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Round Table Discussion

Distrusting John Locke

John Locke has been interpreted in various ways that appeal I to conservatives—e.g., as a Christian, albeit a materialist and anti-Trinitarian, or as a qualified defender of private property— but there is a general drift to his thought that should offend traditionalists. His view of human beings as thinking matter without the capacity for innate ideas, his unmistakable faith in sexual egalitarianism, and his constructivist theory of civil society are all fundamentally anti-conservative. The point is not whether any of these positions is theoretically defensible but whether conservatives (or historically minded classical liberals) should want to identify themselves as Lockeans. The clear answer is no.

It is simply untrue that those loyal to the foundations of the American polity must be devotees of Locke. While some passages in the Declaration of Independence were adapted from Locke's Second Treatise, George Carey, Forrest McDonald, and M.E. Bradford have all made two self-evident points: Most of the Declaration consists of a bill of grievances that came out of English parliamentary tradition but not necessarily Locke's writings; and the founding political document of the American nation was the Constitution, not the Declaration. In any case, as shown exhaustively by McDonald, the Framers, in constructing the federal union, drew on such a multitude of ancient and modern authors that it would be difficult...

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