Classical liberalism is a political ideology that began with the writings of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. This form of liberalism is considered to be the first ideology of the west, as well as that of the Enlightenment. It shakes off the fatalism and disinterest in the secular world characteristic of medieval Christianity.

Of paramount importance to this doctrine is the concept of individual liberty. Classical liberalism completely redefined the role that government should take. Before its advent, the consensus was that kings rule because of divine right. Essentially, it was thought that they had been appointed by God. This is known as an organic view of the state. Each individual is an organ: not important except insofar as they contribute to the whole. A defining factor of liberalism is its individualistic philosophy.

Under classical liberalism, especially that of John Locke, government is seen as existing in a social contract with its citizens. This radical idea implies that each group is living up to a bargain and doing so for its own benefit.

Thomas Hobbes, in his book “Leviathan”, argued for obedience of the monarch, as did Locke. It was not his conclusions that alarmed the aristocracy but rather Hobbes’ reasoning for them. The focus on reason in both Hobbes’ and Locke’s arguments clearly emphasizes how the Enlightenment focus on logic had found its way into political thought.

The reason Hobbes sought a non-religious justification for the monarch’s rule was obvious. He wrote during the Reformation when a string of monarchs alternating between Catholicism and Protestantism took the British throne. When the populace will not acknowledge the religious justification for a monarch of the opposite faith, another line of argumentation for obedience is needed.

Hobbes found this, in traditional Enlightenment fashion, through a thought experiment. He challenged his readers to imagine man in the state of nature. Without laws and government, Hobbes concluded that life in such a world would be “nasty, brutish, and short.” Virtually any government, he concluded, would be better than none. He concludes that since it benefits us to do so, we should be loyal to monarch.

It seems that Hobbes has ended where be begun, but it is not so. By shifting the focus of why somebody obeys to their own self interest, Hobbes opens the field to greater challenges to the establishment.

The first such major challenge was issued by John Locke. It was not his intent to have the monarch overthrown, but rather to re-enforce the idea of why one should obey. Locke’s “Two Treatises on Government”, published in 1680, explain that in order to avoid the dangers inherent to living in the state of nature, man creates government to lift him out of anarchy.

This is another radical shift in thought. Not only is the monarchy not derived from God himself, but it is a creation of the people! Locke argued that all men had certain natural rights. These include the right to life, liberty, and property. Along with the right to possess each of these things, Locke claimed that man has the right to defend them as well.

Locke saw society as a contract in which people give up their natural right to defend themselves and their property to a government that does this for them. The view of government as a tool is known as an instrumental political philosophy. The government enters into a contract with the people to provide protection and impartial courts in exchange for obedience.

Locke claimed that if a government starts to act outside of the role we created it for, or fails to live up to its side of the bargain, then we have a right to rebel against it. Of course, Locke said, poor people don’t have enough property to enter into the social contract and the well-being of women is represented by their fathers or husbands. As such, members of these groups have no right to rebel.

While it may not be very egalitarian, Locke’s idea that a people can be justified in disobeying a government that has broken the social contract was earth-shaking. His appeal was on the grounds of explaining why the people should obey the government but it was this very powerful exception that provided the ideological basis for the American Revolution.

If one examines the American Constitution, the ideas of the classical liberals are throughout it. The purpose of the government is to protect the individual rights of the people and that government derives its authority from the people themselves.

While classical liberalism is not democracy, remember both Locke and Hobbes were defending the secular justification for monarchy, it was a vital step along that path.

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