Opinion: Want to be a patriot? Wear a mask!

We hear a lot about natural rights these days. Talk show pundits and concerned citizens in town halls express barely-controlled outrage at the denial of their civil liberties. Government forces, it seems, are hard at work abrogating that most sacred of America’s founding documents, the Bill of Rights. But the issue doesn’t relate to one of those hot-button topics we often hear about — freedom of speech, the right to bear arms or religious intolerance. No, the issue today is — face masks.

The anti-mask advocates are fond of invoking natural rights theory, reaching back to defend their views all the way to philosophers of antiquity, but more often using the words and ideas of the late 17th-century English political theorist, John Locke. It was Locke who laid the foundation for the American version of natural rights theory in his Second Treatise of Government. In a perfect state of nature, Locke explained, all men are equal with “perfect freedom to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons as they see fit …”. Thomas Jefferson was essentially quoting Locke in the Declaration of Independence when he enumerated the basic natural rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Most of the enraged citizens I see denouncing masks stop at this point, as though Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers had no more to say about how civil society is designed to operate. But if natural rights were all there was to it, our communities would be in sorry shape indeed. Locke goes on in his treatise to explain social contract theory – the idea that man enters into an agreement with a political entity (government) designed both to protect individual rights and to ensure safety and security. Individuals agree to this social contract with the state in order to avoid the chaos that would reign if all persons pursued only their narrow self-interests. Thus, according to Locke, “every man, by consenting with others to make one body politic … puts himself under an obligation to everyone of that society to submit to the determination of the majority, and to be concluded by it.” As members of civil society, we agree to follow the laws and regulations ordained by governments for the better protection of our lives and estates.

It may surprise many mask protesters that Locke's liberal paradigm is one of two fundamental ideologies thought to have influenced the "Founding Fathers." We call the other "Classical Republicanism" and most historians of the Revolutionary era believe it had greater purchase among American colonists as they determined what kind of government, and what kind of society they wanted to establish. Surprisingly, Republicanism is often associated with the great Renaissance practitioner of realpolitik, Machiavelli. Along with the ideal of mixed government, it emphasizes virtue and the importance of active involvement in res publica, or public affairs. An honorable citizen subverts his private self-interest for the greater good and well-being of the community.

Radical Whigs and a loosely organized “Country Party” in England were strong advocates of Republicanism and the ideology spread easily to their North American colonies. In an interesting historical twist, it became the social and political lens through which American patriots viewed British government corruption. Americans would build a different society and avoid the moral degeneracy based on power and influence that characterized their progenitors. Jefferson himself saw an agrarian lifestyle as the most noble and morally perfect, “Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God … whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.” Consciously or unconsciously, Benjamin Franklin was exhibiting his Republican virtue when he determined to forego a patent on his innovative new stove and freely disseminated instructions regarding its manufacture to anyone that wanted them.

So how would the Founding Fathers view the great mask debate of 2020? Pandemics did occur in the 18th century — smallpox, especially, was a recurring nightmare for urban communities. Some people received a primitive form of inoculation, but it certainly was never mandated by local authorities. The risk of dying from the procedure was only slightly less than the chance of succumbing to the disease so such a requirement would have made little sense anyway. History provides us no meaningful guide in how budding Republicans would handle a national health emergency.

We do know the Founders were extremely wary of encroachments on civil liberties and would go to great lengths to protect them. But consider the actual infringements on individual natural rights that led to revolution — Jefferson outlined them in the Declaration. The “abuses and usurpations” include denial of trial by jury, suspension of legislatures, and taxes imposed without consent. These are the natural rights violations Locke and the Founders worried might threaten civil society.

Other insults to our rights are far less onerous and should be recognized as an easy price to pay for adhering to the social contract. It’s why I take my shoes off at airport terminals and avoid target practice in my backyard. A requirement to temporarily don a face mask to protect the health and well-being of my neighbor is no apocalyptic threat to my civil liberties. Jefferson and Franklin would laugh at such a notion. Or they would be distressed to think that future generations could think them guilty of such egocentric beliefs. As another Founding Father put it, “the safety of the whole is the interest of the whole.”

By wearing a mask, I express an American ideal, civic virtue: a concern and regard for my fellow citizen. We should honor the true self-sacrifice that characterized the Founding Fathers; invoking their spirit in order to dispute petty inconveniences simply cheapens their legacy.

Steven Krug is a Ph.D. student at the University of Georgia, specializing in Colonial American and early modern European intellectual history.