From the beginning of the English Civil War, when King Charles I’s head was publicly severed from his neck, to the end of the Glorious Revolution, when King William signed the English Bill of Rights, England struggled to redefine its government. Stemming from a conflict over the king’s divine right to rule, Parliament and the monarchy wrestled for power in a series of political disputes that led to the collective asking of a single question: What is the purpose of government? Various political philosophers, most notably Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, proposed answers. Hobbes believed that government was meant to prevent people from acting in accordance with what he believed was their natural state of perpetual war, while Locke believed that government was meant to protect the rights and liberties with which he believed people are born. The English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution were the results of the English government shifting in the direction of the Lockean ideal, but the events that transpired during the time period proved the Hobbesian theory of humans’ behavior in their natural state.
Lockean philosophy defended the rationale of the events that catalyzed the English Civil War by deeming that a corrupt monarch may justifiably be removed from power. Locke wrote, “Whensoever the legislative… endeavor[s] to grasp… an absolute power over the lives, liberties, and estates of the people… they forfeit the power the people put into their hands.” In the years leading up to the English Civil War, King Charles I met Locke’s criteria for a corrupt legislator. As Yale professor Keith Wrightson states, Charles exercised what he considered his divine right as king by attempting to force Episcopalianism on all English and Scottish citizens, attempting to use government money to fund a war caused by his desire for uniformity of religion, and attempting to prevent Parliament from being involved in government. So according to Locke’s ideas, the English Parliament was correct to remove Charles from the throne (which they did by trying him for treason and eventually sentencing him to death), because his actions constituted a forfeit of legislative authority.
Locke believed that in situations like these, citizens are entitled to regress to the state of nature; while this did occur after the execution of King Charles, the state of nature experienced by English citizens was that of Hobbes rather than that of Locke. As Locke wrote, when there is a tyrannical authority, the people “have a right to resume their original liberty” in what he considered their natural state. But Locke also described the natural state as one that is inherently moral: “Reason, which is [the] law [of nature], teaches all mankind… [that] no one ought to harm each other in his life, liberty, or possessions.” This is not the natural state into which English citizens devolved during the English Civil War. Professor Wrightson describes a bloody reality in which one-fifth of all English adult men fought against each other, destroying towns, homes, and lives. Not only did this violate Locke’s idea of humans in nature, it supported Hobbes’ idea about the same concept; Hobbes wrote that the “condition of man” is a “condition of war of everyone against everyone.”
Indeed, from the beginning of the English Civil War to the end of the Glorious Revolution, the government was unstable enough that England’s environment was close to a natural one, and the citizens continued to act in ways that reflected Hobbes’ ideas of how humans naturally behave. Parliament and the monarchy struggled to coexist effectively, which resulted in a number of temporary power divisions such as Oliver Cromwell’s solely Parliamentary government and James II’s verging-on-tyrannical (as implied by the British House of Commons Information Office) government. Meanwhile, English citizens were growing more and more violent so that even their celebrations were savage, such as when they celebrated the acquittal of the Seven Bishops by “burning effigies of the Pope, and attacking Catholic establishments” (also according to the Information Office). As summarized by Yale Professor Steve Pincus, “English men and women throughout the country threatened one another, destroyed each other’s property, and killed and maimed one another throughout the revolutionary period.” This was a reality in which English lives were, as Hobbes described the lives of humans living in a state of nature, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Meanwhile, Parliamentary priorities during the Glorious Revolution were in accordance with the Lockean theory of government, which dictates that the citizens must limit their government’s power in order to prevent corrupt leadership. The English Bill of Rights--the document that expresses and applies the political ideas that were the outcome of half a century of debate--emphasized Parliament’s ability to check the monarch’s power. In this heavily altered English governmental system, the king was now forced to gain Parliamentary consent before “suspend[ing] [or] dispens[ing] with the laws,” “raising or keeping a standing army within the kingdom during times of peace,” or “levying money for or to the use of the crown.” In the philosophy in accordance with these decrees, Locke wrote that a government must be carefully modulated by its citizens; as phrased by Yale Professor Smith, “Locke is absolutely confident that limited government… is the only kind of government that can be trusted to protect rights.” Ergo, the new English government was Lockean in philosophy.
Despite this, certain individuals argue that the period of time was solely centered around either Hobbesian or Lockean ideas. They claim that because English government had not entirely abandoned the monarchical system, it was still Hobbesian, or that because English citizens were fighting for liberty, their violence was still Lockean. In response to the first point, it is true that one part of government (Parliament) was limiting another part of government (the monarch) rather than the people of the country limiting the entire government. However, England was certainly moving away from Hobbesian governmental ideas and in the direction of Lockean ones. It had abandoned ideas of the divine right of the king and was beginning to transfer power into the hands of Parliament, a multi-faceted body of voters chosen by the people to make legislative decisions. This new emphasis on consent of the people was aligned with Locke’s similar idea that "for when any number of men by the consent of every individual make a community, they have thereby made that community one body with a power to act as one body which is only by the will and determination of the majority." In response to the second point, while Jeffersonian revolution (which was a descendant of Lockean revolution) was violent, Lockean revolution was not. Rather, when Locke described the process of separating oneself from a corrupt authority, he instructed that citizens “rouze themselves, and may endeavour to put the rule into such hands which may secure to them the ends for which government was at first erected.” Rephrased, Lockean philosophy dictates that people find or create a new government that functions in accordance with morality. Locke’s phrasing implies that this was a peaceful endeavor.
Ultimately, English governmental philosophy became more and more Lockean during the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution, although the characteristics displayed by English citizens during this time period reflected Hobbes’ ideas about the natural behavior of humans. It may appear questionable that Lockean structures, then, were successful in governing Hobbesian individuals. But after England’s governmental rebirth, the country did gain strength and power, continuing on to become one of the wealthiest and most influential countries in the world. Perhaps this was because both Locke and Hobbes were only partially correct; if English history is any indication, people are naturally brutal, but are willing to cooperate under a government that expects them to be naturally moral. This gives rise to another characteristic of human nature: the tendency to meet expectations. If people are believed to be generally good, then they will act this way, regardless of whether or not it is their natural inclination to do so. And in this complex, dark world, that is a truly heartening thought.
This piece won a Silver Key in the 2017 Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.