Symposium 2010

John Locke: Theory, Power, and Publics, 1670-1700s

Saturday 20 November 2010

A Symposium was held on Saturday 20 November 2010 to mark the publication of John Locke: A Letter Concerning Toleration and Other Writings, edited by Mark Goldie (Liberty Fund, Indianapolis, 2010), sponsored by the Dr Williams’s Centre for Dissenting Studies. About fifty colleagues, friends, and doctoral students took part. The panel members and their topics were:

J. R. Milton, Department of Philosophy, King’s College London, on ‘Locke at Thanet House (1679-1683): Clientage and the Earl of Shaftesbury’

Tim Stanton, Department of Politics, University of York, on ‘Locke, Nonconformity, and the Mischief of Toleration’

Mark Knights, Department of History, University of Warwick, on ‘Locke, the College, and Electoral Reform in the 1690s’

Delphine Soulard, Department of English, University of Aix en Provence, on ‘Locke in the Republic of Letters: Anglo-French Cultural Transmission’

The papers were diverse but complementary. John Milton demonstrated the limits of Locke’s connection with Shaftesbury in his ‘second’ period with the earl, 1679-82. Tim Stanton explored contemporary meanings of the notion of a ‘mischief’ and the reasons why toleration was regarded as such. Mark Knights explained the implications of Locke’s involvement in draft legislation by Edward Clarke for reform of the franchise. Delphine Soulard took Pierre Coste’s work in translating Locke as exemplary of issues concerning transcultural relations between the French and English languages. These papers are destined for publication, respectively, in: a collection on Shaftesbury, edited by John Spurr (Ashgate, 2011); an edition of Locke’s ‘Defence of the Dissenters’ against Stillingfleet, for the Clarendon Edition of the Works of Locke; an article in Past and Present; and an article in Historical Research.

Mark Goldie, Faculty of History, University of Cambridge, concluded the symposium with a lecture on ‘John Locke and Post-Revolutionary Politics’, which outlined some themes in his project for an intellectual biography of ‘late’ Locke:

In the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution, Locke’s life was transformed. From being an obscure, suspect, and exiled Whig activist, he became a celebrated public figure, both for his philosophical writings and his role in public affairs. He was praised for his ‘excellent political maxims’ by those who did not know he had written the (still anonymous) Two Treatises of Government, a telling indicator of the extent of his policy interventions during the reign of William III. While it is well known that Locke advised on the great recoinage and served on the Board of Trade and Plantations, there remains a puzzling disjunction between the pre-Revolutionary author of the Two Treatises and the post-Revolutionary Williamite Whig. Indeed, the very first American comment on the Two Treatises, this time by someone who did know that Locke had written it, accuses its author of hypocrisy, for defending property in the book, but attacking the property rights of colonial settlers who were in conflict with imperial directives emanating from the Board of Trade.

The broad character of Locke’s post-Revolutionary politics is undoubtedly Court Whig. He was a promoter of what may be called the ‘Weberian’ revolution of 1689: the rapid galvanising of the fiscal and military powers of the English state, driven by the geopolitical imperative to contain the ambitions of France. Locke was a civil servant in the fiscal administration, serving as commissioner for excise appeals. He was a hub in the patronage network that supplied talented officials to the new echelons of the treasury, military, and naval services. His colleagues were targeted by Country party pamphleteers who denounced ‘placemen’: salaried state officials who also sat as MPs. Locke himself might almost be intended in Charles Davenant’s celebrated pillorying of the Court Whigs in True Picture of the Modern Whig (1701). He was certainly named in one tract as emblematic of the ‘new men with money’.

Locke was an assiduous attendee at the Board of Trade, and co-signatory of over 150 documents relating to the government of English America. These documents reveal a highly dirigiste approach to imperial governance: demands for full reportage of data, in the spirit of the new ‘political arithmetic’; robust reproaches to recalcitrant governors and the backing of favoured ones; peremptory installation of new judges and courts; insistence that America bears the cost of its own defence; anxiety about English alliances with Native peoples to prevent their siding with the French; concern to preserve England’s share of transatlantic trade, not least in African slaves.

A third illustrative instance of Locke’s Williamite politics is his energetic engagement with foreign policy in the crisis of 1701, when the Whigs were intent on renewing war against France, but the Tories reluctant. Locke was committed to war, and to a Continental land war, and loathed the appeasers of the French dictator. His politics were strongly shaped by a geopolitical perspective: domestic policy must be bent to serve the utmost necessity of crushing Louis XIV.

How are Locke’s post-Revolutionary politics to be aligned with the Two Treatises, if at all? We might argue a disconnection between theory and circumstantial exigency; or between ‘early’ and ‘late’ Locke. Or we might note that Locke drew a clear distinction between two aspects of the study of politics: the foundations of civil society, and ‘the art of governing men in society’. The Two Treatises concerns the first and not the second: it is a work about what constitutes a legitimate polity, not a handbook for the prudential arrangement of particular constitutions or policies for a national economy or national defence. Locke never wrote a treatise of the latter kind, though much can be deduced about what he took to be the guiding principles. There are hints in the Second Treatise: around 1698 he wrote an amendment to the text, in which he praised a ‘wise and godlike prince’ who understood that ‘numbers of men, … and the increase of lands, and the right employing of them, is the great art of government’.