John Locke and The American Founding

Jonah Goldberg makes an important point.

The Dispatch:

“Embedded deep in this idea is a recognition that talking about freedom is a winning issue with Americans because Americans actually value freedom a great deal. This goes to the heart of one of my main disagreements with Deneen and Hazony, who seem convinced that John Locke is the author of all the woes of the West. …”

In this sense, I agree with Patrick Deneen.

John Locke and the liberal tradition is at the root of our problems. At the same time, John Locke surprisingly also had little to do with the American Founding.

“I think Locke made valuable and important contributions to the West and to the American Founders, but I think his enemies today exaggerate his influence more than his fans do. John Locke no more created liberalism than Adam Smith created capitalism. Oscar and Lilian Handlin make a powerful case that Locke is more of a stand-in or shorthand for a whole bundle of ideas in wide currency at the time. Locke isn’t mentioned in the Federalist Papers. Locke wrote extensively about slavery, but as the Handlins note, there’s no record of any Founder invoking him during the debates over slavery at the time. When writing my book, I searched the National Archives database for references to Locke during the founding era. I was shocked by how paltry the results were. There’s ample evidence that his work in epistemology and psychology—then called “natural philosophy”—impressed the Founders greatly. But the Second Treatise on Government—basically the Necronomicon of evil libertarian thought among his detractors—simply wasn’t the Book That Changed Everything.

I don’t say any of this to disparage Locke, but simply to note that Locke reflected ideas and principles that were already thick on the ground at the time, in England and, later, America. American culture is still a liberty-loving culture—not as much as I’d like, of course. But just as 99 percent of the socialists out there screaming about the evils of capitalism have read little to no Marx, most of the Americans who cherish liberty know next to nothing about Locke, and they still cherish liberty just the same. Certainly Donald Trump is not deeply versed in his writings.” 

As I pointed out to Thomas Main, the American Revolution was already in progress when John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government was first printed in America in Boston in 1773. Locke’s work was generally ignored in Britain for almost a century after it was published in 1689.

If any American colony could be said to have been an experiment in classical liberalism, then it has to be South Carolina because Locke himself was personally involved in the founding of the colony. And yet, the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina was never adopted in the colony. The colonists resisted the Lords Proprietors and eventually they succeeded in overthrowing the government and South Carolina became a royal colony in 1719. John Locke and the Earl of Shaftesbury only had a minimal influence on South Carolina’s political development aside from establishing slavery and white supremacy.

Jonah Goldberg is right that John Locke was not nearly as influential at the time as he is so widely assumed to have been today. He is correct that there was a culture of liberty and republicanism in America that stemmed from other sources like the 18th century Commonwealth men.

“The eighteenth-century commonwealthmen have not survived a great names – John Trenchard, Thomas Gordon, and Benjamin Hoadly, Bishop of Winchester, were the most important – but in the fashioning of revolutionary ideology in America they had an influence that surpassed Locke’s. To be sure, they drew upon Locke and others more original than themselves. Indeed, their ideas were not original, and the heart of their political theory resembled closely the great Whig consensus of the century. They praised the mixed constitution of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, and they attributed English liberty to it; and like Locke they postulated a state of nature from which rights arose within the civil polity, created by mutual consent, guaranteed; they argued that a contract formed government and that sovereignty resided in the people. These ideas were so widely shared in England as to be conventional, but the eighteenth-century radicals put them to unconventional uses. These radicals rarely got into Parliament – and never in numbers – but they formed an opposition to a succession of ministries and to the complancency of the age. While Whigs and English governments sang the praises of English institutions, English history, and English liberty, the radicals chanted hymns of mourning, dirges for the departing liberty of England and the rising corruption in English politics and society. Within all states, from ancient Rome to the present, they argued, there were attempts to enslave the people. The history of politics was nothing other than the history of the struggle between power and liberty. Trenchard and Gordon called one of Cato’s Letters: Essays on Liberty (1721) “Cautions Against the Natural Encroachments of Power”; in that essay they declared that “it is natural for Power to be striving to enlarge itself, and to be encroaching upon those that have none.” Cato’s Letters likens power to fire – “it warms, scorches, or destroys, according as it is watched, provoked, or increased. It is as dangerous as it is useful … it is apt to break its bounds.” There was in the radical ideology a profound distrust of power, then, power as force, as coercion, as aggression. What did power encroach upon? Liberty, usually defined as the use and enjoyment of one’s natural rights within the limits of law in civil society.”

The Radical Whigs were the wellspring of American Nationalism. If American Nationalism means anything, it traces back to the political theory of the 18th century Commonwealthmen.

“The political ideas of Americans in 1760 did not take their origins from congregational democracy or revivalistic religion. Most American ideas were a part of the great tradition of the eighteenth-century commonwealthmen, the radical Whig ideology that arose from a series of upheavals in seventeenth-century England – the Civil War, the exclusion crisis of 1679-81, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 …

The American Revolution revealed that this radical Whig understanding of politics had embedded itself deeply in American minds. In Britain only the dissenting fringe accepted the Whig analysis.”

“Liberal democracy” and “classical liberalism” are both the invention of later ages. The Founders created a republican system of government and later in the early 19th century it came to be conflated with liberalism primarily due to the influence of George Bancroft’s series History of the United States. The United States was only finally transformed into a liberal state during the Reconstruction era.

About Hunter Wallace 9453 Articles
Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Occidental Dissent


  1. The classic Greeks and Romans probably had more influence on the Founding Fathers than anyone alive today understands. The Founders all read the ancients, and discussed with each other what they had read!

    The Comparative Government (Politics) of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Polybius were widely read, and discussed by the Founders. Today with our huge college and university systems, few read the classics, even fewer discuss them.

    I have a book around here somewhere by a fellow named Carl Richard who does a pretty good job explaining the influence of the classics on the Founders.

  2. 1. M. E. Bradford argued that those who hold up Locke as the key to understanding the Founding Fathers and America never ask but simply assume it was the Second Treatise that influenced them. In fact, most references to Locke were to his writings on property. Montesquieu was much more referenced.
    2. Eric Voegelin despised Locke, considering his teachings on consent an intellectual cheat, Not relevant to gauging his influence on the Founders, but still should give pause to those who might consider reviving Locke as an answer to our problems. Following the father of liberalism holds out no hope for us.

  3. Great point Hunter about the US founders being linked to the more radical Whigs who were marginal in Britain

    Ties in somewhat, with the European notion that the USA was founded by the misfits and extremists and more aggressive types, who couldn’t get along in the old country, resulting in insanities like the USA 1920-34 prohibition of alcohol

    In a different society, Hunter, you maybe would have gotten a history PhD and taught … maybe after the USA restoration or break up, you’ll do that

  4. There are not many direct references to Locke in the writings of the Founders, but I think it is wrong to minimize the role of Lockean thinking on them. Jefferson basically summarized Locke’s theory of Natural Right in the first couple of paragraphs of the Declaration. Beyond that, Locke’s natural rights of life, liberty, and property are specifically protected from deprivation by the government without due process of law in the Fifth Amendment.

    That being said, I think most of the Founding generation was more familiar with Lockean concepts of limited government and natural right from the English Bill of Rights (which served as an inspiration for the Virginia Bill of Rights and later the first ten amendments to the Constitution) and the Glorious Revolution.

    Whether Locke inspired the Glorious Revolution, or simply reported on it post hoc in the Second Treatise, is a separate question.

  5. True, liberalism as an ideology took form after power had already shifted to the bourgeois class. From there it became a feedback loop.

  6. Off-topic, but pertinent: Most of the people we have to been taught see as geniuses and innovators were just thieves and plagiarizers, including Einstein, Edison, Bell and the Wright Bros.

    The above is why we should always be agnostic about information. We might be signing off on lies that are accepted merely because they’ve been repeated enough to be taken as gospel truth. We need to be fixed on basic principles. A strong, incorruptible core will serve you best, even when you fall for lies. Eventually, if you don’t get lost too deeply in cultural programming, you’ll right yourself.

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