Locke's Political Philosophy

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LOCKE'S POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY. The legacy of John Locke's ideas in American history derives from the complexity of Locke's own life and writings. John Locke (1632–1704) was an Oxford-educated physician drawn into English politics by his association with dissenting Whigs who eventually helped achieve the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Locke's three most influential books (A Letter Concerning Toleration, Two Treatises of Government, and An Essay Concerning Human Understanding) appeared in 1689; Some Thoughts Concerning Education followed in 1693, and The Reasonableness of Christianity in 1695. Locke's devout Christian faith informed everything he wrote. Most nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century scholars stressed Locke's challenges to religious orthodoxy, royal absolutism, and the doctrine of innate ideas. This portrait of Locke as a champion of tolerance, individual rights (especially the right to property), and philosophical empiricism emphasized important features of his thought but neglected his profound Puritan asceticism.

When American historians identified Locke as the most important source of their nation's political ideas, they too accentuated certain themes: his protest against religious orthodoxy, his idea that government originates when individuals leave the state of nature to form a social compact in order to protect their natural rights, and his conviction that knowledge comes from—and must be verified in—experience. If the United States was a nation dedicated to pluralism, liberty, and experimentation, then Locke could be designated its official philosopher, a tendency that reached its apex in Louis Hartz's The Liberal Tradition in America (1955).

The late twentieth century witnessed the unraveling, then reconstituting, of such ambitious claims. First, historically minded political theorists following the lead of Peter Laslett reconstructed the profoundly Calvinist framework within which Locke conceived his philosophy. Locke advised resisting religious orthodoxy because he believed genuine faith must be voluntary, not because he prized

religious skepticism or tolerated atheism. Locke valued independence and industriousness not because he endorsed the unchecked pursuit of wealth or the emergence of capitalism but because slavery of the mind (to an absolute authority) or slavery of the body (to sinful impulses such as the desire for pleasure) prevented individuals from developing, through self-discipline, the Christian virtues of self-sacrifice and love. Locke emphasized experience not because he was a materialist or relativist but because he wanted to establish on a firm basis the compatibility of the exercise of human reason with the will of God.

Equally significant challenges to the simple equation of American politics with the right to property came when historians discovered that eighteenth-century Americans spoke of equality as well as freedom, of duties as well as rights, and of the common good as well as individual liberty. The generation that founded the United States drew its political ideals from a number of sources in addition to Locke's liberalism, including Christianity, the English common law, the Scottish Enlightenment, and ancient, Renaissance, and eighteenth-century writers in the tradition of classical republicanism. Now that Locke's own deep commitment to an ascetic ethic of Protestantism has been recovered, it is easier to see how and why so many Americans ranging from the old-fashioned, sober-sided John Adams to the forward-looking, Enlightenment-drenched Thomas Jefferson invoked Locke's writings more often than any other single source except the Bible.


Hartz, Louis. The Liberal Tradition in America: An Interpretation of American Political Thought since the Revolution. New York: Harcourt, 1955.

Huyler, Jerome. Locke in America: The Moral Philosophy of the Founding Era. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995.

Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. Edited by Peter Laslett. Cambridge, U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

James T.Kloppenberg

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Locke's Political Philosophy

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