Thursday, August 18, 2022

The Lockean Liberal Tradition in America: An Assessment of Arcenas's Intellectual History

In America's Philosopher: John Locke in American Intellectual Life, Claire Rydell Arcenas gives us a meticulous and comprehensive intellectual history of Locke's reception in America, from the early colonial period to the end of the twentieth century.  For that reason, anyone who wants to understand that history will have to study her book.  There are, however, some flaws in her reasoning.

Arcenas tries to prove that Locke's Second Treatise of Government did not create "the Lockean liberal tradition in America," as Louis Hartz famously called it.  To prove this, she makes three arguments.  First, she says the term "Lockean liberalism" is so vague as to be meaningless, and thus open to endless conflicting interpretations.  "By merging the adjective Lockean and liberalism," she claims, "Hartz exemplified the murkiness--and malleability--of the concept of Lockean liberalism, which he was among the first to put into words" (138).

Her second argument is that throughout most of American history prior to the middle of the twentieth century, Locke's Second Treatise was not very influential in America.  Even in those cases where we might assume the influence of the Second Treatise is clear--as in Thomas Jefferson's writing of the Declaration of Independence--Arcenas insists that we are mistaken.

Her third argument is that for most periods of American history, Locke's reception in America came not through Americans reading the Second Treatise, but through his other books that were more popular--particularly, The Essay Concerning Human Understanding, The Letter Concerning Toleration, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, and The Reasonableness of Christianity.  Consequently, the political teaching of the Second Treatise was not very influential in America, at least prior to the middle of the twentieth century, because only then did Americans begin to identify Locke as primarily the author of the Second Treatise

I find all three of these arguments unpersuasive.


First, does "Lockean liberalism" have any discernible meaning?  Of course, Locke himself did not use the term "liberalism," because this English word as a label for a moral and political idea did not come into use until sometime around 1820.  But if the word has any meaning, we can ask whether it applies to Locke's teaching.  And as Arcenas indicates, since the middle of the twentieth century, many scholars have defined liberalism in a way that seems to capture the core of Locke's teaching.

For example, in her book John Locke's Liberalism (1987), Ruth Grant identifies the "liberal premise" as the idea that "men are naturally free and equal" (66).  She explains liberal political theory as founded on this premise: "It takes its bearings from the thought that all men have an equal right to govern their actions as they see fit.  No man has an intrinsic or natural right to govern another.  In other words, men are equal in the sense that they are by nature free" (1).  Starting from this premise of the natural freedom and equality of all adult human beings, a liberal political theorist infers that no man can rightly rule over another man without that other man's consent.

Grant can then point to passages in the Two Treatises where Locke affirms this liberal premise.  Locke says that the natural condition of man is a "State of perfect Freedom" (FT, 67; ST, 4).  There is an "equal right that every Man hath, to his Natural Freedom, without being subjected to the Will or Authority of any other Man" (ST, 7, 54).  We can identify this as "Lockean liberalism," and we can then argue about whether Locke was right about this, and whether much of American political thought rests upon this Lockean idea.

Arcenas cites in an endnote of her book the work of Grant and other scholars who see Lockean liberalism as shaping the American political tradition (174n9).  But Arcenas never replies to their arguments.  She does this a lot--citing in her endnotes the work of scholars who would criticize her position but then never answering the criticisms.


Arcenas begins her argument for minimizing the influence of Locke's Second Treatise in America by claiming that in early colonial America (from 1700 to 1760), there is almost no evidence that anyone read the Second Treatise, although they did read some of Locke's other books.  She sees only two pieces of evidence for the Second Treatise reaching colonial America during this time.  The first is a pamphlet by Elisha Williams published in 1844.  She summarizes this long pamphlet (over 60 pages) in one sentence: "Angry about the new limitations being placed on itinerant preachers in Connecticut, he paired the Letter Concerning Toleration with the Second Treatise and used them to demonstrate the 'essential rights and liberties of Protestants'" (27-28).  In one of her endnotes, she mentions a second reference to the Second Treatise by "Americano-Britannus" in the Maryland Gazette in 1748 (176n9).

There are many more cases of published references to the Second Treatise before 1760 about which Arcenas is totally silent.  For example, in 1701, John Montague quoted two long passages from the Second Treatise about "the Fundamental Principles and Ends of Government," and particularly about how the people established government by their consent to secure their property.  This may be the earliest appeal to Locke's ideas in British America--only twelve years after the publication of the Second Treatise in 1689.

Another example is in a pamphlet published in 1725, in which John Bulkley devoted about fifteen pages to quoting and paraphrasing "the Words of that Great Man Mr. Lock" in the Second Treatise about how "all Men are . . . Equal, Free & Independent & remain so till by Contracts" they establish a government to secure their natural rights.  So he affirmed the liberal premise.  Bulkley gave special attention to how Locke quoted from Josephus Acosta's anthropological report about the native Americans in the New World as evidence that the state of nature was a historical reality among the hunter-gatherers of America.  This explains Locke's famous claim that "in the beginning, all the world was America."  

This denies Arcenas's claim that the state of nature is an ahistorical fiction.  Americans had learned from Locke that his argument for natural rights in the state of nature is rooted in what he called "the history of mankind" (ST, 49, 100-112, 175; Essay, I.3.10; II.28.12).  In an endnote, Arcenas expresses her surprise that "observers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did not shy away from taking [the state of nature] literally, i.e., historically" (186n14).

In 1728, three years after Bulkley's pamphlet, Daniel Dulany wrote a pamphlet published in Maryland in which he quoted and paraphrased the Second Treatise, including Locke's declaration that the state of nature is "a State of Equality, wherein all Power and jurisdiction, is reciprocal; no one having more than another" (ST, 4).  Here's the liberal premise again.

In 1741, an article in the American Magazine--"Remarks on the Maryland Government and Constitution"--provides another example of someone quoting and paraphrasing the Second Treatise.  This author explained Locke's radical interpretation of the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 as a reversion to the state of nature, in which the British People could establish a new government by their consent to secure their natural rights.

Although Arcenas mentions Elisha Williams's political sermon of 1744, she passes over it in one sentence; and thus she does not allow her reader to notice that Williams devoted about eight long pages to a detailed summary of the Second Treatise that began: "First, as to the origin--Reason teaches us that all men are naturally equal in respect of jurisdiction or dominion one over another.  Altho' true it is that children are not born in this full state of equality, yet they are born to it."  Once again, there's Locke's liberal premise.

Oddly, in her one sentence on Williams's sermon, Arcenas says that "he paired the Letter Concerning Toleration with the Second Treatise."  In fact, Williams never cites the Letter Concerning Toleration.  All of his citations are to the Second Treatise.

Once we move into the early American revolutionary period (1760-1776), the references to Locke's Second Treatise become so great that Arcenas has to concede that the authority of Locke's political teaching increased during this time, although it decreased dramatically following American independence.  Still, however, she tries to minimize this evidence of Locke's political influence in the revolutionary debates either by ignoring much of it, or by arguing that many of the references to the Second Treatise were actually distortions of Locke's teaching.

One example of her ignoring the evidence is that she is silent about James Otis's courtroom speech in Boston in 1761 in "Paxton's Case," even though John Adams identified this as the true beginning of the American Revolution.  Although Arcenas might justify her silence about this speech by noting that, as reported by Adams, there is no explicit reference to Locke, the speech does nevertheless echo the language of Locke's Second Treatise.

According to Adams's report, Otis began his speech with "a dissertation on the Rights of Man in a State of Nature."  What he said sounded like Locke's state of nature.  He began with the liberal premise: "He asserted that every Man, merely natural, was an independent Sovereign; Subject to no Law but the Law written on his heart, and revealed to him by his Maker in the Constitution of his Nature and the Inspiration of his Understanding and his Conscience.  His Right to his Life, his Liberty no created being could rightfully contest.  Nor was his Right to his Property less incontestable."

Notably, Otis applied this liberal principle of natural equality and liberty to include black Americans.  Adams reported: "Nor were the poor Negroes forgotten.  Not a Quaker in Philadelphia or Mr Jefferson of Virginia ever asserted the Rights of Negroes in Stronger Terms; Young as I was and ignorant as I was, I shuddered at the doctrine he taught.  And I have all my lifetime Shuddered, and Still Shudder at the Consequences that may be drawn from Such Premises.  Shall We Say that the Rights of Masters and Servants clash?  and can be decided only by Force?  I adore the Idea of Gradual Abolitions!  But who Shall decide how fast or how Slowly these Abolitions Shall be made? (Letter to William Tudor, June 1, 1818).  Of course, these questions have reverberated throughout American history as Americans have struggled to apply Lockean liberal principles of equal liberty to the problems of chattel slavery and racial inequality.

Otis made clear his reliance on Locke's Two Treatises in the pamphlets he wrote in the early 1760s.  In A Vindication of the Conduct of the House of Representatives of the Province of the Massachusetts Bay (1762), Otis quoted extensively from the Two Treatises, including Locke's affirmation of the liberal premise: "The Natural Liberty of Man is to be free from any Superior Power on Earth, and not to be under the Will or Legislative Authority of Man, but to have only the Law of Nature for his Rule.  The Liberty of man, in Society, is to be under no other Legislative Power, but that established, by consent, in the Common-wealth" (ST, 22).  In The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved (1764), Otis once again cited Locke's Second Treatise extensively to support his argument for the rights of the American colonists.  He also suggested that the Lockean liberal premise of equal natural liberty must be extended to all human beings, including women and slaves.  He asked a radical question: "What man is or ever was born free, if every man is not?"

Arcenas recognizes Otis's references to Locke's Two Treatises in these two pamphlets.  But she argues that rather than showing the influence of Locke's political teaching on Otis, this actually shows how Otis had to distort and depart from Locke's teaching, because Otis actually rejected two fundamental principles of Locke's teaching.  He rejected Locke's idea that all government was originally created by a social compact.  And he rejected Locke's idea that in that social compact the people gave up or transferred their natural rights to the government.  I suggest, however, that Arcenas has not read Locke as carefully as Otis did, and that in fact Otis agreed with Locke on both of these points.

Arcenas correctly quotes Otis as saying in The Rights of the British Colonies that "government is . . . most evidently founded on the necessities of our nature," and therefore it is "by no means an arbitrary thing, depending merely on compact or human will for its existence."  If government is natural for human beings, it is not an artificial creation of human will.

But if Arcenas had compared everything Otis said about this with what Locke said in the Two Treatises, she would have seen that Otis agreed with what Locke said about human beings as naturally social animals who have a kind of "natural government" in the state of nature.

In his speech in "Paxton's Case," Otis said that in the state of nature, human beings would be "Social Animals by Nature," because their natural sexual desires would bring them together into families and their wider social desires would bring them into larger communities.  Similarly, in The Rights of the British Colonies, Otis spoke of how "the different sexes should sweetly attract each other, form societies of single families, of which larger bodies and communities are as naturally, mechanically, and necessarily combined," which would constitute a kind of "government . . . founded on the necessities of our nature."

Here Otis was echoing the language of Locke in the Two Treatises.  Like Otis, Locke identified human beings as social animals by nature because in the state of nature by the necessities of their nature, they live in families, which constitute "the first society," and within families, parents exercise a "natural Government," which is a "temporary government," over their minor children (ST, 67, 74-77, 105, 170).  In the state of nature, there are social networks of cooperation and exchange extending beyond the family that create communities.  This extended order of community is based on "promises and compacts" and on informal customary social norms that Locke identifies as the "law of nature."  These customary social norms are enforced through violent punishment (including capital punishment), reputational costs for those who violate the norms, and third-party mediation of disputes.  In the state of nature, every adult individual has the "executive power of the law of nature" to punish those who transgress the law of nature, where there is a "law of reputation" to enforce the law of nature through social praise and blame, and where disputes are often settled by those recognized as good mediators (ST, 6-14, 108; Essay, II.28.5-14).  

I have written previously about how Locke saw this in the state of nature in America from his reading of Jose de Acosta's report in his Natural and Moral History of the Indies.  We have seen that colonial Americans like Bulkley saw the importance of this.  In the Second Treatise (102), Locke quoted Acosta's claim that in America there were many societies with "no government at all" and "no kings," but with "captains" or "chiefs" that people chose to lead them when they needed leadership in war or peace.

It might seem confusing or even self-contradictory to say that while there was "no government at all," the people chose those who governed them.  But there's no contradiction if we understand "no government" to mean no centralized bureaucratic state in a hunter-gatherer society that does have some governance by leaders chosen by the people and a system of customary laws enforced by public approval and disapproval.

There is, therefore, a kind of government in the state of nature, although it's a government through informal social institutions and customs enforced by the social consensus of all the adult individuals, where there are no formal political institutions of law and governance.  As I have argued previously, the modern evolutionary anthropology of hunter-gatherer bands in "stateless societies" largely confirms Locke's account of the state of nature as the life of hunter-gatherers in societies governed by informal social institutions but without a centralized state apparatus.

Thus, Locke distinguished the "society" of individuals in the state of nature, where every adult individual has the power to enforce the law of nature, and "political society," where the community has consented to give the power of natural punishment to the officers in a formal legal and political structure (ST, 77, 87).  The first step towards establishing a "political society," Locke suggests, might have been when individual adults expressly or tacitly consented to delegate their natural power of punishment to their fathers: "since without some Government it would be hard for them to live together, it was likeliest it should, by the express or tacit Consent of the Children, when they were grown up, be in the Father, where it seemed without any change barely to continue; when indeed nothing more was required to it, than the permitting the Father to exercise alone in his Family that executive Power of the Law of Nature, which every Free-man naturally hath, and by that permission resigning up to him a Monarchical Power, whilst they remained in it" (74).

Thus, Locke would have agreed with Otis "that government is founded on the necessity of our natures," but Locke would distinguish between two kinds of government.  On the one hand, there is government in natural societies in the state of nature with informal institutions enforced by individuals exercising their natural right of punishment.  On the other hand, there is government in political societies where individuals have consented to give up their natural right of punishment to the formal institutions of law and politics, so long as that power to punish is exercised to secure their natural rights for the public good.

But here Arcenas sees another contradiction between Locke and Otis:  "Otis was interested in the preservation of natural rights in political society, while Locke stressed that rights had to be given up--that is relinquished or transferred" (35).  To support this claim, she correctly quotes Locke as explaining that those leaving "a state of Nature unite into a Community, must be understood to give up all the power, necessary to the ends for which they unite into Society, to the majority of the Community" (ST, 99).

In saying this, however, Arcenas ignores Otis's quotations from the Second Treatise that show that Locke understood that people "give up" their natural power to punish to government with the "trust" that government will use this power to "preserve" or "secure" their natural rights.  "The Reason why Men enter into Society, is the preservation of their Property."  Consequently, if the government acts "contrary to that trust reposed in them" in trying to destroy the natural rights of the people, "by this breach of Trust they forfeit the Power, the People had put into their hands, for quite contrary ends, and it devolves to the People, who have a Right to resume their original Liberty, and by the Establishment of a new Legislature (such as they shall think fit) provide for their own Safety and Security, which is the end for which they are in Society" (ST, 222).  Thus, Locke argued that people give up their natural power of punishing to government only to the extent that, and only so long as, this serves to preserve their natural rights.

Elisha Williams saw this in Locke--that, as Williams said, "no more natural liberty or power is given up than is necessary for the preservation of person and property," and therefore, "the members of a civil state or society do retain their natural liberty in all such cases as have no relation to the ends of such a society in a state of nature."  And so, for example, as Williams argued, "the members of a civil society do retain their natural liberty or right of judging for themselves in matters of religion."  That's Locke's argument in his Letter Concerning Toleration.  (I have written a post on the evolution of religious liberty in the state of nature.)

We should also notice that there are three circumstances in which Locke believed that people "have a Right to resume their original Liberty."  Two of them arise inside a society.  One arises outside a society.  If individuals leave their society and renounce their loyalty to it, then they are free to consent to join another society (ST, 118-22). And even as they live within their society, in those cases where they might be threatened by an attack on their life, liberty, or property, and there is no chance to call for protection by the officers of government, then they revert momentarily to a state of nature, and they have the right to protect themselves by punishing those threatening them.  So, for example, this would include the right of killing in self-defense (ST, 19).

Finally, when the people see a design for their government to assume an arbitrary power to tyrannize over the people, they have a right to resist and to rebel against the government, and to institute a new government that will secure their natural rights (ST, 214-43).  This sounds so much like the American Declaration of Independence that many Americans have seen echoes of Locke's Second Treatise in the Declaration.  

But Arcenas insists this is not true.  She rejects what she calls "the central myth of the American Revolution"--that the Declaration shows the influence of Locke's political teaching in the Second Treatise.  A few weeks ago, I wrote a post noting that Arcenas is silent about the many verbal echoes of the language of the Second Treatise, which illustrates how she uses deceptive silence throughout her book.

She is correct, however, when she says that public references to Locke decreased after 1776 and during the constitutional founding, because in the debates over the forming of constitutions in America, authors like Montesquieu and Blackstone seemed more helpful than Locke, who was better at stating the principles of good government than he was in stating the constitutional design of government.

Even though there were few direct references to Locke in the constitutional founding debates, Lockean principles can be seen both in the Constitution of 1787 as ratified in 1789 and in the Constitution of 1791 with the first ten amendments.  The structure of the new national government as organized around three separate branches--legislative, executive, judicial--conforms to Locke's account of these three separate powers, with the legislative power being supreme (ST, 124-26, 132-42).  The amended Constitution with its Bill of Rights manifested the Lockean principle that the end of government is to secure individual rights, and it implicitly incorporated the Lockean political philosophy of the Declaration of Independence into the Constitution.  I have written about this in a previous post.

After 1800, when Jefferson was first elected President, there was a lot of discussion of Locke's influence on Jefferson, particularly in his writing of the Declaration of Independence, which continued over the last 25 years of Jefferson's life (1801-1826).  Some of Jefferson's critics in the Federalist Party said that he should not be praised as the primary author of the Declaration because he had copied much of it from Locke's Second Treatise.  Some of his defenders in the Republican Party responded by saying that there was nothing wrong in borrowing some words and principles from a great political philosopher like Locke.  Notice that both sides in this debate agreed that Locke's influence on Jefferson's writing of the Declaration was clear.

Perhaps to settle this debate, Jefferson near the end of his life tried to explain his writing of the Declaration: "Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.  All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c" (Letter to Henry Lee, May 8, 1825).

As Roger Weightman, the mayor of Washington, D.C., was planning the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 1826, he wrote a letter to Jefferson inviting him to attend.  In what became his last letter, Jefferson wrote that his bad health would prevent him from attending.  He then wrote about the promise to all mankind opened by the Declaration:

"May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.  That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion.  All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man.  The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God" (Letter to Weightman, June 24, 1826).

Amazingly, while the people in Washington and across America were celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration, on July 4, 1826, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, two of the leading drafters of the Declaration, died on that same day.  (I must say I have often wondered whether Jefferson and Adams secretly planned this, because it's just too good.)

So Jefferson saw the Declaration of Independence as "an expression of the American mind," particularly in the idea of "the rights of man" as founded on equal natural liberty; and he saw Locke as one of those influential authors who wrote about this idea.  Brad Thompson sums up all of this in 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.

(C. Bradley Thompson, "John Locke and the American Mind," American Political Thought [Fall 2019]: 575-93.)

Looking at Jefferson's letters, we can see one problem with Thompson's syllogism: according to Jefferson, Locke's mind was not the only mind that influenced the writing of the Declaration.  The American mind was shaped "in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.," all of which led to the liberal idea of "the rights of man."  If Jefferson was right, then Locke was important in the formation of the American mind, but only in combination with other philosophic writers and with many American speakers and writers.

This confirms what Michael Zuckert and a few other scholars have said about Locke as contributing to an "American Amalgam":  Locke's mind is a prominent influence, but only in combination with other minds, in forming the American mind as founded on the political philosophy of natural rights. 

As I indicated in my previous post, Arcenas is silent about all of this discussion among Jefferson's contemporaries of Locke's influence on Jefferson, particularly as manifested in the Declaration of Independence.  This is important for her argument.  Because denying the Lockean character of the Declaration of Independence then allows her to assume that whatever power the Declaration had over American political thought was not in any way a vehicle for advancing Locke's political principles in America.  So when she comes to the nineteenth century, she can say that there were few direct references to Locke's political teaching; and she can ignore the possibility that a lot of Lockean political thinking was introduced indirectly through the debates over the Declaration of Independence as a statement of American political principles.

So, for example, she can deny that Locke's thinking had any influence in the American debates over abolitionism and slavery, even though the opponents of slavery commonly appealed to the principles of the Declaration.  She does have to admit, however, that many of the proslavery apologists recognized that "Locke threatened to undermine efforts to develop intellectual justifications for slavery because his most famous thought experiments--the state of nature and social contract, articulated in the Second Treatise--emphasized the idea (catastrophic to their pro-slavery arguments) that men were born equal" (81).  But she does not allow her reader to see any of the evidence that the proslavery Southerners recognized that the principles of the Declaration of Independence were rooted in Locke's political philosophy, and therefore their attack on the Declaration had to be an attack on Locke.

For example, George Fitzhugh, in his Sociology for the South, or The Failure of Free Society (1854), says that the "abstract principles" of the Declaration of Independence are "wholly at war with slavery," and they are rooted in the "false philosophy" of Locke (175).  Fitzhugh scorns the principles of equal liberty in the Declaration as contrary to the natural fact that human beings are born unequal, and some are born to be natural slaves.  He explains:

"Men are not 'born entitled to equal rights!'  It would be far nearer the truth to say, 'that some were born with saddles on their backs, and others booted and spurred to ride them,' and the riding does them good.  They need the reins, the bit and the spur.  No two men are exactly equal or exactly alike" (179)

In 1866, he said that the conflict in the United States between the North and the South was a continuation of the debate in seventeenth-century England between John Locke and Sir Robert Filmer.  The radical North was on the side of the Whigs and Locke.  The conservative South was on the side of the Tories and Filmer ("The Impending Fate of the Country," De Bow's Review 2 [1866]: 561-70).

In her three sentences on Fitzhugh (81, 204n130), Arcenas is silent about this, because she wants to play down the importance of Locke's political thought in the Second Treatise as expressed in the Declaration of Independence as being part of the debate over slavery and abolition.

Arcenas does finally recognize the influence of Locke's Second Treatise in America when she comes to the twentieth century.  She sees here four transformations in Locke's role in American intellectual life.  First, from 1900 to 1930, scholars began to identify Locke as primarily a political thinker and the author of the Second Treatise.  Second, Locke's Second Treatise began to be seen as relevant to present-day problems that people were trying to solve.  Third, scholars began to emphasize Locke's apparent influence on the American founding.  Fourth, as a consequence of these three transformations, Locke's Second Treatise and his "Lockean liberalism" were seen as the pervasive political teaching of the  continuous stream of the American political tradition from the eighteenth century to the present.

Arcenas fills in this story with accounts of how scholars, journalists, politicians, and popular culture have contributed to this twentieth-century story of Locke as America's political philosopher.  Charles Beard, Carl Becker, Merle Curti, the Great Books Program at St. John's College, Life magazine, Louis Hartz, Hubert Humphrey, Leo Strauss, Willmoore Kendall, Allan Bloom, Gordon Wood, J. G. A. Pocock and many more contributors to the story come into play.  She concludes her book with a comparison of John Rawls's Theory of Justice (1971) and Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974) as showing two sides of Locke's Second Treatise, with Rawls arguing for a version of the social contract, and Nozick arguing for natural rights in the state of nature.

It's disappointing that she ends her story in the 1970s.  It would have been instructive for her to carry her story into twenty-first century America.  For example, she could have considered the debate over Locke launched by "post-liberal" and "Integralist" critics of Lockean liberalism in America--people like Patrick Deneen, Rod Dreher, and D. C. Schindler--and by those on the new reactionary Right--people like Curtis Yarvin and "Bronze Age Pervert."  This is all part of the renewed debate today between Lockean liberalism and anti-Lockean illiberalism.

In any case, most of what she says about the various ways in which interpretations of Locke's Second Treatise deeply shaped American intellectual life in the twentieth century is persuasive.  But, for the reasons I have indicated, I am still not persuaded that she has shown that Locke's political philosophy had very little influence in most periods of American history prior to the middle of the twentieth century.


I am persuaded, however, that Arcenas has shown that for most of American history prior to the twentieth century, Locke's greatest influence came through books other than the Second Treatise--particularly, the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, the Letter Concerning Toleration, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, The Reasonableness of Christianity, and A Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul.  For me, this is the most instructive feature of her book.

But I don't see how this proves her primary claim that Locke's political teaching had little influence in America prior to the twentieth century.  Her argument here depends on the false assumption that Locke's books other than the Second Treatise do not convey anything about his political teaching.

Many of the scholars that Arcenas relies on have pointed out that all of Locke's books convey some facets of his political thought, so that readers of Locke's books other than the Second Treatise would learn a lot about his political philosophy.  For example, she has drawn a lot from Merle Curti's "The Great Mr. Locke, America's Philosopher, 1783-1861" (1937).  But she says nothing about the fact that Curti indicates that Locke's "liberal" ideas appear in all of the books that Americans read (see Curti, 111, 115, 119-21, 131, 134-35, 151).  If she thinks Curti is wrong about this, she should explain why.

Similarly, Arcenas gives an account of Leo Strauss's interpretation of Locke's political teaching.  But she does not notice that Strauss's study of Locke's political thought in Natural Right and History cites not only the Two Treatises, but also the Essay Concerning Human Understanding and The Reasonableness of Christianity.

Consider the case of Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration.  Arcenas emphasizes the importance of this book as one of the most widely read of Locke's books.  But she doesn't notice that much of this book summarizes the political teaching of the Second Treatise.  One of many possible examples is the passage of Toleration where Locke speaks of how men must leave the state of nature and enter into a society and establish a legislative power that will secure their life, liberty, and properties (see Letter Concerning Toleration, ed. Mark Goldie [Liberty Fund, 2010], 46-47).

My conclusion from all of this is that Arcenas's book is an indispensable history of America's reception of Locke, but her attempt to minimize the influence in America of Locke's political thought fails.


Roger Sweeny said...

"in 1701, John Montague quoted two long passages from the Second Treatise ... This may be the earliest appeal to Locke's ideas in British America--only two years after the publication of the Second Treatise in 1689."

1701 is 12 years after 1689, not 2.

Larry Arnhart said...


Thanks for spotting that mistake.