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As soon as I started asking questions about Locke's legacy in America, however, I discovered something unexpected. The Locke I knew and thought I would find in the historical record was missin. He was nowhere to be found. And the text I thought defined Locke's relevance--his Two Treatises--was conspicuously absent as well. Between 1773 and 1917, it wasn't even published in an American edition.
   Claire Rydell Arcenas, Introduction: America’s Philosopher: John Locke in American Intellectual Life

This book is so good it could not have come at a bad time. But, because the Right has adopted, as one of its myriad psychoses, a passionate hatred of John Locke as the architect of America's supposedly godless Enlightenment regime, it could hardly have come at a better time. As Joseph Loconte has explained:
This criticism of Locke’s liberalism as the great solvent of tradition, virtue, and religious belief continues to influence political scientists, educators, and public intellectuals. For the ideological Left, it has nurtured the progressive assumption that liberal values emerged only as societies became more secular and dispensed with religious belief. More recently, Macpherson and Strauss have been enlisted by those among the religious Right who accuse Locke of transforming the classical and Christian conceptions of freedom into a license for personal liberation.

And, James M. Patterson makes the broader point:
In recent decades, however, scholars have reconsidered this view of the American founding. The ground was first laid by the 1984 landmark content analysis of Donald S. Lutz in his American Political Science Review article “The Relative Influence of European Writers on Late Eighteenth-Century American Political Thought.” Here Lutz compiled revolutionary and founding literature—while intentionally excluding sermons for obvious reasons—from 1760 until 1805, and searched for references to authorities ancient and modern. He discovered that the so-called Lockean liberal founding was nothing of the sort. Rather, revolutionary literature contained more references to the Bible than to all other thinkers combined, and the most popular book was that of Deuteronomy. Locke appears somewhat often in the earliest years Lutz examined but rapidly tapers off in favor of appeals to Montesquieu, Blackstone, Hume, Pufendorf, Coke, and Cicero. Far from a Lockean liberal founding, Lutz concluded that “the debate surrounding the adoption of the U.S. Constitution reflected different patterns of influence than the debates surrounding the writing and adoption of the state constitutions, or the Revolutionary writing surrounding the Declaration of Independence.” In short, Lutz had proved that reducing the founding to liberalism badly oversimplified a complicated series of events with a wide array of influences and statesmen at work.)

So we ought not be surprised that when Professor Arcenas sought to trace the influence of Locke on American life she had trouble finding evidence that he was the key influence on the Founding:

Conventional readings tend to impose our modern vision of Locke as the founding father of liberalism back onto the eighteenth century. This means that they focus exclusively on the work for which Locke is best known today—his Second Treatise—and the extent to which the Founding Fathers (especially Thomas Jefferson) were influenced by it in the Revolutionary era. As a result, our understanding of Locke’s political influence in early America has been shaped more by twentieth- and twenty-first-century concerns than by the actual experiences of people living in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

In contrast, America’s Philosopher seeks to understand Locke through the eyes of its historical subjects. It shows that Locke’s influence on early American political thought was both more complicated and more interesting than we’d previously imagined. Americans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries absolutely read and engaged with Locke’s political writings, but they didn’t think of Locke primarily as a political philosopher. Nor did they read Locke’s political work in isolation. Nor, after the 1770s and across the nineteenth century, did they understand Locke’s political thought as a positive influence on the development of American intellectual life or political institutions. In fact, in the immediate aftermath of the Revolutionary War, Americans began to reevaluate Locke’s political writings and increasingly interpreted them as incompatible with their “modern” commitments to what was coming to be known as “political science.” The Second Treatise, for example, came under attack for its reliance on thought experiments, such as the state of nature and the social contract. And another work that early Americans attributed to Locke—his plan of government for the Carolina colony in North America in the 1660s—was often held up as an example of how abstract political theorizing was doomed to failure, no matter how wise or virtuous its practitioner.
    -INTERVIEW: How We Read Locke: with Claire Rydell Arcenas (Daniel Kennelly, 11/23/22, City Talk)
Ironically, what Ms Arcenas found was that Locke was monumentally influential on many other facets of life in the Colonial era. Thanks mainly to his Essay Concerning Humane Understanding he was universally hailed as a "guide, model, and moral exemplar--an immediate and pervasive presence in people's daily lives, who taught them how to rear their children, study scripture, and pursue a variety of other activities related to improving both themselves and their communities." His pivotal role in child-rearing owed to his Thoughts Concerning Education and among the self-improvement goads was his New Method of Organizing Common-Place Books. This last was a system for keeping track of what you'd read and proved enormously popular. Paradoxically, for a thinker whom Left and Right both insist was at least secular and likely atheist, Locke was also utilized as a religious authority. Folks would proudly cite their sympathy with his Reasonableness of Christianity, Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul, and Ii>Letter Concerning Toleration Meanwhile, whoever did happen to read the Two Treatises would have found in the First his Biblical refutation of the right of kings. He was an unguent of tradition and religion, not a solvent.

On the other hand, by studying printing history, sales data and citations, the author shows that the Treatises on Government were much less widely read and had only limited currency in Revolutionary thought. It is not that Locke's thought was unknown or un-cited, just that he was merely one among many philosophers whose ideas contributed to the political milieu. Modern critics bizarrely want to both claim both that he was particularly influential on Jefferson, who adopted some of his language, but then ignore that where the Second Treatise locates rights in nature, the Declaration explicitly locates them in the fact of our having been Created. In one final amusing twist, mentioned in the interview above: "Far from establishing Locke as a foundational influence on American political thought, his political writings were relegated by late-eighteenth-century Americans to the realm of the abstract, speculative theory just as those Americans were turning their attention to more practical matters--namely, the formation and proper administration of real government." It was hardly helpful in this regard that his Fundamental Constitution for the Carolina colony had proven so unworkable, such that it "came to be seen as exemplifying what was wrong with politics and statecraft done speculatively and unscientifically." Far from imposing Enlightenment Rationalism on a nascent United States, he was marginalized precisely for the qualities of same that the Right finds so objectionable.

The rest of the book charts the ebbs and flows in Locke's fortunes as a figure in our public debates. Chiefly, the author shows how his false reputation was a rather late creation, really post-WWII. For purposes of their own ideological project, intellectuals of the left sought to make Locke an arch-Rationalist who bequeathed us a Founding denuded of religion. Equally predictably, those on the right--Willmoore Kendall and Leo Strauss, for instance--reacted against Locke, though they were actually taking issue with an imaginary construct. Lost in the tussle, to this day, was the historical Locke who Ms Arcenas has restored to us in this necessary corrective.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Claire Arcenas Links:

    -FACULTY PAGE: Claire Rydell Arcenas (Geballe Dissertation Prize Fellow, Department of History, Stanford University)
    -FACULTY PAGE: CLAIRE RYDELL ARCENAS: Associate Professor of History (University of Montana)
    -PRIZE: 2022 István Hont Book Prize: We are pleased to announce that the 2022 István Hont Book Prize has been awarded to Claire Rydell Arcenas for America’s Philosopher - John Locke in American Intellectual Life (Institute of Intellectual History)
    -BOOK SITE: America’s Philosopher: John Locke in American Intellectual Life by Claire Rydell Arcenas (University of Chicago Press)
    -ESSAY: Roundtable: Claire Rydell Arcenas on Andrew Koppelman, Burning Down the House: How Libertarian Philosophy Was Corrupted by Delusion and Greed (Claire Rydell Arcenas, DECEMBER 19, 2023, Society for US Intellectual History)
    -VIDEO: John Locke: The 17th Century Philosopher who Shaped American Thought (The Sandra Day O’Connor Institute for American Democracy, 4/19/2023)
    -VIDEO PODCAST: Occasional Dialogues: Claire Rydell Arcenas (Interviewed by Kurt Hofer, The European Conservative)
    -PODCAST: Booknotes+ Podcast: Claire Arcenas, "America's Philosopher" (C-SPAN, Booknotes)
    -VIDEO DISCUSSION: Claire Rydell Arcenas, Peggy Vandenberg, and Judy Whipps: "Progressive/Conservative 2016" (Hauenstein Center)
    -VIDEO: America’s Philosopher: John Locke in American Intellectual Life (Washington History Seminar, Apr 5, 2023)
    -VIDEO: John Locke: The 17th Century Philosopher who Shaped American Thought: The Sandra Day O’Connor Institute for American Democracy presents a Civics for Life Conversation with author and historian Claire Rydell Arcenas (Civics for Life)
    -PODCAST: America’s Philosopher: John Locke in American Intellectual Life (New Work in Intellectual History, 2/17/2023)
    -VIDEO: Claire Rydell Arcenas, Peggy Vandenberg, and Judy Whipps: "Progressive/Conservative 2016" (Hauenstein Center, 4/20/16)
-INTERVIEW: How We Read Locke: with Claire Rydell Arcenas (Daniel Kennelly, 11/23/22, City Talk)
    -INTERVIEW: What is Reception History? And Other Questions for Glory Liu and Claire Rydell Arcenas (REBECCA BRENNER GRAHAM, JUNE 24, 2019, Society for US Intellectual History)
    -RECAP: “John Locke in America,” 10/20 Colloquium w/ University of Montana Prof. Claire Rydell Arcenas (Kinder Institute on Constitutional Democracy, University of Missouri)
    -INTERVIEW: American Historian Claire Arcenas on John Locke, Teaching, and More (Erik Moshe, 10/20/19, HNN)
    -INTERVIEW: The Author’s Corner with Claire Arcenas (Rachel Petroziello, August 1, 2022, Current)
    -ESSAY: The Appropriation of Locke (Joseph Loconte, Sep 16, 2021, Heritage Foundation)
    -VIDEO LECTURE: America’s Machiavellian Moment [Or, Where Did the Founders Get Their Ideas?]: In this lecture, FPRI’s Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Walter McDougall delves deeply into the origins of the American political tradition by exploring the legacies of Medieval and Renaissance Europe, and the transmission of these ideas across time and space. (Foreign Policy Research Institute, 5/21/2018)
    -ESSAY: The Great Mr. Locke: America's Philospher, 1783-1861 (Merle Curti, Apr., 1937, The Huntington Library Bulletin)
    -ESSAY: Beyond John Locke: Reality and Experience (Richard Cocks, 6/16/23, Voegelin View)
    -ESSAY: John Locke: The Harmony of Liberty & Virtue (Donald Devine, August 28th, 2023, Imaginative Conservative)
    -ESSAY: John Locke: Physician, Philosopher, and Defender of Freedom (Richard Gunderman, 12/04/23, EconLib)
    -ESSAY: Locke, Virtue, and a Liberal Education (Joseph Loconte, Spring 2024, National Affairs)
    -ESSAY: The relationship between religion and rights in the writings of John Locke (Brian Watkyns, University of Cape Town)
    -ESSAY: John Locke Foments Revolution in the Name of “The Rights of Man” (Walter Donway, April 26, 2023, Online Library of Liberty)
    -ESSAY: “John Locke, Heir of Puritan political theorists” (Winthrop S. Hudson)
    -ESSAY: John Locke and the New Course of Enlightenment Reason: Empiricism (Walter Donway. April 19, 2023, Online Library of Liberty)
    -ESSAY: LOCKE, CHRISTIANITY, AND AMERICA (Peter Lawler, 7 . 8 . 11, First Things)
    -ESSAY: John Locke’s Method of Organizing Common Place Books (Farnham Street)
-VIDEO ARCHIVES: Claire Rydell Arcenas (YouTube)
    -REVIEW: of America’s Philosopher: John Locke in American Intellectual Life by Claire Rydell Arcenas (The Critic)
    -REVIEW: of America's Philosopher (Barry Alan Shain, Chronicles)
    -REVIEW: of America’s Philosopher (Colin Kidd, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of America’s Philosopher (Geoff White, Montana: The Magazine of Western History)
    -REVIEW: of America's Philosopher (Caleb Henry, Catholic Social Science Review)
    -REVIEW: of America's Philosopher (Larry Arnhart, Law & Liberty)
    -REVIEW: of America's Philosopher (Mario I. Juarez-Garcia, Independent Institute)
    -REVIEW: of America's Philosopher (Modern Intellectual History)
    -REVIEW: of America's Philosopher (Elias Neibart, Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy)[PDF]
    -REVIEW: of America's Philosopher (Barton Swaim, WSJ)
    -REVIEW: of America's Philosopher (Michael Zuckert, American Political Thought)
    -REVIEW: of America's Philosopher (David Azerrad, Claremont Review of Books)

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    -PROFILE: The anti-democratic thinker inspiring America's Conservative elites (Hugo Drochon, 4/21/18, The Guardian)
-ESSAY: The Three Ahmaris and the UAW: Sohrab Ahmari flits between three different positions on labor, but none of them throws light on the real challenges at hand. (Michael Pakaluk, 10/11/23, Law & Liberty)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Inconsistent Populists: Sohrab Ahmari and the Anti-Neoliberal Right: Tyranny, Inc. aims to build a working-class coalition between the left and right. But Ahmari cannot get around the GOP populists’ dismal record on labor. (Hannah Gurman ? September 28, 2023, Dissent)


-SYMPOSIUM: Symposium on Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule’s “Law and Leviathan: Redeeming the Administrative State” (Yale Journal on Regulation)
    -LECTURE: Law’s Attrition, Virtue’s Abnegation (Adam J. White, September 21, 2018, Villanova Law School, Yale Journal on Regulation)