Saturday, July 30, 2022

Locke in the Declaration of Independence: A Response to Claire Rydell Arcenas's Argument

Over the years, I have written a lot about Lockean liberalism in American political thought--particularly as expressed in the Declaration of Independence.  But a new book by Claire Rydell Arcenas--America's Philosopher: John Locke in American Intellectual Life--argues that this idea that Locke's ideas (particularly in his Second Treatise of Government) influenced the Declaration of Independence is a "myth."  There are, however, two major weaknesses in Arcenas's argument that are illustrated by her handling of the intellectual history of the Declaration of Independence.

Nevertheless, I should say that her book is valuable as an intellectual history of John Locke's influence in America from the colonial period to the present.  She shows that that influence has been so deep and so enduring that Locke can indeed be identified as "America's Philosopher."  I find much of what she says persuasive.

I am not fully persuaded for two reasons.  She is not a careful reader of Locke.  And she employs a deceptive silence that allows her to ignore the best criticisms of her reasoning.  I will explain these two points, and then I will show how they are manifested in her account of the Declaration of Independence.

Although Arcenas's denial of the Lockean character of the Declaration of Independence is only a small part of her history of Locke in America, it is the crucial turn in her general argument.


Arcenas speaks about what "careful readers of Locke's work" know about his writings (50).  Unfortunately, Arcenas offers no evidence that she is one of those careful readers.  On the contrary, she often suggests that either she has not read Locke at all, or that she has only glanced at some passages in Locke's texts with the help of some summaries by some scholarly commentators.  For example, after a brief survey of Locke's life and work, she refers her reader to "some succinct summaries of Locke's work" in The Cambridge Companion to Locke and elsewhere (6, 174, n.18).  When she writes about Locke's Reasonableness of Christianity and his Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul, she does not quote or cite any passages in those books, but instead, once again, she cites some scholarly summaries of those books (28-29, 184, nn. 115, 119).

At no point in her book, does Arcenas develop a careful reading of any portion of Locke's texts.  Now Arcenas might respond by saying that she does not present her book as an accurate interpretation of Locke's writing.  She explains: "This, then, is not a book about John Locke, the seventeenth-century English philosopher, but rather a book about how Americans over time have understood and made sense of him, his work, his ideas, and his relevance.  I present interpretations of Locke's life, ideas, and works through the eyes of my subjects--not the lenses of modern scholars" (4-5).  But, as we have just seen, she does rely on "the lenses of modern scholars" to provide accurate summaries of Locke's writings.  Moreover, she often corrects what she claims to be distortions of Locke's texts.  For example, she asserts that "careful readers of Locke's works" know that what the Declaration of Independence calls "the pursuit of Happiness" cannot be found in Locke's writing (50-51, 127).


A second weakness in Arcenas's book is that she is deceptively silent about the many good objections to her arguments.  One of the fundamental standards for scholarly writing is that if a scholar takes a position on some controversial topic, that scholar is obligated to explain and then rebut the best arguments for the opposing positions in the debate.  Arcenas does not do that.  Nowhere in her book does she explain to her reader the objections to her reasoning and then refute those objections.  Her silence allows her to ignore her critics without directly engaging them in debate.

She might respond by saying that in fact she identifies her critics by citing their writings.  And, indeed, in a few of the endnotes to her book, she does list some articles and books that argue against her position (176, n. 8, and 190, n. 72, 191, n. 75).  But she never explains the evidence and arguments laid out by these critics, and she never attempts to show how these critics are mistaken.  In this way, she makes it impossible for her reader to weigh the opposing sides in this debate.


Both of these weaknesses are manifest in what she says about "a central myth of the American Revolution"--that the Declaration of Independence shows the influence of Locke's ideas, particularly his political teaching in the Second Treatise (49-51).

The most obvious way to resolve this question is to compare the texts of the Declaration of Independence and the Second Treatise to see if there are any similarities in the language and ideas of these two works.  Surprisingly, Arcenas never does that, although she does argue that the language of "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness" in the Declaration of Independence is very different from "Lives, Liberties, and Estates" in the Second Treatise.

A careful reader who compares these two texts will see some remarkable similarities in their language, and these similarities have been noticed by many Americans from the time of the American Revolution to the present as clear evidence of Locke's influence on the Declaration.  Here I will point to ten of these similarities.

1.  In its first sentence, the Declaration appeals to "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God."  Any careful reader of Locke's Second Treatise will recognize this as similar to expressions used by Locke.  He often speaks of the "Laws of God and Nature" (66, 142, 195), the "Law of Nature" (1, 4), and "God and Nature" (60).  Similar expressions can be found widely in authors of the seventeenth and eighteenth century.  I have written about "Nature's God" as the deity of the Declaration.

2.  The famous second sentence of the Declaration begins by invoking those "truths" that are held to be "self-evident," of which the first is that "all men are created equal."  This echoes Locke's holding the "equality of Men by Nature" as "so evident in it self," there being "nothing more evident, than that Creatures of the same species and rank" should be "equal one amongst another" (4-5).  Locke also speaks of "Men being . . . by Nature, all free, equal and independent" (95).  In Jefferson's first draft of the Declaration, he wrote that "all men are created equal & independent; that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable" (Becker 1942, 142).  Locke's phrase "equal and independent" also appeared in George Mason's Virginia Bill of Rights: "That all men are by nature equally free and independent."

3.  Also in the second sentence of the Declaration, the "unalienable Rights" are said to include "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."  This is the only passage in the Declaration that draws Arcenas's attention.  She says that this language cannot be found in Locke's Second Treatise.  Locke says that in leaving the state of nature, people "unite for the mutual Preservation of their Lives, Liberties and Estates, which I call by the general Name, Property" (123).  Clearly, Arcenas claims, this language in the Second Treatise cannot be the source for the passage in the Declaration.  Most importantly, she asserts, the phrase "pursuit of Happiness" is not Locke's (Arcenas 50-51).  This assertion will seem strange to anyone who has read Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, because this book has a long chapter on "Power" that speaks repeatedly of the "pursuit of happiness" (II.xxi.39, 44, 48, 52-53, 61-63, 70).  It is surprising that Arcenas says nothing about this, particularly since she argues that for most of American history, Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding was more widely read and studied than his Two Treatises of Government.  One has to wonder whether she has actually read Locke's Essay.  One also has to wonder why she says nothing about the passage in Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration where he summarizes the Second Treatise in arguing that governments were established to secure people in their lives and property and in the things that contribute to the "Happiness of this Life," while "leaving in the mean while to every Man the care of his own Eternal Happiness" (Locke 2010, 46-47).  In such passages, we see Locke affirming that people have a natural right to the "pursuit of happiness," the same idea that is affirmed in the Declaration.

That Arcenas is unaware of what Locke says about the "pursuit of happiness" is especially surprising because she cites C. Bradley Thompson's book America's Revolutionary Mind, which has a long section on how Jefferson could have borrowed the phrase "pursuit of happiness" from Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Arcenas 2022, 190, n. 72; Thompson 2019a, 206-220).  Arcenas either cited this book without actually having read it, or she did read it but decided to pass over Thompson's argument in silence.

4.  In the third sentence of the Declaration, it is claimed that governments are instituted among men "to secure these rights."  Similarly, the Second Treatise often says that governments are established "to secure" or "preserve" natural rights (87, 131, 222, 225).

5. This establishment of government to secure natural rights is said by the Declaration to be based on "the consent of the governed."  This idea appears many times in the Second Treatise (102, 104-106, 112, 119, 121-22, 138, 140, 168, 175, 198).

6.  When a government fails to secure these rights, then the Declaration recognizes "the Right of the People to alter or abolish it," and to institute a new government that is "most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."  But prudence dictates caution in overthrowing any government that has been long established, "and accordingly all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed."  Locke expresses a similar thought in the Second Treatise, in responding to the objection that if people are taught that they have a right to dissolve a government that they don't like, this will lead to frequent rebellions and thus anarchy.  In fact, Locke insists, people are slow to rebel.  "For till the mischief be grown general, and ill designs of the Rulers become visible, or their attempts sensible to the greater part, the People, who are more disposed to suffer, than right themselves by Resistance, are not apt to stir" (230).  This phrasing of "more disposed to suffer" is identical in the Declaration and the Second Treatise.

7.  Similarly, the Declaration's phrasing of "abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed" repeats Locke's wording in the Second Treatise: "People are not so easily got out of their old Forms, as some are apt to suggest.  They are hardly to be prevailed with to amend the acknowledg'd Faults, in the Frame they have been accustom'd to" (223).

8.  But even though people are slow to rebel against their long-established governments, the Declaration explains, "when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security."  This echoes Locke's language about how a government that shows an evident tendency towards despotism can provoke the people to revolution: "if a long train of Abuses, Prevarications, and Artifices, all tending the same way, make the design visible to the People, and they cannot but feel, what they lie under, and see, wither they are going; 'tis not to be wonder'd, that they should then rouze themselves, and endeavour to put the rule into such hands, which may secure to them the ends for which Government was at first erected" (225; compare 210, 230).

9.  Next, the Declaration asserts: "The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.  To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world."  This introduces the longest section of the Declaration--a long list of grievances, a factual indictment of Great Britain based on an asserted history of abuses.  This part of the Declaration corresponds to Locke's many references to the political history of England under the Stuart Monarchy, in which he identified acts that might have justified a revolution against Charles II and that did in fact justify the Revolution of 1688 overthrowing James II and installing King William.

10.  Finally, in the last two sentences of the Declaration that formally declare the independence of America from British rule, there is an appeal "to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions" and to "the Protection of Divine Providence."  Similarly, Locke appeals to the "Supreme Judge of all Men," which is part of his "appeal to Heaven," which is an appeal to the God of Battles to settle the revolutionary dispute between the People and the government in war (21, 240-43).  And, in fact, the Declaration of Independence was a declaration of war, an "appeal to Heaven."

The phrase "appeal to Heaven" was coined by Locke, and this phrase was put on the Americans' "Appeal to Heaven" flag, the first flag of the American Navy in 1775.  I have written about this previously.


Arcenas might respond to all this by saying that this is irrelevant to what she has done in her book.  After all, as we have seen, she says that her book is not a book about John Locke or about what scholars today might see in Locke's texts.  Since she is writing about the intellectual history of how Locke has been interpreted by Americans from colonial times to the present, it doesn't matter for this purpose whether scholars today can see verbal parallels between the Declaration of Independence and Locke's Second Treatise.  The question is whether contemporary Americans of Jefferson's time thought that Locke's Second Treatise was a primary source for Jefferson's Declaration of Independence.  "In a word," she says, "the answer is no" (49).

But for Arcenas to say this, she must ignore the historical evidence that Jefferson's contemporaries really did see the remarkable influence of the Second Treatise on Jefferson's writing of the Declaration.  For example, Arcenas is silent about the American debate--during the last 25 years of Jefferson's life, 1801-1826--over whether Jefferson had plagiarized much of the Declaration of Independence from Locke's Second Treatise.  Oddly, in one endnote of her book (191, n. 75), Arcenas cites an article by Brad Thompson (2019b) that tells the story of this debate, but then she never explains the story or explains why this should not be considered crucial evidence against one of the main arguments of her book.

In 1800, Jefferson was elected president in one of the most acrimonious elections in American history.  This was the first presidential election in which two deeply partisan factions fought an ideological battle--with the Federalists led by John Adams and the Republicans led by Jefferson.  A few months after Jefferson's inauguration in 1801, the staunchly Republican New York City newspaper the American Citizen and General Advertiser published a two-part essay by the editors on "John Locke."  They identified Locke as "the first writer on political science that ever justly defined the principles of civil government," and they said that Jefferson's Declaration of Independence had stated those principles as first set forth in Locke's Second Treatise.  In fact, they observed, the reader of the Second Treatise "will find in it all the ideas and nearly the words verbatim, which are contained in that declaration."  They said that the "sentiments" in Jefferson's Declaration were "more elegantly expressed than in Locke's Essay, but the ideas are precisely the same, and the words nearly so."  So these pro-Jefferson newspaper editors in 1801 had seen the same similarities between the Second Treatise and the Declaration that we have just laid out.

Many Federalist newspapers were happy to reprint passages from the American Citizen's editorial as showing that Jefferson's reputation as the great author of the Declaration of Independence was fraudulent because he had plagiarized from Locke.  For example, the editors of Boston's Columbian Centinel said that Jefferson had "stolen all the ideas in the Declaration of Independence from Locke."

Writers for the Republican newspapers then tried to defend Jefferson from this charge of plagiarism.  The editors of Boston's Independent Chronicle said that if "Mr. Jefferson had copied from" Locke, "who was the parent and apologist of the modern revolutionary principles," then Jefferson "would have no reason to blush, nor his friends to be ashamed, that he had the wisdom to adopt the sentiments of that illustrious republican."

As Thompson has shown, this debate continued, off and on, until Jefferson's death in 1826.  And as Thompson indicates, what is remarkable is that everyone in this debate agreed that Locke's influence on Jefferson's Declaration was clear, and many of them compared passages from the Second Treatise and the Declaration to show the verbal echoes that confirmed the Lockean origins of the Declaration.

If the Declaration of Independence was intended to be "an expression of the American mind," as Jefferson said in 1825, then the evidence from this debate, Thompson concludes, supports a syllogism:

Major premise: The Declaration of Independence is an expression of the American mind.

Minor premise: America's revolutionary mind was an expression of Locke's political philosophy.

Conclusion: The Declaration of Independence was an expression of Locke's mind.

In writing her book, Arcenas decided not to confront and refute the evidence and arguments for this syllogism.  That was a mistake.


Arcenas, Claire Rydell. 2022. America's Philosopher: John Locke in American Intellectual Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Becker, Carl L. 1942. The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas. New York: Vintage Books.

Locke, John. 1970. Two Treatises of Government. Ed. Peter Laslett. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Locke, John. 1975. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Ed. Peter H. Nidditch. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Locke, John. 2010. A Letter Concerning Toleration and Other Writings. Ed. Mark Goldie. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund.

Thompson, C. Bradley. 2019a. America's Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration that Defined It. New York: Encounter Books.

Thompson, C. Bradley. 2019b. "John Locke and the American Mind." American Political Thought 8 (Fall): 575-593.

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