And the Favorite Tea Party Author Is . . . John Locke: The Father of our Fathers, part one

    Of course, I must mean the original Tea Party.  While Mark Steyn, Ann Coulter, and Glenn Beck are all doing well on the bestseller list, I could not find a single edition of Locke’s Second Treatise above #21,000 on Amazon.  That number is disturbing given that a large percentage of college students are returning to campus this week and buying their books for the semester.  More troubling is Howard Zinn’s People’s History (that is, the communist version of America) retaining an impressive rank of 625 as of a moment ago, having sold over 2 million copies since its publication.  The contributors on the College Feed side of ricochet are not exaggerating when they lament the unabashed leftist bent of their professors.

     While the Right is well supplied with good defenses in its non-fiction bestsellers, all or virtually all of talk radio, and insightful blogs like this one, there remains ample reason to revisit—or visit for the first time—the classic writers on liberty, be you a college student, a Tea Party participant, or a person who makes a living at politics and political commentary.  And the classic author who definitely belongs first on the list is John Locke.

     I shan’t belabor the Founding Fathers’ debt to the thought of Locke.  That should be obvious to anyone who juxtaposes the most familiar phrases from the Declaration of Independence with some choice passages in the Second Treatise.  I would like briefly, however, to explain how Locke’s situation is hauntingly analogous to our own and later to suggest why his understanding of human nature, property, and politics is essential to our nation’s return to Founding principles.

     In the second half of the seventeenth century, everything seemed to support the power of kings—usually the unchecked power of kings.  True, the middle decades in England saw an attempt at popular government.  But the disaster that was the English Civil War only seemed to confirm the view of political thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes that an absolute power is necessary to keep order.  Kings provided that order.  Everyone knew that.  Tradition said so.  To know one’s history meant knowing the kings stretching many centuries back, however troubled some of those reigns might have been.  The Church said so, at least the established church in most every country that had long ago seen where its bread was buttered and interpreted Scripture accordingly.  The culture said so.  What fairy tale had a fair damsel marrying the shlub next door rather than a handsome prince?  Philosophy said so: Filmer, Hobbes, Bossuet, and a host of monarchical apologists.  And, finally, common sense seemed to validate monarchy as well.  Just as sons are subordinate to their fathers, so must subjects be subordinate to kings.  (In those days, a son did not do much of anything until Daddy died, leaving his lands to the oldest; younger sons were forced to enter the professions, engage in trade, or worse, become professors.)  The idea that a group of people could come together, secure their lives and their property, establish laws to protect those lives and property, and retain political equality, was not just odd.  It was considered insane—or treasonous.  The king is our father!  He will take care of us!  Do you really want to risk what we’ve always known on the roll of the dice that is self-government?

     Compare that situation to today.  For the past hundred years we Americans, former Lockeans in both political parties, have gotten used to the idea that a central government (a lot like a supposedly benevolent king) will take care of us from cradle to grave.  When a political candidate like Rick Perry even suggests that social security is a Ponzi scheme, implying that Americans ought to save for their own retirement, everyone goes wild.  Yet we do not stop to ask how Americans before the New Deal might have lived in the twilight years of their lives.  Tradition (the last 100 years of the progressive state), the church (at least a good portion of the church that has embraced the welfare state as the equivalent of the Good Samaritan), the culture (Hollywood), philosophy (or what passes for philosophy in the universities), and even a debauched common sense (“I pay taxes; therefore I should get some money back into my pocket”) all build a case for the intrusive Nanny State—and not a case that is easily defeated.

     I believe that to become Americans again—true believers in self-government, the rule of law, property rights, the worth of the individual, and a host of other things—we must become Lockeans again.  I shall try to prove that in my next post.  For now, please flip through an old copy of the Second Treatise or order one on Amazon.  If the Father of our Fathers cannot do better than #21,000 on Amazon, we really are in trouble.  

  1. Danihel Tornator

    When I was a student at Patrick Henry College, we certainly studied Locke’s Second Treatise in Logic, Freedom’s Foundations, and Philosophy classes. You would not know this from our book purchases, however, since we were encouraged to save our pennies and read it online – http://www.constitution.org/jl/2ndtreat.htm. 

  2. Pseudodionysius

    Well then, in addition to Paul Rahe’s book Republics: Ancient and Modern, the Tea Party folks need to grab Ed Feser’s book on Locke.

  3. Robert Dammers
    Daniel Turner: When I was a student at Patrick Henry College, we certainly studied Locke’s Second Treatise in Logic, Freedom’s Foundations, and Philosophy classes. You would not know this from our book purchases, however, since we were encouraged to save our pennies and read it online – http://www.constitution.org/jl/2ndtreat.htm.  · Aug 31 at 2:26am

    Or, indeed, to use the wonderful Calibre to download it from Project Gutenberg to my own library for reading on my PC or Kindle.  Calibre also manages 192 back-issues of National Review, 9 of the Salisbury Review, and hundreds and hundreds of clippings and articles. Strongly recommended.  And free.

    Oh, and portable too.  It will run on fruit.

  4. Robert Lux

    I’m not too concerned Locke’s Second Treatise is no higher than #21,000. I think there’s a problem in making the Founders as epiphenoma to philosophers. I’d take more comfort knowing the writings of the Founders are read with at least as much attention as Zinn — or, failing that, that they’re given (amongst 1/3rd of the population that is conservative) at least an instinctive reverence far surpassing Zinn. 

    As Harry Jaffa wrote in criticism of Harvey Mansfield:

    “When Mansfield says the [Lockean] concept of the state of nature has lost most of its force today, he is mistaking form for substance. Our fellow citizens may not know ‘the state of nature’ in an academic sense, but they know instinctively and politically that their fundamental rights are antecedent to government and do not come from government, but that government exists to protect those rights. And they have lost little of their ancestors’ conviction that taxation without representation is tyranny. These convictions carry with them a logical implication of a state of nature, whether it is recognized or not.”  

    –Jaffa, “The Decline and Fall of the American Idea: Reflections on the Failures of American Conservatism”

  5. The King Prawn

     I also recommend Early Modern Texts as a reference for when some of the antiquated language becomes challenging.

  6. Illiniguy

     For those who own a Kindle, the Second Treatise is a free download from Amazon. Perhaps our new friends on the College Feed could make it their first homework assignment to get the word out through their networks. Maybe we can move ol’ John up from 21,000.

  7. Wordcooper

    Also, here is a link to the free edition on iTunes.

  8. Illiniguy
    Wordcooper: Also, here is a link to the free edition on iTunes. · Aug 31 at 6:42am

    That’s pretty cool, but do you think this iTunes thing will last?

  9. liberal jim

    Moore on Locke, Banaian on the Euro crisis, Rahe on politics,- if you start offering free beer I’ll think I’m in heaven.

  10. Margaret Ball

    Locke  will probably never get a high sales rating on Amazon because college kids will head first to the nearest used bookstore to pick up tatty paperback copies of their assigned readings. I live in a university town and Half Price Books is loaded with all the “classics” that are regularly assigned at the university. I bet John Locke gets recycled through there regularly.

  11. Crow

    Be careful with the Early Modern Texts editions. I won’t say they are a complete disaster, but they are quite willing to skim over the top of a thinker’s thought to render it easily and immediately accessible–and in doing so they blunt many edges and remove a great deal of insight and beauty. 

    If you are going to take the time to read Locke, and I encourage you too, pick up an edition that renders his text as he wrote it. 

  12. Terrence O. Moore
    C

     To be sure, looking at Amazon is not necessarily most reliable way of figuring how much Locke is being read.  College book stores order the texts to allow students to get their books all in one place.  That said, I know a lot of students who use Amazon because they can get the books much more cheaply than in the bookstores.  The larger point is whether colleges make Locke required reading.  I doubt that to be the case.  Even in the once robust core at the University of Chicago I was never required to read Locke.  Most college core programs require a smattering of “social sciences” rather than a straight document-based history class.  And virtually no college requires a Constitution class (Hillsdale and the service academies are the only ones I know of).  Thus, I hold to my original premise: not a lot of Locke is getting read.  Patrick Henry, of course, bucks the trend because it is a college designed for former homeschoolers and is pretty conservative from what I can tell.  If not Locke, what is getting read in freshman “soc”?  I’m guessing Marx makes an appearance.  Thanks for the responses.

  13. The King Prawn
    Crow’s Nest: Be careful with the Early Modern Texts editions. I won’t say they are a complete disaster, but they are quite willing to skim over the top of a thinker’s thought to render it easily and immediately accessible–and in doing so they blunt many edges and remove a great deal of insight and beauty. 

    If you are going to take the time to read Locke, and I encourage you too, pick up an edition that renders his text as he wrote it.  · Aug 31 at 8:48am

    Certainly never as a single reference. I’ve referenced it only as a tool along side the original text.

  14. Illiniguy
    Terrence O. Moore:  The larger point is whether colleges make Locke required reading.  I doubt that to be the case….Thus, I hold to my original premise: not a lot of Locke is getting read. 

    This is a sterlling opportunity for Ricochet’s new College Feed to become a clearinghouse to allow students to develop their own syllabus. There’s nothing stopping like-minded students from getting together and doing what no amount of tuition money can do, i.e. provide them with a well-rounded education.

  15. Crow

    “Certainly never as a single reference. I’ve referenced it only as a tool along side the original text.”

    Fair enough.

  16. cbc

    Good editions of Locke are available on Line through Liberty Press.  The most cost efficient hard copy edition of the Second Treatise includes the Letter on Toleration which was probably at least as important to the Founding. 

    For much of the 20th century, Locke was reduced to Hobbes “In Sheep’s Clothing” and discredited by both the Marxists like MacPherson and Straussians and republicans.  MacPherson’s Second Treatise was the most popular one. Locke may have been taught, but he was taught as an example of selfish, greedy, capitalistic individualism.  He was simply misread.  Thank goodness he is being revived now and being read with some attention to the actual text.  

    Incidentally, at the college where I taught, in a required core syllabus which included Hobbes, Locke, the Constitution, faculty were required to assign Zinn.  After the first year (when I read the book %^%*&%&$$#) I was probably the only faculty member who refused to do so.  Then we dropped Zinn. Some colleges still make Zinn required reading for all students.  Many of my students were taught in high school that they were only thinking for themselves when they read and agreed with Zinn. 

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