Burke and Locke on Revolution
I hold it, that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. - Thomas Jefferson


Political rebellion takes place when the people of a country feel it is essential that a change in government is made. Different nations have different ideas about the responsibilities of government, and as a result there are many possible reasons for political rebellion. John Locke, an English medical doctor and philosopher who lived until 1704, published his liberal theories about government, property, and the rights of man, in his book Second Treatise of Government. Edmund Burke, a writer with a legal background who spent his life involved in English politics, published his opinions about revolution in 1790 in his book Reflections on the Revolution in France. Both Locke and Burke support political rebellion, but Locke’s belief that politics are based upon abstract natural rights drives his support for the complete dissolution of government in the event of rebellion, while Burke’s belief that rights and morals are derived from the conventions of society makes his support for rebellion more reserved and conditional. This comparison is significant to any individuals considering revolution as a means of changing government. The outcomes of rebellion can depend on the underlying beliefs driving it, and both writer’s positions are useful to establish the underlying reasons for revolution, and some of the risks involved depending on the extent of the change.


Locke believes that before we form civil society by consenting to establish government, we live in a State of Nature. He describes this pre-political state as,


“...a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending on the will of any other man.” (Locke, 1980, p.81)


The State of Nature is ruled essentially by human nature. Liberty, equality, self preservation, reason, and property are the most prominent principles that Locke feels are innate to humans. Locke explains how nature intended for all men to be equal,


“...creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same facilities should be equal amongst another...” (Locke, 1980, p.8)


Locke comes to the conclusion that humans are self preserving in the State of Nature, through his observations that we are attracted to pleasure and have aversions to pain. He believes that God gives us these attractions and aversions that preserve us, because we are essentially all the property of God. This limits the “perfect freedom” present in the State of Nature. Since we belong to God, we do not have the liberty to destroy ourselves. Although we are not all born with property (except through inheritance which Locke fully supports) the ability to acquire property is present in the State of Nature, for it is attained by our labour and resources. Our self preserving instinct produces a great desire among us to protect property that we have attained, therefore measures taken to protect our property are considered just. Since government does not exist in this state, individuals have the right to uphold the law. Locke believes that any individual who breaks the laws of nature, proves that he is not ruled by reason and equality, as the rest of the inhabitants in the state are. Breaking the law can be defined as doing harm to innocent others, this includes stealing property or acts of physical harm. These offenders are dangerous to mankind, and their peers must invoke punishment,


“...every man hath a right to punish the offender, and be the executioner of the law of nature.” (Locke, 1980, p.10)


Punishment in the State of Nature takes on two distinct forms: reparation and restraint. Only the victim of the crime committed is entitled to reparation, to compensate for the damage he has received. Restraint is the method used to ensure that the crime will not be committed again, usually by causing repent. Since there is no judge to decide to what extent offenders should be punished, it becomes a decision based on the instinct and reason of the individuals involved. Locke outlines some details about