Locke: The Father of Liberalism

Even the most casual student of history will likely recognize the name of John Locke. Like Hobbes, Milton, and Newton, Locke was part of the grand intellectual foment of seventeenth-century England that succeeded the Renaissance and inaugurated the Enlightenment.

Though we tend to look at his work through a political lens, Locke’s early writings had more to do with epistemology, or the philosophy of how we know things. Dissenting both from Classical authors like Plato and St. Augustine, and from the work of his immediate predecessor Descartes, Locke argued for empiricism. This is the doctrine that the human mind is a tabula rasa or “blank slate,” containing no pre-existing ideas or categories. He is also the first author known to define the self in terms of continuous consciousness. This, together with his empiricism, places an accent on personal identity, defined by personal experience, as an important element of thought—which has implications for philosophy, psychology, and politics.

This brings us around to his Two Treatises of Human Government. These laid down the intellectual foundations of the Whig party, which formed around the Exclusion Crisis. This was a series of parliamentary bills by which the Whigs tried (without success) to ban James Stuart, the younger brother of King Charles II, from the line of succession—both because he was a Roman Catholic, and because he believed in royal absolutism. Opposing the religious and political sympathies of the Stuarts, Locke adopted the cause of constitutional monarchy, and the ideals of classical Liberalism took shape.

Following in Hobbes’ footsteps, Locke argued that the basis of government was the consent of the people, a social contract. Man naturally had the right to his life, health, liberty, and property; the role of the social contract was not to promote the common good or direct man toward final salvation, even indirectly, but solely to protect those rights from outside interference. Moreover, since the social contract drew its authority from the people’s consent, Locke believed that the people could (and even, in certain circumstances, ought to) withdraw their consent from their rulers, up to and including revolution. This outlook proved enormously influential in both France and the American colonies of Britain, through such writers as Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson. The American and French Revolutions were both deeply rooted in the thought of Locke and his successors. Through them, Locke has shaped political and philosophical history across the globe for two centuries.

To love truth for truth’s sake is the principal part of human perfection in this world, and the seed-plot of all other virtues.

John Locke

Not all his ideas have remained equally in favor, nor was his conduct beyond reproach. For example, it appears he was against aristocracy and slavery only on paper; he helped to draft the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, which not only allowed for but enshrined a hierarchical social and economic order which made extensive use of slave labor. His Letter Concerning Toleration was religiously broad-minded for the most part, save for two exceptions: that the government need not recognize the liberties of atheists, nor of those “whose religion involves allegiance to a foreign power,” i.e., Catholics. His remarks on enclosure—the practice of claiming previously common land as private property, and fencing it off so that others could not use it (a practice St. Thomas More criticized sharply in Utopia, as contributing to poverty and crime)—are read by some scholars as a justification for displacing the indigenous peoples of North America, in favor of the British colonists. Perhaps the strangest of Locke’s bad ideas was his enthusiastic support for child labor; in his Essay on the Poor Law, he advocated putting children to work at the ripe old age of three.

The legacy of classical Liberalism partakes of the complexity of its founder. Racism, slavery and other unjust labor laws, and anti-Catholicism have a long history in the United States, among other Enlightenment-influenced countries. Yet even so, the advance of common human rights and liberties owes a great deal to his thought, and not a few statesmen, activists, and philosopher have seen further by standing on the shoulders of John Locke.


Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.

If you liked this post, check out some of our posts on “the Great Conversation,” like this one on the soul or this one on the concept of space. You might also enjoy our weekly podcast, Anchored, hosted by our CEO and founder Jeremy Tate, where he interviews leading intellectuals on topics of education and culture.

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