Individual Rights Day
annually on August 29th
Awareness & Advocacy
Individual Rights Day honors John Locke on the anniversary of his birth. The day was created by Dr. Tom Stevens, who is known for founding the Objectivist Party in early 2008. Individual Rights Day was observed at least by 2009. That year, Stevens and the Objectivist Party of New York urged people to view and distribute the clip of the song "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" from the film Cabaret, saying "this video is a chilling reminder of how fanaticism can stir people up in a way that would make them more willing to trample upon the individual rights of some for the alleged greater good of all. Respect for the individual rights of all people must never be compromised." According to Stevens, John Locke was "the philosopher who first prominently argued that a human being has a basic property right based upon his status as a sovereign human being and that it is the government's role to protect that right and not to treat its citizens as slaves."
John Locke was one of the most prominent philosophers and political theorists of the seventeenth century. He made contributions to theories of a limited, liberal government, was influential in areas of theology, religious toleration, and educational theory, and also focused on political philosophy and epistemology. His ideas influenced Western philosophy and people like French Enlightenment writer Voltaire and American Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, and thus, the French and American Revolutions themselves. He is also known as being one of the founders of British empiricism.
John Locke was born on August 29, 1632, in the village of Wrington, in Somerset, in southwestern England. Raised as a Puritan, he began attending Westminster School in London in 1647, where he was named a King's Scholar. He enrolled at Christ Church, University of Oxford, in 1652, where he studied logic, metaphysics, classical languages, medicine, and natural philosophy. He graduated in 1656, came back two years later to pursue a Master of Arts, and then held administrative and academic roles there, including being a tutor.
In 1667, Locke left Oxford for London, where he became close with the family of Anthony Ashley Cooper, who soon became Lord Ashley, and then the Earl of Shaftesbury. Along with likely tutoring Ashley's son, Locke became his personal physician and helped him with political matters and with his business. Lord Ashley had an immense influence on Locke's political thoughts and the direction of his professional career. (Ashley was a founder of the Whig party, who stood in opposition to the dominant Tory Party.) In 1668, Locke was elected as a fellow of the Royal Society, and he later returned to Oxford, earning a bachelor's of medicine in 1674.
In 1675, Locke left for France for a few years and returned to England at a time when the politics of his mentor were no longer in favor. He began writing his Two Treatises of Government around this time, although it wasn't published until 1689. Locke was forced to leave England in 1683 because he was implicated in the Rye House Plot, the attempted assassination of King Charles II and his brother.
While exiled in Holland, Locke wrote An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, perhaps his most well-known work, which was published after he returned to England in 1688. Spanning four books, it examined the nature of human knowledge, analyzing the mind and how it acquires knowledge. Locke put forth an empiricist theory, saying that people acquire ideas through their experience with the world. He said the mind compares, combines, and examines these ideas, and that knowledge comes from the relationship between these ideas.
Returning to England at the time of what became known as the Glorious Revolution of 1688—a time when King James II fled the country, the Whigs rose to power, and the power of Parliament was ascendent while the power of the monarch was declining—Locke became a hero to many. He moved to the small town of Oates, Estes, and kept working on the subjects of politics, philosophy, toleration, economics, and educational theory. Shortly after his return, he published Two Treatises of Government, which postulated groundbreaking ideas about the natural rights of man and the social contract. It became important in England at the time and was influential on the American and French Revolutions to come.
The First Treatise was a critique of Robert Filmer's Patriarcha, which advocated for the divine right of a monarchy. The Second Treatise is the better-known of the two. In it, Locke said that humans were originally in a state of nature, without government, and that each individual held natural rights, given to them by God. These natural rights include the right to try to preserve one's life and to seize unclaimed valuables. Locke said that people would be at risk of harm in a state of nature and that in this unstable environment, they couldn't pursue goals that required stability and large group cooperation. Locke claimed that on account of this, governments were established. A social contract was formed: individuals gave up some rights to the government, but retained others, in exchange for physical protection, security of their property, and the freedom to interact and cooperate with others in a stable environment. This meant that leaders were obligated to be responsive to the needs of citizens since the citizens instituted the government. It meant that citizens had not given up all of their rights—just some—and they retained individual rights and liberties, and were even entitled to revolt and replace a government if it overstepped its authority or failed to protect their rights and interests.
A Letter Concerning Toleration, The Reasonableness of Christianity, and Some Thoughts Concerning Education are three other pieces Locke published upon his return to England. Theology was a huge focus in his later years. Locke had long reflected on toleration but didn't publish A Letter Concerning Toleration until 1689. His experiences in England, France, and Holland, where he saw different approaches to the questions of religious tolerance, made him believe that governments should be much more tolerant of religious diversity. His experiences led him to believe that individuals should largely be able to practice religion how they please, without the state interfering.
Locke saw enforcing religion as being outside of the scope of government (aligning with what he wrote in Two Treatises of Government), and he said it was impossible to determine if a government had the knowledge to choose the true religion (aligning with what he wrote in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding). There were limits to tolerance—Locke did not think those who were intolerant should be tolerated, and he didn't think a religious group that posed a threat to political stability or public safety should be tolerated (and he counted Roman Catholics in this group). He also thought atheists shouldn't be tolerated, because he didn't think they would behave morally or hold up their contractual obligations because they didn't believe in an afterlife.
In The Reasonableness of Christianity, Locke wanted to show it was reasonable to be a Christian. He wanted to demonstrate that Jesus gave his first followers enough evidence that he was a messenger of God. Locke claimed that Jesus fulfilled many of the historical predictions about a coming savior and performed miracles that showed he had a special relationship with God. Locke thought the miracles could be believed to have occurred based on the testimony of those present and because of reliable reporting into the present day. Locke argued that the only thing that a person must believe to be saved is that Jesus is the Messiah, which was less than many others said was required at the time.
Locke wrote in Some Thoughts Concerning Education about the importance of teaching practical knowledge and of students being directly engaged with the subject matter. Groundbreaking for the time, Locke advocated for students to have some say and self-direction in pursuing their own interests and coursework. He opposed corporeal punishment and rote memorization, two common components of seventeenth-century schooling. Some Thoughts Concerning Education focused much on morality and how to instill virtue and industry in youth. Instead of an authoritarian approach, Locke thought children should be helped to understand right and wrong and to gain their own moral compass.
John Locke had health issues, particularly respiratory ones, for much of his life. His health got worse in 1704, and he died in Essex on October 28 of that year. He wrote his own epitaph. But Locke's death was not his end. His legacy and influence grew. His thoughts played a role in revolutions and are still studied and reflected on in the twenty-first century. He is also honored with Individual Rights Day today, on the anniversary of his birth.
How to Observe Individual Rights Day
The founder of the day suggests the four following ways to take part:
- Read about John Locke and his political philosophy that respects man's sovereignty over his own body.
- Read about Ayn Rand and her basis for recognizing that every man is born with "individual rights" that cannot be trampled upon by the government or by others.
- Contrast the concept of "individual rights" with those of "collective rights."
- Run a seminar, hold a meeting, or sponsor a debate on the importance of "individual rights" as the basis for man's liberties and freedoms.
Some other ways you could celebrate include:
- Read one of John Locke's works:
- Read a biography about John Locke such as Locke: A Biography by Roger Woolhouse.
- Visit Locke's grave.