The roots of liberalism: Whig natural rights theories and modern constitutionalism

Lee Anthony Charles Ward, Fordham University


Much of the recent scholarship on liberalism has been highly critical of the apolitical character and purportedly anachronistic notions of nature, which are associated with contemporary liberal theory and practice. I argue that by reexamining the roots of liberalism in early Whig natural rights and constitutional theories of late seventeenth century England, we can recover an understanding of the original aims and claims of liberalism which have been ignored or neglected by most contemporary critics of liberal thought. This reexamination of early Whig political thought involves an analysis of the Whig critique of Robert Filmer's divine right theory in Patriarcha and his other major works, as this critique is evinced in James Tyrrell's Patriarcha, Non Monarcha, Algernon Sidney's Discourses Concerning Government, and John Locke's Two Treatises of Government. I propose that Filmer's Whig critics attacked divine right monarchy in order to defend the natural liberty tradition of seventeenth century political thought against the theological claims of Filmerian divine right. By employing natural rights theory in their response to divine right, however, Tyrrell, Sidney, and Locke generally eschewed the respectable anti-absolutist tradition associated with Christian-Aristotelianism, and rather they modified Grotian and Hobbesian notions of natural law and natural rights; notions which in themselves offered no necessary or even easy connection between natural rights and limited government. This study clarifies both the major sources of agreement among these early Whigs and the theoretical distinctions and practical variations within the Whig critique of divine right. Tyrrell, Sidney, and Locke shared the common concern to purge English political discourse of the Christian categories and classical assumptions, which dominated it through much of the seventeenth century. Thus, each of these Whigs presented a secularized version of natural law and natural rights which had a basis in natural rights. They each also offered subtle but powerful criticisms of the traditional understanding of the historical English Constitution. The major theoretical distinctions within early Whig natural rights and constitutional theory reflect the influence of seventeenth century continental natural jurisprudence on English political thought. I argue that early Whig natural rights and constitutional theory actually represents three distinct strands of thought: A Pufendorfian strain identified with Tyrrell, a Spinozist strand associated with Sidney, and a Lockean strain. These three strains of Whig natural rights theory reflect differing conceptions of the relation between natural rights and political sovereignty. Moreover, I maintain that the Pufendorfian, Spinozist, and Lockean strains of thought can be identified with the continuing diversity within the development of Anglo-American rights and constitutional tradition through the eighteenth century and beyond.

Subject Area

Political science

Recommended Citation

Ward, Lee Anthony Charles, "The roots of liberalism: Whig natural rights theories and modern constitutionalism" (2000). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9981411.