After examining Locke's notion of the social contract, how does it relate to the "divine right" theory of kingship and these revolutions?

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pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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I assume that when you say “these revolutions,” you are referring to the French and American Revolutions.  If so, Locke’s ideas led very directly to these revolutions.  Locke completely rejected the idea of the divine right of kings and, in doing so, helped to bring about the revolutions.

The divine right of kings held that kings got their power directly from God.  Because God gave them their power, they were answerable only to him.  This meant that they had no responsibility to pay any attention to what their subjects wanted.  They were not responsible to any human beings.

Locke completely disagreed with this idea.  To Locke, the only purpose of government was to protect the natural rights that all human beings have.  He argued that people only create governments for this purpose.  Further, he argued that governments were only legitimate if they got their power from the consent of the people whom they governed.  In other words, where the divine right of kings said that kings got their power from God, Locke said that governments only get their power from the citizens of their countries.

The revolutionaries in France and the American colonies used Locke’s ideas to justify their rebellions.  They wanted to have governments that were based on their own consent.  Therefore, they rebelled against the monarchical systems that had not been based on that consent.

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moustacio's profile pic

moustacio | Student, Undergraduate | (Level 1) Valedictorian

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Locke argued that the relationship between the government and its subjects was one that was two-way in nature - both sides were inherently locked into a social contract with each other. Individuals had to give up certain rights to the government (not all their rights, so as to prevent the state from gaining unlimited absolute power) to organise and represent them, and had to protect the natural rights of citizens. If the government was unable to carry out its duties of protecting and representing the population adequately or had violated the natural rights of its citizens, the people were justified in overthrowing the government and establishing a new bureaucracy that was able to meet their needs. This directly contradicted the “divine right” theory of kingship, which claimed that all kings had been raised by God to rule and to disobey or restrain his rule was thus disobeying God himself. In the view of Locke, the government gained its legitimacy from its subjects and not through a divine entity, and was a necessary evil at best. The power resided in the majority or the people and there was no need for individuals to obey the state or political authority with unquestioning and unconditional obedience, as dictated under the “divine right” theory.

The revolutionaries in both the French and American Revolutions were greatly influenced by Locke’s ideas, which laid the foundation for the rise of democracy. Both countries were suffering from state oppression - the monarchy in the case of France, and the British colonial government in the case of the USA, - and sought to free themselves from it to build a new political system that could guarantee the natural rights of individuals, with power subjected to the will of the people. They attempted to do so through widespread resistance against the state and sought to overthrow the present governments, thus creating a new order that was founded on Locke's notion of a "social contract".

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