Who Was John Locke
That the John Locke Foundation is named after the 17th century English political philosopher is no mere coincidence; the man was an intellectual titan, one whose thoughts and ideas can be found throughout our country’s earliest political documents, including and especially the Declaration of Independence.
Still, there seems to be some confusion today as to who John Locke is. More than once, someone has called our office and asked to speak to “Mr. Locke” as if he had named the organization after himself.
In an effort to mitigate some of this confusion, we’ve prepared this collection of annotated sources — both original works of Locke and later books and papers — as a resource. We hope it proves just as useful to high school and college students writing papers for school as to the independent scholar who wishes to learn more about this brilliant and influential man.
Below are resources for students and curious adults:
An essay on Locke’s legacy
Written by George M. Stephens, “John Locke: His American and Carolinian Legacy” provides a basic but thorough grounding in the origins of Locke’s ideas in the context of the events of his biography. It emphasizes the role of property rights in Locke’s philosophy, and gives an expansive view of the ways in which the United States, and specifically the US Supreme Court, has viewed those property rights throughout the years.
Composed jointly by Locke and his mentor Lord Shaftesbury, this document was intended to be used as the Constitution of the English Province of Carolina, though it was never officially adopted. It included some remarkably liberal (for 1669) ideas, ones that can be found elsewhere in Locke’s works: the idea that government legitimacy is contingent on the consent of the governed can be seen in the clause which enfranchised even the smallest landowners, and his belief in religious toleration is manifested in the guarantee of political and civil rights to people who did not practice the state-promoted Church of England. It did, however, leave in place and even reinforce the deplorable practice of human slavery.
Originally intended as a personal letter to a friend, the publication of this essay made quite a splash. Locke was a firm believer in the separation of church and state as he felt that the government should have no say in the business of the soul. Locke may have had a degree of private religious conviction, but it did not play a large role in his political philosophy. Rather, his concern with religion was a practical one: the dominant stance (in political philosophy) on religion at the time was Thomas Hobbes’ belief that the state needed to enforce a uniform religion to preserve social order. Locke’s response was that government coercion would actually tend to increase civil unrest, and that the government should be tolerant of any religion which itself practiced toleration. Interestingly, Locke felt that both Catholics and atheists were too disruptive to be allowed.
Because of the radical notions presented in these works and a fear of reprisal, Locke published them anonymously. The First Treatise was a reaction to the then-popular tenet of jure divino (the Divine Right of Kings) which held that kings derived their political legitimacy through direct descent from Adam. Locke counters by saying that, if this were true, there could only ever be one heir to Adam at any one time, and that all but one king currently claiming Divine Right must be an imposter. He also maintains that jure divino is not a sustainable political philosophy, and indeed, it has been all but eliminated.
But it was the Second Treatise for which Locke is most famous. Having repudiated jure divino, he advances a complete political philosophy of his own: that legitimacy flows from the consent of the governed, and at as a result, absolute monarchy is never justified. The other central contribution of the Second Treatise is its assertion that government should merely protect property, which exists both prior to and independent of the state. In Locke’s terms, “property” refers not merely to material things or to land, but also to the ownership of the self — as such, all slavery and domination are not justifiable as outlined in the Second Treatise. The work also contains the idea of the right to revolution which can be clearly traced to language in the Declaration of Independence.
Less explicitly political than his earlier works, the Essay still had a large impact on the thoughts and writings of the Founding Fathers. Locke sets out to demonstrate that human beings are not born with innate ideas or beliefs, but rather that they come into the world as a blank sheet (the Latin phrase tabula rasa is often used to represent this idea). All human thoughts and ideas must therefore be derived from direct sensory perception or through internal contemplation. The latter leads Locke to maintain that there must exist some kind of omnipotent being. This is a conception of a God whose origin is not the Judeo-Christian tradition. Many of the writings of prominent Founding Fathers contain this idea, referencing God without specifically invoking Christian theology.
Originally intended as friendly advice on child-rearing to a friend, this essay may have been Locke’s most influential in Europe. Not a work of political philosophy or really of philosophy at all, it gives advice on how to raise and educate children. Locke believes that children should not be coddled, and that they should develop a sound body in addition to a sound mind. He also argues that they have the same capacity for rationality as adults, and that they should be treated as such.