John Locke and the United States Constitution

  • M. N. S. Sellers
Part of the Studies in Modern History book series (SMH)


John Adams had invoked John Locke in his Thoughts on Government as third after Sidney and Harrington among the modern authors who would convince ‘any candid mind’ to embrace republicanism.1 Eleven years later he repeated his endorsement in defending the United States Constitutions, citing Locke’s ‘very valuable production’ on ‘the principles of government’.2 And his ‘acquaint[ance] with the ancients’.3 Adams praised Locke as defender of ‘the principles of Liberty’. But he also coupled Locke with Milton and Hume as ‘absurd’, when it came to proposing a positive programme,4 and insufficiently committed to ‘popular elections’ in the lower branch of the legislature,5 or the ‘existence and independence of the other two’ branches of government.6 Modern scholars have continued to take so great an interest in Locke, and his putative ‘republicanism’, that it is important to identify his exact relationship with America’s revolutionary generation.7


Public Good United States Constitution Legislative Power Modern Scholar Popular Sovereignty 
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  1. 4.
    Ibid., I:365. Cf. Benjamin Rush, Observations upon the Present Government of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, 1777), p. 20, on Locke as valuable for ‘principles’ only, Harrington and Montesquieu for ‘forms’ of government.Google Scholar
  2. 7.
    Cf. Thomas L. Pangle, The Spirit of Modern Republicanism, the Moral Vision of the American Founders and the Philosophy of Locke (Chicago, 1988); J. G. A. Pocock, “The Myth of John Locke and the Obsession with Liberalism’, in J. G. A. Pocock and Richard Ashcraft (eds), John Locke, Papers Read at a Clark Library Seminar, 10 December, 1977 (Los Angeles, 1980), 3–24. On Locke’s political thought, see also Richard Ashcraft, Revolutionary Politics and Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (Princeton, 1986); John Dunn, Locke (Oxford, 1984); idem, The Political Thought of John Locke; An Historical Account of the Arguments of the ‘Two Treatises of Government’ (Cambridge, 1969); idem, ‘The Politics of Locke in England and America in the Eighteenth Century’, in John Yolton (ed.), John Locke: Problems and Perspectives (Cambridge, 1969), 45–80; Julian H. Franklin, John Locke and the Theory of Sovereignty: Mixed Monarchy and the Right of Resistance in the Political Thought of the English Revolution (Cambridge, England, 1978); Ruth Weissbourd, John Locke’s Liberalism (Chicago, 1987); Peter A. Schools, Reason’s Freedom: John Locke and the Enlightenment (Ithaca, New York, 1992); John A. Simmons, The Lockean Theory of Rights (Princeton, 1992).Google Scholar
  3. 8.
    Peter Laslett, ‘Locke the Man and Locke the Writer’, in Locke, Two Treatises, 16–44.Google Scholar
  4. 11.
    He was constrained by the wishes of the proprietors who hired him. See Charles Francis Adams, The Works of John Adams (Boston, 1851), IV:463–4.Google Scholar
  5. 13.
    Donald Lutz, The Origins of American Consitutionalism (Baton Rouge, La., 1988), 143; Cf. Jensen, XIIL623; XIV:555; XV:609; XVL640.Google Scholar
  6. 14.
    On the divergent ‘republican’ and ‘liberal’ traditions, see Morton J. Horwitz, ‘Republicanism and Liberalism in American Constitutional Thought’, in William & Mary Law Review 29 (1987):57-74; John Patrick Diggins, The Lost Soul of American Politics: Virtue, Self-interest, and the Foundations of Liberalism (New York, 1986); Pocock; Ross, ‘The Liberal Tradition Revisited and the Republican Tradition Addressed’, in New Directions in American Intellectual History, ed. John Higham and Paul Conkin (Baltimore, 1979), 116.Google Scholar
  7. 15.
    For example, Thomas L. Pangle, The Spirit of Modern Republicanism, the Moral Vision of the American Founders and the Philosophy of Locke (Chicago, 1988). Pangle differentiates ‘liberal’ republicanism from ‘classical’ republicanism, which he identifies with Aristotle and Athenian democracy. Ibid., 28–39, etc. Cf. Isaac Kramnick, ‘Republican Revisionism Revisited’, in AHR 87 (1932):629.Google Scholar
  8. 22.
    See e.g., Morton J. Horwitz, ‘Republicanism and Liberalism in American Constitutional Thought’ in William & Mary Law Review 29 (1987):58. Cf. Isaac Kramnick, Republicanism and Bourgeois Radicalism: Political Ideology in Late Eighteenth-Century England and America (Ithaca, NY, 1966), 169.Google Scholar
  9. 23.
    See, e.g., Joyce Appleby, Capitalism and a New Social Order: The Republican Vision of the 1790s (New York, 1984).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© M. N. S. Sellers 1994

Authors and Affiliations

  • M. N. S. Sellers
    • 1
  1. 1.University of Baltimore School of LawUSA

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