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The Core Curriculum

Historical Context for Second Treatise & Letter on Toleration

  U.S. Declaration of Independence, 1823 William Stone Facsimile. (Wikimedia Commons) Locke’s ideas were a major influence among the American founders. U.S. Declaration of Independence, 1823 William Stone Facsimile. (Wikimedia Commons) Locke’s ideas were a major influence among the American founders. Locke was living through a time of tumult and transition. The England of Locke’s day was still a predominantly rural and deeply Christian society. To make sense of Locke, it is necessary to keep both his old-fashioned and his modern ideas in view at once. Surely a creature of his present, he was also squarely rooted in the past, and gazing far into the future.

First, and perhaps most interestingly, Locke is rooted in the past—specifically, in Biblical theology. Locke was a devout, if not orthodox, Christian and a serious reader of Scripture. Locke, although rational and enlightened for his time, had no interest in overturning all religion. Some scholars argue that Locke’s philosophical views cannot be separated from divine revelation and biblical sanction. The “state of nature”, they point out, and the “laws of nature” that are supposed to exist there, are rooted in theology and defended using Scriptural evidence.

He was also a creature of his present, and he has much in common with the other early modern figures. Like Descartes, Galileo, and Hobbes, Locke was interested in using reason and sensory experience to argue his case. He began, remember, as a doctor, and it was through the rapidly changing field of medicine that Locke was introduced to the new, mechanistic theories of the Scientific Revolution. Although today we think of Locke primarily as a political thinker, in his time he was just as famous for his scientific theories of psychology and human education.  It was his theories of perception and memory, as explained in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which made Locke famous. In contrast to Descartes, Locke was an empiricist: he believed that we lack innate knowledge, and we know only what we can experience.

Lastly, and most significantly, Locke points to the future. Locke’s belief that government should rest on consent, and that the government exists to protect the people’s rights, would have enormous impact in the centuries to come. Lockean ideas were not the only sources for the Founding Fathers of the American Revolution: they were also influenced by more traditional political thinkers like Machiavelli. But many of the founding documents of the United States – and most prominently the Declaration of Independence – are clearly inspired by John Locke.

 

Written by James Chappel, Department of History, Columbia University

Works Consulted:

John Dunn, The Political Thought of John Locke: An Historical Account of the Argument of the 'Two Treatises of Government” (London, 1969)

Peter Laslett’s “Introduction” to John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (New York, 1988)

Roy Porter, The Creation of the Modern World: The Untold Story of the British Enlightenment (New York, 2000)

Jeremy Waldron, God, Locke and Equality: Christian Foundations of Locke's Political Thought (New York, 2002)