Who is John Locke?

That the John Locke Foundation is named after the 17th century English political philosopher is no mere coincidence; the man was an intellectual titan, one whose thoughts and ideas can be found throughout our country's earliest political documents, including and especially the Declaration of Independence.

Still, there seems to be some confusion today as to who John Locke is. More than once, someone has called our office and asked to speak to "Mr. Locke" as if he had named the organization after himself.

In an effort to mitigate some of this confusion, we've prepared this collection of annotated sources — both original works of Locke and later books and papers — as a resource. We hope it proves just as useful to high school and college students writing papers for school as to the independent scholar who wishes to learn more about this brilliant and influential man.

Below are links to sections of this page on resources for students and curious adults:


An Essay

Written by George M. Stephens, "John Locke: His American and Carolinian Legacy" provides a basic but thorough grounding in the origins of Locke's ideas in the context of the events of his biography. It emphasizes the role of property rights in Locke's philosophy, and gives an expansive view of the ways in which the United States, and specifically the US Supreme Court, has viewed those property rights throughout the years.

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Works by John Locke (chronologically)

Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina (1669)

Composed jointly by Locke and his mentor Lord Shaftesbury, this document was intended to be used as the Constitution of the English Province of Carolina, though it was never officially adopted. It included some remarkably liberal (for 1669) ideas, ones that can be found elsewhere in Locke's works: the idea that government legitimacy is contingent on the consent of the governed can be seen in the clause which enfranchised even the smallest landowners, and his belief in religious toleration is manifested in the guarantee of political and civil rights to people who did not practice the state-promoted Church of England. It did, however, leave in place and even reinforce the deplorable practice of human slavery.

A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689)

Originally intended as a personal letter to a friend, the publication of this essay made quite a splash. Locke was a firm believer in the separation of church and state as he felt that the government should have no say in the business of the soul. Locke may have had a degree of private religious conviction, but it did not play a large role in his political philosophy. Rather, his concern with religion was a practical one: the dominant stance (in political philosophy) on religion at the time was Thomas Hobbes' belief that the state needed to enforce a uniform religion to preserve social order. Locke's response was that government coercion would actually tend to increase civil unrest, and that the government should be tolerant of any religion which itself practiced toleration. Interestingly, Locke felt that both Catholics and atheists were too disruptive to be allowed.

Two Treatises of Government (1689)

Because of the radical notions presented in these works and a fear of reprisal, Locke published them anonymously. The First Treatise was a reaction to the then-popular tenet of jure divino (the Divine Right of Kings) which held that kings derived their political legitimacy through direct descent from Adam. Locke counters by saying that, if this were true, there could only ever be one heir to Adam at any one time, and that all but one king currently claiming Divine Right must be an imposter. He also maintains that jure divino is not a sustainable political philosophy, and indeed, it has been all but eliminated.

But it was the Second Treatise for which Locke is most famous. Having repudiated jure divino, he advances a complete political philosophy of his own: that legitimacy flows from the consent of the governed, and at as a result, absolute monarchy is never justified. The other central contribution of the Second Treatise is its assertion that government should merely protect property, which exists both prior to and independent of the state. In Locke's terms, "property" refers not merely to material things or to land, but also to the ownership of the self — as such, all slavery and domination are not justifiable as outlined in the Second Treatise. The work also contains the idea of the right to revolution which can be clearly traced to language in the Declaration of Independence.

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690)

Less explicitly political than his earlier works, the Essay still had a large impact on the thoughts and writings of the Founding Fathers. Locke sets out to demonstrate that human beings are not born with innate ideas or beliefs, but rather that they come into the world as a blank sheet (the Latin phrase tabula rasa is often used to represent this idea). All human thoughts and ideas must therefore be derived from direct sensory perception or through internal contemplation. The latter leads Locke to maintain that there must exist some kind of omnipotent being. This is a conception of a God whose origin is not the Judeo-Christian tradition. Many of the writings of prominent Founding Fathers contain this idea, referencing God without specifically invoking Christian theology.

Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693)

Originally intended as friendly advice on child-rearing to a friend, this essay may have been Locke's most influential in Europe. Not a work of political philosophy or really of philosophy at all, it gives advice on how to raise and educate children. Locke believes that children should not be coddled, and that they should develop a sound body in addition to a sound mind. He also argues that they have the same capacity for rationality as adults, and that they should be treated as such.

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Locke biographies

Faiella, Graham. John Locke: champion of modern democracy. Rosen Publishing: New York, 2006

For the younger readers, this brief, illustrated volume presents the progress in Locke's biographical life alongside simple, easily-comprehended explanations of his philosophies.

Cranston, Maurice. John Locke: a biography. Macmillan: New York, 1957

Perhaps the first truly modern biography of Locke, Cranston's work is a comprehensive look at the personal and philosophical development of the man in response to tumultuous political climate in which he lived. Though it has become a bit dated, it was highly lauded when it was published and was the most influential account of Locke's life for nearly half a century.

Woolhouse, Roger. Locke: A Biography. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2007

A broad survey of Locke's intellectual growth, this biography has the advantage of taking more seriously the content of Locke's philosophical works, rather than there mere existence. Though less deep in some areas than might be optimal, it is a work of considerable breadth, and the current gold standard in Locke biography.

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Locke's philosophy

Brewer, Holly. By Birth or Consent. UNC Press: Chapel Hill, 2007

A synthesis of two of Locke's main ideas — the importance of informed consent as an ideal of government and the way that children should be raised — this book explores the ways in which changes in the legal treatment of children paralleled (or failed to parallel) the dynamic relationship between the government and the governed in the context of 16th and 17th century England and America.

Dunn, John. Locke: a very short introduction. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2003

Part of OUP's excellent series of introductions to philosophical concepts, this brief work does an admirable job of presenting the basics of Lockean thought. It is recommended to anyone without a serious background in the methodology of political philosophy.

Ayers, Michael. Locke. Routledge: New York, 1999

Another short introduction to Locke's ideas, this edition is focuses more specifically on the central theme of Locke's philosophy; namely, the way in which people are born without innate ideas and learn through physical perception.

Chappell, Vere Claiborne. The Cambridge companion to Locke. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1994

A much longer introduction to Locke's philosophy and epistemology, Vere's work is nonetheless accessible to students and other interested non-philosophers. For anyone looking for more than a cursory overview of Lockean thought, this book is recommended.

Spellman, W. M. John Locke. Palgrave Macmillan: New York, 1997

Although acknowledging that Locke's liberal political philosophy is what he's best known for today, Spellman makes the claim that Locke's ideas were spurred by his interest in the broader task of humanity. The fascinating argument put forth in this book is that Locke's true goal was to help his fellows live happier and fuller lives by developing their spiritual or religious natures, and that he viewed religious toleration and contractual government primarily as means to this end.

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Advanced books on Locke's philosophy

Yaffe, Gideon. Liberty Worth the Name: Locke on free agency. Princeton University Press: Princeton, 2000

Written by a prominent theorist of agency, the will and human action, this compact and focused text gets into the details of what exactly Locke means by "liberty." In Yaffe's interpretation, the term carries more weight, as his conception of a truly free agent is one who is deeply reflective and who cares more about accomplishing "the good" than satisfying her individual whims or desires.

Ashcraft, Richard. Revolutionary Politics and Locke's Two Treatises of Government. Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1986

An impressive work of scholarship, this piece examines the intersection between Locke's political theories and the practical world in which he lived through a close reading of his letters, journals and manuscripts. In particular, it develops a narrative of his involvement with the Radical Whigs and emphasizes the influence of his mentor, patron, and co-conspirator in various political intrigues, Lord Shaftesbury.

Tarcov, Nathan. Locke's Education for Liberty. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1984

Tarcov's book treats Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning Education, which has generally been viewed as a handbook about how to raise children, as containing a far greater insight into Locke's philosophy. He claims that the lack of overlap between this work and Locke's other works is due in large part to Locke's fear of retribution for his more controversial works and a desire to remain anonymous; this work and the others, he claims, are actually part of a more coherent intellectual position.

Grant, Ruth W. John Locke's Liberalism. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1987

This is a rigorous philosophical text which tries to synthesize two seemingly disparate fields of Lockean thought. Though it is tempting to read Two Treatises on Government as a work of pure political philosophy and An Essay Concerning Human Understanding as one solely of epistemology, Grant makes a compelling case that the two need to be understood in relation to one another.

Simmons, John A. The Lockean Theory of Rights. Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1994

A very serious reading of Locke's published works and manuscripts concerning the role of rights in philosophical discourse, this book demonstrates the importance of Locke's view on rights in today's discourse. In the course of doing so, Simmons separates the basis of Locke's stance on rights from his theological views, refuting a widely held position.

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Popular articles and essays

Rothbard, Murray. 1995. "John Locke vs. the Mercantilists and Inflationists." Ludwig von Mises Institute website

Written by the famous dean of the Austrian School of economics, this essay analyses the historical conflict between different pre-Smithian economists. Though Locke was not primarily an economist, the logic of his thought leads to a different (and in Rothbard's mind, correct) conclusion than was reached by the dominant economic tradition, the Mercantilists, who placed an undue emphasis on artificially low interest rates and large amounts of physical currency.

Powell, Jim. 1996. "John Locke: natural rights to life, liberty and property." The Freeman, vol. 46

This historical essay sets out to demonstrate just how remarkable was Locke's influence on the world of political philosophy. Though there were certainly intellectual antecedents to many of his individual ideas, his ability to synthesize them and to found what was to become one of the world's most storied schools of thought was unparalleled.

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Scholarly articles

Snare, Frank. 1972. "The Concept of Property." American Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 9: pp 200-212

This highly philosophical work examines the way in which Locke's conception of property has become so deeply ingrained in our society that it is difficult to take a step back from it and imagine how else life could be organized.

Day, JP. 1966. "Locke on Property." The Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 16: pp 207-34

Though less relevant in today's world where much of the world has already explored, any coherent theory of property rights must include an explanation of how property rights are to be initially assigned. This paper discusses the strengths and limitations of Locke's solution to this problem — land becomes a person's property when they mix their labor the land.

Hamilton, Walton H. 1932. "Property — according to Locke." Yale Law Journal, vol. 41: pp 864-90

This classic article is very much a defense of the practicality of Locke's view of property. It contrasts them with the (then) current goings-on in the U.S. Supreme Court, and specifically with the position of Supreme Court Justice George Sutherland, who had recently voted to declare constitutional one of the country's first zoning laws.

Tuckness, Alex. 2002. "Rethinking the Intolerant Locke." American Journal of Political Science, vol. 46: pp 288-98

Though Locke is one of the earliest secular advocates of the concept of toleration, his version of the concept is often criticized because he is explicitly intolerant of Catholics and Atheists, who he views as inimical to the public order. This paper disputes criticisms of Locke's take on toleration, and claims that it is necessary to view his work in a more specific historical context.

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