America’s Philosopher: John Locke in American Intellectual Life 
by Claire Rydell Arcenas.
Chicago, 265 pp., $25, October, 978 0 226 82933 3
Show More
Show More

Among​ the enduring riddles of American exceptionalism is the absence in the political mainstream of an overtly socialist party. Whereas in Europe socialist and social democratic parties emerged to tame the excesses of private enterprise, the much rawer, more carelessly exploitative forms of capitalism found in the United States failed to provoke a political response of a similar character or on anything like the same scale. The paltry 6 per cent of the popular vote won in the 1912 election by Eugene Debs remains the best performance by a Socialist Party presidential candidate. In the 1930s Franklin D. Roosevelt deliberately rejected the idea that there was any socialist intent in the New Deal, presenting it instead as a pragmatic, non-doctrinaire response to a highly particular crisis.

The classic explanation of the American avoidance of socialist politics appeared in Louis Hartz’s The Liberal Tradition in America, published in 1955. Hartz, a Harvard professor of political science, argued that Americans were instinctively liberal. Born free and equal in a continent largely devoid of feudal aristocracies or clerical oppression, they had in an intuitive and inarticulate way absorbed the classical liberal precepts associated with the 17th-century English philosopher John Locke: adherence to limited government, respect for personal liberty and the sanctity of private property. Americans hadn’t needed a revolution of the French kind to win these freedoms: the country had gained autonomy from Britain without having to overthrow an ancien régime. From the absence of a genuine revolutionary moment, other consequences flowed: no reactionary right had formed that was committed to the re-establishment of a (non-existent) former hierarchy, and the lack of class consciousness – either above or below – meant there was no need for a socialist tradition to combat the right or to advance the interests of a self-aware proletariat. Instead all shades of opinion across the political spectrum subscribed unselfconsciously to the American Way of Life, which Hartz labelled ‘mass Lockeanism’. Locke, he insisted, ‘dominates American political thought, as no thinker anywhere dominates the political thought of a nation’.

Hartz was alert to the loopholes in his thesis. In The Founding of New Societies (1964), he and a team of collaborators tried to account for the flourishing of social democracy and a more activist state in other colonial societies, such as Australia. Hartz attributed this to inheritances from the politics of the mother country at the time of a colony’s formation. His work is in crucial respects unconvincing, but its focus on Locke finds a loud echo in prevailing popular myths about America’s origins. According to Claire Arcenas, most educated Americans have some sense that Locke is the nation’s founding philosopher-grandfather: ‘Oh, I know Locke! I think we read his Second Treatise in school. He’s the small government, life, liberty, property guy, right?’ It’s widely assumed that Locke’s political philosophy fed a ‘continuous stream of American political thought’ from the 18th century to the present. But, as Arcenas shows in her original and surprising book, the standard view of Locke’s place in American culture rests, at best, on a very partial appreciation of his significance in the American past. It wasn’t until the 20th century that he came to be associated principally with political thought, and in particular with the supposedly ‘liberal’ ideas of his Second Treatise of Government (1689).

Locke never visited America. Born in Somerset in 1632, he became a tutor at Christ Church in Oxford, where he developed interests in medicine and natural philosophy. The patronage of Anthony Ashley Cooper, later the 1st earl of Shaftesbury, drew him into public life. His service as secretary to the Council of Trade and Plantations brought him into contact with American affairs, though at an ocean’s remove, as did a similar scribal role on behalf of the Lords Proprietors of the Carolina colony, foremost among whom was Shaftesbury. Despite Locke’s commitments to religious toleration and his personal associations with heterodoxy, he spent the last part of his life engaged in researches on the Epistles of St Paul.

This wholesome attachment to scripture, Arcenas argues, was a crucial component of Locke’s profile in the 18th-century colonies. The Reverend Ezra Stiles, a prominent New England theologian and educator, noted in the 1770s that Locke’s ‘reputation as a scripture commentator’ stood ‘exceeding high with the public’. Though a lifelong bachelor, Locke was also an unlikely ‘childrearing guru’ for colonial Americans, by way of Some Thoughts concerning Education (1693). But 18th-century Americans knew him primarily as a philosopher of mind, the author of An Essay concerning Human Understanding (1689). Here he exploded the notion that there were innate principles imprinted on the mind, arguing rather that knowledge derived from sensory experience of the world around us and internal reflection on such sensations. By the 1740s the Essay concerning Human Understanding was on the logic curriculum at both Harvard and Yale. It was almost impossible to graduate without confronting it, though many students probably read only chunks of this massive work in abridgement. By contrast, his Second Treatise of Government, ubiquitous in university curriculums in the second half of the 20th century, was wholly neglected. In Yale’s 18th-century library catalogues, there was nothing by Locke in the category ‘Political Essays’. By the time of the American Revolution his standing hadn’t changed in any appreciable way.

Some of the revolutionary patriots of Boston, Philadelphia and Virginia thought they were conserving in America the essential substance of England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688, but Locke’s place in that story was strangely precarious. Although his Two Treatises were published in 1689, they were, as Peter Laslett showed in the 1950s, largely written before it, in the context of the Exclusion Crisis of 1679 to 1681. In the wake of the largely imaginary fears aroused by the Popish Plot of 1678, English Whigs under the leadership of Shaftesbury unsuccessfully tried to exclude King Charles II’s Catholic brother, James, Duke of York, from the succession. Locke’s First Treatise was also a response to the posthumous publication in 1680 of Patriarcha by the early 17th-century royalist Sir Robert Filmer, which claimed that absolute monarchy derived from the paternal authority that Adam and subsequent biblical fathers exercised over their families and servants.

More recently, scholars have slightly qualified Laslett’s findings, pushing the completion date of the Second Treatise to 1682. But the central thrust of his analysis remains valid: the Two Treatises weren’t written as a justification of the Glorious Revolution. Not only did Locke’s apparent ‘contribution’ diverge significantly – as Gerald Straka, Mark Goldie and John Kenyon have demonstrated – from the main lines of discussion, but his strikingly sophisticated efforts were barely mentioned by others. More representative of mainstream opinion were the providentialist case that God’s favour had overseen the peaceful transfer of the English throne from James II to William and Mary; practical questions about when, after moments of rebellion or usurpation, it was proper to give de facto allegiance to a newly ‘settled’ government; and historical arguments about the preservation of the ancient English constitution. The term ‘contract’ did surface in political usage, but not in the Lockean sense; it was more often used in connection with the king’s coronation oath. Contrary to later mythology, far from defining the new regime, Lockean theories only slowly gained traction in 18th-century English political culture.

In contrast to their marginality in the revolution of 1688, Locke’s political ideas proved more influential in the revolution of 1776, though not to the degree modern American folklore might have you believe. Arcenas recognises that Locke was frequently cited in the 1770s, but challenges the view that this makes the American Revolution Lockean in any meaningful sense. Rather, she argues, contemporaries regarded Locke’s ideas about contract and consent as broadly typical of English constitutional doctrine. It’s true that Jefferson knew his Locke, but the Declaration of Independence doesn’t straightforwardly reiterate Lockean arguments. Its commitment to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ sounds like a tweak on Locke’s formulation that political society was created for the ‘mutual preservation’ of its members’ ‘lives, liberties and estates’. But, contrary to the myth that from its founding document America was dedicated to capitalism, private property and the personal accumulation of wealth, ‘happiness’ in its 18th-century definition meant public – not private – wellbeing. Happiness was not a synonym for property.

Locke’s ideas weren’t singularly influential during the American Revolution either; they had no more purchase on the rhetoric of patriots than those of the early 18th-century British journalists John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon or the Swiss jurist Emer de Vattel. After 1776, in any case, Locke’s influence as a political philosopher declined sharply. By the 1780s Americans of the founding generation were much more likely to invoke the ideas of Montesquieu or William Blackstone – a decided critic of Locke. A 1779 advertisement by one Boston bookseller of a 1773 pamphlet version of Locke’s Second Treatise reflected the fact, Arcenas contends, that ‘it had not sold well and excess inventory remained.’

As Arcenas explains, another political document generally attributed to Locke, the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina (1669), came to dog his reputation, especially in the decades following the French Revolution when politicians were highly suspicious about speculative theories of government devised by philosophers. Locke was probably not the sole author of Fundamental Constitutions, but, as secretary to the Lords Proprietors of the colony, was almost certainly involved in its drafting. Either way, it appeared in print under his name in 1720, and by 1751 was included in his collected works. It stands as an ironic caveat to Hartz’s thesis about a non-feudal Lockean America, since it envisages Carolina precisely as a feudal colony. Between the Lords Proprietors at the top and enslaved Blacks at the bottom were two further orders of hereditary nobility – margraves and caciques – as well as some free landholders and a class of hereditary serfs called ‘leet men’. The only countervailing feature – one that may suggest Locke’s influence – was a very generous measure of religious toleration; atheists alone were barred from landholding. More telling still on the matter of Locke’s authorship, in 1671 the Lords Proprietors rewarded his efforts in shaping the colony’s form of government by elevating him to the rank of a hereditary landgrave of Carolina. Needless to say, the neo-feudal fantasy of the Fundamental Constitutions didn’t survive contact with the realities of colonial life.

Locke’s misguided attempt to draw up a constitution for Carolina stood in sharp contrast, Arcenas notes, to the achievement of the men who formulated the American constitution in 1787. Nathaniel Chipman, a Vermont Federalist, complained in Sketches of the Principles of Government (1793) that if Locke had possessed a keener understanding of public administration he would not ‘have fallen into such impracticable absurdities, in his constitution of Carolina’. Modern Americans might assume that their forebears celebrated Locke as the inspiration behind Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, but in the mid-19th century at least, he was more often a butt of Fourth of July orators. In his 1835 oration, George Hillard, a Boston lawyer, said that there was no need to seek out examples of ‘monstrous abortions of government’ from modern France, when Locke’s scheme for the Carolinas provided evidence of speculative folly much nearer to home. Frederic Henry Hedge, a Unitarian minister in Bangor, Maine, talked in 1838 about ‘bubble constitutions, which burst as soon as blown’, singling out for ridicule Locke’s plan for distinct orders of nobility. The glory of America was that it had not adopted a fanciful constitution of this sort. ‘Locke’s status as a negative example’, Arcenas contends, long clouded his reputation in America as a political philosopher.

His political ideas proved ‘increasingly poor navigational aids’ in a modern industrial society, and by the start of the 20th century his works – of which the Essay concerning Human Understanding was still the most prominent – occupied a backwater in the history of philosophy. But during the interwar era the rise of fascism and communism led journalists and academics to embark on the construction of a persuasively American alternative. Locke emerged in the 1940s as the presiding genius of ‘what was beginning to be called the American political tradition’. Jefferson was also integral to this heritage of liberal moderation, but according to the influential journalist John Chamberlain of the New York Times, Fortune and Life, the Declaration of Independence largely restated ‘the principles of John Locke in American terms’.

The expansion of postwar higher education marked a further vital stage in the Americanisation of Locke. Reinvented as ‘America’s antidote to Marx’, his works, especially the easily digested Second Treatise of Government, became firmly entrenched in the undergraduate curriculum. Wrenched out of their context – England during the Exclusion Crisis and its aftermath – and unobtrusively mangled, Locke’s political ideas were repackaged as inoffensive bourgeois liberalism. Between the publication of The Vital Centre by Arthur Schlesinger Jr in 1949 and the appearance in 1960 of The End of Ideology by the sociologist Daniel Bell, America witnessed a decade of conspicuous consensus. It helped that Eisenhower was a centrist, who, though wooed by the Democrats, decided in the end to run for president as a lukewarm Republican. But consensus was also grounded in social attitudes: what Hartz possibly misdescribed as an intuitive, common sense Lockeanism.

The first direct challenge to the Hartzian consensus came from the conservative movement’s most exotic coterie, a grouping that, perversely, didn’t celebrate American institutions in any straightforward way. The Chicago-based German émigré Leo Strauss and his followers championed the high ideals enshrined in the political philosophy of the Ancients, at the expense of the Moderns, such as Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke and the authors of the Federalist Papers, with their depressingly low view of humanity. Straussians bemoaned the checks and balances of the American constitution, mechanisms premised on man’s sordid self-interest. Strauss read Locke as a benighted Modern, dismissing his purported vision of bourgeois acquisition as ‘the joyless quest for joy’. But others involved in the conservative revival had different views. On its libertarian wing, Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974) built the case for a minimal nightwatchman state on Lockean assumptions about an original state of nature.

In the interim the historical foundations of the Hartz thesis crumbled. From the mid-1960s the works of Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood and J.G.A. Pocock demonstrated that the revolution and constitution owed more to a participatory language of virtue, duty and civic activism derived from the Ancients via Machiavelli and late 17th-century English Commonwealthmen than to the rights-based idioms of liberalism. Daniel Walker Howe went on to trace the persistence of these classical republican tropes well into the mid-19th century in the ideology of the American Whig party. Insofar as a distinctive tradition has shaped American political culture and institutions, it derived from Aristotle, Livy and Polybius, not Locke.

These insights have failed to dislodge Locke from his place in American popular memory, however misremembered or historically dubious. But a growing awareness on the progressive left of his shareholding in the Royal African Company and his broader complicity in slavery and colonialism has seriously dented his reputation. Arcenas anticipates Locke’s eviction from the liberal canon, and wonders whether he might be replaced by another icon – John Stuart Mill, say. Locke’s curious American afterlife remains an unfinished story, like the unresolved history of the word ‘liberal’ itself, which carries a raft of seemingly incompatible meanings – sometimes pejorative – in current Anglo-American usage; denoting, variously, the middle ground of politics, a vast range of positions on the left, and, less often but just as plausibly, the free-market right. These ambiguities are generally understood, but there is also a less well-known difficulty, an anachronism of the sort that makes historians twitchy. Since the term ‘liberal’ acquired a political hue only in the early 19th century, in what sense can any 17th-century philosopher really be said to belong to the liberal canon?

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 46 No. 3 · 8 February 2024

Colin Kidd asks if any 17th-century philosopher can really be said to belong to the ‘liberal canon’ (LRB, 4 January). There is a case to be made, avant la lettre, for Roger Williams. Protégé of Edward Coke, and a Puritan émigré to New England, Williams outraged the Massachusetts theocracy by claiming that the state had no role in religion and that Native Americans had title to settler-occupied land. Expelled by the Boston authorities, he negotiated with the Narragansett for land for a new ‘plantation’, on which to found a refuge for the persecuted. His claim to Rhode Island was endorsed by the English Parliament in 1643. While campaigning in London, he wrote the Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, published in 1644 as he set off back to Providence. It became a key text for the radical movement, bringing the formerly pacifist Anabaptist ‘swarm’ into the core of Cromwell’s army. In 1647, Rhode Island declared itself ‘democraticall; that is to say, a Government held by ye free and voluntarie consent of all, or the greater parte of the free Inhabitants’. Thus Williams’s movement replaced Christendom with democracy as the basis of state legitimacy. Teresa Bejan, in Mere Civility (2017), places Williams alongside Hobbes and Locke in the early modern canon, but only Williams advocates a truly inclusive polity.

Paul Lusk
Whitstable, Kent

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences