In the Americas, two centuries after Locke, his system found its most devoted allies and it’s most deadly opponents.

Nicknamed the “Father of Liberalism,” Locke’s theories have formed the foundation of many important works, including the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution. His theories of social contract, the mind, and property are perhaps the most widely known.

Editor’s Note

Anthony Comegna, PhD

Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

For our final portion from Locke’s “First Treatise,”—the relatively neglected portion of his most famous work—our author concludes his dismantling of Sir Robert Filmer. As we have seen, his purpose in doing so was to prevent exactly the sort of disorderliness in government that produced England’s recent (and catastrophic) civil wars. This conflict remains the most deadly in all of English history in proportion to the population size, and genteel upper‐​middle class intellectual functionaries like Locke were almost universally determined that nothing of the kind should ever happen again. Systems like Filmer’s patriarchal monarchism turned out to be so flimsy in reality that they allowed for chaotic anarchy in practice.

Filmer might yearn for a world in which the people passively absorb information and instruction from their social betters—but this was not the world Locke actually lived in. Far from it, in fact. European life had probably never actually worked that way in practice, but even as an ideal, Filmer’s version of patriarchal feudalism with all peoples in their proper order on the Great Chain of Being was long dead–especially in England; especially by 1689. Few of Locke’s contemporaries seriously doubted that their world was no longer quite the same as what they were leaving behind—though they may not have used the term, they were now dealing with modernity, and it was markedly different from earlier times. It was the very beginning of a new period of history. Perhaps this is why the first treatise is so odd and tinny to our ears today. Something is off about it. It’s riddled with biblical allusions and references, to arcane disputes about minute and foreign subjects. It is much less meaningful to us than the “Second Treatise,” but Locke’s was the Early Modern period—and we should not forget that Filmer’s patriarchalism did (does?) in fact have a long shadow.

Fast forward two centuries from Locke (and across the ocean), and there was but one rather lone, terribly small, intellectually and politically isolated community of Filmerites left in the Americas. In Europe, of course, there were still plenty of monarchs, ca. 1889, and plenty of defenders for the old patriarchy. Indeed, there were also plenty of new and rather unlikely defenses for statism in the form of socialism. But, alas!, in America—the spitting image of John Locke’s “state of Nature”-turned-civilization—Lockean liberalism reached the peak of its influence. Virtually no one contested the fundamentals of his “Second Treatise,” and even fewer paid any serious attention to Locke’s old nemesis, Sir Robert Filmer. Virtually no one, that is, outside the orbit of plantation slavery’s most vociferous and unreconstructed devotees. During the course of the nineteenth century, many Americans (rightly or wrongly) began to think of their society as something they owned, which they had built from the bottom‐​up, but now they had also defended it with arms from the most difficult of challenges. They had been through civil war, just like Locke’s England, and they had defended their republic from the domination of the Slave Power, and now abolition guaranteed that a new and more popular order dominated American life. The outmoded slavocratic patriarchy simply had to give way to the far more natural northern Lockeanism. Anything less would mean northern freemen subjugating themselves to the whims of slavemasters as though there were no difference between the two categories of person. Again, to our ultra‐​modern perspectives this may seem an odd fixation for northerners, but abolitionists had the best proof out there in the form of George Fitzhugh, America’s arch‐​Filmerite, who openly argued that God’s natural order dictated that even poor whites should be slaves to their social betters. For Fitzhugh (who died in 1881), free society was a complete failure—a long string of disruptions and disasters tracing back in large part to John Locke’s Two Treatises, the takedown of Robert Filmer, and the sorts of whimsical modern inventions of fancy that Fitzhugh saw throughout this text.

By John Locke
Thomas Hollis Edition. (London: A. Millar et. al.) 1764.

Two Treatises of Civil Government

Book I: Of Government

Chapter 11: Who HEIR?

The scripture says not a word of their rulers or forms of government, but only gives an account, how mankind came to be divided into distinct languages and nations; and therefore it is not to argue from the authority of scripture, to tell us positively, fathers were their rulers, when the scripture says no such thing; but to set up fancies of one’s own brain, when we confidently aver matter of fact, where records are utterly silent. Upon a like ground, i.e. none at all, he says, That they were not confused multitudes without heads and governors, and at liberty to choose what governors or governments they pleased….

He that can think this arguing from scripture, may from thence make out what model of an Eutopia will best suit with his fancy or interest; and this fatherhood, thus disposed of, will justify both a prince who claims an universal monarchy, and his subjects, who, being fathers of families, shall quit all subjection to him, and canton his empire into less governments for themselves; for it will always remain a doubt in which of these the fatherly authority resided….

Nimrod is his next instance of enjoying this patriarchal power, but I know not for what reason our author seems a little unkind to him, and says, that he against right enlarged his empire, by seizing violently on the rights of other lords of families. These lords of families here were called fathers of families, in his account of the dispersion at Babel: but it matters not how they were called, so we know who they are; for this fatherly authority must be in them, either as heirs to Adam…or else as natural parents over their children, and so every father will have paternal authority over his children by the same right…and so be independent princes over their own offspring. Taking his lords of families in this later sense, (as it is hard to give those words any other sense in this place) he gives us a very pretty account of the original of monarchy, in these following words, And in this sense he may be said to be the author and founder of monarchy, viz. As against right seizing violently on the rights of fathers over their children; which paternal authority, if it be in them, by right of nature…no body can take from them without their own consents; and then I desire our author and his friends to consider, how far this will concern other princes, and whether it will not, according to his conclusion of that paragraph, resolve all regal power of those, whose dominions extend beyond their families, either into tyranny and usurpation, or election and consent of fathers of families, which will differ very little from consent of the people.

All his instances, in the next section, of the 12 dukes of Edom, the nine kings in a little corner of Asia in Abraham’s days, the 31 kings in Canaan destroyed by Joshua, and the care he takes to prove that these were all sovereign princes, and that every town in those days had a king, are so many direct proofs against him, that it was not the lordship of Adam by right descending to them, that made kings: for if they had held their royalties by that title, either there must have been but one sovereign over them all, or else every father of a family had been as good a prince, and had as good a claim to royalty, as these: for if all the sons of Esau had each of them, the younger as well as the eldest, the right of fatherhood, and so were sovereign princes after their fathers death, the same right had their sons after them, and so on to all posterity; which will limit all the natural power of fatherhood, only to be over the issue of their own bodies, and their descendents; which power of fatherhood dies with the head of each family, and makes way for the like power of fatherhood to take place in each of his sons over their respective posterities: whereby the power of fatherhood will be preserved indeed, and is intelligible, but will not be at all to our author’s purpose. None of the instances he brings are proofs of any power they had, as heirs of Adam’s paternal authority by the title of his fatherhood descending to them; no, nor of any power they had by virtue of their own: for Adam’s fatherhood being over all mankind, it could descend but to one at once, and from him to his right heir only, and so there could by that title be but one king in the world at a time: and by right of fatherhood, not descending from Adam, it must be only as they themselves were fathers, and so could be over none but their own posterity. So that if those 12 dukes of Edom; if Abraham and the nine kings his neighbours; if Jacob and Esau, and the 31 kings in Canaan, the 72 kings mutilated by Adonibeseck, the 32 kings that came to Benhadad, the 70 kings of Greece making war at Troy, were, as our author contends, all of them sovereign princes; it is evident that kings derived their power from some other original than fatherhood, since some of these had power over more than their own posterity; and it is demonstration, they could not be all heirs to Adam: for I challenge any man to make any pretence to power by right of fatherhood, either intelligible or possible in any one, otherwise, than either as Adam’s heir, or as progenitor over his own descendents, naturally sprung from him. And if our author could shew that any one of these princes, of which he gives us here so large a catalogue, had his authority by either of these titles, I think I might yield him the cause; though it is manifest they are all impertinent, and directly contrary to what he brings them to prove, viz. That the lordship which Adam had over the world by right descended to the patriarchs….

All that his proofs amount to, is only this, that there were fathers, patriarchs and kings, in that age of the world; but that the fathers and patriarchs had any absolute arbitrary power, or by what titles those kings had their’s, and of what extent it was, the scripture is wholly silent; it is manifest by right of fatherhood they neither did, nor could claim any title to dominion and empire.

To say, that the exercise of supreme patriarchal government was intermitted, because they were in subjection to a stronger prince, proves nothing but what I before suspected, viz. That patriarchal jurisdiction or government is a fallacious expression, and does not in our author signify (what he would yet insinuate by it) paternal and regal power, such an absolute sovereignty as he supposes was in Adam.

For how can he say that patriarchal jurisdiction was intermitted in Egypt, where there was a king, under whose regal government the Israelites were, if patriarchal were absolute monarchical jurisdiction? And if it were not, but something else, why does he make such ado about a power not in question, and nothing to the purpose?…

For I thought he had been giving us out of scripture, proofs and examples of monarchical government, founded on paternal authority, descending from Adam; and not an history of the Jews: amongst whom yet we find no kings, till many years after they were a people: and when kings were their rulers, there is not the least mention or room for a pretence that they were heirs to Adam, or kings by paternal authority. I expected, talking so much as he does of scripture, that he would have produced thence a series of monarchs, whose titles were clear to Adam’s fatherhood, and who, as heirs to him, owned and exercised paternal jurisdiction over their subjects, and that this was the true patriarchical government; whereas he neither proves, that the patriarchs were kings; nor that either kings or patriarchs were heirs to Adam, or so much as pretended to it: and one may as well prove, that the patriarchs were all absolute monarchs; that the power both of patriarchs and kings was only paternal; and that this power descended to them from Adam: I say all these propositions may be as well proved by a confused account of a multitude of little kings in the West‐​Indies, out of Ferdinando Soto, or any of our late histories of the Northern America, or by our author’s 70 kings of Greece, out of Homer, as by any thing he brings out of scripture, in that multitude of kings he has reckoned up.

And methinks he should have let Homer and his wars of Troy alone, since his great zeal to truth or monarchy carried him to such a pitch of transport against philosophers and poets, that he tells us in his preface, that there are too many in these days, who please themselves in running after the opinions of philosophers and poets, to find out such an original of government, as might promise them some title to liberty, to the great scandal of Christianity, and bringing in of atheism. And yet these heathens, philosopher Aristotle, and poet Homer, are not rejected by our zealous Christian politician, whenever they offer any thing that seems to serve his turn; whether to the great scandal of Christianity and bringing in of atheism, let him look. This I cannot but observe, in authors who it is visible write not for truth, how ready zeal for interest and party is to entitle Christianity to their designs, and to charge atheism on those who will not without examining submit to their doctrines, and blindly swallow their nonsense.

But to return to his scripture history, our author farther tells us, that after the return of the Israelites out of bondage, God, out of a special care of them, chose Moses and Joshua successively to govern as princes in the place and stead of the supreme fathers. If it be true, that they returned out of bondage, it must be into a state of freedom, and must imply, that both before and after this bondage they were free, unless our author will say, that changing of masters is returning out of bondage; or that a slave returns out of bondage, when he is removed from one gally to another. If then they returned out of bondage, it is plain that in those days, whatever our author in his preface says to the contrary, there were difference between a son,subject, and a slave; and that neither the patriarchs before, nor their rulers after this Egyptian bondage, numbered their sons or subjects amongst their possessions, and disposed of them with as absolute a dominion, as they did their other goods….

When they were out of this bondage, what then? God out of a special care of them, the Israelites. It is well that once in his book he will allow God to have any care of the people; for in other places he speaks of mankind, as if God had no care of any part of them, but only of their monarchs, and that the rest of the people, the societies of men, were made as so many herds of cattle, only for the service, use, and pleasure of their princes.

…But says our author, when God gave the Israelites kings, he re‐​established the ancient and prime right of lineal succession to paternal government.

How did God re‐​establish it? by a law, a positive command? We find no such thing….

Next, there can be no re‐​establishment of the prime and ancient right of lineal succession to any thing, unless he, that is put in possession of it, has the right to succeed, and be the true and next heir to him he succeeds to. Can that be a re‐​establishment, which begins in a new family? or that the re‐​establishment of an ancient right of lineal succession, when a crown is given to one, who has no right of succession to it, and who, if the lineal succession had gone on, had been out of all possibility of pretence to it? Saul, the first king God gave the Israelites, was of the tribe of Benjamin. Was the ancient and prime right of lineal succession re‐​established in him? The next was David, the youngest son of Jesse, of the posterity of Judah, Jacob’s third son. Was the ancient and prime right of lineal succession to paternal government re‐​established in him? or in Solomon, his younger son and successor in the throne? or in Jereboam over the ten tribes? or in Athaliah, a woman who reigned six years an utter stranger to the royal blood? If the ancient and prime right of lineal succession to paternal government were re‐​established in any of these or their posterity, the ancient and prime right of lineal succession to paternal government belongs to younger brothers as well as elder, and may be re‐​established in any man living; for whatever younger brothers, by ancient and prime right of lineal succession, may have as well as the elder, that every man living may have a right to, by lineal succession, and Sir Robert as well as any other. And so what a brave right of lineal succession, to his paternal or regal government, our author has re‐​established, for the securing the rights and inheritance of crowns, where every one may have it, let the world consider.

But says our author however, Whensoever God made choice of any special person to be king, he intended that the issue also should have benefit thereof, as being comprehended sufficiently in the person of the father, altho’ the father was only named in the grant. This yet will not help out succession; for if, as our author says, the benefit of the grant be intended to the issue of the grantee, this will not direct the succession; since, if God give any thing to a man and his issue in general, the claim cannot be to any one of that issue in particular; every one that is of his race will have an equal right. If it be said, our author meant heir, I believe our author was as willing as any body to have used that word, if it would have served his turn…

But how will our author prove that whensoever God made choice of any special person to be a king, he intended that the (I suppose he means his) issue also should have benefit thereof?

It is in vain then to say, that whensoever God chooses any special person to have the exercise of paternal authority, (for if that be not to be king, I desire to know the difference between a king and one having the exercise of paternal authority) he intends the issue also should have the benefit of it, since we find the authority, the judges had, ended with them, and descended not to their issue; and if the judges had not paternal authority, I fear it will trouble our author, or any of the friends to his principles, to tell who had then the paternal authority, that is, the government and supreme power amongst the Israelites; and I suspect they must confess that the chosen people of God continued a people several hundreds of years, without any knowledge or thought of this paternal authority, or any appearance of monarchical government at all.

To be satisfied of this, he need but read the story of the Levite, and the war thereupon with the Benjamites, in the three last chapters of Judges; and when he finds, that the Levite appeals to the people for justice that it was the tribes and the congregation, that debated, resolved, and directed all that was done on that occasion; he must conclude, either that God was not careful to preserve the fatherly authority amongst his own chosen people; or else that the fatherly authority may be preserved, where there is no monarchical government: if the latter, then it will follow, that though fatherly authority be never so well proved, yet it will not infer a necessity of monarchical government; if the former, it will seem very strange and improbable, that God should ordain fatherly authority to be so sacred amongst the sons of men, that there could be no power, or government without it, and yet that amongst his own people, even whilst he is providing a government for them, and therein prescribes rules to the several states and relations of men, this great and fundamental one, this most material and necessary of all the rest, should be concealed, and lie neglected for 400 years after.

Before I leave this, I must ask how our author knows that whensoever God makes choice of any special person to be king, he intends that the issue should have the benefit thereof? Does God by the law of nature or revelation say so? By the same law also he must say, which of his issue must enjoy the crown in succession, and so point out the heir, or else leave his issue to divide or scramble for the government: both alike absurd, and such as will destroy the benefit of such grant to the issue. When any such declaration of God’s intention is produced, it will be our duty to believe God intends it so; but till that be done, our author must shew us some better warrant, before we shall be obliged to receive him as the authentic revealer of God’s intentions.

…But since our author has so confidently assured us of the care of God to preserve the fatherhood, and pretends to build all he says upon the authority of the scripture, we may well expect that that people, whose law, constitution and history is chiefly contained in the scripture, should furnish him with the clearest instances of God’s care of preserving the fatherly authority, in that people who it is agreed he had a most peculiar care of. Let us see then what state this paternal authority or government was in amongst the Jews, from their beginning to be a people. It was omitted, by our author’s confession, from their coming into Egypt, till their return out of that bondage, above 200 years: from thence till God gave the Israelites a king, about 400 years more, our author gives but a very slender account of it; nor indeed all that time are there the least footsteps of paternal or regal government amongst them. But then says our author, God re‐​established the ancient and prime right of lineal succession to paternal government.

What a lineal succession to paternal government was then established, we have already seen. I only now consider how long this lasted, and that was to their captivity, about 500 years: from thence to their destruction by the Romans, above 650 years after, the ancient and prime right of lineal succession to paternal government was again lost, and they continued a people in the promised land without it. So that of 1750 years that they were God’s peculiar people, they had hereditary kingly government amongst them not one third of the time; and of that time there is not the least footstep of one moment of paternal government, nor the re‐​establishment of the ancient and prime right of lineal succession to it, whether we suppose it to be derived, as from its fountain, from David, Saul, Abraham, or, which upon our author’s principles is the only true, from Adam.