John Locke was an English scholar, physician, and political theorist whose writings influenced American Revolutionary thought in the eighteenth century. Locke was born in Wrington, Somerset, in 1632. His father’s active support of Parliament in the English Civil War of 16421646 helped young Locke gain admission to the prestigious Westminster School in London in 1647 and to Christ Church College, Oxford, in 1652. He received his master’s of arts degree in 1658, the same year that Oliver Cromwell, lord protector of England, died.
After the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660, Locke remained at Christ Church as a tutor. In his university years, he developed an avid interest in the new experimental science of innovators such as his friend Robert Boyle, a pioneer in chemistry and one of the founders of the Royal Academy of Sciences, which Locke himself would join.
After serving on an English diplomatic mission to Germany in 1665, Locke returned to Oxford to study medicine. Through his practice, he befriended and gained the patronage of Anthony Ashley Cooper, one of Charles II’s inner court circle. In 1663, the king had made eight of his favorites, including Lord Ashley, lords proprietors of the Carolina colony, and Locke drew up the Fundamental Constitutions of that colony. The result, ratified in 1669, granted most governing powers to wealthy landowners in an archaic feudal-type order. But the colonists who eventually settled there refused to work in serflike capacities for the landholders, and the experiment in constitutional feudalism quickly failed. In the part of the colony that would later form North Carolina, farmers rose in rebellion in 1677. To the south, smallholders and planters many of them coming from Barbados eventually formed their own government.
Locke benefited from Lord Ashley’s rise in power, for his patron, created earl of Shaftesbury, became lord chancellor of England in 1672. But when Charles II’s secret pro-Catholic dealings with France became public knowledge, Shaftesbury broke with the king and became a leading member of the opposition party, known as the Whigs. Locke continued in government as secretary to the Council of Trade and Plantations until 1675.
The ensuing crises that befell Charles II’s reign greatly affected John Locke’s career and writings. The Popish Plot of 16781679, a false but sensational tale of a vast Catholic conspiracy against the king, fed into the Exclusion Crisis of 16791681. Shaftesbury was among those who wanted to force King Charles II to exclude his Catholic brother James, duke of York, from the succession. Charles II refused and eventually triumphed in Parliament.
Shaftesbury left England in 1682 and died abroad. Locke, considered a Whig writer, also thought it prudent to leave England in 1683. It was during his self-imposed exile in the Dutch Republic that John Locke wrote several important works, published at later dates. One of the most influential was Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), in which Locke explained that knowledge comes from what is perceived by the senses and the mind’s reflection on these perceptions. He also wrote Letter on Toleration (1689) and Thoughts Concerning Education (1693). While Locke was abroad, James II came to the throne in 1685 and quickly antagonized the nation with his pro-Catholic policies and attempts to circumvent parliamentary law. In 16881689, the political elite of England replaced James II with his daughter, Mary, and her husband, William, Prince of Orange, an event known as the Glorious Revolution. John Locke was in the same party with Mary when she sailed from Holland to England in 1689, and, in 1690, his Two Treatises of Government was published. Under the new regime, Locke served in government again, and, from 1696 to 1700, he was an important member of the Board of Trade. He died in 1704.
Locke’s most influential political work, Two Treatises of Government, actually originated during the Exclusion Crisis. In the early seventeenth century, Sir Robert Filmer had written a work in support of the divine right of kings, entitled Patriarcha. It was published only in 1680, however, when it was used as a counterargument against Shaftesbury and the Whigs, who wanted to alter the succession. Locke in turn wrote a refutation of Patriarcha, which became the First Treatise. This entire work was probably written prior to his 1683 exile. Upon his return to England in 1689, he prepared the manuscript for publication, although the three editions put out during his lifetime (1690, 1694, 1698) were published anonymously.
Locke, in a preface, tied Two Treatises to the events of 16881689. He explained he was writing to establish the throne of our great restorer, our present King William to make good his title in the consent of the people. It is in the Second Treatise that Locke explained the origin, extent, and purpose of civil government. For Locke, an empirical scientist, natural laws exist not just for the physical world but also for human institutions. Natural law is universal and can be discovered by human reason.
Like his fellow English theorist Thomas Hobbes, Locke believed that humans form governments to live better lives. But Hobbes in Leviathan (1651) argued that life was so brutal in a state of nature that people enter into a contract with a ruler who is given absolute power. Locke instead held that people in the state of nature are more reasonable. Also by natural law, prior to the existence of government, people have the right to life, liberty, and property. It is to protect these rights that they enter into a contract to form a government. If that government breaks the contract and fails to protect the people’s natural rights, the governed have a right to rebel and replace it.
Locke’s ideas gained influence in the later eighteenth century among America’s leading political thinkers and became a theoretical basis for the Revolution. Thomas Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence, echoes Locke when he writes of men’s rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government.
Locke’s ideas also influenced the writers of the U.S. Constitution in such areas as limitations on executive power and the protection of individual rights against any arbitrary exercise of power. Florene S. Memegalos See also: Arts, Culture, and Intellectual Life (Essay); Child Rearing; Children; Jefferson, Thomas; South Carolina; South Carolina (Chronology). Bibliography Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. Edited by Peter Laslett. Rev. ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Yolton, John W. John Locke, an Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 1985. Yolton, John W., ed. John Locke: Problems and Perspectives, A Collection of New Essays. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1969.
Locke, John 1632–1704 Photo Gallery
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