Colorized portrait (after a Godfrey Kneller illustration) of English philosopher and physician John Locke (1632 - 1704), circa 1898. (Photo by Science Source/Photo Researchers History/Getty Images)

The meaning of Locke

A new book explores the English philosopher’s American afterlife

Artillery Row
America’s Philosopher: John Locke in American Intellectual Life, Claire Rydell Arcenas (University of Chicago Press, $29.99)

You can hardly fault John Locke (1632–1704) for never setting foot on US soil, even as Britain’s American colonies grew into intellectual and religious polestars in the English philosopher’s lifetime. “A child of the Reformation”, per Mark Goldie, “and a progenitor of the Enlightenment”, Locke didn’t need to cross the Atlantic to experience more than his share of political upheavals. In 1642, his Puritan father paused his lawyer duties to serve as cavalry captain to the Parliamentarians during the English Civil War, which ended in 1652, the year his son enrolled at Christ Church (Oxford) to read philosophy and later medicine. Once a graduate, Locke briefly served as personal physician to the Earl of Shaftesbury, who propelled him to state mercantile jobs whilst he juggled with writing on the side. In 1683, he took up exile in Holland under suspicion of partaking in the Rye House Plot to assassinate King Charles II. Back in England upon the Glorious Revolution of 1688, his last two decades were his life’s most prolific, his three main works — his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, his Two Treatises of Government, and his Letter Concerning Toleration — all appearing in quick succession in 1689.

Why does Locke loom so large in the American imagination? Through what mystery did an Englishman who not once visited Britain’s American colonies end up, nearly a century after his death, so centrally influencing the creation of America? Locke is “America’s Philosopher”, per the title of Claire Rydell Arcenas’ attempt to solve that riddle. The Stanford-trained scholar traces Locke’s pervasive influence since the 18th century, “at the centre” and “impacting every corner” of American intellectual life — dispelling some common misconceptions along the way. Whilst he doubtless played a key role inspiring the Founders who would go on to declare independence and establish a new constitutional republic, Locke is far more than the “lawgiver”, in George Bancroft’s words, behind Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence (1776). His influence on successive generations of American leaders — and indeed on the wider society — was at once more sustained and less abstract than that. The story of that influence, Arcenas writes in the introduction, is one of “striking transformation, and his role in the story, she claims, “has changed substantially over time”.

To begin with, Locke’s image as an influence solely in the realm of political theory is a recent perception that Americans wrongly project backwards onto the past. Upon his death, Locke became to elite American society primarily a “role model” and a “personal exemplar”, rising to fame as a theoretician only decades later. Across various pastimes and pursuits, readers turned to Locke — whose conduct and morals they admired — for “guidance on cultivating their intellect and character”. Much like his counsel on childrearing and scriptural analysis, his system of “commonplacing” (an index he advised to keep of books read and their gist) became a go-to method for digesting and retaining one’s readings over time. Referencing Locke in conversation or shelving him in one’s library, Arcenas tells us, was a “measure of one’s character”, something colonial colleges projected by including his works in their curricula. Readers thus learnt of the philosopher-exemplar’s “honesty, abstemiousness, and self-discipline, his skill at storytelling, dislike of time-wasting, and regard for civility”. “Locke’s authority”, therefore, “was a product as much of his reputation … as of the intrinsic merit of his proposals”.

More crucially — and still removed from any later sway as a political theorist — Locke was someone young Americans invoked as they learned to reason. A disciple and admirer of Descartes who had lamented the French mathematician’s absence from the Oxford curricula, Locke agreed that substances could be categorised as either mind or matter but rejected the cartesian belief in innate ideas such as belief in God (though he would later embrace natural rights). He postulated instead that the mind at birth was a tabula rasa — a blank slate — and that knowledge formed through an interplay of sensation (perception through the five senses) and reflection. Locke’s empiricism was popularly acclaimed across denominations in the religiously vibrant colonies of America, but Scottish moral philosophy would go on to somewhat tweak it, considering morality as a sixth sense through which God’s existence could be ascertained. Through his Essay, his Letter Concerning Toleration and his Reasonableness of Christianity, Locke the epistemologist helped kindle a robust defence of religious toleration that did not devolve into nihilism — a point he reaffirmed in Epistola de Tolerantia (1685).

Locke’s work celebrated the English parliamentary monarchy

The next myth Arcenas dispels is the idea of Locke’s philosophical message as a dagger pointed at the British monarchy, which American revolutionaries keenly and coherently wielded to cast off the imperial yoke. Far from it, Locke’s work celebrated the English constitutional tradition of parliamentary monarchy and government by consent. Whilst the conjecture — once widespread among political theorists — that Locke wrote his Two Treatises (1689) in defence of the Glorious Revolution has been deemed ahistorical, the presumption that Locke was arguing against the British constitutional dispensation in that text is even more off-base. “Locke’s work on government, Arcenas tells us, “was not some radical, revolutionary text owned by Americans, but a sound defence written by an Englishman of the very rights and constitutional principles” the American revolutionaries blamed their colonial masters for straying away from. “Locke’s perspective, she goes on, “as an Englishman and celebrated defender of English liberties” helped make visible that “there is a spirit which pervades the system of English jurisprudence, which inspires a freedom of thought, speech and behaviour. 

Though popular in scholarly discussion, it’s also wrong to associate Locke’s political writings to any kind of measurable societal outcome in practice, Arcenas claims. The theoretical constructs Locke produced in the late 17th century — the idea of a state as a social construct that individuals concerned with life, liberty and property entered by consent, thus leaving the state of nature — were an altogether different arena from the very practical quandaries freedom-loving Americans were entering into in the late 18th century. By then, “American commentators came to see political theory and practice as not only different but opposed, Arcenas writes, relegating Locke’s writings to the realm of “abstract, speculative theory”. Americans, as a result, “increasingly rejected the state of nature and the social contract on the grounds that they were ahistorical and emphasised the limits of their practical applicability”.

Yet part of this speculative tenor is precisely what made Locke’s influence so enduring. In Arcenas’ terms, “he provided colonists with ways to conceptualize their concerns against the backdrop of timeless theoretical questions about the nature of political legitimacy and authority”. Those questions, Arcenas stresses, were not perceived then to be about the individualist maximisation of utility that subsequent libertarian dogma has retrofitted into Locke’s legacy. Instead, Jefferson’s triad of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” was to be applied collectively in gauging a given regime. “Happiness” as Jefferson meant it — drawing inspiration from Locke — “was synonymous with public, social happiness resulting from a people’s well-being and their ability not as atomistic individuals but as a society to judge whether or not a particular government made them happy”. Arcenas sums this up in the introduction by arguing that Locke “revealed something exceptional about American political institutions”, and his story “reveals how Americans have, over time, addressed what is arguably the central question of any democratic-republican society: how to ensure its (continued) flourishing”.

Arcenas reads in Locke’s conflicting interpretations a sign of his status

Later, Henry Fox Bourne’s 1876 biography punctuated the way America had begun, by the 19th century, to process Locke as having a renewed relevance on the present, or in Arcenas’ terms, as an “origin story” of American political thought. “No longer an example of ahistorical, unscientific theorizing that belonged to a past age, she writes, “Locke became a bubbling spring for what both theorists and historians were increasingly interpreting as a continuous stream” of that thought. In 1937, a famous essay by Merle Curti reaffirmed Locke’s centrality as America’s Philosopher, arguing the view that, beyond inspiring the “gospel” of the founders, “there was something fundamentally Lockean about American thinking” in the present. His fresh relevance owed to reciprocal attempts by right and left to appropriate his legacy. Libertarians credited Locke with inventing natural rights without countervailing duties, whilst the progressive left — red-pilled by Charles Beard’s economic read of the Constitution, partly regurgitated in the 1619 Project — smeared him as the progenitor of slave-owning, propertied capitalism. This “malleability”, Arcenas argues, is what ensures Locke’s appeal to this day.

Rather counterintuitively, Arcenas reads in Locke’s conflicting interpretations a sign of his status as a “compromise between socialism and laissez-faire, between concern for communal good and individual rights”. This fusionist appraisal of Locke as a neutral vehicle of American ideals of all persuasions rose with the tide of geopolitics in World War II’s aftermath. As it became increasingly clear that America would pick up Britain’s torch in defence of Western civilization against Nazi barbarism and, later, Soviet communism, Locke became a “consensus figure” against totalitarianism of right and left. The bestselling book The Liberal Tradition in America (1955) by Harvard historian Louis Hartz further enshrined the view that America’s “Lockian spirit” worked not only to infuse America’s role in the Cold War with philosophical meaning, but also as a bulwark keeping a check on the rise of homegrown communism. “By the mid-1960s,” Arcenas writes, “Locke’s importance for America’s democratic, rights-conscious political theory was crystal clear to everyone, no matter where they were on the political spectrum. To question Locke, she goes on, “was akin to questioning a deity”.

Yet that deity would soon undergo a degree of heightened scrutiny that continues today. Though Arcenas’ timeframe excludes recent critiques by Patrick Deneen and Yoram Hazony, her account of Locke’s reception in the early conservative movement provides cues to chart his afterlife’s continuity. Locke’s critics emerged in the social-conservative leg of Frank Meyer’s proverbial three-legged stool: both Willmore Kendall and Russell Kirk faulted Locke’s “all-consuming emphasis on natural rights” for its “areligiosity” and its “atomistic coldness”. For Allan Bloom, “Locke represented an origin point for the modern, individualist, relativist, anything-goes current flowing out from the Enlightenment to the present day”. Had she ventured further into the present, Arcenas would have happened upon an even more precarious Locke, caught between the rock of Nikole Hannah-Jones’ historical revisionism and the hard place of Hazony and Deneen’s post-liberalism. Whereas Locke was once — as famously sketched out in George Will’s Conservative Sensibility (2019) — the right’s best reason to be hopeful about America, he is now a besieged former idol at best. Whether he survives at all remains to be seen.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover