Two Treatises of Government/A Letter Concerning Toleration - John Locke, Ian Shapiro Separation of powers, separation of church and State and taxation without the consent of the governed. Sound familiar? It doesn’t take long to see that Locke’s Second Treatise on Government is the philosophical grandfather to the American Revolution. One hundred years after it was written, many of Locke’s principles were etched out by Thomas Jefferson’s quill. For Locke, civil government was a tool to maximize individual freedom while providing protection and a forum to resolve disputes.

The First Treatise on Government is talked about less and is a bit of a tedious read. Locke writes his refutation of Sir Robert Filmer’s Biblical-based argument for submission to “royal authority.” Chapter and verse are provided time and time again to refute Filmer’s own Biblical interpretation. Not exciting stuff, but a disciplined and effective argument. Locke’s opening sentence, though, is a rhetorical cannonade:
Slavery is so vile and miserable an estate of man, and so directly opposite to the generous temper and courage of our nation, that it is hardly to be conceived that an Englishman, much less a gentleman, should plead for it. pg. 7
Locke wins the spin battle in the first paragraph.

Finally, in A Letter Concerning Toleration Locke stresses it’s not the diversity of religious thought which is the problem, it’s the lack of tolerance. A religious man himself, he sees no right for any civil authority to dictate the beliefs of the community. Everyone operates according to their conscience and should be free to do so unless trespassing on the individual liberty of others. A belief compelled is a meaningless belief.

In great libertarian fashion, Locke sees that “the power of the society, or legislative constituted by them, can never be supposed to extend farther than the common good.” pg. 156, Second Treatise. In sweeping terms, he lays out a form of government authorized by the people and checked by the institutions of government itself.

But he has his detractors as well. The technical aspects of governance are touched on sparingly. Admittedly, Locke has grandiose claims of individual freedom, has little to say about how to remedy oppression of the minority by the majority and assumes others have a belief system which can accommodate individualism. The essays at the back also provide some critical analysis on the true extent of Locke’s toleration and his legacy viewed through the lens of feminist theory.

Despite all that, five stars anyway. His words turned into a country.