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A Revolutionary Reading List:
The Intellectual Tradition that Influenced the U.S. Founding Fathers

(Released April 2010)

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  by Carolyn Scearce  


Key Citations




John Locke


John Locke, a 17th century English philosopher and physician, significantly influenced Enlightenment thought and the American Revolutionaries. He set out much of his political thinking in the work Two Treatises of Government, which founded his political theory on the basis of "the social contract." Locke's influence on the political system that was to be formed in the United States was not strictly theoretical, as he also participated in drafting the constitution of the Carolinas in the 1660's.

John Locke
John Locke
In Book One Locke focuses his attention on refuting the premise of Robert Filmer's treatises Patriarcha. In his work, Filmer defended the concept of the divine right of kings. His treatises, published posthumously in 1680, was widely read and well received in England. According to Locke, Filmer had argued for a Biblically founded basis of absolute monarchy, in which from creation God had granted Adam dominion over the earth, including all of mankind. He equated paternal authority to royal authority, and claimed that humankind is naturally subject to Adam's most direct heirs. Locke very vehemently disagreed with Filmer's assertions. In repetitive detail, Locke examined not only the situation of Adam, but of a number of other Old Testament figures such as Abraham, Jacob and Esau, and Israel's first kings. By textual and situational analysis, Locke demonstrates how Filmer's arguments do not stand up to logical scrutiny. Locke further asserts that even if Filmer's claims were legitimate, over the course of time, mankind has lost track of the lines of Adam's descent, and that it would be impossible to identify Adam's true heir. Locke rejects the notion that monarchy is an inevitable or divinely chosen form of government.

Once Locke was satisfied that he had set Filmer's arguments to rest, he set out in Book II to outline his own political theory. Locke bases the argument of his treatises on the assumption that men, in a state of nature, start from a basis of equality and perfect freedom. In the establishment of political power, men conceptually surrender some part of their autonomy to the community for the purpose of protecting property and promoting the public good. The community also assumes the authority of judging and fixing the punishment of those who transgress the properties and rights of other members of the society, with the exception of the right to self defense in times of immediate peril. He lays out what he believes to be the proper extent of legislative power. Towards the end of the treatises, he explains the various misuses of power and the conditions under which he believes that a government forfeits its own authority by breaching the trust placed in the government by the people. Once this faith has been breached, then the authority that had been held by the existing legislature devolves back into the hands of the people. Many of the grievances that Jefferson listed in the Declaration of Independence as reasons for separating from British rule are very similar to those stated by Locke.

Prior to the Enlightenment, religious and political affairs were deeply intertwined in Europe. The concept of the separation of church and state is one that came out of the Enlightenment and was advocated by Locke. In A Letter Concerning Toleration Locke addresses the issue of religious tolerance. He states, "I esteem that toleration be the chief characteristic mark of the true church," adding that the jurisdiction of the state only involves civil concerns, that it is not within the authority of civil power to compel people to share identical religious beliefs. Religion is an issue of persuasion and inner belief, and neither laws nor force are effective means of making people change their minds. Churches he views as voluntary societies. If a member of a church does not conform to the standards of the religious community, it is within the authority of the church to expel the member but civil punishment is not part of a church's jurisdiction. Diversity of opinions is natural, and not a problem in itself. Problems arise when civil authority singles out and unfairly treats members of different religious faiths, or when church authorities try to meddle in civil affairs.

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