As some of our readers have noticed, Locke is a big subject around here. We don’t share a single interpretation of his philosophy (you should listen to Ivan), or of his influence on the American regime. But we agree that the positions expressed above all in the 2nd Treatise of Government represent a turning point in the history of political thought. This judgment doesn’t rest, at least for me, on the novelty of Locke’s particular arguments. His accomplishment was to combine, with unprecedented power, the modern-scientific view of nature, moral skepticism, and political contractarianism.
We criticize this combination a lot, both for what it says and for what it fails to say about the human predicament. Today, however, I want to offer few words of praise. Without Locke, it would have been impossible for our fathers (in at least the spiritual sense) to bring forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Without Locke’s doctrine of natural rights, the United States might have ended up like Canada: a decent, peaceable place, to be sure, but without much claim on anyone’s loyalty or imagination. Independence Day is, I think, a time to reflect on the fruitful and perhaps providential ambiguity of the principles articulated by Locke and recapitulated in the most famous passage of the Declaration published 233 years ago today. They’ve given us a hell of a lot of trouble—but also more than the common measure of honor.
So, I encourage everyone to raise their glasses—whether of homebrewed beer, Kentucky bourbon, or imported wine bought in bulk at Costco—to Locke and the semi-hemi-demi-Lockeans who’ve served this nation. That means Jefferson, of course. It also means Lincoln (sorry, Bob), who understood, as Jefferson did, that slavery was an intolerable injustice—because rights to life and liberty exclude the right to property in human beings. But above all, it includes the countless ordinary citizens, who knew nothing of Locke or Burke or Thomas or Aristotle, who’ve struggled and worked and fought and died so that they might live under a government responsible to their will, and constrained to regard them as free men and women rather than as members of a class, church, guild, tribe, town, or race. We owe them much.
Tomorrow we can go back to arguing, in the very best tradition of querulous patriotism. For now: Happy Independence Day.