RECAP: “John Locke in America,” 10/20 Colloquium w/ University of Montana Prof. Claire Rydell Arcenas

“I’m gonna tell you everything you need to know about…local government. ‘Life, Liberty, and Property.’ John Locke.”
—Ron Swanson, Parks and Recreation

Though not necessarily the most reliable narrator—at the very least, not the most ideologically neutral one—Ron Swanson does capture Locke’s uniquely central place in American culture and the American political imagination today. His work in the Second Treatise on Civil Government regarding individual liberty and individual rights has become the theory that launched a thousand -isms. And while it’s true that these -isms often exist at curious odds with one another, they are nonetheless prominent enough in our discourse that, as Nathan Tarkov noted, there is a “very real sense that Americans can say that Locke is our political philosopher.”

As University of Montana Associate Professor of History Claire Rydell Arcenas explained in introducing her October 20 talk at the Kinder Institute, as spot on as Tarkov’s proclamation is in describing our present moment, it might understate the complexity of Locke’s historical place in the story of the U.S. In combing through library catalogs while researching her 2022 University of Chicago Press monograph, America’s Philosopher: John Locke in American Intellectual Life, she noticed a surprising phenomenon. Though it’s consistently cited as Locke’s most important work—and, more to the point here, a founding text of the American political tradition—Locke’s Second Treatise wasn’t published by an American press for the century-plus span of time between the revolutionary era and World War I, while his “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” was published dozens of times during the 19th century alone. If Tarkov’s claim, rooted in contemporary appropriation and interpretation of the Second Treatise, sheds light on Locke’s place in our times, who was Locke for past generations of Americans?

“I was forced to consult Mr. Lock[e] over and over to see wherein personal Identity consisted…In truth, I understand enough of him to be quite charmed. I rec[k]on it will take me five months reading before I have done with him.”
—Eliza Lucas Pinckney (1741)

Referring, here, to Locke’s “Essay Concerning Human Understanding”—a text that, among other things, probes the scope and limit of human knowledge and ultimately argues for truth seeking through rationality—Pinckney expresses how much, and how practically, Locke mattered to 18th- and 19th-century Americans. His were not academic texts but rather guides for how they understood themselves—their “personal Identit[ies]”—in the world, handbooks for how to live well. For Pinckney and Abigail Quincy, this meant drawing on Locke’s work, both in the aforementioned “Essay” and his “Thoughts Concerning Education,” for advice on raising children. Pinckney tracked down the toy Locke recommended for teaching children how to read. Edmund Quincy recalls the “cold water, wet feet” bathing ritual practiced across generations in his family as a way of fortifying a child’s body and mind. In his role as what Prof. Arcenas termed a “lifestyle guru,” Locke was further sought out for guidance on cultivating friendships, reading the Bible, avoiding the indignity of games of chance, and, perhaps most frequently, keeping track of one’s reading. Locke’s Common-Place Book was regularly printed in the United States well into the 1830s, with its rules for indexing by subject and page number drawn on and publicly celebrated by figures ranging from James Wilson to Benjamin Rush to Charles Francis Adams. Serving as a moral exemplar, however, meant that Locke’s shortcomings were more intensely scrutinized.

“Locke’s little book on government is perfect as far as it goes. Descending from theory to practice there is no better book than the Federalist.”
—Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr. (30 May 1790)

By comparison, Jefferson’s rebuke was gentle. Written in his role as an advisor to the Earl of Shaftesbury, Locke’s “Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina” drew round critique as a text which exposed his overly speculative, outdated, and unscientific thinking. His plan of legislation, untethered from experience and rooted only in theory, was decried as a “signal absurdity,” a “crude and monstrous scheme of government,” and unimpeachable evidence of his failure as “an American lawgiver.” Beginning in the early 19th century, his writings came to be rejected, ignored, and ultimately rendered into the dustbin of past time. This, of course, would begin to change almost as soon as the century turned, and Prof. Arcenas devoted the remainder of her talk to unpacking why.

The first of three transformations she highlighted was a simple, if also undetermined one. Across the first third of the 20th century, momentum built to connect the nation’s present to its founding moment, an impulse for which Locke was a logical avatar. People decided—or decided again—that he was relevant to understanding the trajectory of the American experiment, but there was no consensus on how and why. Was he a proto-capitalist or a proto-socialist? A small ‘l’ liberal or an advocate for capital ‘L’ Liberalism? Was he a revelation or a danger? This ambiguity would dissipate with World War II. Searching for a non-Soviet, non-French, non-German book in which to ground American political philosophy, politicians and public intellectuals landed on (very select passages from) the Second Treatise as the pro-capitalist, anti-totalitarian reference point for a very particular strain of liberal democracy that was exemplified by Locke’s fervent defense of life, liberty, and property, despite the small fact that he never actually uttered that phrase. “Are you Educated” Life magazine asked in 1950? You were if you could identify Locke.

The third transformation that Prof. Arcenas identified, which started in the 1960s and takes us into the present, was Locke’s partisan turn. Gone was the essayist of raising children, cultivating silkworks, and considering human understanding. In his place stood a champion of whatever form of rights—civil, natural, private property—one used to define the American tradition in accordance with one’s political persuasion. Whether de-centered, dismissed, or deployed newly as an adjectival signifier—whether the godfather of liberalism or libertarianism—Locke was easy fodder, sometimes uncomfortably underscoring, Prof. Arcenas noted in closing, the contingency, context, and nuance with which we don’t (but must) approach the way that we study how distant worlds find their way into our day-to-day life.