Thursday, October 17, 2013

John Locke and Liberty

“Thus in the beginning all the world was America….”

I was inspired by the numerous references to John Locke in Denise Spellberg's Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an: The Founders and Islam and by my review of that disreputable attempt to affiliate Jefferson with Islam to republish here my original essay on John Locke as a form of corrective to Spellberg. It was first published in the Spring 1999 issue of the Journal of Colonial Williamsburg, and subsequently in McGraw-Hill/Dushkin’s Western CivilizationII college textbook in September 2000 and again in September 2002.
The original title of the article was taken from Locke's Second Treatise on Government, towards the end of Chapter V, in which he wrote:
"Thus in the beginning all the world was America, and more so than that is now; for no such thing as money was any where known. Find out something that hath the use and value of money amongst his neighbours, you shall see the same man will begin presently to enlarge his possessions."

I have reformatted the original article to conform to the style I have established over the years, with quotations from Locke and others highlighted in indentations. I have also edited out references to individuals and places which may confuse new readers and seem to them esoteric.

Without further ado, here is the essay.


The two men most responsible for the founding of the United States never set foot in it, though their intellectual signatures are stamped on the Declaration of Independence as indelibly as any of the signers’ flourishes: Aristotle and John Locke.  It was the Greek philosopher who bequeathed to the West – via Thomas Aquinas – the fundamental rules of reason and logic and the means for men to determine their purpose for living on earth.  It was Locke who applied reason to politics more thoroughly and convincingly than had any political thinker before him. And it was to Locke that the Founders turned for their most trenchant arguments in the conflict with Britain.  As Dr. Harry Binswanger, a lecturer on Locke’s importance in the history of ideas, has said, “As far as I can determine, Locke is the originator of individual rights.”*

Locke may even be granted indirect credit for the naming of Williamsburg – and even for its founding. It was during the reigns of Charles II and James II (the Restoration) that he wrote his most important works in response to the struggles between Parliament and the Stuarts, which culminated in 1688 with the abdication and flight of James II and with the Convention Parliament’s welcome of William and Mary as regents of England, Scotland, Ireland and France in 1689.  The College of William and Mary, founded in1693, was named in their honor. Locke’s Two Treatises of Government and A Letter concerning Toleration, written between 1680 and 1685, contributed at least part of the intellectual basis for that “Glorious Revolution.”  They were to have a more profound influence on the thinking of another generation of revolutionaries.

Almost 100 years later, Samuel Adams wrote to a friend: “Mr. Locke has often been quoted in the present dispute between Britain and her colonies, and very much to our purpose. His reasoning is so forcible, that no one has even attempted to confute it.”  Thomas Jefferson displayed the portraits of Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, and Locke on the walls of his Monticello home. In a letter to Benjamin Rush, he wrote that these “were my trinity of the three greatest men the world has ever produced.” Lockean phraseology and style of expression color many of the most eloquent statements in the Declaration, which Jefferson composed.
Politics has dominated history books and commanded men’s first concerns because it is the most immediate, tangible application of philosophical inquiry; the effect of a tax, a law, or an injustice is more obvious and personal than that of a proposition, a syllogism, or an abstract deduction in metaphysics or epistemology, even though the latter two fields can determine the ultimate efficacy or tragedy of any political system.  Locke lived, thought, and wrote in the tempestuous world of 17th-century England and formulated a political philosophy that would accelerate the pace of men’s progress from abject deference and servility to kings and bishops to valuing life, liberty, and property as norms to be championed and defended.  Locke began his thinking life as a “conservative” and ended it as a “radical” in both political theory and epistemology, thanks to his commitment to truth, which made possible his intellectual honesty. 

“[He] who has raised himself above the Alms-Basket, and not content to live lazily on scraps of begg’d Opinions, sets his own Thoughts on work, to find and follow Truth,” he observed in “The Epistle to the Reader” of An Essay concerning Human Understanding. 

Locke did not regard himself as a formal philosopher or even much of an innovator in the realm of ideas. This was not false modesty but an integral part of his character. “There was an introverted, valetudinarian component in Locke’s nature,” writes Peter H. Nidditch, editor of one edition of the Essay.  “He was a careful, cautious man possessed of a good sense of business and method.”  Carefulness and caution were Locke’s bywords, inculcated in him in the often perilous times of the Civil War, Cromwell’s Commonwealth and Protectorate, and the Restoration.
Locke was, if not a philosopher, then an intellectual. As Adam Smith did in the field of economics nearly a century later, he drew together all the disparate threads of thought on rights, liberty, and property that preceded him – by a legion of thinkers who included James Harrington, John Milton, Henry Neville, John Hampden, to name but a few – and weaved the best of them into a single, comprehensible fabric in the Two Treatises. 

Like the Founders, he held that reason or rationality was men’s only means of living alone or in society, and that this attribute of men was as much “endowed by their creator” as were certain unalienable rights.  The attempt by a criminal or a magistrate to force man to think or act against his own reason was a violation of the “law of nature.” 

Reason was the antithesis of “innate” ideas, which Locke argued in his Essay could not exist, thus robbing the advocates of absolute monarchy of a key tenet of their arguments. It could be argued that the Essay and the Two Treatises are affirmations of and companions to each other. By the time the Founders were impelled to compose thoughtful rebuttals to king and Parliament, Locke’s works were near-gospel in the colonies. Hardly a library existed – private or college – in 18th-century colonial America that did not boast at least one title by Locke. He had made nearly everything “self-evident.”
Locke’s importance to the Founders cannot be appreciated without first painting a miniature of his times. As the sun of the Enlightenment slowly burned off the heavy, clinging fog of the Medieval Age, men began to see the possible in all realms of human thought and action, particularly in politics.  They were emerging from the miasma of edict- and sword-enforced ignorance, and they were dazzled. Obstructing their way, or waiting in doctrinal ambushes to pounce on the least hint of blasphemy or treason, were the forces of the Medievalists – or their royalist or secular descendents, whose notion of a stable polity was a monarch wielding absolute, unquestioned dominion over his realm, with a bishop on his right hand ready to field any questions he himself could not answer.

The political fact of Locke’s time was that religion was inextricably tied to politics.  Locke did not separate the two realms, but he laid the groundwork for it to be accomplished later.  To question the political status quo, however, was to question religious orthodoxy – and vice versa.

The genesis of this alliance in Britain was the English Reformation, precipitated by Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Catholic Church over his marriage to Anne Boleyn and the establishment of the Church of England in 1534.  Leap ahead over nearly a hundred years of roiling English history to the abrupt transition from the Tudor era to that of the Stuarts, marked by the machinations of James I and Charles I to amass more money, power, and influence than Parliament wished to grant them.

There were two civil wars, the first between the Roundheads and Cavaliers, the second between a Presbyterian Parliament and the Independent army of Oliver Cromwell.  Cromwell’s own brand of “republicanism” began with Pride’s Purge of Presbyterians from Parliament by the army (Algernon Sidney refused to vacate his seat, until a soldier put a hand on his shoulder) and the gradual establishment of a dictatorship that nominated and controlled a complaisant “Barebones” Parliament. It was Cromwell’s Rump Parliament that passed the first Navigation Act in October 1651.

Religious passions moved most of these events. Royal or Parliamentary toleration of Catholics, Nonconformists – this time the outlawed Anglicans or Episcopalians – Jews, or Dissenters was viewed as a political act fraught with danger. Catholicism in particular was an anathema to most Protestant Englishmen, whatever their sectarian suasion, whether they were well-read lords or gentry, or illiterate publicans or chimney sweeps; they had only to nod across the Channel to France or Spain to prove the consequences of a Catholic monarchy.  Papist sympathies from any quarter were regarded as cryptic designs on the liberties and privileges of Englishmen and Parliament. This animus, based partly on bigotry but mostly on demonstrable fact in England’s own history, and on events on the Continent, would survive well into the 19th century.

Before Locke published his Two Treatises, those who championed rights – to life, liberty, and property – floundered on the shoals of custom, precedent, tradition, or convention.

Or on Scripture, which the enemies of liberty were as adept in employing as their opponents.  Some of the most eloquent and incisive statements in favor of liberty were recorded in the Army Debates of 1647-49, conducted while a Puritan Parliament negotiated with a stubborn Charles I.  Both sides of the issues – which included toleration, freedom of conscience, and security of property – brandished their Bibles (ironically, the King James Version, completed in 1611) and assailed each other with book, chapter, and verse in support of myriad positions, accusations, and compromises.

But the revolutionaries had no Locke to show them the way out of the intractable dilemma. When Cromwell died in 1658, the “republic” collapsed tiredly on its own contradictions and for lack of a common moral base. The Rump Parliament invited Charles II – whose father had been beheaded in 1649 – to resume the throne. Countless Puritans rushed to conform to the Anglican Church. If they could not agree on a moral base, at least England would have a moral authority.

But history was to repeat itself less than 30 years later.
Enter John Locke, philosopher.  Most portraits of him stare intensely back at the viewer, challenging one to be as thoughtful or serious as he, or daring one to be fatuous or insincere. In the first instance, one would gain a friend, even if he disagreed with you; in the second, one would gain a disdainful enemy, or worse, an enemy who would dismiss you and never think of you again. Locke was a retiring man who grew to believe that ideas had a more profound effect on men’s actions, lives, and fates than bullets.  He was a dark, thin, plainly-dressed man who preferred quiet, civil conversation to boisterous company.  Once he broke up a card game by taking out his notebook and proposing to record the verities of the players.

Locke was a shrewd manager of his money and died a rich man. Even in the most unsettling periods of his life, he kept exact accounts of his financial dealings. He preferred country life to life in London, chiefly because prolonged stays in the city aggravated his asthmatic cough – as did the stress of political crises.  Travel for his health, coinciding often with Restoration turmoil, more than once saved his life.

Locke was born in August 1632 and raised in the bucolic setting of rural Somerset near Bristol. He was the son of John Locke, Senior, clerk to the justice of the peace in the parish of Chew Magna. The father served in the Civil War as captain of a troop of horse with the Parliamentarians, and he was also an attorney for the commander of that unit, Alexander Popham. An influential Presbyterian, Popham later arranged to send young Locke to Westminster School in London in 1646.

Raised in a Calvinist household, Locke spent the next six years in this royalist and largely high-church school, mastering Greek and Latin by way of Cicero, Livy, Plutarch, and other classical authors. Charles I was executed in Whitehall Palace Yard, a stone’s throw from the school. It is tempting to imagine that Locke witnessed the event. But the school’s headmaster was a staunch royalist and opponent of Cromwell. On that somber January 30, the student body was made to pray all day for the tried and convicted king’s soul, and it is doubtful that any student was permitted to venture outside Westminster Abbey’s enclosure.

It was not until Locke went to Christ Church at Oxford in 1652 that his reading began to venture beyond the college’s scholastic curriculum of rhetoric, logic, grammar, moral philosophy, and more classical studies. Oxford had been purged of its royalist faculty and was under firm Calvinist control. As an undergraduate, Locke was obliged to attend two sermons a day and to pray every night with his tutor. His first published work was an ode to Cromwell included in a book of poems issued by the college in 1655.  Five years later he would pen, in a similar volume, a poem praising Charles II on the occasion of the restored Stuart’s entrance into London.

Locke was made a fellow of Christ Church the year Cromwell died and would continue his Oxford association until he was ordered expelled in 1684 by Charles II for his suspected role in the Rye House Plot to assassinate the king. Locke had welcomed the Stuart’s return, if only because it brought an end to the dour, stifling regime of the Puritans. When a lecturer in Greek, rhetoric, and moral philosophy, he wrote the Two Tracts on Government, in which he asserted that a “magistrate” – or a sovereign – had every right to impose conformity on his subjects; since the rituals and times and places of worship were “indifferent,” there was no good reason for a subject to resist conformity, as the object of worship was universal.  Locke did not believe, at that time, that civil upheaval was justified over what he asserted were picayune differences in the style and content of religious services.

In his future Two Treatises and Á Letter concerning Toleration, Locke was to advance the opposite of this position: That a magistrate’s power to impose conformity in “indifferent” matters was not only morally wrong but accomplished little but fraudulent uniformity. Force could not compel a man to be any more or less devoted to his beliefs. The object of worship, God, Locke would maintain, was too important to be the subject of insincerity. Men must find their own way according to their own lights. He would extend this line of reasoning to secular or civil matters. At the time, though, it would not be inaccurate to say that early in his career, Locke was as much a skeptic as was Thomas Hobbes, whose major work, Leviathan, he undoubtedly read and must have agreed with it that “sovereign power is not so hurtful as the want of it.”

Like many other lukewarm Calvinists then, Locke conformed to the Anglican Church at the Restoration. It was an expedient action and cost him nothing of his convictions; the ceremonies were “indifferent.”  But in the second year of his fellowship, he wrote a friend that “Phansye” ruled the world, and he wondered, “where is that great Diana…Reason?”  He would find it, at first, at Oxford.

Contributing to the development of his later views were Locke’s friendships with Robert Boyle (of Boyle’s Law fame) and other prominent British empiricists of the time, many of whom would become charter members of the Royal Society of London for the Improving of Natural Knowledge.  Boyle, a noted chemist, physicist, and essayist on theological issues, had declined many lucrative clerical appointments to devote himself to scientific investigation and experimentation. This unconventional but respected thinker helped to influence Locke’s unconventional decision not to follow the path of most other Christ Church Fellows and take orders for the Church of England, but instead to pursue the study of medicine. Although he never took a medical course and pursued his studies independently, he attained a bachelor’s degree in medicine in 1674. His knowledge of the subject, together with the apparent efficacy of his advice to others on their health, were to garner him a reputation as a physician second only to his reputation as a political theorist.

In 1663, Locke wrote a series of Essays on the Law of Nature, which discussed the reality-based ethics he claimed ought to govern the actions of rational men. These Essays were a kind of overture to the Two Treatises and the Essay concerning Human Understanding, as they reveal the development and direction of his thinking. At the same time, he practiced medicine with a Dr. David Thomas of London, a close friend, until 1666.

As a respite from his lecturing duties at Oxford, Locke went abroad in 1664 as secretary to Sir Walter Vane, Charles II’s envoy to Frederick William, the Great Elector of Brandenburg.  In a letter to John Strachy, a boyhood friend, Locke described Christmas visits to several churches near Cleve, including Catholic ones, and expressed pleasant surprise that so many religious sects could reside peacefully in one town. “I have not met with any so good-natured people, or so civil, as the Catholic priests,” he wrote. These were not the ogres he had expected to encounter. His observations abroad would lead him to compose and publish anonymously in 1689 A Letter concerning Toleration, perhaps the most important and effective argument for the separation of church and state ever written.

Locke returned from the diplomatic mission in May 1666 and resumed his duties and studies at Christ Church. In July he received a letter from Dr. Thomas, asking him to give medical advice to Anthony Ashley Cooper – later the first earl of Shaftesbury – who was in Oxford to drink the supposedly healthy waters of nearby Astrop.  Lord Ashley had fought with the Royalists in the Civil War, then in 1643 went over to the Roundheads and had been a member of Cromwell’s Council of State. He was known to his contemporaries, writes Lockean scholar Richard Ashcroft, to be “opposed to religious persecution in general and to popery in particular, and as an advocate of the rights of Dissenters and of Parliament” – that is, he argued in the House of Lords and among friends and ideologues against state-enforced Catholicism, absolute monarchy, and the theory of the divine right of kings.  Locke said Shaftesbury was “a vigorous and indefatigable champion of civil and ecclesiastical liberty.”
The two men formed such a warm friendship that Locke moved into Shaftesbury’s London household the next year and acted as his personal physician and confidential advisor. In 1668, he performed a successful operation on his patron’s abscessed liver, saving Shaftesbury’s life and earning his constant gratitude.

Shaftesbury was the most important member of the Lords Proprietors of Carolina and appointed Locke secretary of that organization. When it drafted a new constitution for the colony, the two men coauthored a document that provided for an elective assembly and religious freedom. Shaftesbury was named Lord High Chancellor in November 1672, and he subsequently made Locke secretary for the Presentation of Benefices and a year later secretary to the Council of Trade and Plantations.

This last office introduced Locke to the realm of finance and economics; and what he learned during his year-and-a-half tenure enabled him to offer intelligent advice to Parliament, as it debated the Coinage Act of 1696. In his pamphlet Some Considerations of the Consequences of the Lowering of Interest and Raising the Value of Money, Locke argued that laws which lowered interest rates on private loans in favor of debtors amounted to theft. And although he was an original subscriber to the Bank of England (for £500, in 1694), Locke wrote that “I cannot but think a monopoly of money by the bank, as well as a monopoly of merchandising by the Act of Navigation, must prove a great prejudice to the trade of the nation.”

While Locke was beginning to take and develop copious notes for his Essay concerning Human Understanding – in 1671, after a meeting with a small group of friends who could not agree on why they knew what they knew – the match was struck that would lead to a major political conflagration. Shaftesbury, an implacable advocate of toleration, had been influential in moving Charles II to proclaim, in March 1672, the Declaration of Indulgence, whose purpose was to free Nonconformists and Catholics from political and religious restrictions.  Parliament responded by forcing the king to withdraw it, on the rationale that such an edict did not lay within proper royal power. 

The next year brought the revelation that James, the duke of York and the king’s brother, had already converted to Catholicism.  Little more than a year before, Charles had signed a secret “first” Treaty of Dover with France; among its provisions was an agreement that should Charles II convert to Catholicism, Louis XIV would give him £200,000 a year for his wars with Spain and Holland and 6,000 troops in the event of an English insurrection against Charles’s conversion.

Shaftesbury, who had helped negotiate the “second” Treaty of Dover, a mere pact of alliance with France, now saw the ulterior motive behind the Declaration and began balking at the king’s policies. He was dismissed as chancellor in November 1673 and a few months later imprisoned in the Tower of London for a year for having opposed the king and his court party. When he was released, he became the leader of the opposition to the king.

When his term as secretary to the Council of Trade expired (or was terminated), Locke departed for France on a four-year sojourn, ostensibly for his health, which had always been precarious. Or, as some maintain, he was deeply involved in anti-court intrigues in this period – 1675-1679 – and had decided to get out of harm’s way. Locke’s journals are a record of his travels, medical and scientific observations, and meeting with many of France’s intellectual lights. It is plausible that he had a hand in the composition of the anonymously published A Letter from a Person of Quality to His Friend in the Country, a pamphlet attributed to Shaftesbury, which suggested a conspiracy by the king, the church, and certain government ministers to extend royal powers and reduce Parliament and the church to money-raising devices for the king. Locke may have left for France if he believed he was suspected of having authored the pamphlet, condemned and burned in November 1675; Locke left in December. 

He returned from France in April 1679 in time to witness the unfolding of the Exclusion Crisis – and undoubtedly contribute to it. After a brief stop at Oxford, he moved back into Shaftesbury’s household in London, again as the peer’s physician and advisor.  In May the Scottish Covenanters rebelled against the crown and the repressive measures of John Maitland, the duke of Lauderdale and Charles’s secretary of state for Scottish affairs. The revolt was eventually put down by James Scott, the duke of Monmouth and Charles’s natural son.

Shaftesbury, now a member of the king’s new Privy Council, not only pushed through Parliament the landmark Habeas Corpus Act, but sponsored a succession of exclusion bills, whose aim was to prevent Charles’s Catholic brother from inheriting the throne. Charles dissolved two Parliaments for their attempts to get the bills passed. In this period the opposition “country” party and the pro-monarchy “court” party began to coalesce into what would become known as the “Whig” and “Tory” parties – Scottish and Irish terms of derision respectively for “horse drover” and “outlaw.”

In March 1681, Charles opened the third and last Exclusion Parliament; he dissolved it after eight days, when it would not do his bidding. His opponents now grasped that the king wished to rule without a legislature. In July a Shaftesbury supporter, Stephen College, was arrested for having entertained exclusion bill supporters with a “cartoon” depicting Charles’s tyranny and his removal by Parliament. When a London jury rejected the charges of treason against College, the crown moved his trial to Oxford, where he was convicted and executed. Shaftesbury was arrested for high treason and again put into the Tower.  The crown, reading his seized papers, saw that he was at the center of an “association” or confederacy.  Not only did it oppose Charles and his brother, but it also advocated the subordination of the throne to Parliament and the resort to a force of arms to accomplish it.

This was a separate conspiracy from the Rye House plot, and the duke of Monmouth, Lords Russell, Grey, and Essex, and Algernon Sidney were arrested in connection with it. Shaftesbury was acquitted and released from the Tower at the end of the year but knew that he could be rearrested at any time. Subsequently, Charles revoked the charters of the City of London and other corporations and had them rewritten to purge the courts and elective offices of Whig juries and the Whig sheriffs who empanelled them; he replaced them with Catholics, Tories, and other pro-monarchy men.

The trials and executions continued with a vengeance. Essex committed suicide, the duke of Monmouth was pardoned and fled to Holland, and Lord William Russell was beheaded.  Algernon Sidney, who knew Shaftesbury but not Locke, long ago had refused to leave his seat in Parliament when Cromwell dissolved the Rump in 1653.  Now he was tried for treason with a known liar as the sole witness to his crime; the prosecution needed two witnesses for a conviction.  The court turned to Sidney’s Discourses on Government, finished in prison, and argued that the anti-monarchy, pro-liberty tract was proof of a conspiracy.  Like Stephen College, Sidney was convicted on what he had written, not what he had done.  On the scaffold, he refused to recant his claim that resistance to tyranny was a right, and he was beheaded in November 1683.

Locke, busy fighting the battle of ideas, composed in this period the Two Treatises of Government.  For a long time scholars believed that they were written as an apologia for the Glorious Revolution of 1688. A Lockean scholar, Peter Laslett, in 1960 proved that Locke wrote the essay chiefly in response to events of 1679-83.  Shaftesbury’s “association” manifesto was a watered-down version of the Two Treatises and not nearly as radical as Locke’s work.  The Second Treatise especially was part answer to the growing despotism of Charles and part answer to a pro-monarchy tract written in 1631, Sir Robert Filmer’s Patriacha, trotted out in 1680 by Tory ideologues to counter numerous Whig publications.  Filmer’s fundamental premise was that “men are not naturally free” but that the sovereign was. 

Locke’s fundamental premise was that “every man has a property in his own person. This nobody has any right to but himself.”  Nobody included sovereigns and other men, and a man whose life or property was threatened by force had a right to resist, even as far as armed rebellion – a “treasonous” notion.

Shaftesbury had fled England; he died in Holland in January 1683. Locke probably had already finished the Two Treatises before Sidney was executed. He knew most of the men implicated in the Rye House Plot. At Oxford University, all books asserting the right of resistance to tyranny were burned. Watching the course of events, Locke must have concluded that his days as a free man were numbered. After hastily arranging his private affairs, he sailed for Holland and settled in Amsterdam in September 1683.  He would not see England again until he accompanied Princess Mary, wife of William of Orange, to Greenwich in February 1689.  William and Mary were proclaimed king and queen the day after his return.

During his five and a half years in exile, Locke lived in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Utrecht. The Dutch province contained such a large number of English expatriates that Amsterdam was often called “little London.”  There were enough of them so that not only did Locke feel at home, but his friends could establish a network of “safe” houses for him to move between to elude the prying eyes of Charles II’s spies and later James II’s. 

Kidnapping and murder by the two kings’ agents were distinct possibilities.  Charles had Locke expelled from Oxford, which itself summoned Locke to return to answer charges of libel, and James II included his name in a list of 85 men to be extradited from Holland to stand trial.  Charles died in February 1685, converting to Catholicism on his deathbed.  The duke of Monmouth’s subsequent rebellion against the accession of James II to the throne was crushed, and Monmouth was beheaded.  Judge George Jeffreys embarked upon the Bloody Assizes, sentencing 200 men to death and 800 to slavery in the West Indies.

In his exile, Locke completed the Essay, A Letter concerning Toleration¸ and Some Thoughts concerning Education.  In addition to these and other minor works, he must have been in correspondence with those who would orchestrate the Glorious Revolution. His ideas influenced the content and purpose of the Declaration of Rights, issued by the Convention Parliament of 1689-90.  The Declaration, in effect, set the terms of rule accepted by William and Mary that severely curtailed a sovereign’s power over the national purse, the courts, and legislation.  The Act of Settlement of 1701 underscored the Declaration in addition to mandating a Protestant succession.

On his return to England, Locke set about the publication of his works. His Essay and Education were published under his own name. The Two Treatises and Toleration, including two later essays on toleration, however, were published anonymously. Whether this was from modesty or from fear of reprisal by the still powerful Tories has been a subject of speculation; Locke would admit his authorship only in his will, in which he directed that his name appear under the titles in future editions of these works.

While he was in exile, Locke, with grave panache, declined offers from friends to plead on his behalf to the king for a pardon, saying that he did not think he had committed any action for which he needed to be pardoned. With equal verve, he declined King William’s offer in 1689 of the ambassadorship to the Elector of Brandenburg on the grounds of his health and his inexperience in diplomatic affairs, adding that he would be at a disadvantage for being “the soberest man in the Kingdom”; he had abstained from liquor most of his life. 

He did accept the post of commissioner of appeals in excise and later served as commissioner on the Board of Trade until 1700.  These positions allowed him to stay home and oversee the publication of his works.  His powers of persuasion influenced the government’s coinage policies, and his connections in Parliament and the book trade convinced Parliament to let the ancient Licensing Act lapse without renewal in 1695, thus ending press censorship and the Stationers Guild’s monopoly on book printing.

His last major conflict was over The Reasonableness of Christianity, published in 1695.  It was furiously assailed by theological authorities, and Locke was embroiled in the controversy until his death. “Locke’s version of Christianity,” writes Lockean scholar David Wootton, “appeared to leave no place for the doctrines of original sin or the Trinity. Its stress upon reason seemed to make revealed truth subject to human judgment.” 

Locke, friends with many of the prominent men of his age, corresponded with such figures as William Penn, James Blair, and Isaac Newton. But there was only one woman in his life. He spent his last years as a permanent guest of Sir Francis and Lady Masham, in Oates, Essex. Lady Masham, whom he had met in 1681 when she was Damaris Cudworth, seemed to be his intellectual equal – and an early, unrequited romantic interest. She was the daughter of Ralph Cudworth, a noted Cambridge philosopher.  Locke had converted her from her father’s Platonism to his own Aristotelianism. Perhaps she was the only person whose agreement he treasured.

He was sitting in a chair at Oates, listening to her read from the Psalms, when he died quietly in October 1704.
Without Locke, there likely would have been no American Revolution; or, if there had been one, it would have suffered the fate of the English republic of the mid-17th century and collapsed into a heap of grand but unconnected and unsupportable ideas.  But even though Locke sits at his age’s pinnacle of political thinkers who championed life, liberty, property and happiness, neither he nor his predecessor and contemporaries, nor even many who followed him, could imagine a politics without a monarch.

The Founders were descendants of colonists who had carved a civilization out of a wilderness without the guidance of kings, bishops, or parliaments; in fact, had accomplished that feat despite their hindrances and obstructions. Thus, the Founders could imagine a politics without a monarch, without royal prerogatives, without parliamentary privileges, and insist, among many other things, upon a separation of church and state.  To their credit, they built upon Locke’s thought, and more than once they acknowledged their debt to him.

*Some political theoreticians dispute this claim, and credit John "Freeborn" Lilburne (1614-1657) with originating or formulating the concepts of individual rights and of the separation of church and state. Others credit jurist Edward Coke (1552-1634) or Robert Grosseteste (1175-1253).

© 1999 by Edward Cline. Excerpts are permitted with proper accreditation. Reprints are permitted with proper accreditation.

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