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Vindicating John Locke: How A Seventeenth-Century 'Liberal' Was

Really A Social Conservative*

Thomas G. West
A British philosopher born in 1632, John Locke, author of Two Treatises on
Government, and Essay Concerning Human Understanding, gave sober defense of
individual rights and government by the people that is respectful of both Christianity
and the moral conditions of a free society--is surprising to many.

In his 2001 inaugural address, President Bush called on Americans to be "citizens, not
spectators." Few would disagree with that sentiment. But many Americans, on both right and
left, worry that there are elements in our political tradition, going back to the Founding, that
stand in the way of the kind of robust, public-spirited devotion to the common good--and the
kind of moral restraint necessary for a free society--that we think we admire.
Let me be blunt. The villain of the piece, for many, is John Locke, who happens to be the
philosopher most admired by the American Founders for his articulation of the principles of
government. Locke taught a doctrine of individual rights that some take to be the ultimate source
of today's problems.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, falls into the trap of
the conventional wisdom on Locke when he writes, "And then came the Enlightenment, and by
the eighteenth century we had learned from John Locke that it is inconceivable to apply moral
terms to the State and its actions."1
I will argue here that this claim is based on a terrible misunderstanding of Locke, and of the
American Founding as well. In the view of Locke and the Founders, morality and religion are not
only compatible with government that aims to secure individual rights, but such a government
cannot survive without supporting or mandating at least some minimal moral duties.
I explain this point in some detail in the chapters on the family, welfare, and immigration in
Vindicating the Founders.2 What I did not make explicit there, however, is that the Founders'
understanding of these things had already been anticipated by Locke.

** Retrieved from [

i=WT01F1&v=PRINT]. The only edit made was the movement of the footnotes from the end of the
lecture to the bottom of each page K.R.H.
1 Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Russian Question at the End of the Twentieth Century (New York: Farrar,
Straus, and Giroux, 1995), p. 114.
2 Thomas G. West, Vindicating the Founders: Race, Sex, Class, and Justice in the Origins of
America(Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997).

Locke's critics believe that his principle is "liberal neutrality." They claim it can be found in the
tradition of political thought "that runs," writes Michael Sandel, "from John Locke, Immanuel
Kant, and John Stuart Mill to John Rawls." These thinkers, Sandel argues, believe that
government should be "neutral on the question of the good life." But Sandel contends, quite
plausibly, that a government "neutral on moral and religious questions" cannot "secure the liberty
it promises, because it cannot sustain the kind of political community and civic engagement that
liberty requires."3
Sandel is a liberal. But many non-leftists agree with him about Lockean politics. Robert Bork's
Slouching Toward Gomorrah has two chapters attacking the natural rights doctrine of the
Declaration of Independence. "Liberalism does not vary," writes Bork,
It is always the twin themes of liberty and equality. What distinguishes apparently different
stages of liberalism--classical liberalism from modern liberalism, for example--is not any
difference in liberalisms but a difference in the admixture of other elements that modify or
oppose it.4
Those "other elements"--the moral and religious heritage of early America--have, according to
Bork, been corroded by the acid of the boundless demand for ever more "liberty" and "equality"
and "rights" of all kinds. Bork believes it is impossible, consistently, for government to protect
the equal individual right to liberty on the basis of consent, and to support morality and religion.
Lockean political thought, in his view, is the enemy of religion, morality, and civilization.5
It is easy enough to quote founding-era documents to bring out the consistent concern of that
generation for the moral conditions of freedom. But the objection can be made, and often is
made, that this only shows that the Founders did not really understand the radical implications of
their own Enlightenment principles. In this view, the Founders were, in Michael Zuckert's words,
"victims of bait-and-switch marketing." Zuckert means that the Founders were dupes of a
radically modern project in which Locke, along with Machiavelli, Bacon, Hobbes, and others,
succeeded in overthrowing the classical understanding of man as a being whose perfection and
happiness can only be found in moral and intellectual virtue. "Modernity," in this light, may be
said to be an enterprise that was ultimately intended to destroy Christianity and replace it with
the anthropocentric principle that man's will is the source of all meaning and value in life. In
Pierre Manent's formulation, "Modern democracy . . . is founded on the emancipation of the
will." The modern state "wants to institutionalize the sovereignty of the human will. If there is a
God, the human will cannot be 'autonomous.'" Modern man, says Manent, concludes that there is
no God. This, then, would be the ultimate meaning of the principles of Locke and the Founders.6
Whatever the merits of this characterization of modern thought as a whole--I for one have
3 Michael Sandel, Democracy's Discontent (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), pp. 4-5, 7, 24.
4 Robert Bork, Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline (New York:
Regan Books, 1996), pp. 57, 66.
5 Ibid.

serious doubts about it--there is still the question of whether it applies to the thinker that the
Founders most admired, and to the nation founded on his political principles.
The Founders' Embrace of Both Rights and Duties
Scholars often deny the presence of moral and communitarian elements in the Founding. Or, if
they acknowledge their presence, they are attributed to a republican or other nonliberal tradition
coexisting uneasily with the supposedly liberal elements. As we will see, the Founders saw their
liberalism and republicanism as two sides of the same coin.
The Declaration of Independence affirms that all human beings possess the rights to life, liberty,
and the pursuit of happiness, and that it is the purpose of government to secure those rights. To
this extent the Declaration speaks the language of rights, and apparently not moral obligation.
But the Declaration says that the United States are entitled to independence by "the laws of
nature and of nature's God." A natural law is the ground of our natural rights. This is easily
understood. If, as the Founders argued, the law of nature commands self-preservation and liberty,
then it implies that we have a right to our own life and liberty, and a duty not to take away the
life or liberty of others.
Because rights are inseparable from duties, and the law of nature is also the law of "nature's
God" (meaning God insofar as we can discern his existence through our reason unassisted by
faith), the Founders frequently used the word sacred in connection with liberty and rights. In his
First Inaugural Address, Washington spoke of "the sacred fire of liberty." In Jefferson's rough
draft of the Declaration of Independence, he used sacred three times: "we hold these truths to
be sacredand undeniable"; the "most sacred rights of life and liberty" of slaves; and "we pledge
to each other our . . . sacred honor."7 (italics added)
Moreover, says the Declaration, when a "long train of abuses and usurpations evinces a design to
reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such
government." Here the right to revolution becomes also a positive duty to revolt--when life and
liberty are threatened by government. As political scientist John Wettergreen was fond of
remarking, the right and duty to live, to be free, and to pursue happiness means that we do not
have the right to death, slavery, and the pursuit of misery. At a certain point, "spectators,"
immersed as we all tend to be in our private lives, have a moral duty to become "citizens." Mel
Gibson's character in the movie The Patriot undergoes this transformation. At first he prefers to
remain neutral in the American war for independence, but then he comes to see that his interest
and duty alike lie with those fighting British despotism.

6 Michael Zuckert, Natural Rights and the New Republicanism (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
1994), p. 288. Pierre Manent, Modern Liberty and Its Discontents, ed. Daniel J. Mahoney and Paul Seaton
(Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998), pp. 105, 99.
7 The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Julian P. Boyd (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950), pp.
423, 426-7.

When those who supported the American Revolution called themselves Patriots, they used the
language of citizenship and community, of moral obligation. But these Patriots were also
asserting their rights as individuals, whose self-interest was threatened by the British, who
insisted on their right to rule America without the consent of the governed. In the Declaration,
rights and duties, sacred rights and sacred honor, have the same root: the law of nature, which
commands all equally to respect and, where possible, to secure the equal rights of all.
When the political theory of the Declaration was spelled out in other founding-era documents,
the moral side of liberty was made even more explicit. The 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights,
which became the model for the Declarations of other states, asserts "That no free government,
or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice,
moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue." There is no security for rights if the people
neglect their duties.
Government has a role to play in fostering the virtues of republican government, as the federal
Northwest Ordinance of 1787 makes clear: "Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary
to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall
forever be encouraged." In other words, the federal law governing the territories that would
become future states spoke of the promotion of morality and religion as a leading task of a
government whose foundation, according to the Ordinance, was "the fundamental principles of
civil and religious liberty, which form the basis whereon these republics, their laws and
constitutions are erected."
A narrow focus on the rights of the individual at the expense of moral conditions of liberty, or on
morality and community at the expense of individual rights, divides today's conservatives and
liberals not only from each other but also among themselves. Social conservatives denounce the
perniciousness of "rights talk" and bemoan government's failure to promote the virtues necessary
to sustain a free and decent society. Libertarians celebrate individual rights, but they view
government support for morality as a threat to liberty. From the Founders' standpoint, both sides
are half right and half wrong. There is a parallel division among liberals. Communitarians like
Michael Sandel reject the individual rights tradition, while rights-affirming liberals like Ronald
Dworkin argue against even the most minimal government promotion of morality (in the
Founders' sense of that term). For the Founders, rights and duties were two parts of a single
understanding of political life and its purposes.
Locke's Morality of Freedom
Locke helps us relearn the political philosophy of liberty as it was once understood. The
Founders called him "the great Mr. Locke."8 It was his Two Treatises of Government that
provided the theoretical foundation of the new republic. Locke was hardly the sole thinker of
importance to the founding generation. But his name appeared more often than any other

8 For example, Reply of the Massachusetts House of Representatives to the Speech of Governor
Hutchinson, July 31, 1770, in Thomas Hutchinson, The History of the Colony and Province of
Massachusetts-Bay, ed. Lawrence Shaw Mayo (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1936), 3:338.

European thinker in the political writings of the crucial 1760s and 1770s leading to
Locke's most widely read work, the Two Treatises, is best known for its defense of the right to
liberty and property, and its corresponding teaching on limited government based on the rule of
law and the consent of the governed. There are several obvious moral implications of this
teaching. One should stand up for one's own rights to life, liberty, and estate, and respect the
equal rights of others. One should support the cause of constitutional government and oppose
any despotic or tyrannical alternative. Locke's First Treatise opens with this invigorating
sentence: "Slavery is such a vile and miserable estate of man, and so directly opposite to the
generous temper and courage of our nation; that 'tis hardly to be conceived, that an Englishman,
much less a gentleman, should plead for't." James Otis quoted this sentence with relish in his
1764 pamphlet defending the rights of Americans against British encroachments.10 This feisty,
prickly spirit of "Don't tread on me" became a leading ingredient of the morality promoted by the
American polity. Madison (Federalist 57) and Washington (First Annual Message to Congress,
1790) both speak of vigilance against despotism as a crucial republican virtue.
Connected with his teaching on property, Locke attempts to elevate the dignity of the
"industrious and rational," those who produce things useful for their fellow men, over the "fancy
or covetousness of the quarrelsome and contentious," that is, those (such as aristocrats all over
Europe) who, instead of advancing the cause of liberty and labor, would rather quarrel and
contend over honor and rank, or covetously seize the fruits of the labor of others. In Some
Thoughts Concerning Education Locke recommends that gentlemen learn a useful trade. He
discourages the reading of books that praise the quarrelsome and contentious who win glory
through "fighting and killing." For "the honour and renown that is bestowed on conquerors (who
for the most part are but the great butchers of mankind) farther mislead growing youth, who by
this means come to think slaughter the laudable business of mankind, and the most heroic of
virtues" (sec. 201, 116).
In his book on education, widely read and much beloved for over a century after its publication
in 1693, Locke specifies other virtues that young people (including young women) should be
habituated in, such as self-restraint, generosity, justice, courage, honesty, and "breeding" ("that
decency and gracefulness of looks, voice, words, motions, gestures, and of all the whole outward
demeanor which takes in company and makes those with whom we converse easy and well
pleased") (sec. 142). These qualities are meant to make a man self-controlled, self-reliant, and
properly self-assertive, pleasant in the company of others, but firm in the doing and defense of
what is right.
In the Two Treatises, Locke speaks of specific moral duties, required by the law of nature, that is,
a law discovered by reason that all human beings are obliged to obey. Locke makes frequent
9 Donald S. Lutz, Origins of American Constitutionalism (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University
Press, 1988), p. 143.
10 James Otis, The Rights of the British Colonies (1764), in Pamphlets of the American Revolution, ed.
Bernard Bailyn (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965), p. 424.

assertions about what that law commands, but does not say much about its ultimate foundation.
That becomes clear only at one point in the Second Treatise, in the chapter on paternal power.
"Law, in its true notion," Locke writes, " is not so much the limitation as the direction of a free
and intelligent agent to his proper interest, and prescribes no farther than is for the general good
of those under that law. Could they be happier without it, the law, as an useless thing would of it
self vanish" (2.57).11 Law directs man to his "true and proper interest," that is, to what makes
them "happier." The law of nature, then, is a rule, or set of rules "for the general good of those
under that law." The self-interest of all, understood as happiness, is Locke's ultimate standard for
the law of nature.
This may sound like a selfish foundation for moral obligation, but Lockean self-interest proves to
be inseparable from service to others. It is also surprisingly austere. Locke speaks of our "true
and proper interest" because most of us, most of the time, follow an untrue and improper
conception of our interest that blocks our long-term good. All men by nature desire happiness,
but the human passions, unguided by reason or morality, lead men astray.
Nature, I confess, has put into man a desire of happiness and an aversion to misery. . . .
Principles of actions indeed there are lodged in men's appetites; but these are so far from being
innate moral principles, that if they were left to their full swing they would carry men to the
overturning of all morality. Moral laws are set as a curb and restraint to these exorbitant desires.
Reason must guide our natural (and blameless) desire for our own good. Therefore reason must
also deny many of our passions, which, if indulged, would lead not to our happiness but our
misery. "Reason," which "is that law," that is, the law of nature, discovers the rules that promote
the general good of all (2.6). In sum, the "laws of the society, made conformable to the laws of
nature," are "for the public good, i.e. the good of every particular member of that society, as far
as by common rules, it can be provided for" (1.92).
If the ground of the law of nature is self-interest, ultimately one's own happiness, how can that
self-regarding good lead to duties to others? Locke gives several answers to this question. One
answer is that it is one's interest to promote the good of others. The law of nature commands that
all are to be preserved as much as possible. Everyone's private interest is served when men seek
the preservation (but not necessarily the happiness) of others. Locke denies a general duty to
promote other people's happiness because of the religious problem: to save their neighbors, many
are tempted to turn to murderous persecution, with "burning zeal for God, for the church, for the
salvation of souls, all the way to burning at the stake."12

11 Text citations, unless otherwise noted, refer to section numbers of his Two Treatises of Government,
Second Edition, ed. Peter Laslett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970). "2.57" means Second
Treatise, section 57.
12 John Locke, Epistola de Tolerantia: A Letter on Toleration, ed. Raymond Klibansky, trans. J.W.
Gough (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), p. 61. I have occasionally modified the translation in my
quotations from this book.

So when Locke says that the law of nature teaches that everyone ought "to preserve the rest of
mankind," as long as "his own preservation comes not in competition," he means it. This
mandate to preserve everyone is sometimes taken to be not quite serious, because of Locke's
qualifying proviso. If one's own preservation always comes first, will there ever be an occasion
to preserve others? Locke's answer is yes, for "'twould always be a sin in any man of estate, to let
his brother perish for want of affording him relief out of his plenty" (1.42). Locke anticipates
Tocqueville's praise of "self-interest rightly understood," that is, the idea that "by serving his
fellow, man serves himself, and that doing good is to his private advantage."13
Locke easily moves from this general command of the law of nature to specific applications. For
example, Locke infers a duty to serve one's country (not indiscriminate patriotism, however,
which would support "my country right or wrong"). He says that he published his book on
education because he was persuaded that it "might be of some use if made more public. . . . For I
think it every man's indispensable duty to do all the service he can to his country; and I see not
what difference he puts between himself and his cattle, who lives without that thought." Locke is
suggesting that a man who fails to serve his country--that is, who fails to promote the
preservation of others--is no better than subhuman, lacking in the reason which teaches us to
"preserve mankind."14
There is a further command of the law of nature that tends to be overlooked by those of Locke's
readers who are determined to turn him into a theorist of narrow self-interest. In the widely used
Strauss-Cropsey History of Political Philosophy, for example, Robert Goldwin denounces Locke
for his failure to mention morality and virtue in the Two Treatises.15 Goldwin is technically
correct, for these two words do not appear in the Treatises. But Goldwin fails to mention that
Locke speaks frequently of "duty" and "obligation" in the Treatises, including, emphatically,
parents' duties to children. Parents are, "by the law of nature, under an obligation to preserve,
nourish, and educate" their offspring (2.56), a mandate that Locke repeats and develops at length
(1.88-100, 2.58-74).
The "fundamental Law of Nature being the preservation of Mankind" (2.135), that law may be
said to consist of two commands. First, preserve oneself, and second, preserve others. The
natural-law obligations of parents to children are rooted in each of these two commands.
13 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. George Lawrence (New York: Harper, 1988), p.
14 Nathan Tarcov, Locke's Education for Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), points
out this connection between love of country and reason. Tarcov's book corrects many of the typical
scholarly prejudices about Locke. Unfortunately, it does so in such an understated way that scholars have
taken too little notice of it. Readers who think ill of Locke should read especially the final pages of
Tarcov's book.
15 Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, History of Political Philosophy, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1987), p. 484.

First, parents have a desire of "continuing themselves in their posterity" (1.88). They are "taught
by natural love and tenderness to provide for them [their children], as a part of themselves"
(1.97). Parental love of children begins from self-love, love of the child as an extension or
repetition of oneself. One might even call this experience, well known to parents, a benign
confusion of self and other, reminding of Aristotle's dictum that the friend is "another self."
According to Aristotle too, "parents love their children as a part of themselves."16 But the
practical expression of this originally selfish concern is love and care of the child, who really is
another person and not oneself.
Locke's second ground of the family is the social compact, meant to establish an adequate
enforcement of the law of nature ("preserve mankind"), since that law is ill-observed in the state
of nature outside of civil society. The family exists, from this point of view, because it produces
and cares for children, thus fulfilling "the main intention of nature, which willeth the increase of
mankind, and the continuation of the species in the highest perfection" (1.59).
Locke writes, "The obligations of the law of nature cease not in society, but only in many cases
are drawn closer, and have, by human laws, known penalties annexed to them to enforce their
obedience" (2.135). In the case of the family, the laws therefore provide support for marriage and
parental duties to children. The purpose of the social compact--to preserve the lives, liberties, and
estates of the people--necessarily includes the family, because to "preserve the lives" of the
people means to provide for the generation and proper care of children, without whom mankind
would perish.
Therefore government has a role in sustaining "the distinction of families, with the security of
the marriage bed." "Adultery, incest, and sodomy" are viewed, says Locke, as "sins, which, I
suppose, have their principal aggravation from this, that they cross the main intention of nature,
which willeth the increase of mankind, and the continuation of the species in the highest
perfection" (1.59). In other words, these things are "sins" not principally because Scripture
forbids them, but, as Locke implies, Scripture forbids them because the family is the best
institution for producing, nourishing, and educating children. Locke observes that males often
generate children without much care for them or even knowledge of who they are (1.54). When
that happens, children typically become dependent on their mothers, who are rarely in a position
to provide the proper material support or moral guidance. Locke's example is the American
Indians, whose practice of no-fault divorce means that women alone raise the children: "when
the husband and wife part, which happens frequently, the children are all left to the mother"
(2.65). But women, as Locke observes in Some Thoughts Concerning Education, are often too
soft toward their children and tend to spoil them, while men are more likely to be tough on them
for their own good (sec. 4). Locke implies that fathers are a useful complement to mothers within
the household. Locke strengthens this inference when he discusses the advantages of lasting
marriage, "so their industry might be encouraged, and their interest better united, to make
provision, and lay up goods for their common issue, which uncertain mixture, or easy and
frequent [dis]solutions of conjugal society would mightily disturb" (2.80). Children (and
spouses), then, are better off both materially and morally, when the marriage tie keeps father and
mother together in the same household with their offspring.
16 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1161b18, 1166a32.

One might wonder how the discouragement of the "sins" of "adultery, incest, and sodomy"
promotes "the distinction of families, with the security of the marriage bed." The answer is that
each of these prohibitions strengthens the family by attaching fathers and mothers to marriage
and children. Fathers, not mothers, are most likely to abandon their children, according to Locke.
But we can add that mothers, not fathers, are most likely to abandon their husbands. (The great
majority of divorces today are initiated by women.) The adultery prohibition promotes the
fidelity of each, solidifying their mutual attachment. The incest prohibition bans sexual
competition with mother or father within the family. The homosexuality prohibition discourages
nonmarital (and therefore nonproductive) sex, so that men and women alike are more likely to
get married when that is their only available opportunity for legal and non-shameful sex. Locke
writes, "'It is better to marry than to burn,' says St. Paul, where we may see what it is that chiefly
drives men into the enjoyments of a conjugal life" (Essay 2.21.34). Besides, when sex is seen as
something merely "gay," that is, as matter for gaiety, fun, frivolity, and entertainment, then it
becomes detached from the serious business of child-producing and child-rearing--which are
necessary for the preservation and "increase of mankind."
Locke's view of sex and family is old-fashioned in comparison with today's standards, but in his
own time it was bold. Locke rejects traditional patriarchy. He denies that husbands have a natural
or Biblical right to rule their wives. On the other hand, Locke also opposes what Lincoln used to
call a "free love arrangement, to be maintained" merely by "passionate attraction,"17 in which
either partner may abandon the other at whim. Locke's preference, like Aristotle's, is a mean
between the extremes of sexual liberation and patriarchal despotism. (Aristotle condemns the
non-Greek custom of treating women as slaves, and advocates a "political" rule of husband over
wife. That is, the husband should rule his wife as a citizen rules a fellow citizen, not as a servant
or inferior, but as a temporarily subordinated equal. Aristotle also observes that a husband and
wife of good character can be genuine friends and equals, each practicing the virtue appropriate
to his sex.)18 For Locke, "Conjugal society is made by a voluntary compact between man and
woman" as equals, and "its chief end" is "procreation." The compact is entered into by equals,
but the positive law regulates its terms. The marriage tie, says Locke, should be "lasting"
(although not necessarily "for life"). The law may make the husband the legal head of the
household, but Locke emphasizes that this is not mandatory. Locke does admit that male
headship is "natural" in the sense that he is "the abler and stronger," but those qualities do not
give him a title to rule his wife without her consent or that of the positive law (Treatises 2.77-83,
1.47-48, 61).
Although Locke would likely approve of today's libertarian defense of property rights and the
rule of law, he was no libertarian. Locke would agree with the libertarians that adults can
generally be trusted to look out for their own interests when they make contracts with other
adults. But sometimes consenting adults do things together that might produce children; the
children's consent cannot be asked when they are generated. Once children are generated, what
then? Parental love outside marriage is not sufficient to protect them, as Locke emphasizes in his
17 Speech in Buffalo, New York, February 1861.
18 Aristotle, Politics 1252b6 (barbarians treat women as slaves); 1259a38-b10 (the male should rule the
female "politically"); Nicomachean Ethics 1162a25-27 (friendship of husband and wife).

lurid tale of the Peruvian Indians who bred children to eat, "and when they were past breeding,
the mothers themselves were killed too and eaten" (Essay 1.3.9, Treatises 1.57). Love needs the
aid of law to establish a stable household in which father and mother live together as partners
and take care of the children. Once the family is fixed by law, the father's natural attachment to
his offspring is far more likely to kick in, and the natural ties of affection complement and
strengthen the artificial ties of the legal marriage contract.
Locke's teaching on the family would make him a "social conservative," as that term is used
today. He endorses marital fidelity and heterosexuality, and opposes no-fault divorce and
homosexuality. He does not treat sex as a matter of personal choice, because sex must be
heterosexual if it is to generate children, which every society needs. Sex must be mostly limited
to marriage if children are to have their best chance to be raised by their biological parents, who
are more likely to love them and provide them with their needs than anyone else.
Locke's Defense of Christianity
Locke once wrote, "A Christian I am sure I am."19 In spite of that remark, scholars have long
debated the question of Locke's personal religious convictions. But whatever those convictions
may have been, Locke was always pro-Christian in his writings. Like Aquinas before him, Locke
generally teaches that reason and revelation are in perfect agreement on the moral duties of men
in this world (Reasonableness of Christianity 241-3).
Locke's practical project may be said to have been to help men, within the limits of their
capacities, to live in rational freedom. In accord with that end, Locke's theology fosters a manly
Christianity that views religious persecution as a sin, affirms men's right to liberty, and promotes
self-reliance, but that also affirms the doctrine of Christ as our Savior, the need for repentance,
and the necessity of living a moral life.
Locke emphasizes two points in particular in his account of Christian moral and political
theology. First, the Bible is pro-liberty and favors the industrious work ethic suitable to free men.
Locke argues in the First Treatise that according to the Bible, men are born free, meaning that
they must work for themselves and not live off of the labor of others. "God sets him [Adam] to
work for his living, and seems rather to give him a spade into his hand, to subdue the earth, than
a scepter to rule over its inhabitants" (1.45). The Bible teaches men the importance of the
"improvement too of arts and sciences." (1.33, 41).
Second, Locke teaches that Christianity not only favors liberty, but also supports the basic
morality that is necessary for government--and for happiness. At the beginning of his Letter on
Toleration, Locke asserts that the Christians of his day are wrongly preoccupied with "subtle
matters that exceed the capacity of the vulgar," while they "pass by, without chastisement,
without censure, those wickednesses and moral vices which all men admit to be diametrically
19 Quoted by Peter Myers from Works, (1823), 7:359, in "Locke on Reasonable Christianity," in Piety
and Humanity, ed. Douglas Kries (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997), p. 150. Citations of The
Reasonableness of Christianity refer to paragraph numbers in the George W. Ewing edition (Washington:
Regnery Gateway, 1965).

opposed to the profession of Christianity" (Toleration, p. 61). In other words, Locke is arguing
that Christians have forgotten the moral core of their religion in their excessive concern with
minor variations within the community of the faithful (satirized by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver's
Travels as Lilliputians quarreling over whether to crack their eggs on the big end or little). Locke
was seeking to rectify an imbalance in the Christian world of his day--a focus on doctrine and
ritual at the expense of moral conduct--an imbalance that most Christians today would agree was
a serious problem. So important is this moral core of Christianity that government has an
obligation to support it by its laws--not because it is Christian, but because it is necessary for
government to do its job well, to provide security for men's lives and properties. Far from
promoting religious indifferentism or relativism, as some readers claim, Locke's Letter on
Toleration presents itself as affirming and renewing the moral core of the Christian life at a time
when that core was in danger of being forgotten. Locke's point was thus not unreasonable,
whether in a strictly Christian view, or in the view of reason alone.
In the Letter on Toleration Locke emphasizes how elusive is the truth about how one should
worship God. Locke argues in effect that human beings can never have knowledge of such
matters, but only faith. Locke simply repeated an old truth recognized by all the best theologians
of the Christian tradition. We do not know strictly speaking what the will of God is, except to the
extent it can be known through reason. Knowledge (scientia) and faith are two different things
(Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 2-2, Q1, A4-5).
In support of the moral theology of the Toleration, Locke wrote a book against deism, The
Reasonableness of Christianity. Christianity is reasonable in part because its moral teaching is
the same as that which reason, the "candle of the Lord," discovers on its own (231). Christianity
is also reasonable because it does not expect men to be virtuous by reason alone. Pagan religion
had not paid much attention to moral conduct; the ancient philosophers had not paid much
attention to God (240, 243). Christ brought together religion and virtue, teaching the doctrine of
heavenly rewards for the virtuous and punishments for the vicious. He thereby made virtue
"visibly the most enriching purchase, and by much the best bargain." Since "the greater part
cannot know, and therefore they must believe," religion rather than philosophy is the more
effective road to morality.
Locke has sometimes been said to be hostile to both soul and religion. This, I believe, is a
fundamental misunderstanding of his project. In the Letter on Toleration, Locke says that "the
care, therefore, of every man's soul belongs to himself" (p. 91). Some scholars, such as Harvey
Mansfield, take Locke to be saying that "it is of the essence of the soul to be free to refuse
responsibility for itself. It is not of the essence of the soul to cultivate or perfect itself, much less
to obey God."20 But Locke is not at all saying that the care of the soul is a matter of indifference,
or that one need not "obey God." He says the opposite:
Every mortal has an eternal soul, capable of eternal beatitude or misery; and as its salvation
depends on a man's doing and believing those things in this life which are necessary for the favor
of the Deity, and are prescribed by God; thence, first, it follows that a man is obliged above all to
20 Harvey Mansfield, America's Constitutional Soul (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991),
p. 114.

observe these things, and he ought to place all his care, application, and diligence in investigating
and performing especially these things; since this mortal condition has nothing which is in any
way comparable with those eternal things (pp. 123-5).
Stated more concisely, and in direct opposition to Mansfield's interpretation, Locke writes,
"Obedience is owed first to God, then to the laws" (p. 127). Precisely because the care of the
soul, and obedience to God, are the most important things, Locke argues, we should never entrust
them to the arbitrary will of another: "no man can so far abandon the care of his own eternal
salvation as to embrace under necessity a worship or faith prescribed by someone else" (p. 67).
Locke's argument for separating church and state was based on the limited purpose of
government, namely, to take care of men's "civil goods," such as "life, liberty, bodily health and
freedom from pain, and possessions" (p. 67), and not their souls. For Locke, as for the whole
Christian and philosophical tradition, soul is always higher than body. Locke's division of labor
between government and church was meant to serve the good of both. He hoped thereby to
purify Christianity of its tendency to seek political domination over others, instead of doing what
it should do, namely, to promote repentance and reformation of morals. He hoped to limit
government to what it can do well--to secure men's "civil goods"--and to abandon what it almost
always botches--to attempt to save men's souls.
In colonial America, we see the success of Locke's teaching, in religion no less than in politics.
The transformation of public opinion in the years leading up to 1776 was not the result of a
secular political theory divorced from Christian theology. Above all, the clergy of America,
especially in New England, adopted Locke's theology and taught it relentlessly. My personal
favorite is the Reverend Samuel West, whose fiery 1776 sermon on liberty is a classic of the
Massachusetts pulpit of the American Revolution.21 Men like Jefferson who considered
themselves Enlightenment rationalists probably had far less influence on the general public than
the multitude of now-forgotten preachers who taught that the Bible teaches the same truth--that
all men are created equal, that they have duties as well as rights--that reason discovers on its
The Role of Government
Just as in the Two Treatises, so also in the Letter on Toleration we see the unity of Locke's
account of reason and revelation. The Toleration emphasizes that government must do its part in
promoting virtue. Locke writes, "Rectitude of morals, in which consists not the least part of
religion and sincere piety, concerns civil life also, and in it lies the safety both of men's souls and
of the common-wealth. Moral actions belong, therefore, to the jurisdiction of both . . . the
magistrate and conscience" (p. 123). In other words, in spite of--or rather because of--the fact
that the purpose of government is limited to safety, government must concern itself with the
"moral actions" of the people.

21 Samuel West, "A Sermon," in American Political Writing During the Founding Era, ed. Charles
Hyneman and Donald Lutz (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1983).

Locke goes further: "no doctrines adverse and contrary to human society, or to the good morals
that are necessary to the preservation of civil society, are to be tolerated by the magistrate" (p.
131). There is no right of free speech, or free exercise of religion, if it undermines the moral
conditions of society. This was the view that prevailed in American law until around 1960.
Locke never states fully what those necessary "good morals" are, although he gives a few
examples in the Toleration, and some general guidelines in his various statements on the law of
nature in the Two Treatises. I believe he intended to leave a certain flexibility to the statesman in
this regard. In the climate of our own time, what government should do to promote the morality
of the family should be much more modest than what was done at the time of the Founding,
when adultery and homosexuality were treated as serious crimes, and divorces were impossible
to obtain in many states. Locke goes beyond what the American Founders approved in one
respect: "those who deny that a deity exists are in no way to be tolerated" (p. 135).
Although Locke defends toleration, he did not mean that government should be neutral on
religion. Locke permits government to teach the religion it regards as true, as long as it does not
use coercion against those who refuse to accept it. Clearly, Locke would have no objection to
government promotion of any religion that teaches tolerance, obedience to government, the
obligation of parents to children, the evil of homosexuality, incest, and no-fault divorce, the
superiority of free government to despotic, and the usefulness of the arts and sciences. Locke's
argument also implies strict limits on the right of free exercise of religion: no toleration for the
intolerant, the immoral, the atheistic, or any religion that allows disobedience to just government.
This view of religious liberty prevailed before the 1960s in American public schools, which, as a
matter of course, taught a version of Christianity that emphasized God's approval of free
government and moral restraint. George Washington expressed the Lockean view when he told
the Quakers:
It is doing the people called Quakers no more than justice to say, that (except their declining to
share with others the burden of the common defense) there is no denomination among us, who
are more exemplary and useful citizens. I assure you very explicitly, that in my opinion the
conscientious scruples of all men should be treated with great delicacy and tenderness; and it is
my wish and desire, that the laws may always be as extensively accommodated to them, as a due
regard to the protection and essential interests of the nation may justify and permit.
Washington was saying, as tactfully as he could, that the Quaker refusal to fight was a grave
violation of an obligation of citizenship, but that he was ready (as a matter of his "wish and
desire," but not as a right) to accommodate that Quaker refusal, because in other respects they
were "exemplary and useful citizens." Religious liberty does not exempt one from the duties of
Returning to the Founders--and Locke?
Robert Goldwin concludes his influential article on Locke with a contrast between ancient
political philosophy and Locke. The ancients, he says, taught:

A man is free only to the extent that the reason in him is able, one way or another, to subdue and
rule his passions. But Locke recognized passion as the supreme power in human nature and
argued that reason can do no more than serve the most powerful and universal desire and guide it
to its fulfillment.22
This statement is questionable in two ways. First, Goldwin's claim that Locke rejects the
classical teaching that reason should subdue and rule the passions is in fact diametrically
opposed to Locke's real view. After describing the cannibalism of certain Indians of Peru, Locke
comments, "Thus far can the busy mind of man carry him to a brutality below the level of beasts,
when he quits his reason. . . . Nor can it be otherwise in a creature whose thoughts are more than
the sands, and wider than the ocean, where fancy and passion needs run him into strange courses,
if reason, which is his only star and compass, be not that he steers by" (1.58). In Some Thoughts
Concerning Education, Locke writes, "the great principle and foundation of all virtue and worth
is placed in this, that a man is able to deny himself his own desires, cross his own inclinations,
and purely follow what reason directs as best though the appetite lean the other way" (sec. 33).
On this point--that reason should rule the passions--Locke agrees completely with the classics.
So devoted is Locke to reason that he writes, "the right improvement, and exercise of our reason
being the highest perfection that a man can attain to in this life" (Education, sec. 122).
The real objection to Locke among intellectuals, I believe, is to his teaching on the limited role
of politics in promoting the good life for man. Human beings are all too prone to believe that
government should mandate their own particular vision of excellence and perfection, and to
condemn it when it refuses to adopt their personal vision of the just, noble, and good. Locke's
solution was to limit government to providing for the security of bodily and external goods, and
the moral conditions of that security, leaving the mind otherwise free to follow the truth (or
falsehood) without being coerced. Locke writes, "The assuming an authority of dictating to
others, and a forwardness to prescribe to their opinions, is a constant concomitant of this bias and
corruption of our judgments. For how almost can it be otherwise, but that he should be ready to
impose on another's belief, who has already imposed on his own?" And this state of affairs is
altogether to the taste of most men: "the ease and glory it is to be inspired"--that is, to believe in
one's own opinions without questioning them--"so flatters many men's laziness, ignorance, and
vanity, that, when once they are got into this way . . . it is a hard matter to get them out of it.
Reason is lost upon them" (Essay 4.19.2, 8).
Locke's teaching on limited government is not meant to disparage the superiority of the life of
reason and virtue against that of ignorance and vice. On the contrary, Locke believed that the
best hope for reason and virtue was to establish a government that limits the power of those who
claim to be "experts" who alone "know" what is good for the rest of us, and who therefore seek
to "cram their tenets down all men's throats whom they can get into their power, without
permitting them to examine their truth or falsehood" (Essay 4.3.20).
Undoubtedly there are still those who long for the good old days of the confessional state, in
which you would be punished, or perhaps executed, like Sir Thomas More, if you failed to accept
22 Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, History of Political Philosophy, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1987), p. 510.

the government's mandated religion. I am afraid that romantic dreamers and would-be tyrants of
that sort will find cold comfort in Locke. On the other hand, there are many who approve of
limited government of the sort that America enjoyed up to the 1960s, who sense the
questionableness of developments since that time--the sexual revolution, partly underwritten by
government, and the pervasive presence of government-approved "experts" who continually
assault the moral and religious convictions of the people. Here Locke can help, for one finds in
his writings a sober defense of individual rights and government by the people that is respectful
of both Christianity and the moral conditions of a free society. Obviously there is much more to
say about Locke's overall teaching on politics than I have said here, but I hope I have given you
enough to see the soundness of Locke's moral teaching in today's world.23
Dr. West, professor of politics at the University of Dallas, is senior fellow and director of the
Claremont Institute.

23 I acknowledge the two books, both built on the work of Leo Strauss while disagreeing with some of
Strauss's conclusions, that I have found the most useful in correcting the typical errors that have long
plagued scholarship on Locke and the American Founding (including my own, pre-1995): Harry V.
Jaffa, A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War (Lanham: Rowman
and Littlefield, 2000), and Peter C. Myers, Our Only Star and Compass: Locke and the Struggle for
Political Rationality (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998). For an overview of Jaffa's argument,
especially its brilliant reassessment of the theory of the Founding, see my review of A New
Birth in Interpretation, Spring 2001.