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The Optimistic and Pessimistic Narratives

According to The Optimistic Narrative, Locke elaborated basic rights to life, liberty and property justly acquired or received, where property right is limited by obligations to take care of those suffering from poverty. The “liberty” of which Locke wrote included religious freedom, freedom of movement, freedom of assembly, and freedom of expression. Locke used the idea of a social contract to argue for the incorporation of natural rights into governmental structures by arguing for limitations on state power, a ban on taxation without representation, a division of powers within the government, and a representative legislative body. These Lockean political ideals were articulated in our founding documents—the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution—because they were an important part of the motives that drove the colonists to revolt against British rule. Though Lockean natural and political rights were initially limited to relatively wealthy European men, through the struggles of slaves, women, native peoples and their descendants, these rights were eventually expanded to realize the promise of “equality under the law” that Locke conceptualized.

According to The Pessimistic Narrative: The main function of Lockean ideas in early American history was a rationalizing one. The colonists revolted against British rule for reasons that had little to do with the idea of natural rights, the social contract and the normative political principles Locke derived from these philosophical constructs. Proclamations of the natural, pre-civil rights of men to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were really a “moral veneer” in the sense defined by Frans de Wall.  What really drove the revolution was a desire to retain slavery, dominate Native Americans, and advance other economic interests.  These motives drove the founders to argue for revolution and then unification even if they used Locke’s theory of natural rights to “justify” their revolution to the world. The history of America is most accurately described as the use of Lockean rhetoric to help conceal capitalist, anti-democratic practices that grossly violated the supposedly universal rights of men to life, liberty and property. The early Americans were not united by a social contract in Locke’s sense, but a racial contract in Charles Mills’ sense: an application of Lockean ideals to a limited group of men united by a common racial and socioeconomic identity.  

 

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PROMPT: Describe the evidence in favor of each narrative. Which account is closer to the truth? Which played a greater role in the founding of the United States: (a) belief in the universal rights of men to life and liberty, (b) or an ideology of white nationalism?  Has (a) or (b) played a greater role in the subsequent history of this nation?  In the course of your essay explain the answers to these questions Frederick Douglas articulates in “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

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