Locke on Parents, Children, Liberty, and Natural Law

“55. Children, I confess, are not born in this full state of equality, though they are born to it.  Their parents have a sort of rule and jurisdiction over them when they come into the world, and for some time after, but it is but a temporary one.  The bonds of this subjection are like the swaddling clothes they are wrapt up in and supported by in the weakness of their infancy.  Age and reason as they grow up loosen them, till at length they drop quite off, and leave a man at his own free disposal.

56. Adam was created a perfect man, his body and mind in full possession of their strength and reason, and so was capable from the first instance of his being to provide for his own support and preservation, and govern his actions according to the dictates of the law of reason God had implanted in him.  From him the world is peopled with his descendants, who are all born infants, weak and helpless, without knowledge or understanding.  But to supply the defects of this imperfect state till the improvement of growth and age had removed them, Adam and Eve, and after them all parents were, by the law of nature, under an obligation to preserve, nourish and educate the children they had begotten, not as their own workmanship, but the workmanship of their own Maker, the Almighty, to whom they were to be accountable for them.

57. The law that was to govern Adam was the same that was to govern all his posterity, the law of reason.  But his offspring having another way of entrance into the world, different from him, by a natural birth, that produced them ignorant, and without the use of reason, they were not presently under the law.  For nobody can be under a law that is not promulgated to him; and this law being promulgated or made known by reason only, he that is not come to use of his reason cannot be said to be under the law; and Adam’s children being not presently as soon as born under this law of reason, were not presently free.  For law, in its true notion, is not so much the limitation as the direction of a free and intelligent agent to his proper interest, and prescribes no farther than is for the general good of those under the law.   Could they be happier without it, the law, as a useless thing, would of itself vanish; and that ill deserves the name of confinement which hedges us in only from bogs and precipices.  So that however it may be mistaken, the end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom.  For in all the states of created beings, capable of laws, where there is no law there is no freedom.  For liberty is to be free from restraint and violence from others, which cannot be where there is no law; and is not, as we are told, ‘a liberty for every man to what he lists [chooses].’  For who could be free, when every other man’s humor might domineer over him?  But a liberty to dispose and order freely as he lists [chooses] his person, actions, possessions, and his whole property within the allowance of those laws under which he is, and therein not to be subject to the arbitrary will of another, but freely follow his own.” John Locke, An Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent and End of Civil Government, ed. Edwin A. Burtt, The English Philosophers from Bacon to Mill (New York: Random, 1939), pp. 424-425. [Emphasis and brackets added]

In Chapter VI of this work John Locke addressed the issue of paternal power and its relationship to civil government.  First, in the previous section, he specifically stated that parents, not just the father, have authority over their children and their children are bound to honor and obey them.  He affirmed this with biblical citations (Exodus 20:12; Leviticus 20:9; Ephesians 6:1).  Since Locke had argued that human beings have certain rights granted by God in creation, he sought here to explain why children did not exercise those rights completely. Notice how Locke identified children as God’s workmanship and did not believe parents have absolute authority over their offspring. According to Locke, parents only oversaw their children’s development and education during their imperfect state of childhood.  Parents had the duty to educate their children to use the gift of reason so that they may become free individuals who could freely live, dispose of their possessions, and govern themselves.

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