Second Treatise of Government

Reception and Influence


Although the Two Treatises would become well known in the second half of the 18th century, they were somewhat neglected when published. Between 1689 and 1694, around 200 tracts and treatises were published concerning the legitimacy of the Glorious Revolution. Three of these mention Locke, two of which were written by friends of Locke.[14] When Hobbes published the Leviathan in 1651, by contrast, dozens of texts were immediately written in response to it. As Mark Goldie explains: "Leviathan was a monolithic and unavoidable presence for political writers in Restoration England in a way that in the first half of the eighteenth the Two Treatises was not."[15]

While the Two Treatises did not become popular until the 1760s, ideas from them did start to become important earlier in the century. According to Goldie, "the crucial moment was 1701" and "the occasion was the Kentish petition." The pamphlet war that ensued was one of the first times Locke's ideas were invoked in a public debate, most notably by Daniel Defoe.[16] Locke's ideas did not go unchallenged and the periodical The Rehearsal, for example, launched a "sustained and sophisticated assault” against the Two Treatises and endorsed the ideology of patriarchalism.[17] Not only did patriarchalism continue to be a legitimate political theory in the 18th century, but as J. G. A. Pocock and others have gone to great lengths to demonstrate, so was civic humanism and classical republicanism. Pocock has argued that Locke's Two Treatises had very little effect on British political theory; he maintains that there was no contractarian revolution. Rather, he sees these other long-standing traditions as far more important for 18th-century British politics.[18]

In the middle of the 18th century, Locke's position as a political philosopher suddenly rose in prominence. For example, he was invoked by those arguing on behalf of the American colonies during the Stamp Act debates of 1765–6.[19] Marginalized groups such as women, Dissenters and those campaigning to abolish the slave trade all invoked Lockean ideals. But at the same time, as Goldie describes it, "a wind of doubt about Locke's credentials gathered into a storm. The sense that Locke's philosophy had been misappropriated increasingly turned to a conviction that it was erroneous.”[20] By the 1790s Locke was associated with Rousseau and Voltaire and being blamed for the American and French Revolutions as well as for the perceived secularisation of society.[21] By 1815, Locke's portrait was taken down from Christ Church, his alma mater (it was later restored to a position of prominence, and currently hangs in the dining hall of the college).

North America

Locke's influence during the American Revolutionary period is disputed. While it is easy to point to specific instances of Locke's Two Treatises being invoked, the extent of the acceptance of Locke's ideals and the role they played in the American Revolution are far from clear. The Two Treatises are echoed in phrases in the Declaration of Independence and writings by Samuel Adams that attempted to gain support for the rebellion. Of Locke's influence Thomas Jefferson wrote: "Bacon, Locke and Newton I consider them as the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception, and as having laid the foundation of those superstructures which have been raised in the Physical & Moral sciences".[22][23] The colonists frequently cited Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England, which synthesised Lockean political philosophy with the common law tradition. Louis Hartz, writing at the beginning of the 20th century, took it for granted that Locke was the political philosopher of the revolution.

This view was challenged by Bernard Bailyn and Gordon S. Wood, who argued that the revolution was not a struggle over property, taxation, and rights, but rather "a Machiavellian effort to preserve the young republic's 'virtue' from the corrupt and corrupting forces of English politics."[24] Garry Wills, on the other hand, maintains that it was neither the Lockean tradition nor the classical republican tradition that drove the revolution, but instead Scottish moral philosophy, a political philosophy that based its conception of society on friendship, sensibility and the controlled passions.[24] Thomas Pangle and Michael Zuckert have countered, demonstrating numerous elements in the thought of more influential founders that have a Lockean pedigree.[25] They argue that there is no conflict between Lockean thought and classical Republicanism.[26][27][28][29]

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