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How Lockean Was the American Revolution?

How Lockean Was the American Revolution?

12 Mins
September 1, 1999

Jerome Huyler, author of Locke in America: The Moral Philosophy of the Founding Era , is an independent scholar living in New York City. He earned his B.A. degree in philosophy from Brooklyn College and his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in political science from the New School for Social Research in 1992.

Although Huyler (pronounced HIGH-ler) has not sought an academic post since completing his graduate studies, he has spoken on his theoretical and historical work at numerous colleges in the New York-Connecticut-New Jersey area. He has also presented papers and participated in panels at Liberty Fund meetings, the American Political Science Association, and Northeastern University. Huyler's current project is Without Foundation: American Liberalism Between Theory and Practice, which will distinguish the varieties of liberalism and, on that basis, expand on a thesis stated at the end of Locke in America: "When it is said that Lockean liberalism has failed, I must answer we have never permitted it to work."

See also: The lengthy web-only outtake from this interview.

Navigator: In philosophy departments, the great philosophers are (or at least were) presumed to be presenting more or less coherent systems. But in history departments, each publication of an author (including a great philosopher) is presumed to be a work written at a specific time and for a specific audience, with the result that historians are skeptical about assertions of intellectual coherence in an author's total output. Can you explain how you broke out of that dichotomy?

Huyler: First, it is important to appreciate that Locke was simultaneously a dedicated political activist and a profound thinker. His body of philosophic speculation was inducted into a vital, real-world political cause.

From the mid-1670s, Locke was an active participant in a movement aimed at excluding James II from succeeding his brother Charles II on the English throne. At the focal center of this Exclusion Movement stood Locke's close friend and patron, Lord Shaftesbury.

From the mid-1660s, Locke lived on Shaftesbury's lands and served in various offices during Shaftesbury's tenure as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Lord Chancellor of England. After leaving public office, Locke's patron devoted himself tirelessly to preserving English liberty (religious, civil, and economic) from the threat posed by the Stuart family. Locke's abstract ideas formed the necessary intellectual means of achieving his and his patron's concrete social and political objectives.

At the same time, Locke viewed knowledge as an integrated body of hierarchically ordered principles. He understood that answers to questions in one department of our understanding unavoidably rest on and presuppose questions answered in other such departments. Let me quote him:

"There cannot any one moral rule be proposed [and in Locke's day moral philosophy included the principles of politics] whereof a Man may not justly demand a Reason. . . . The truth of all these moral Rules plainly depends upon some other antecedent to them, and from which they must be deduced" (Locke in America, p. 82).

Now, many on Locke's side of the ideological aisle built their defense of liberty and the propriety of resistance to tyrannous authority on historical grounds, for example, the rights of Englishmen as set forth in Magna Carta or the immemorial common law tradition. Such arguments rested on conventional, not deeper metaphysical or universal, truths.

But the Stuarts' leading apologist, Sir Robert Filmer, staked his liege's absolutist claim on a patriarchal theory grounded in biblical exegesis, that is, on precisely that kind of fundamental metaphysical condition that would be immune to a legal positivist's challenge. The idea was that all earthly authority derived from that original authority God gave to Adam and which Adam passed on to every sitting monarch. Locke realized that if all political power was derived from Adam and passed on to his successors "by the Ordinance of God and Divine Institution," then mere positive laws, no matter how ancient, could not determine the principles of political right. Hence Locke was able to grasp the urgent need to locate the "True, Original, Extent and End of Civil Government" in a deeper metaphysical theory of man and nature. Only such a theory could win the intellectual field.

How did I escape the historian's empiricist tendency to dis-integrate the dozens of different positions contained in Locke's body of thought? Frankly, I can answer in two words: Ayn Rand. She furnished me with a comprehensive blueprint, a complete, integrated list of doctrines in each and every department of philosophy that would have to be addressed and logically validated if a full-blown philosophy of liberty were to succeed in its mission. Years of study enabled me to see that Locke addressed (if not always adequately) each of those essential points. They were there all along, though no one, to my knowledge, had added them up or even spelled them out.

Navigator: Part of the context within which Locke wrote, as I understand it, was the breakdown of political and religious authority in early seventeenth-century England. Could you briefly describe the dimensions of that breakdown?

Huyler: During the English Civil War (1640-1660) virtually all censorship laws fell into disuse. By this time, printing presses were coming into wider use and the Bible, already translated into the vernacular, was gaining wider circulation. This meant that any literate Englishman could read and interpret Scripture as he (and to a lesser extent, she) saw fit.

Moreover, the campaign of Luther, Calvin, and others against a corrupt Roman Catholic Church and the rise of so many other Antinomian (anti-authoritarian) writers inspired more and more believers to resist the authority of those with whom they disagreed in matters of faith, politics, and religious practice.

At the same time, political (and even patriarchal) authority had necessarily been undercut by virtue of the Civil War. And Cromwell's New Model Army put into practice Lord Bacon's idea of "a civilization open to the talents." Thus individuals could rise in the ranks of the Cromwellian crusade against King Charles I, Stuart absolutism, and the Divine Right doctrines that defended these.

All of these factors helped to fuel a spirit of independence, as the lone individual living throughout England began to gain the confidence and capacity to ask and answer political and religious questions for himself. The net result was a massive outpouring of books and pamphlets that could take any conceivable position on every possible subject.

Navigator: A second and more immediate part of Locke's context was a period of political and religious oppression that followed the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy and was a reaction to the earlier breakdown. What were the dimensions of those oppressions?

Huyler: At the Restoration, Anglican churchmen were obsessed with the maintenance of social order. The doctrines of non-resistance and passive obedience were continually invoked. The duty of obedience to constituted authority (be it that of the family or the restored monarchy) was raised in sermons and catechisms for men, women, and children on every rung of the religious or intellectual ladder.

Those who dissented from the Church of England were considered seditious by their very nature. The foundations of social order were deemed to be discipline and obedience, and instruction in these could be instilled only by religious uniformity. The Clarendon Code, a series of acts passed between 1661 and 1665, demanded oaths of allegiance from all who would seek or hold public or religious office. Any who refused to forswear the unlawfulness, under any pretense whatsoever, of taking up arms against the king, or who would not accept the full terms of Anglican worship, would be cast out of full membership in English society. Nonconformists would be ineligible to hold office as teacher, school master, instructor, or reader anywhere in the school system. Nor, down to the 1830s, would they even enjoy the franchise.

Enforcement of the Act of Uniformity, one of the Clarendon Measures, cost more than one thousand nonconforming clergymen their livings. Fines and forfeitures of property were imposed on those who kept conventicles, that is, congregations of dissenting English Protestants.

The object, in short, was to silence the dissenters, not to reason with them. The High Church view was that dissenters were "willful fanatics, whose religion flowed from and preyed upon the lusts, passions, and ignorance of individuals." They were, one and all, deemed "enthusiasts" for riotous rebellion and anarchy.

All this, from the dissenters' standpoint, threatened not only religious worship but also industry and commercial prosperity, since they formed the largest part of the industrious and productive element of English society.

Navigator: It is at this point in your narrative that you make good on the point mentioned above: You write: "The urgent, practical need, in short, was for deep philosophic synthesis and coherence." Can you elaborate on just why the early instability and later repression of the seventeenth century made such a synthesis necessary.

Huyler: Given the above background, it is clear that the church's attack on dissent was, at once, an attack on reason, independence, industry, and trade. Locke's ideological task, therefore, was to vindicate these human proclivities and to show that commercial freedom, religious toleration, reason, and intellectual independence were all efficacious, peaceful, and eminently practical (that is, socially useful) social forces. Thus, for example, in A Letter Concerning Toleration, he forcefully argued that it was the suppression of dissent (or free thought), rather than dissent itself, that invariably led to civil disorder and that there was no freely formed idea or form of expression that was more dangerous to mankind than that edict which attempted to stamp it out.

Philosophical Foundations

Navigator: Epistemologically, Locke's thought was based on the tenet that all beliefs must be founded on the evidence of the senses and derived from that evidence by reason. Metaphysically, his philosophy included both a belief in God and faith in the Christian revelation. Can you explain how he reconciled these beliefs?

Huyler: Locke was careful to employ those "proofs" of God which proceeded from sensory experience. Thus he did not employ St. Anselm's Ontological Argument, other "innate ideas," or the reasonings of such prominent rationalists as Descartes. He relied, instead, on arguments such as that from design, that is, the argument that the beauty, order, and regularity of the universe could only be the product of an omnipotent and reasoning mind-a divine presence. He also relied on the scriptural reports of those who witnessed the miracles Jesus performed and the prophecies he fulfilled. This he took as empirical grounds for accepting the Christian revelation.

Navigator: What in human nature did Locke see as the foundation of moral philosophy? What are the virtues that figured most prominently in Locke's moral philosophy and how did he derive these virtues?

Huyler: At the bottom of Lockean moral philosophy sit the principles of God, "self-preservation," and "reason." God made man and implanted in him a strong desire for self-preservation, along with his senses and reason. They, in turn, direct him to do those things which conduce to his preservation. From this foundation one can swiftly arrive at two of Locke's most basic moral tenets: rationality and industriousness. Likewise, reason is the basis for Locke's affirmation of moral social relations and the positing of individual rights. Thus, he urged that The Freedom then of Man and Liberty of acting according to his own Will, is grounded on his having Reason, which is able to instruct him in that Law he is to govern himself by, and make him know how far he is left to the freedom of his own will.

Navigator: You devote an entire chapter to the virtue of industriousness in Locke's philosophy. In what ways has Locke's attitude toward industriousness figured in the debates about what constitutes Lockeanism?

Huyler: On the whole, the concept of industriousness has not played a significant role in the scholarly debate over the constitution of Lockeanism. To be honest, there has not been a concerted effort to understand what doctrines are constituent elements of Locke's philosophy. On the whole, the debate has been largely uni-dimensional, with some (Sabine, Strauss, Macpherson) arguing that Locke is just a wolf named Hobbes, duplicitously adorned in sheep's clothing; and others (Dunn and Tully) objecting that Locke's ethic is genuinely Christian, and so altruist and collectivist in character. A few studies, though, have appropriately emphasized the role that industriousness plays in Locke's thought.


Navigator: You refer to Locke's social ethic as "a benignant egoism." Yet according to the Oxford English Dictionary, "egoism" did not enter the English language until approximately 1800, and then in a wholly negative sense. "Altruism" did not enter English until 1850. What terms would the seventeenth century have used to distinguish the moral attitudes we now call egoism and altruism?

Huyler: Yes, a "benignant egoism" was purely my own formulation, my way of exploding the false dichotomy of having to sacrifice one's own interests for the sake of others versus wantonly sacrificing others' interests for one's own "advantage." For the seventeenth century, the ideas "egoism" and "altruism" would be contained in dozens of specific injunctions and conceptions. It was most important for writers on moral philosophy to distinguish between the passion-driven vices that led to a Hobbesian war of all against all, and the tamer interests that could be associated with rational self-interest. Christian Scripture and scruple furnished the grounds and vocabulary for charity, duty, sacrifice, and the panoply of "values" we associate with altruism.

Navigator: One author that you deal with, James Tully, puts together a string of quotes to argue that Locke was a thoroughgoing altruist and social democrat. You have both a historical and a philosophical argument against that. I wonder if you could expound those.

Huyler: Let me first back up and say something about the methodological approach I employed in reconstructing Locke's social and philosophical thought and what makes the issue of methodology so important in my line of work. In summing up the state of the interpretive debate, I demonstrated that Locke has been read in every imaginable (not to mention imaginative) way. He has been variously portrayed as everything from an arch-individualist to a majority-rule collectivist; from a rapacious Hobbesian brute to a devoted Christian altruist; from an apologist for England's aristocratic elite to a radical insurgent bent on overthrowing the established aristocratic order; from a spokesman for capitalist exploitation to an anti-industrial agrarian. And, in truth, within Locke's vast literary corpus, at least some evidence for each of these positions can be adduced. This, in part, is what has given Locke the reputation of being so eclectic and incoherent a thinker.

Now Locke's interpreters vary in the method they use to reconstruct his social and philosophical thought. Whereas those who study the history (that is, "the great works") of philosophy generally rely on textual exegesis-conclusions drawn from a strict reading of this or that single text-intellectual historians usually opt for contextual placement. Among the contextualists, there are some who will read a given work in the context of earlier and later works belonging to a specific genre or tradition of discourse (for example, early modern natural law theories, the language of republicanism, Marxism, British political economy, German Idealism, and so forth). Others will read a work against the real-life concerns, commitments, or problems that prompted the writer to write.

I began my study convinced that if my reconstruction of Locke's thought was to be convincing, it would have to take into account everything germane to Locke's life, interests, historical commitments, and literary productions. I reasoned that such a comprehensive approach, if carried to fruition, would not only be abundantly persuasive but would furnish the means by which a given interpretative reading could be validated or dismissed. As I wrote: "It is precisely by invoking what we have learned from one contextual exploration that we can often raise serious questions or doubts about a conclusion drawn from the narrow inspection of another particular text or context." This is precisely what enabled me to rebut the highly influential but mistaken interpretation of Locke set out by Tully.

Tully pored over Locke's Second Treatise, situating it within the natural law dialogue, to which he was self-consciously contributing. Tully noted, first, that most others in that tradition upheld a non-individualistic, altruist ethic; and second, that Locke's own language demonstrates a similar commitment. Thus Locke writes:

Every one as he is bound to preserve himself, and not to quit his station wilfully, so by the like reasons when his own Preservation comes not in competition, ought he, as much as he can, to preserve the rest of Mankind.

Hence, concludes Tully, Locke avowedly embraced the supreme Christian virtue of self-sacrifice. None of this, however, stands up. In the first place, this is the worst kind of textualism, since it purposely drops the very next sentence, which significantly modifies the aforesaid injunction. How does Locke intend for us to "preserve the rest of mankind?" By "not, unless it be to do Justice to an Offender, tak[ing] away or impair[ing] the life, or what tends to be the Preservation of the Life, Liberty, Health, Limb or goods of another." For Locke the obvious way to preserve mankind is to join civil society (since without it there can be no peace, useful production, or trade) and respect the rights of others.

However, textual exegesis aside, by deploying the full historical context and purpose of Locke's intellectual labors, the fatal flaw implicit in Tully's project became even more obvious. Locke's ideological aim was to enlist his countrymen in the cause of Exclusion. Critical to the ideological contest was the principle of property-the property that Englishman held and hoped to hold onto. Both sides of the exclusion controversy sought to show that the other posed the greatest threat to that property. From Shaftesbury's point of view, the danger emanated from Popery. It was the imminent succession of James II, a practicing Catholic and upholder of political absolutism, that inspired Shaftesbury's dangerous Exclusion campaign. As the fate of those living under the despotisms of seventeenth-century France and Spain confirmed, Catholic princes left their populations impoverished as a result of lavish courtly life-styles and heavy tax impositions. But it was incumbent upon Shaftesbury's side to show not only how grave a threat an absolute monarch posed to property, but also that a popular or democratically organized government would pose no similar peril, as the Stuart apologists constantly charged. Locke needed to convince his intended audience that, under a limited, lawfully constituted popular government, the property of Englishmen would not be endangered. Tully's emphasis on duty, sacrifice, and the primacy of charity would render property subject to redistribution and play directly into the hands of Locke's ideological foes. It was precisely the outcome Locke needed to block. Locke, of course, would provide the theoretical underpinnings of private property, placing a strict prohibition on government's redistributive power, in chapter five of the Second Treatise, "Of Property."

Navigator: I gather, however, that Locke ultimately did believe in the existence of something like a moral right to the voluntary charity of others, "where [a person] has no means to subsist otherwise." Do you believe that this altruistic tenet in any way undercut his political philosophy?

Huyler: I can see how this would raise an Objectivist's hackles, but I do not think it should be taken to be a cancerous lesion that must eventually consume the governing principle of egoism to which Locke is otherwise committed. For Locke, as for Objectivism, moral principles must be understood in context, and not as floating, intrinsicist dogma. Thus there is no divine commandment Be Honest! There are times when it is appropriate to tell a lie. Honesty, like egoism, is a necessary requirement of human survival. But precisely because life is the ultimate standard, a lie told to protect the innocent from being victimized by the guilty is entirely moral.

Locke says there is a duty to rescue one who is in imminent peril. That "obligation," for Locke, certainly does not extend to those who have fallen on hard times owing to their own idleness, debauchery, or ill-formed moral habits. Nor can it be taken as an opening wedge for the welfare state. This is manifestly an exceptional and delimited case. What it amounts to is giving a starving man a meal "out of one's plenty," as Locke puts it. In the first place, that is not necessarily a sacrifice, merely an act of benevolence or generosity. In the second place, Locke sees that such acts of generosity are often amply rewarded in terms of reciprocation and reputation (not necessarily to be taken in a social metaphysical sense). In the third place, to rescue someone who is suffering through no fault of his own can be construed not as an act of charity but as a redress of an impending misfortune, or "injustice." In short, this may not be an "altruist tenet" so much as a rare, unusual, and strictly delimited exception to the abiding principle of rational self-interest. That, at least, is my "advocate of the devil" impression.


Navigator: You speak of rights being, in Locke's conception, "wired right into the human frame." If we employ the Objectivist distinction among the subjective, objective, and intrinsic, it thus seems Locke believes in intrinsic rights. Is that your understanding? Do you think he had any concept of "the objective," in the Objectivist sense.

Huyler: There are two separate issues here, I believe. For Locke, as for Objectivism, men come into the world with two eyes, two legs, and the natural, immutable right to look at the world through their own eyes, stand on their own feet, and follow whatever course reason recommends (so long as others' equal rights are not violated in the process). This does not bespeak an intrinsicist outlook, per se. It is not a view "written" in men's hearts, implanted as an ineffable "moral sense," or offered as an axiomatic given or Kantian categorical imperative. Locke, like Ayn Rand, derived the principle of rights from a complex chain of reasoning, grounded ultimately in sense perception. Locke's reasoning is certainly not as complete or convincing as Miss Rand's, but it is not a rationalist's floating absolute.

Navigator: Can you imagine Locke's writing his philosophy without the posit of God? Could he have conceived the equality of men and inherent natural rights within the context of an atheistic worldview? If not, do you think this contributed to the downfall of Lockeanism in the nineteenth century?

Huyler: It is clear that Locke did, at least, conceive of human equality and natural rights from a non-theological position-and did so despite his sincere religious commitment to Christ's meaning and message. Let me quote some passages written decades before the appearance of Locke's political writings, though never put into print by Locke. Recalling Aristotle's discussion in the Nicomachean Ethics, he writes: "Partly also we can infer the principle [of moral conduct] . . . from man's own constitution and the faculties with which he is equipped." Adopting a remarkably naturalistic approach to natural law, he continues,

Since man has been made such as he is, equipped with reason and his other faculties and destined for this mode of life, there necessarily result from his inborn constitution some definite duties for him, which cannot be other than they are. In fact, it seems to follow just as necessarily from the nature of man that, if he is a man, he is bound ... to ... observe the law of nature, as it follows from the nature of a triangle that, if it is a triangle, its three angles are equal to two right angles.

[Thus] natural law is a fixed and permanent rule of morals, which reason itself pronounces, and which persists, being a fact so firmly rooted in the soil of human nature. Hence human nature must needs be changed before this law can be either altered or annulled... . Since therefore all men are by nature rational and since there is a harmony between this law and the rational nature, and this harmony can be known by the light of nature, it follows that all those who are endowed with a rational nature, i.e., all men in the world, are morally bound by this law.

In any event, I do not see how Locke's theism or atheism would bear on the "downfall" of Lockeanism in the nineteenth century.

Navigator: You write that "all humans [in a state of nature] will realize the necessity of more completely protecting themselves by forming political bonds." Did Locke ever confront the questions: (a) What is society entitled to do with a holdout? And: (b) Suppose people in the same area attempt to form competing political units?

Huyler: Offhand, I cannot recall any discussion of these peculiarly modern themes in Locke's work.

Navigator: Ayn Rand, as you know, thought contributions to government revenue should be voluntary. What was Locke's argument for taxation?

Huyler: In writing on taxes, Locke's singular concern was to preserve the principle that property cannot be taken without consent (directly by the people or their duly elected legislators). He did, however, affirm the duty and state-enforced obligation of citizens to pay for the protection services government furnishes, reasoning that: "'Tis true, governments cannot be supported without great Charge, and 'tis fit every one who enjoys his share of the Protection, should pay out of his Estate his proportion for the maintenance of it."

Though he doesn't argue any further, I believe a corollary proposition can be extrapolated. If Tom and Tim both expect and, indeed, enjoy the protection that the police, law courts, and jails make possible, yet if Tim turns slacker and is permitted to shirk his responsibility for supporting the protection services he, de facto, receives and depends on, then he, Tim, is, in effect, living off of Tom's labor and contribution. Tom here is being made to sacrifice for Tim's benefit.

Navigator: Before we turn to the question of Americans' Lockeanism, could you summarize the characteristics of Lockeanism we should be looking for in Americans?

Huyler: I am tempted to say that Ayn Rand did that for me, since in my view Locke actually embraces the key principles elaborated in the Objectivist corpus. Like Miss Rand, Locke left behind a comprehensive philosophy of nature and social organization. His thought constitutes an integrated, hierarchically ordered whole, and so each of its tenets logically and necessarily implies or rests on every other. I say this despite the long-appreciated weakness of Locke's epistemology; his failure to identify and validate the basic axioms of knowledge; his ultimately inadequate defense of men's rights, stemming from his failure to expressly demonstrate that "life is the standard of value"; his emphasis on God and Christian theology; and sundry other inadequacies in his nevertheless monumental philosophic contribution.

For the Americans, fighting to forge a free political union, to contradict any principal element of Locke's world-view would therefore be to undercut the whole philosophy as such. Locke's basic principles, insofar as they relate to the Founders' principal political purpose, are these: (1) Reason (not one's unchecked passions or other men's opinions) as the proper and sole tool of cognition and guide to action-and so the basis for asserting men's natural rights; (2) Rights, therefore, as being brought with men into civil society, and not the mere creation of social or political institutions; (3) Government as a protector of rights-and not a provider of privilege, in the sense of furnishing material assistance to some, ultimately at the expense of others (rich or poor; landlord or laborer; farmer, furrier, or ferry boat captain); (4) Private property as sacrosanct; and so (5) Unregulated and politically unassisted markets as the basic rule of economic organization.


Navigator: At first blush, one would assume the Great Awakening, which was a wave of religious fervor in the eighteenth century, was a purely anti-Enlightenment influence. In what ways do you see Lockean outcomes?

Huyler: Although the Great Awakening represented a fundamentalist-leaning religious revival, it also paved the way for a pivotal challenging of authority. Americans learned to question the views of their church elders and leaders and choose for themselves the ways and means of respectful worship. To that extent, it fueled a spirit of epistemological independence on the part of the colonists, which prepared the way for a questioning of constituted political authority during the colonial crises to come. In the same way, Luther's or Calvin's challenge to papal authority gave countless individuals the confidence to assert their own objections to Lutheran or Calvinist theology, hence the formation of so many independent churches and dissenting sects across seventeenth-century Europe and, out of a quest to escape religious persecution, colonial North America. To that extent it can be said that religion was not an entirely destructive force on Western civilization.

Navigator: All Objectivists have probably heard of Cato's Letters, because of the libertarian Cato Institute. But they may be surprised to learn that those letters are taken as evidence the American Revolution was not libertarian. What ideology are they generally supposed to embody?

Huyler: By the 1960s, American historians came to appreciate that the 145 letters published between 1720 and 1723 by two Englishmen [John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon], under the name of "Cato," exerted a far greater influence on colonial opinion than did Locke's body of work. Those essays were predominantly concerned with classical republican themes that dated back to antiquity-to Aristotle, Cicero, and Polybius in the ancient world; and to such modern writers as Machiavelli, James Harrington, and Montesquieu. But by Cato's time, a Hobbesian influence also entered into the mix. It saw individuals as aggressive, obsessed with gaining power, and ruling others for their benefit and pleasure. If this was an abstraction, it was one built on a wealth of empirical experience. The brute history of republics ancient and modern, which Trenchard and Gordon endlessly detailed, would convince anyone who examined it how Power has ever tried to suppress Liberty. Cato's Letters were occasioned by what Trenchard and Gordon saw as the latest efforts to introduce corruption in government, stifle the liberties of Englishmen, and overturn the British constitution. In the republican tradition, the way to preserve Liberty and defeat Power was to separate and check political power. There were three classes in society, represented by the people, the aristocracy, and the monarchy. Each needed to be represented separately. What was more important, the functions or branches of government themselves had to be separated. Where one branch tried to subvert and corrupt the independence of another-for example, where a king's ministers were found to be bribing members of parliament via the distribution of places, posts, pensions, and public contracts-there was evidence of corruption's seeping into the body politic.

Patriotic citizens would have to rouse themselves to resist the terrible tendency via peaceful protest and the ballot. For if the evil were not exposed and uprooted, political liberty (the principle of self-rule) would surely be lost. All of that could be discussed without invoking Lockean ideas, for example, the principles of natural rights, pecuniary self-interest, private property, or the right to take up arms against a tyrannous ruler.

The American Revolution

Navigator: Unquestionably, Cato's Letters were influential in colonial America. But when one reads the Declaration of Independence, the connection between the Founders and Locke seems so obvious. Could you relate, briefly, the ways in which that connection has been under attack for the last thirty years, and the general strategy by which you revived the theory of America's Lockeanism?

Huyler: Beginning in the late 1950s, intellectual historians working on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British and American literary and polemical productions, including Cato's Letters, pieced together a series of common conceptions and concerns-in effect, a common political vocabulary that, through the writings of Machiavelli and his contemporaries, stretched all the way back to the ancient world. The ideas involved in this tradition of discourse, as I noted above, were conceptually distinct from those on which Locke's writings were predicated. Hence was born the "republican paradigm." Where Locke was preoccupied with personal liberty, conceived in terms of inherent, indefeasible rights (particularly the right of private property), the republican writers stressed political liberty and the welfare of the res publica.

In The Creation of the American Republic (1969), Gordon Wood purported to show how these two political idioms were fundamentally opposed. Locke extolled an ethic of wicked egoism of self-interest and private self-pursuit. The republicans (including many in the American Founders' generation) called for personal sacrifice for the common good. The American Revolution, for Wood, halted the Lockean influence, offering the colonists the opportunity to rise above their selfish interests and work on behalf of a patriotic and common cause: independence.

Subsequently, eighteenth-century historical scholarship became ensnared in a debate over the relative importance of these two "opposed" political vocabularies for the American Founding Era. Since, as successive studies revealed, both outlooks were clearly evident throughout the period (in England and America), the net result was much confusion and a ripe field for anyone who needed to publish in order not to perish at his academic post. Eventually, all sides conceded the simultaneous presence of the "Lockean liberal" and "classical republican" (or "civic humanist") vocabularies in the literary productions of the period, but then bowed or cowed before the confusing perplexity of it all.

In this context, I undertook to show that a concern for political liberty-liberty in the republican sense-was wholly compatible with a concern for personal liberty-liberty in the Lockean sense. As the British Whigs and American revolutionaries well understood, the tyrant (defined as a lone monarch, an aristocratic cabal, or a democratic "mob") who labored to suppress republican liberty (via the suppression of free speech or free press, or the denial of due process) would eventually make war on personal liberty (for example, on private property and religious expression).

Now, to secure their liberty, individuals would have to "sacrifice," but only in the sense of joining, in common cause, to resist that king or parliament that "evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism." Let's be more specific. What acts of sacrifice might patriotism recommend? It might mean forming committees of correspondence to share grievances and organize resistance measures. It could cause patriots to put down their plowshares and pick up their muskets, or stand tall on Concord Bridge. On July 4, 1776, it led fifty-six brave men, speaking for their respective colonies, "to pledge to each other, our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor." Of course, nothing in any of this smacks of sacrifice-at least not in the altruist sense intended by Gordon Wood and his academic progeny. The colonists knew they had to secure political freedom if they were to have a hope to enjoy the benefit of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They thought long-range, and they thought in principles-to a point.

Navigator: So, as I understand it, there are two prevailing interpretations of the Founders' ideology: (a) Classical Republicanism predominated at the time of the Revolution; and (b) The Americans used an unintegrated jumble of republicanism and Lockeanism to justify whatever they wanted to do. Now for the all-important question: Exactly how, at the philosophical level, were you able to integrate Locke and Cato, libertarianism and republicanism, into a coherent world-view?

Huyler: Actually, Cato's Letters already contained Locke. Although the emphasis, as I have said, was on republican themes, the letters embraced every principle central to Locke's political theory as well. If "Cato" was serious and sincere about the one set of ideological propositions, he was no less serious or sincere about the other. But how, philosophically, could these two "languages" be compatible? It seemed impossible.

My strategy was to show that these "two languages" were nothing more complicated than two sets of answers to two separate sets of questions standing in hierarchical relation-and that the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries expressly understood that to be the case. Locke, the natural law theorist, furnished the fundamentals of politics, "the True, Original, Extent and End" of civil government-the principles of politics, in the words of Benjamin Rush. But if those fundamentals were to be secured, a science of politics also had to be devised. Republican means and mechanisms for safeguarding the principles of politics had to be developed and implemented.

In this way, I conceptually and hierarchically ordered the questions to which each set of answers corresponded, and I came to see that these two political idioms were entirely compatible philosophically. Indeed, Jefferson's Declaration itself is nothing more than a compendium of republican concerns affixed to some Lockean fundamentals. And this blend occurs frequently in the declarations, proclamations, speeches, and sermons of the Revolutionary era. The American Revolutionaries were ideologically bilingual, but they weren't talking out of both sides of their mouths.

This interview was conducted for Navigator by TOC's editorial director, Roger Donway. Unfortunately, the work on which it was based, Locke in America, is now out of print. Fortunately, the publisher is willing to consider reprinting the book "by popular demand."

See also: The lengthy web-only outtake from this interview.

About the author:
Elections and Democracy