Front Page Titles (by Subject) Locke as a Revolutionary - Literature of Liberty, Summer 1981, vol. 4, No. 2
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Locke as a Revolutionary - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Summer 1981, vol. 4, No. 2 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Locke as a Revolutionary
“Revolutionary Politics and Locke's Two Treatises of Government: Radicalism and Lockean Political Theory.” Political Theory 8 (November 1980): 429–486.
Was John Locke (1632–1704) a political philosopher or revolutionary (and pamphleteer)? Richard Ashcraft answers that Locke was a revolutionary and gives as evidence an interpretation of The Second Treatise of Government.To understand why Locke wrote his Second Treatise, it is necessary to know when he wrote it. According to Laslett, the project commenced sometime in 1679–80, during the early stages of the Exclusionary Crisis (the effort to prevent James from succeeding Charles to the throne of England). If Laslett is right, then Ashcraft is wrong; for at this point, the opposition (led by Locke's patron Lord Shaftesbury) hoped to achieve their ends by orderly, constitutional means (via passage of the Exclusionary Act in Parliament). It was not until March, 1681, after Charles dissolved the Oxford Parliament, that the opposition set a revolutionary course directed, not just against the Catholic James, but against the “lawless” King Charles.
Could Locke have begun the Second Treatise before 1681? No says Ashcraft, since during this period: (1) he was continually traveling or otherwise occupied with a work on the growth of vines and olives; and (2) he did not then possess key works cited in the Treatise.
Granted that Locke began his project only after the opposition decided upon a radical course, this alone does not link the man or the work to the revolutionary movement. Other arguments are needed—and provided. Thus Ashcraft seeks to establish a double-barreled guilt-by-association.
First, there is Locke's association with the plotters themselves: his sixteen-year stint as Shaftesbury's “assistant pen” (the two collaborated on The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina and other celebrated causes, including toleration); his well-documented dealings with other celebrated rebels of the realm; his personally summoning the Earl of Essex to a meeting of the revolutionary cabal late in April, 1683; and his hasty departure for Holland (once the plot was discovered), where he took up residence at Dare House, home of many other “visiting exiles.” If he “really wished to convey to the outside world that he was politically innocent,” Ashcraft concludes, “then, in selecting his numerous ‘disaffected’ friends, Locke appears to have had the poorest judgement of any man who ever lived.”
On a deeper level—the level of ideas—Ashcraft argues that Locke's Treatise shares a common “language” of rebellion with innumerable other tracts of the period. The radical writers spoke with a single voice of “lawless” governments, “the invasion of rights,” “dissolved compacts” and of monarchs turning themselves into “wolves,” “lions” and sundry other “beasts” of prey. Moreover, the Lockean inquiry into the “Original, Extent and End of Civil Government” is virtually indistinguishable from the “philosophical” formulations self-consciously employed by the intellectuals of the revolutionary movement such as Algernon Sidney, Robert Ferguson, etc.
No detached philosopher, curiously unaware of the revolutionary implications of his theoretical researches, Ashcraft's Locke is implicated in conspiracy. And it is precisely as a revolutionary tract, a 17th Century “Declaration of Independence” that the Second Treatise of Government must be read.