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How We Read Locke

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How We Read Locke

City Talk November 23, 2022
Politics and law

Claire Rydell Arcenas is associate professor of history at the University of Montana and the author of the newly published America’s Philosopher: John Locke in American Intellectual Life. She recently spoke with City Journal associate editor Daniel Kennelly.

What led you to write a book about John Locke?

One day when I was in graduate school, I found myself knee-deep in National Union Catalogs (a kind of old-school WorldCat) at the Hoover Institution Library. I had gone in search of nineteenth-century editions of John Locke’s Second Treatise. To my surprise, however, I discovered that no American press had published the Second Treatise between 1773 and World War I. This was shocking to me, because I knew (or, rather, thought I knew) that the Second Treatise had always been Locke’s most influential work—that it was, in fact, one of the founding texts of the American political tradition. So discovering this absence suggested to me that the story of Locke in America was more complex, and perhaps more interesting, than I had realized. As a result, I decided to abandon my preconceptions and start asking basic questions about who Locke was for past generations of Americans. This book is a product of my investigations.

How does your take on Locke’s influence on early American political thought differ from conventional readings?

Conventional readings tend to impose our modern vision of Locke as the founding father of liberalism back onto the eighteenth century. This means that they focus exclusively on the work for which Locke is best known today—his Second Treatise—and the extent to which the Founding Fathers (especially Thomas Jefferson) were influenced by it in the Revolutionary era. As a result, our understanding of Locke’s political influence in early America has been shaped more by twentieth- and twenty-first-century concerns than by the actual experiences of people living in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

In contrast, America’s Philosopher seeks to understand Locke through the eyes of its historical subjects. It shows that Locke’s influence on early American political thought was both more complicated and more interesting than we’d previously imagined. Americans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries absolutely read and engaged with Locke’s political writings, but they didn’t think of Locke primarily as a political philosopher. Nor did they read Locke’s political work in isolation. Nor, after the 1770s and across the nineteenth century, did they understand Locke’s political thought as a positive influence on the development of American intellectual life or political institutions. In fact, in the immediate aftermath of the Revolutionary War, Americans began to reevaluate Locke’s political writings and increasingly interpreted them as incompatible with their “modern” commitments to what was coming to be known as “political science.” The Second Treatise, for example, came under attack for its reliance on thought experiments, such as the state of nature and the social contract. And another work that early Americans attributed to Locke—his plan of government for the Carolina colony in North America in the 1660s—was often held up as an example of how abstract political theorizing was doomed to failure, no matter how wise or virtuous its practitioner.

How have American readings of Locke, and interest in him, changed over time?

Locke’s importance for Americans has changed dramatically over the past three centuries. Today, Americans know Locke best for the Second Treatise. In early America, they knew him best for An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. When we think about Locke today, we understand him quite narrowly, as a political thinker and an icon of liberalism. In early America, by contrast, Locke was everywhere. And he mattered in ways that are difficult to grasp in the twenty-first century. For example, men and women revered him as a guide and moral exemplar, whose virtuous life, just as much as his writings, helped them learn how best to engage in everyday activities ranging from rearing children to cultivating friendships to reading the Bible.

What are you reading right now?

Well, when I’m not reading Goodnight Moon to my six-month-old, I’m enjoying Bad Land by Jonathan Raban. It’s a beautiful book about Montana, where I grew up and am lucky enough to live today. It’s been on my list for a long time, and I’d highly recommend it. The book I’m most looking forward to reading is Adam Smith’s America, by Glory M. Liu. It’s due out from Princeton University Press later this month.

Photo: “Portrait of John Locke,” by Godfrey Kneller / via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

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