The political theory of John Locke is generally credited with having provided both a philosophical justification for the American Revolution and a practical roadmap for the founding of the Republic. It is in this sense, for instance, that historians often point to that celebrated phrase in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, where Thomas Jefferson, citing Locke, declares the People's right to "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness". On this view, the influence of Locke on American political culture was decisive, unproblematic, and "happy". But such a celebratory view of Locke's influence on American political culture correlates less with historical truth than it does with the poetic half-truths of a national myth. This myth tells us that Locke was a champion of liberty, of civil rights, and equality. The historical truth, while not completely debunking this myth, nevertheless unsettles the truths contained in it.
Locke was a champion of liberty; but he was also a champion of British imperialism. He defended the right of individuals to enjoy negative liberty --that is, their right to be free from coercion and tyranny, but he also defended the positive liberty of "industrious" people i.e., the British, to conquer foreign lands: both those lands that were inhabited only by barbarians (which for Locke amounted more or less to the entirety of North America, where he had a claim to a significant tract of land in the Carolinas), or those lands that had been conquered by people who were not industrious and had therefore neglected to improve the land with their labor, (which for Locke essentially summed up vast areas of the Spanish colonies in the Americas). This tension between negative and positive liberties, between autonomy and sovereignty, is the true inheritance that Locke bequeathed to America's Founding Fathers. It is a tension or ambiguity that combines republican rights with imperial virtue.
Insofar as he was an enlightened thinker, Locke was not the first to formulate this ambiguity. Some sixty years prior to the publication of Locke's Two Treatises on Government, Francis Bacon had already defined enlightenment as a combination of potentia and productio. Locke, however, takes this double aspect of enlightenment thought and applies it, not merely to Man's dominance over Nature, but also to Man's ownership of the land.
For Jefferson, who dreamed of U.S. expansion in terms of an Empire of Liberty, the issue was not so much the right to property as the right to pursue happiness, which he conceived in the terms of an agrarian utopia of ever-expansive liberty. Locke did not, however, mince his words after such a fashion. For him, government was meant to secure the rights of individuals to life, liberty, and property.
Locke's theory of property combines negative freedom and positive freedom. Negative freedom is at work in what he calls the Law of Nature. In the Second Treatise, he writes: "The State of Nature has a Law of Nature to govern it, which obliges everyone: And Reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind ... that being equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions." For its part, Positive Freedom is at work in what Locke refers to as a Biblical injunction to improve the land through labor. In this sense, Locke writes elsewhere in the Second Treatise: "God, when he gave the World in common to all Mankind, commanded Man also to labor and the penury of his condition required it of him. God and his Reason commanded him to subdue the Earth, i.e., improve it for the benefit of Life." Accordingly, Locke argues, God gave the land "to the use of the Industrious and Rational (And Labour was to be his Title to it;) not to the Fancy or Contentiousness of the Quarrelsome and Contentious". Locke's theory of property thus combines negative liberty, which protects individuals from invasion of their land, with the positive liberty to invade lands that have not been improved by the labor of others.
Now what is truly worthy of note about this theory is the extent to which it is intimately bound up with justifications for British incursions into the Spanish colonies in the Americas. In this sense, Locke writes in his Second Treatise: "Nay, the extent of Ground is of little value, without labour, that I have heard it affirmed, that in Spain it self, a Man may be permitted to plough, sow, and reap, without being disturbed, upon Land he has no other Title to, but only his making use of it. But, on the contrary, the Inhabitants think themselves beholden to him, who, by his Industry on neglected, and consequently waste Land, has increased the stock of Corn, which they wanted." Here Locke speaks with philosophical admiration of the manner in which Spaniards in his time would recognize labor as the only title necessary to own common lands that would otherwise be left alone in a state of "wastelands". But Locke was not only an enlightened philosopher. He was also a Landgrave of Carolina and the Secretary of the Council for Foreign Plantations appointed by King Charles II of England. In this capacity, he ordered a study of the history of the Royal Society, in which the argument on wastelands is turned against Spain's colonies in the Americas. In this work commissioned by Locke, we read: "how unfit the Spanish humor is, to improve Manufactures, in a Country so distant as the West-Indies; we may learn by their practice in Spain itself: where they commonly disdain to exercise any Manual Crafts, and permit the profit of them, to be carry'd away by strangers" (Quoted in Eva Botella-Rodinas' "Debating Empires, Inventing Empires: British Territorial Claims Against the Spaniards in America, 1670-1714" in The Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, Vol. 10, No. 1, 2010).
Locke and his contemporaries in England viewed the Spanish as "lazy" and "sinful", their empire already in decline and doomed inevitably to collapse. The colonies in the Americas were, on this view, wastelands --lands that the Spanish, who were according to this logic interested only in silver and gold, had neglected to improve. This prejudice, which in Locke is only in its nascent form, will with the passing of the centuries guide not only British imperial pursuits in the Americas but eventually also those of the United States of America: a Republic which expanded across the continent first and then across the globe in order, supposedly, to civilize the world and turn it, as Jefferson fondly dreamed, into an Empire for Liberty.