Thursday 29 April 2010

Locke and Liberty

John Locke's political theories began to alarm the English establishment at the time of the French Revolution, and prior to this during the American Revolution, though for a good bit of the eighteenth century he had, so to say, been 'tamed' and 'domesticated.' But as radical times demand radical ideas, so Locke was rescued from a wooly consensus and revivified as a champion of liberty.

In a debate in the House of Commons in 1776, John Wilkes recited from Two Treatises of Government, demanding 'fair and equal representation.' In the 1790s Thomas Erskine, a radical Scottish lawyer, drew on the Second Treatise in his arguments for universal manhood suffrage. Locke also underpinned some of the great political testaments of the day, including Joseph Priestly's Essay on the First Principles of Government and Richard Price's On the Nature of Civil Liberty. His thought was also reinterpreted in a crypto-socialist light, in such works as The Real Rights of Man by Thomas Spence and The Complaint of the Poor People of England by George Dyer.

Given all this it comes as no surprise that there was a conservative back-lash, which grew steadily in intensity. It really begins with Josiah Tucker's The Notions of Mr Locke and his Followers, extended and republished in the 1780s as the Treatise Concerning Civil Government. Like a dog in pursuit of a bone, dear old Josiah simply refused to let go, later publishing The Evil Consequences Arising from the Propagation of Mr Locke's Democratic Principles. Phew!

And so it went on. Edmund Burke himself makes no mention of Locke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, though others made good his omission. Writing in 1798 William Jones described Locke as "...the oracle of those who began and conducted the American Revolution, which led to the French Revolution; which will lead (unless God and his mercy interfere) to the total overthrow of religion and government in this kingdom, perhaps the whole Christian world."

As the Counter-Enlightenment progressed Locke's portrait was taken down from the hall of his old college, Christ Church in Oxford, from whence he had been expelled by order of Charles II in 1684. The Monthly Repository, a dissenting journal, lamented that this was "Locke's second expulsion from Oxford."


  1. Reading Locke is like having a cold bath sans the water, and whilst wearing an overcoat. Give me the conservative romance of Dr. Johnson any day.

  2. :-) Locke was a good friend of Shaftesbury. Perhaps you know this, but he also served him in the office of a doctor.

  3. Yes indeed, good friends. He had 'some' points I agree with, but most of it is radicalism bound up it curtness, wrapped in a cellophane of tedium.

  4. John Locke? He's in Lost!

    Let me be the first in this comment space to say I've never read a word of 'im. Somewhere I saw a writer refer to this type of revered author/scholar collectively as "The Great Unread". I once tackled Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations" but couldn't stand the gaff. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century there may have been a very different mental space prevailing so that people could chop their way through this stuff. On the other hand, they may have only been studied by a small coterie who persuaded others to be awed..on the principle of the King's New Clothes. Apart from University students who are set the texts who would seek out these drearies? Now Thucydides...he's good.

  5. So he is. :-))

    Actually, Retarius, I much prefer Herodutus. :-)