Dec 4, 2015
John Locke: In Search of the Radical Locke
Smith explains an important controversy about when the Two Treatises was written, and the possible influence of the Levellers on Locke.
On November 15, 1688, William of Orange, stadholder of the Netherlands, invaded England and put King James II to flight. Three months later, John Locke returned to England after six years of exile in Holland (where he had fled in fear of arrest by the English government for sedition). In April 1689, William and Mary (daughter of James II) were crowned, having accepted the Declaration of Rights as a condition of their joint rule. This completed the “Glorious Revolution.”
In late 1689, Locke published his Two Treatises of Government. As Locke explained in the preface, he published his book to justify the Glorious Revolution.
Reader, Thou has here the Beginning and End of a Discourse concerning Government; what Fate has otherwise disposed Papers that should have filled up the middle, and were more than all the rest, ‘tis not worth while to tell thee. These, which remain, I hope are sufficient to establish the Throne of our Great Restorer, Out Present King William; to make good his Title, in the Consent of the People….
As Locke indicated, the Two Treatises as we know it is less than half the book as originally written. Indeed, the First Treatise breaks off in mid-sentence, with the remaining part missing (most of the original text, according to Locke). Now, if Locke had written and completed the entire book within months of the coronation of William and Mary, it seems unlikely that he would have lost half the manuscript within that short period of time. I may discuss a possible explanation for the missing chunk in a later essay, but for now I wish to discuss the theory, accepted by virtually every modern Lockean scholar, that most of the Second Treatise was written years before the Glorious Revolution.
Early commentators, misled by Locke’s preface, assumed that Locke wrote the Second Treatise after William’s successful invasion of England. In 1960, Peter Laslett published his definitive edition of the Two Treatises, and his lengthy, detailed Introduction to the text changed the course of Lockean scholarship.
Laslett, after a meticulous examination of both textual and external evidence, concluded that most of the Two Treatises was written between 1679 and 1681 (around 18 years before the Glorious Revolution) during a political struggle known as the Exclusion Crisis. This was an unsuccessful parliamentary effort by Whigs, led by Lord Shaftesbury (Locke’s patron and, in some respects, his mentor) to prevent the Catholic Duke of York (brother of Charles II and later James II) and other Catholics from succeeding to the throne of England. (It should be understood that Catholicism in Locke’s day was commonly associated with the absolutist policies of Louis XIV.) As originally written, according to Laslett, the “Two Treatises in fact turns out to be a demand for a revolution to be brought about, not a rationalization of a revolution in need of defense.” Similarly, Maurice Cranston, in John Locke: A Biography (1957), drawing upon Laslett’s research before publication, concluded: “The Two Treatises of Government was not something written after the event to “justify” a revolution, but something written before the event to promote a revolution.”
Laslett’s redating of the Two Treatises—or, more precisely, the Second Treatise; some previous historians had posited an earlier date for the First Treatise—led to depicting Locke as far more radical than his conventional image. He was no mere armchair philosopher who justified a revolution that had already occurred, but a radical activist who was implicitly advocating a revolution in the future, given the failure of the Exclusion movement. And this image of a radical Locke gains momentum when we consider this question: Why did Locke, throughout his life, try to hide his authorship of the Two Treatises?
When Locke returned from Holland to England in February 1689, he was received warmly and was offered a government post. He had backed the right horse. So why did Locke publish the Two Treatises anonymously and strive assiduously to conceal his authorship, even from some close friends and the printer? (If not for a codicil in his will, we would have no direct evidence that Locke wrote the Two Treatises at all.) Why not reveal his authorship and bask in accolades from a grateful public? A traditional explanation is that Locke was a secretive man who avoided public controversy. This is true, but it raises another question: Why should the Two Treatises, which was expressly published “to establish the Throne of our Great Restorer, Our present King William,” excite public controversy at all? If, as some commentators have argued, Locke’s political theory, including his theory of revolution, was merely a summary of orthodox Whiggism, then it is difficult to understand why Locke took such great pains to remain anonymous.
Peter Laslett suggested a reason for Locke’s “extraordinary furtiveness about the writing of the Two Treatises.” Throughout the 1690s, there was a possibility that James II might recapture the throne of England. And if this happened, Locke feared retribution if his authorship of the Two Treatises became known.
A better explanation, in my judgement, was given by Julian Franklin in John Locke and the Theory of Sovereignty (1978). Locke’s theory of revolution, Franklin argued, was unacceptable to establishment Whigs who were seeking to justify the accession of William and Mary to the throne. According to Locke’s theory, when James II tried to subvert the English Constitution, he put himself in a state of war with the English people and dissolved the existing government. Thereafter the power to erect a new government devolved to the “people” acting in their capacity as a political society.
Locke’s theory of a dissolved government, had it been accepted, would have released the people of their obligation not only to King James II but also to parliament. Moderate Whigs were unwilling to accept this radical outcome. They did not agree with Locke that the English government had been dissolved and that power thereby reverted to the people. Instead, moderate Whigs advanced the theory that James II had abdicated his throne and left it vacant. Afterwards, the two Houses of Parliament, assembling as a “convention,” filled the vacancy.
Thus Locke’s theory of revolution was rejected as too extreme by most Whig apologists of the Glorious Revolution (a judgment later expressed by Edmund Burke and Sir William Blackstone). And this, Franklin maintained, was why Locke didn’t want to disclose his authorship of the Two Treatises.:
Locke’s awareness that his thesis was considered dangerous by all, helps to explain not only his decision to conceal his authorship, but his obsessive efforts to make sure that it was not disclosed by friends. [G]iven the radicalism of the Second Treatise, as it was generally understood, he had special reason to be fearful. Had his authorship become widely known even after 1689, he might have been exposed to prosecution and, at the very least, would have suffered damage to his reputation.
Even with the work of Laslett, Cranston, Franklin, and others, our picture of John Locke as a radical activist remained blurred until the publication, in 1986, of Richard Ashcraft’s Revolutionary Politics and Locke’s Two Treatises of Government. Ashcraft gave us one of the most important studies of Locke ever published. Massive (600 pages) and richly detailed, this book contains previously untapped sources and presents a John Locke who was hip-deep in the revolutionary intrigues of his day—first as a confidant to Lord Shaftesbury and, later, as a fellow conspirator among British dissidents in Holland who were plotting revolution.
Here (and in the next essay) I want to examine one of Ashcraft’s more interesting and provocative claims, namely, that the Two Treatises was more indebted to the philosophy of the Levellers than scholars had previously thought. As Ashcraft put it: “I have throughout this work placed Locke in much closer proximity to the Levellers and to the radical political theory they developed than has previously been supposed.” And again: “[T]he relationship of Locke’s argument in the Two Treatises to the language used by the Levellers merits much more serious consideration than it has heretofore been given by Locke’s political ideas.”
The Levellers were an organized movement of radical libertarians—the first we know of in western civilization—who flourished during the 1640s, a time of dissension and civil war between king and parliament. The best known Levellers included John Lilburne, Richard Overton, and William Walwyn.
Ashcraft conceded that there is no “direct link” between Locke and the Levellers. Indeed, most historians accepted the conclusion of Peter Laslett that “as far as we know Locke never read Lilburne or the other Levellers.”
Did Locke own any Leveller pamphlets? Historians before Ashcraft said no, but Ashcraft raised an interesting point. Locke stored over 600 pamphlets in boxes, and only a fraction of these were listed by title in his library catalogue. Leveller pamphlets were possibly among the hundreds of unmentioned items. In addition, during his last two years of exile in Holland, Locke lived with the Quaker merchant and radical whig Benjamin Furley. Furley owned an impressive library—over 4000 items—that included “a substantial collection of Leveller tracts…to which Locke had constant access.” But even if Locke read the Leveller tracts in Furley’s library, this doesn’t support Ashcraft’s thesis of a Leveller influence in the Second Treatise. Locke didn’t meet Furley until 1687, six years after the Exclusion Crisis (1679-81) during which most of the Two Treatises was supposedly written.
Whether Locke read the Levellers is a matter of conjecture, so Ashcraft did not pursue this possibility very far. Instead, he accepted Laslett’s judgment that it was “from conversation and casual contact, not from documentary acquaintance, that Locke inherited the fruit of the radical writings of the Civil War.” How, then, did Ashcraft build his case for Locke as a closet-Leveller (to overstate the point somewhat)? Basically, he employed a sophisticated version of the adage that if something looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it is probably a duck. In Ashcraft’s words:
The more weight one places upon the decision of an author to identify himself with a particular political language selected from among a range of available choices, and the more one thinks in terms of the appeal that a specific political vocabulary has for specific social groups, the more plausible it becomes to think of Locke’s political theory in terms of this “association” [with the Levellers].
As much as I would like to agree with Ashcraft’s thesis of a significant influence of the Levellers on Locke, I remain skeptical. I shall explain my reasons in the next essay.