Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Locke and Liberal Origins

John Locke

Launching Liberalism: On Lockean Political Philosophy, by Michael P. Zuckert, Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002. xi + 375 pp.

This collection, for in truth it is not a unified book, brings together thirteen of Michael Zuckert’s essays and lectures written during the past three decades. Although the title suggests that the essays’ focus is on liberalism, or at least on Locke’s political philosophy, neither is the case. That is, there is almost no mention of liberalism per se until the last thirty pages of the volume; concerning Locke, though some mention of his thought occur in the introduction and in most of the other essays, he serves mainly as a portable backdrop for the particular concern of each essay.

In the Introduction, one of two new pieces in this volume, Zuckert indicates that he is a defender of a broadly Straussian understanding of Locke—that is, Locke as an esoteric author, a follower of Hobbes, and a thinker not captured by time or place. But what makes this essay of interest is that after paying his respect to Strauss, Zuckert actually breaks with this characterization of Locke and suggests that Strauss had been wrong in his description of Locke as a closet Hobbesian. Zuckert, however, never returns to this probing line of argument. Instead, he promises to devote most of his attention to “attempting to stake out and defend a position on Locke’s modernity.” As well, Zuckert suggestively argues that Locke’s “understanding of politics has more in common with medieval constitutionalism, his understanding of morality echoes any number of earlier positions, including Stoicism, [and] his understanding of religion shares much with Protestantism contemporary with him. Thus, Locke’s ‘conservative’ or ‘traditionalist’ face is by no means merely a facade. The difficult task in understanding Locke is to give both faces their due weight and to avoid one-sidedly emphasizing one to the exclusion of the other, as I believe most of the literature does.” Unfortunately, the essays that follow bear no observable relationship to this intriguing and attractive juxtaposition.
Part One contains four essays that were mostly written in the mid-1970s and lack the Introduction’s focus on Locke, as well as its freshness. What we find instead is a tired defense of Straussian esotericism and a rant against historically based interpreters of modern political thought, including John Dunn, Peter Laslett, Quentin Skinner, and Richard Ashcraft. In making his case, Zuckert follows a pattern to be found throughout the volume. He offers a curious combination of a close reading of a secondary text, invariably one that a reader of these essays has not read in decades, a contemptuous and breezy attack on other works, and sweeping generalizations about Locke’s thought or influence. Zuckert far too often sings only to the Straussian choir and is simply dismissive of the broader community of scholars. Most particularly, he is greatly disturbed by historians’ interest in matters historical. Thus, he faults the Cambridge school of historians for pressing “the need to sever entirely our study of the history of thought from our own political life or action.” One must wonder whether reading texts, as Zuckert proudly does, with their contemporary utility uppermost in mind is really the best way to get their meaning right.

In Part Two, a section of three essays, we are introduced, although far more subtly, to another plank in the Straussian system of belief—that is, that anyone as clever as Locke could not possibly have been a believer in a different system of belief, one including a belief in God. The cornerstone to this contention rests on Zuckert’s insistence that Locke’s “‘official theory of revelation’ has many difficulties,” in particular, that “in order to verify any alleged revelation as a real revelation, reason must have rational knowledge of the existence of a revealing God…. But it is Locke’s view that reason is not in possession of such rational knowledge of the existence of a revealing God…. Since Locke lacks rational knowledge of a revealing God, he knows of no authentic revelation, including of course the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.”

There is much to find wanting in this claim. Almost everything about it is suspect, but most problematic is Zuckert’s confidence, without evidence or argument, that Locke’s perspective is not Christian. Given the range of opinion in the seventeenth century, between the far reaches of Christian humanism and extreme Protestant fideism, such a bold statement is indefensible. And even if Zuckert’s understanding of Locke were correct, what is called for is not a series of piecemeal essays whose central goals are any number of concerns, but instead a sustained argument. As he writes at the end of this section, “a full version of this story would need to include at least Grotius, Hobbes, Spinoza, Pufendorf, and Locke, all of whom contributed in important ways to the emergence of the modern natural rights philosophy.” Indeed, such a book is one that Zuckert has the learning and intelligence to write. Or more simply, he might have produced a volume to challenge Jeremy Waldron’s sustained argument in God, Locke, and Equality: Christian Foundations in Locke’s Political Thought that makes the opposite case to that advanced by Zuckert’s lightly argued assertions.

In Part Three, two essays focus on the American Declaration of Independence and a third on Blackstone. We are told early on that “the source ultimately lying behind the bulk of these outpourings of the American mind [that is, the Declaration] is John Locke, although for present purposes that fact is irrelevant.” Strangely, in these essays on Locke’s liberalism, Locke himself is consistently off-stage. We are told repeatedly that American thought was Lockean, but there is no persuasive evidence of this or any clarification about the way(s) it might have been Lockean. As well, again without historical evidence, we learn that in two lines of the Declaration is to be found “a general theory of legitimate, rightful, and just government,” and that any effort to show that the document had a far more limited historical purpose, such as that mounted recently by Pauline Maier, is to be dismissed with contempt.

There is one chapter in this section, number ten, that I would like to single out because Zuckert suggests in it that he will consider an intriguing question: that is, “How did the Americans of the revolutionary moment understand natural rights, and what role did those rights play in the revolution they made?” He points out that the dominant position among historians follows one of two lines of thought: that Americans were led to successively more radical stances due to their being forced to abandon English historical rights, or that after finally accepting natural rights, Americans assigned them little importance. Zuckert dismisses both views and claims that Americans were consistently guided by natural rights language. Thus, he is led to ask, “How can it be that natural rights, prominent on the very surface of the Revolution, can yet plausibly be denied by eminent scholars and politicians?” In defense of his position, he offers two citations before comparing the English Declaration of Rights to the American Declaration of Independence. Yet no one defending one of the two lines of historically based argument would accept this comparison as a meaningful test.

But much is revealed about Zuckert’s approach to historical materials in his handling of the most prominent of his documentary claims. Drawing on the 1774 Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress, he notes that in “its first resolution” we find “the familiar triad of rights: ‘life, liberty, and property,’” rights held under the “immutable laws of nature.” What is troubling about this presentation is the way that Zuckert misrepresents the actual text and avoids discussing the well-known commentary on this passage in John Adams’s Autobiography and Diary.

First, missing in Zuckert’s characterization is that in this document every other mention of rights is couched in the language of historical English rights. Moreover, in the unique remark he cites, he reverses and carefully disregards inconvenient elements, something that Zuckert does throughout this short chapter. Thus, when one examines the passage in its entirety, a very different picture emerges. The passage reads as follows: “the inhabitants of the English colonies in North-America, by the immutable laws of nature [again, the only mention in the text], the principles of the English constitution, and the several charters or compacts, have the following RIGHTS…that they are entitled to life, liberty and property: and they have never ceded to any foreign power whatever, a right to dispose of either without their consent.” What Zuckert fails to include, then, is that the rights being asserted rested on both natural and historical grounds, and that these rights, by clear implication, were ones that could be legitimately limited by one’s own government, but not by a foreign one. At the very least, the actual language of the document paints a far different picture from that presented by Zuckert.

Second, Zuckert seems unwilling to draw his readers’ attention to the debate in Congress regarding this passage and the reticence of delegates to rest American rights on a naturalistic rather than a historical foundation. As John Adams records, there was no issue that so divided the Congress as whether, in searching for grounds upon which to defend their break with England, they “should recur to the law of nature, as well as to the British Constitution, and our American charters and grants.” Adams writes that “Mr. Galloway and Mr. Duane were for excluding the law of nature,” but that he “was very strenuous for retaining and insisting on it.” And why did Adams take this position? Because, as he explains, it was “a resource to which we might be driven by Parliament much sooner than we were aware.”[1] According to Adams, then, a “natural rights philosophy” was not a fundamental commitment that led the Americans into their conflict with Great Britain, but rather a polemical tool to which, lacking recourse to any others, they would surely “be driven.”

When one explores Adams’s notes of this debate, again one finds that much of the discussion revolved around which line of argument would prove most efficacious: appeals to nature or, as Mr. Duane claimed, to “the laws and constitution of the country from whence we sprung, and charters, without recurring to the law of nature; because this will be a feeble support.”[2] In the end, however, Congress did insert one brief appeal to natural law— not natural rights—within nearly a dozen references to “the principles of the English constitution…the several charters or compacts…the rights, liberties, and immunities of free and natural-born subjects, within the realm of England…the foundations of English liberty…[and their claim that Americans were entitled] to the common law of England.” It is quite difficult, then, fairly to describe such language as reflecting a purposeful design to create, as Zuckert suggests, a “natural rights Republic.”

In Part Four, Zuckert in three pieces discusses the rule of law, John Rawls, and Alasdair MacIntyre and Alan Gewirth. Zuckert makes much of Locke’s concept of self-ownership. However, instead of evidence one confronts a string of assertions that fail to mention the tension in Locke’s thought between self-ownership and man’s ownership by God. It appears that Zuckert decided that the more prominent of the two arguments in the Two Treatises could simply be ignored.

Zuckert is clever and learned. But perhaps because he too regularly writes for an audience for whom much of what is contested in the history of political thought is already dogmatically settled, he fails to deliver the books he promises. To do so, he must wean himself from dependence on fellow travelers who uncritically accept half-argued claims and, what might be, less than honest scholarly practices. This would demand patience and a sustained focus, something lacking in the essays in this volume. But Zuckert has the ability to meet this challenge, and his readers should encourage him to write the book that lies still-born in this poorly conceived and executed collection of essays.

[1] Adams, “Extract from Autobiography,” in The Works of John Adams, ed. C. F. Adams, II:374.

[2] Adams, Diary for 8 September 1774, in ibid., II:371.

Barry Shain is Professor of Political Science at Colgate University. This article was originally published in the Fall 2003 issue of Modern Age and is reprinted with permission from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

8 Responses to “Locke and Liberal Origins”

  1. gabe

    This was a tough piece for someone such as myself (long away from serious reading) to digest. Having just finished Strauss’s “natural Right and History” and his particularly dense prose, I was looking forward to some clarification I what i had just read. Unfortunately, I am more confused than ever.
    As an example:
    You say:

    “Zuckert far too often sings only to the Straussian choir and is simply dismissive of the broader community of scholars. Most particularly, he is greatly disturbed by historians’ interest in matters historical. Thus, he faults the Cambridge school of historians for pressing “the need to sever entirely our study of the history of thought from our own political life or action.” One must wonder whether reading texts, as Zuckert proudly does, with their contemporary utility uppermost in mind is really the best way to get their meaning right.”
    Yet, my limited reading of Strauss (and Jaffa) indicate that he preferred, no, insisted, that we understand historical actors as they understood themselves. This would entail understanding the historical antecedent and contemporary conditions. If I am not mistaken, in N.R & History, Strauss does make some reference to contemporary “effects” upon Locke. further, I was impressed with Strauss’s concern for the historical development of “natural rights” expositions abnd somewhat disappointed that he did not finish up with a current day “impact” arising therefrom.
    But again, I do not pretend to be an expert in this; however, i think that your analysis of Zuckert, while very possibly correct, may be unduly influenced by your critique of Strauss.

    Also, as Strauss was so very fond of highlighting “tensions” in political philosophy, i.e., Athens and Jerusalem, Aquinas and Aristotle, etc., etc., it did not surprise me that Zuckert may have made the same mistake as others did regarding Strauss exposition of Locke: Locke was both Christian and not; he both professed reasons ability to apprehend God and did not; he was both a descendant of Hobbes and he was a departure from Hobbes.

    Perhaps, it one sense, it is comforting to see that even academics may have difficulty with the writings of the likes of Strauss, Locke, etc. An old pensioneer such as myself certainly does.

    Lastly, I would add that the frequency of a terms employment (natural rights, etc) does not necessarily indicated the relative centrality of the thought / impulse of the term with respect to a particular object.

    I would appreciate any input that would ease my own confusion here.

    take care

  2. Tom Van Dyke

    The historian’s Locke is not the same as the philosophy scholar’s.

    There is a “true” Locke, I suppose, but the question is whether this “secret” Locke is how the Founders understood him.

    I have to say that in Locke’s dodges of the Trinity question [the war of letters with the hostile Bishop of Worcester], Locke never actually affirms a belief in the Trinity, which would have ended the controversy in a single sentence.

    Instead Locke generates page after page of fog, denying that he denies the Trinity, which of course is not the same thing as affirming it. So yes, the Straussian “close reading” method is sometimes correct that when a thinker such as Locke could have plainly said something and didn’t, he was up to something.

    Most important to me is Locke on natural law. Since Locke’s “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” denies the possibility of an “innate moral sense,” and an innate moral sense is intrinsic to traditional Christian natural law theory, Straussians are quite right that Locke is unhelpful on natural law. However, we see Alexander Hamilton parking Locke firmly into the natural law camp in “The Farmer Refuted.”

    The “true” Locke–if there’s a “secret” one hiding under the surface–is mostly a scholarly curiosity: He had no effect in the real world. Whether by uncareful reading or by cynical design, the Founders [James Wilson is one] found or fashioned a Locke who uncritically supported their entire project.

    • gabe


      Thanks for the comments. I suppose that Locke, as with Madison, Jefferson and even Lincoln, has been subject to “mis-appropriation” by those with a somewhat different understanding who see the “potential” within Locke’s argument (and others) to advance their own.
      Ultimately, we are left to our own devices then.

      take care

  3. Tom Van Dyke (@DykeVanTom)

    Gabe, you may find this post and its comments helpful

    Barry Shain’s work is discussed respectfully although not quite affectionately.

    It occurred to me in light of Barry’s work that we can get to “liberty” not just via natural rights, but simply that no man has the innate right to rule another. [We can get there through the metaphysical “endowed by their creator,” although this is a bit of a cheat.] However, we are accountable to our community, in no small part the responsibility not to destroy it.

    Barry’s main thesis, “The Myth of American Individualism,” holds that

    individual liberty was the freedom to order one’s life in accord with the demanding ethical standards found in Scripture and confirmed by reason. This was in keeping with Americans’ widespread acceptance of original sin and the related assumption that a well-lived life was only possible in a tightly knit, intrusive community made up of families, congregations, and local government bodies. Shain concludes that Revolutionary-era Americans defended a Protestant communal vision of human flourishing that stands in stark opposition to contemporary liberal individualism.”

    Or as I like to put it, you can’t screw on the sidewalk. ;-P

    I see Barry and Thomas G. West seem to have some differences, but I’ll leave those tall weeds to the litigants. But if you read “polis” as community and America as a “community of communities” under federalism, I don’t see why it can’t work.

    [Oh, and Gabe–mad props for tackling Strauss’s Natural Right and History unarmed but unafraid.]

    • gabe


      Thanks again for the insights. I do visit PoMoCon – although i find them to be somewhat pretentious at times. But i will check the link.

      I agree with the sidewalk metaphor.
      Yet, strangely, I think a case can be made that properly ascribes blame for our current “rights infatuation to the Protestant influence and the desire for a “happy ” end state found therein. Debatable, yes; but not without some merit.

      As for Strauss, you are right – whatever armament i thought I possessed was soon found as useful as a 16th century blunderbuss in the Central American jungles – all rotted and pitted and best employed as a battering ram. (Now Jaffa is an easy read – pugnacious as he is, I actually find him somewhat endearing as it reminds me of the good NY City street arguments I engaged in as a young man.)

      take care


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