13 AHMP: John Locke and The Whigs
Who was John Locke? Which English Lord was Locke’s patron, and why did the events of his life impact the development of Locke’s theories? Which party in Parliament was led by Locke’s patron, and why was the name given to that party so derogatory? What are some of the ideas from Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government that impacted the Founding Fathers and were echoed in documents such as the Declaration of Independence? We address those questions in this episode.
As you study the Founding period and the Founding Documents, you will hear about terms, concepts or ideas that were espoused by several philosophers of the Enlightenment period. Do your eyes glaze over when you hear someone talking about philosophy? It’s no doubt that for most people the idea of researching a particular line of reasoning can be about as interesting as watching paint dry. In my mind, it is important to not only understand those premises and ideas, but the context in which they were developed. Things often seem much simpler when you understand what was going on in the person’s life as those ideas were formed.
In this episode, we will study one such philosopher, John Locke, as well as the social context in which he wrote a document that was of particular interest to many of the Founding Fathers.
John Locke, who was born in 1632 and died in 1704, is amongst the most well-known philosophers of the Enlightenment. It is because of Locke that we think about concepts such as “natural law,” “the civil society,” and “consent of the governed.”
Locke’s father was a self-trained attorney and legal clerk for several Justices of the Peace near Somerset, England. Locke’s father also served on the Parliament’s side in the fight against King Charles I during the English Civil War. You may recall from the 12th episode of American History for the Modern Patriot that King Charles I believed in the divine right of kings and thought he could use his “royal prerogative” to impose customs duties and forced loans on his subjects and imprisoned them if they refused to obey his will. Being raised in the home of a jurist, as well as the fact that his father served in the effort against King Charles, undoubtedly planed seeds inside of Locke that influenced his views of government.
Locke received his early education at the Westminster School in London and went on to undergraduate studies at Christ Church, Oxford. During his undergraduate studies, Locke had already familiarized himself in the writings of philosophers such as Descartes. You might remember Descartes from geometry class because of his Cartesian coordinate system. You might also know him for his famous statement, “I think, therefore I am.” But he is also known for his theory of rationalism. This line of thought is very consistent with mathematics and believes that deductive reasoning is a better path to the truth than any type of sensory or hands-on experience. Locke ultimately rejected this line of thinking and believed in the importance of observation and experience. He was one of most prominent of the “British empiricists,” formulated the concept of the “Tabula Raza,” and his line of thinking led to the development of the scientific method.
After completing his own undergraduate education in 1656, Locke began to teach undergraduate courses himself. He then received a Master’s degree in 1658. He went on to study medicine at Oxford, and learned about natural philosophers, including Robert Boyle, along the way. Locke’s best known work, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, was obviously impacted by his interest in biology, and discussions of concept of the law of nature could be found even in his earliest works.
In 1666, Locke met the man who would most influence his life and perhaps his thoughts as well. His birth name was Anthony Ashley Cooper. It is important to understand some of the twists and turns of his life i…