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Professor of Philosophy, Tulane University, New Orleans
[For a longer version of this reading list see the essay in the Forum.]
The two most famous and widely read books in political philosophy by the great English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) are his Two Treatises on Government and his A Letter Concerning Toleration. Both were published in 1689 in the wake of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which brought William, Prince of Orange and his wife Mary to the English throne in place of skedaddling James II. (The Letter was composed around 1685 while Locke was in exile in Holland.)
In the second book of the Two Treatises, Locke lays out his strongly individualist form of liberalism. He argues for the natural rights of life, liberty, and property and for the legitimacy of government which is more or less limited in its function to the protection of these natural rights. He defends forcible resistance against political rulers who violate these rights or seek to undermine the governmental structures which has been established to better protect these rights.
Although freedom of religious practice fits very comfortably within Locke’s capacious conception of liberty, it is not mentioned at all within Locke’s general statement of his pro-liberty doctrine. No doubt one reason for the omission of the case for religious toleration from the general treatise was that there was a long tradition of people writing separate essays either in support of governmental enforcement of religious conformity or in support of religious toleration. Locke is very much a part of that tradition.
In addition, however, Locke had a particular goal in writing the Second Treatise of Government, viz., to garner support for resistance to Charles II and his bother James (the future James II). If Locke had made explicit the link between the cause of toleration and the cause of resistance to these monarchs, individuals who were not friends of toleration would not be drawn to the cause of resistance. It was better strategy to defend toleration in a separate work — even if Locke did not publicly attach his name to either work.
John Locke, The Works of John Locke in Nine Volumes, (London: Rivington, 1824 12th ed.). Vol. 5. Chapter: A LETTER CONCERNING TOLERATION.
Accessed from oll.libertyfund.org/title/764/80887 on 2008-05-04
The text is in the public domain.