From the beginning it was not so.”

Mr. Locke says only (p. 250) it is probable men were naturally free, and by their own consent submitted to the government their father, and of his eldest son after him, finding the easiness and equality of it. Here the fact is allowed, and the compact, it seems, made by the tacit consent of the children. So saith Bishop Hoadley: “If Adam’s monarchy were founded upon, and supported by the tacit consent of his descendants, this amounts to such a compact as I am defending.” See Finishing Stroke, p. 19. Confounding consent of duty with consent of authority. This did for the golden age: but afterwards when governors grew naughty, “men found it necessary to examine more carefully the original and rights of government, (p. 252) and find out ways to restrain, &c.” So that this was only a secondary affair, and the original compact between peers in an independent state of nature is given up; only we must not say the patria potestas was by divine right, but by the tacit consent of the children; which was certainly given, unless crying could be interpreted into a dissent.[7]

Mr. Locke’s great argument against the patriarchal scheme proceeds on a supposition, that its patrons held an universal monarchy in a right line from Adam, and desires to be shewn who that monarchy now is. But this God never intended. Adam was ruler in his own family; but if a colony went off to a distance under one of his sons, he was the ruler there, and so on: which his sufficient to shew there could be no independent state of nature from the beginning. Afterwards, when conquest and usurpation made confusion, the general rule for the preservation of peace and order in the world could only be this, that the possessor had the right, if nobody could shew a better. And people at this day must be guided by the constitution and laws of their own country, obeying the supreme power, where it is placed, for conscience sake.

But after all, there can be no such thing as any permanent authority in any kind of government; if it be true, as Mr. Locke asserts (p. 255) that a man born under government, is as free as one dropped in the woods; because though his father, by compact, had passed over his liberty, he could do it only for himself, not for his children[8], who, it seems, are free, and consequently under no obligation to obey God, when he commands them to be subject to the powers that be, till they have given their own consent, by compact with those powers. The man, who, when he comes of age, should act upon this principle, and plead an authority to transgress the laws because he had never consented to them, would either receive punishment, or be put into confinement as a person out of his wits.

A Note By The Editor

[If a father have promised for his son, that he shall obey the law of God, we are sure that son can never be released from the obligation by any authority of his own. For the moral government of God is as wide as the world; and where the laws of God are known, every man is born subject to them: and he will be judged by those laws at last. Every civil government is erected in aid to this moral government of God; and thus the peace and security of the world is preserved, though the value of government to mankind be sometimes not known till it is lost; as men do not know the blessing of health till they have been sick. Authors argue about government, without remembering that they are under revelation. This has been the occasion of all our disputes: and we have seen from an event universally known, that when the principles which human philosophy has invented are realized, and brought to effect, they are found to have so little religion in them, that it is doubted whether they will consist with the being of a God.

It seems to have been the design of all Mr. Locke’s arguments, not to obtain from history and reason the true original of government, nor to teach us how and why it is to be maintained in the world; but, in a supposed state of nature, the power of the populace, and the obligation of an imaginary compact, to lay a plausible foundation for insurrections and dissolutions. For this purpose, his principles were taken up and circulated. Price and Priestley wrote for them; and all their followers defend them. In the beginning of the present revolution in France, one of their friends, who visited them from England, reported of them in a news-paper, that they were wonderfully enlightened, and talked like men who had read Locke. It is probable they might; though Locke was transmitted to their reading through the writings of Voltaire. If what they have acted, hath been in consequence of what they had read, then is the merit of Mr. Locke’s principles brought to an issue, which is very short, and level to every capacity: “By their fruits ye shall know them.”

If the reader wishes to see natural right, natural liberty, and natural equality, farther exposed, we refer him to an excellent disquisition of Soame Jenyns, Esq; one of the best pieces which the present times have produced.]

[1] The same sentiment is expressed by Mr. Addison with his usual accuracy and elegance. “The obedience of children to their parents is the basis of all government and is set forth as the measure of that obedience which we owe to those whom Providence hath placed over us.” Spect. No. 189.

[2] The author of an Essay on Crimes and Punishments, (one of the first pieces in which the politics now prevailing in France were published to the world) seeing that no government can exist without a power of life and death, supposes, that though one man has no power over his life, the aggregate of society may have it; which is the same as to say, that though one cypher does not make a sum, a multitude of cyphers may.

According to the plain state of this case, Gen. ix. 6. the taking away of man’s life without law, is an act of rebellion against God, who is the giver of life, and made man in his own image. By himself, therefore, power is given to every government to take away the life of man by an act of justice, in virtue of a divine law: for the same authority which ordains the law, doth in so doing ordain power to execute the law, without which the law is nothing; and this we call the power of the sword. This power being original in God, the Apostle, Rom. Xiii. 6. considers the civil magistrate as the minister of God for the execution of the divine law; and that to resist him is to resist the ordinance of God: therefore government is the ordinance of God. The argument is plain, and can never be answered. In the work above mentioned, suicide is considered as a voluntary migration; as when a man by choice leaves his parish, and goes to seek his fortune in another!

[3] Late events have taught us, that when the regular establishment of government is destroyed, factions arise in its stead, who murder and plunder one another.

[4] When the order of the constitution is violated, and bad principles are introduced, the government does not fall to pieces, but the different parts of it maintain themselves as well as they can by mutual encroachments: the commons, by taking something from the crown, and the crown, by substituting pecuniary influence, to supply what it loses of its lawful power. “We may give (says Mr. Hume) to this influence what name we please; we may call it by the invidious name of corruption and dependence: but some degree, and some kind of it, are inseparable from the very nature of the Constitution, and necessary to the preservation of our own mixed government.” I. 67. This seems to be the true account of the matter: and it hath appeared in fact, that when the crown hath thought proper to exert itself, it has carried every question in the house of commons. Mr. Hume was of opinion, that if ever the power should devolve to the commons, and a popular government be erected, we shall be overwhelmed with faction or tyranny, and “such a violent government cannot long subsist, but we shall at last, after infinite convulsions and civil wars, find repose in absolute monarchy, which it would have been happier for us to have established more peaceably from the beginning. Absolute monarchy is therefore the easiest death, the true euthanasia of the British constitution.” I. 78.

[5] This distinction between persons and authority is plainly calculated to produce changes of government by insurrections and rebellions. For if authority be not resident in persons, then may any person seize upon it without offence against any other person. It was actually so applied in the last century. It is the old distinction that raised the rebellion against Charles I. and has been expressed condemned by the laws, which have obliged both clergy, corporations, and militia to “abhor that traitorous position of taking arms by the king’s authority against his person, or against those that are commissioned by him.”

[6] The narrative here referred to is very singular, and worth a farther inquiry. The hero of the tale is also called Phalantbus, and the spurious race are called Partbenui, because they were born of unmarried women. They were engaged in a plot with the Helots for cutting off the inhabitants of Sparta, and taking possession for themselves; but the Helots betrayed them, and the miscarrying of this design occasioned their emigration. It is curious to observe how fornication and sedition here go hand in hand, and how both together furnish Mr. Locke with an example which suits with his opinions on the origin of government.

[7] It was argued, that if government were the ordinance of God, and there could be no authority of government but from the consent of the governed, it would then follow, that the authority of God himself must be founded upon the consent of the people. And the advocates for compact did still persist, and went so far as to assert, that God became the God of the Hebrews in virtue of a contract which the people made with him at Horeb; that is, because the people chose him. Thus a consent of duty is turned into a consent of authority.

[8] This is a contradiction to what Mr. Locke had before asserted, concerning a tacit consent of the children.