Locke’s American Legacy

In recent years it has become fashionable, and in some circles even compulsory, to express guilt over the European discovery and settlement of the Americas, as if from the perspective of the 21st century, this was an event to be regretted. Hence, even the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing received no national commemoration. Indeed, the trustees of Plymouth Plantation, the living-history museum that has explained the Pilgrim settlement to schoolchildren and tourists since 1947, chose that very year to announce a change in the institution’s name to “Plimoth Patuxet” (the Wampanoag name for the location) as a way of signifying, in effect, that we should think of the spot as still really belonging to the native Americans who previously inhabited it.

This attitude, I should add, is far from limited to Americans, or even to residents of the Western hemisphere: the government of Australia just changed a word in the country’s national anthem, which previously celebrated the nation as “young and proud,” so that it now reads “one and proud.” The reason given for the change was that describing Australia as a young country disregarded the long existence of indigenous people in its territory, prior to its discovery and settlement by the British. (Of course, the land’s previous inhabitants had not identified themselves as a nation, nor is there any evidence that Australia’s constitution, economy, or culture derive from them.)

Another recent expression of the guilt that learned inhabitants of lands settled by Europeans centuries ago now profess is a December 26 op-ed in the New York Times by two distinguished Harvard scholars, the geneticist David Reich and the sociologist Orlando Patterson. In the column, the authors report that a recent analysis by Professor Reich of the DNA of “ancient Indigenous Caribbean people” demonstrates that prior estimates of the population of Hispaniola (the island now occupied by the nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic) prior to Christopher Columbus’ landing were much inflated. Whereas estimates made by everyone from Columbus’ brother Bartholomew to present-day scholars “motivated by a desire to underscore how disastrous the arrival of Europeans was for Indigenous people” ran as high as over a million, Reich finds that “almost all prior estimates” of the population were “at last tenfold too large,” since the real number was “no more than a few tens of thousands.”

Despite this finding, Reich and Patterson conclude by emphasizing their “outrage” that European colonization of the Caribbean “resulted in such immense destruction that the rich cultures” of its indigenous peoples can be reconstructed today “only through a blend of oral tradition and scientific study.” And they take aim, in particular, at the great 17th-century liberal philosopher John Locke, whose thought exercised the greatest influence on the American Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution itself, for allegedly having represented the Americas as a whole as a “vast ‘vacuum domicilitum,’ or empty dwelling, populated by a handful of Indigenous groups whose displacement could be readily justified.”

While it is true that in the famous fifth chapter of his Second Treatise on Government, “Of Property,” Locke portrays America as a vast, undeveloped domain—representing what the entire world was like prior to the institution of private property and the attendant incentives it afforded to individual labor and economic development—Locke does not simply claim that the displacement of American Indians by European settlers accords with justice. Indeed, later in the Second Treatise (secs. 192-94), he expressly denies that conquest gives a conquering regime any right to command obedience from a subjected people, except insofar as the conquered people, or their descendants, can be judged implicitly to have given their consent to the government by the security it provides to their lives, liberties, and property. (It follows, Locke implies in Sec. 96, that the kings of England, having inherited their titles from foreign conquests centuries earlier, have no inherent claim to their subjects’ obedience, but owe their proper authority to their meeting that same standard.)

No country on earth has ever enjoyed a morally unblemished history. On the other hand, no country has ever elevated the condition of so many people as the United States.

It is impossible, then, on Lockean grounds, to judge the European colonization of the Americas by the standards of justice: if one traced the lineage of the peoples inhabiting Hispaniola back far enough, one would undoubtedly find that they had in their turn displaced others, and so on. No people can be said to have an inherent right to ownership of its land, as if it were autochthonous, any more than hereditary rulers possess an inherent right to govern others without their consent. (By contrast, during his term as the leading member of England’s Board of Trade, even while endeavoring to promote colonization, Locke worked assiduously to undermine the slave trade, as the historian Holly Brewer has documented, his efforts sadly having been overturned by Queen Anne—the practice of slavery being in direct contradiction to his principles, as he indicates at the outset of his Two Treatises.)

But how, then, should the colonization of America be assessed? Surely, even (or especially) if we focus our attention on the North American continent alone, the relative paucity of “indigenous” inhabitants, in comparison with the many millions who found refuge from poverty and oppression abroad, along with their descendants, is of some relevance. More importantly, what made it possible for the land to support such a vast population as it subsequently acquired was the institutions of political and individual freedom that the American founders established on these shores. As Locke observes, only with the secure establishment of private property, and the invention of money as a stable measure of exchange, would it become possible to replace undeveloped wilderness with ever-increasing wealth, acquired through industry, providing employment to multitudes (sec. 43) as well as increasing the general standard of living.

Much as some might idealize (as Thomas Jefferson did in his Notes on Virginia, and Alexis de Tocqueville did in his chapter on “The Three Races in America”) the freedom enjoyed by this continent’s indigenous peoples prior to the arrival of the Europeans, no serious person wishes for the civilization that was ultimately established as a result to be dismantled. Is there any reason to judge that indigenous oral cultures compared in “richness” with that which European civilization brought to these shores—including, one might observe, the sort of scientific and scholarly inquiries in which Professors Reich and Patterson engage?

The “outrage” that Reich and Patterson purport to experience is neither productive nor justifiable. Although they are scholars of undoubted accomplishment, this indignation is of a piece with that exemplified by the renamers of Plimoth Plantation, the rewriters of the Australian national anthem, and countless others, motivated either by a resultant sense of moral superiority, or by the fear of irritating those who represent themselves as “Woke.”

Such moral preening is not without its costs. As Matthew Continetti reports in his recent Commentary essay, “What Nathan Glazer Can Teach Joe Biden,” polls taken of Americans over the past two decades show an appalling decline of pride in their country—especially among racial minorities, college graduates, and women, who collectively predominate among “politically active Millennials and Gen Zers.” Continetti points out that “vituperation” directed at the United States “for its supposed endemic racism and imperialism was a feature of both the radical and Stalinist tendencies” that Glazer, an eminent social scientist, had witnessed during his college years prior to the Second World War—but which he gradually transcended, only to see them reiterated by the academic gurus of the New Left during the 1960s (C. Wright Mills, Herbert Marcuse, Noam Chomsky, and their ilk).

The crimes of the Spanish and Portuguese colonizers against the indigenous inhabitants of Southern America, as well as against the Africans they enslaved to serve them in the Western Hemisphere, were many (far more slaves were imported by the Iberians than by the English). And undoubtedly, American settlers and their governors sometimes committed atrocities (on a much smaller scale) against the Indians as well. But no country or civilization on earth has ever enjoyed a morally unblemished history. On the other hand, no country has ever elevated the condition of so many people, and served as a beacon (and fortress) of liberty, as the United States.

Unfortunately, as Continetti reports, the “disgust” expressed by an alarmingly high percentage of younger Americans against their country is fed in considerable measure by ignorance of the nation’s real history. Wokeism, increasingly instilled by their education (its latest iteration being the New York Times’s “1619 Project”) fills the gap formerly occupied by an appreciation of their country’s achievements, alongside its failings.

The fate of liberty may well hinge on the ability of the individuals who staff our academic institutions, including our most learned scholars as well as elementary and high-school teachers, to transcend the temptations of disdaining both Western civilization and American institutions, in favor of genuine intellectual honesty about our heritage.

Reader Discussion

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on February 04, 2021 at 10:47:40 am

"And the beat goes on, the beat goes on" as President Unity Biden promptly disemboweled President Trump's 1776 Project and peremptorily removed its extraordinary "1776 Report" from the White House website and then dished out the same language abuse to the State Department's Commission on Unalienable Rights and its recent, extraordinary report, which deeply explores the positive, indeed, dispositive, role of American history in establishing a foundation of liberty in the West, fostering world freedom by fighting totalitarianism, and furthering the goal of universal human rights.

Go online now and one encounters difficulty in finding the two reports and even evidence that the two commissions and their seminal reports ever existed, such willing conspirators, such eager accomplices, are the de-platforming Titans of Tech in carrying out the Democrat Party's ongoing project of deconstructing, "disappearing," distorting, and rewriting American history.

Professor Schaefer describes it well and decries it forcefully. It is a Stalinesque exercise in political diabolism that should be entitled "The 1968 Project."

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on February 04, 2021 at 11:34:24 am

Don't have time for a full comment, am off to golf but here is something I posted on the "Polarization" essay. May be applicable:

"An additional thought:

"We forget everything. What we remember is not what actually happened, not history, but merely that hackneyed dotted line they have chosen to drive into our memories by incessant hammering.
I do not know if this is a trait common to all mankind but it is certainly a trait of our people. And it is a vexing one. It may have its source in goodness, but it is vexing nonetheless. It makes us an easy prey for liars."
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Gulag Archipelago

Here Solzhenitsyn is referring to the Russian people. Would it be too inconceivable to substitute the modern American for the Russians to whom he refers?"

BTW: A large "Thank You" to Paladin for reminding me of the importance of Solzhenitsyn. Am thoroughly enjoying his works once again.

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on February 04, 2021 at 15:27:19 pm

The forgetfulness of people comes with the rest of the flaws of our human nature. All human societies have their own narrative of their respective histories, and civilizations where there are multiple narratives offer enough fodder for writers in every generation to try to piece them all together to get a better view. I think the thing we should understand is that remembering history is a part of the accumulation of wisdom. We learn from history or we perish. Societies where bullies and tyrants seek to control the narrative by silencing dissenters always fall. This is one reason, and reason enough alone, to oppose Progressivism, Socialism, Communism, Fascism, Feminism (this is not about equality or justice for women, but the destruction of the family), and so forth. Thanks for sharing the quotation from Solzhenitsyn. We should all memorize it. I've one for you from the 18th Century:
"The Decalogue, or the Law of the Ten Commandments, delivered by God Himself from Mt. Sinai with great Glory and astonishing Circumstances, was little else but the Laws of Nature reduced into Tables, and in words of God's own chusing [sic]."
John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, "The Independent Whig", March 16, 1720. These two members of the British Parliament are famous for their series "Cato's Letters". They were influenced by Locke, who himself was influenced by Roger Williams. They were a huge influence on 18th Century Americans and their ideas inspired the American Revolution. The above quotation can be found in "The English Libertarian Heritage", a selection of essays from Trenchard and Gordon. Russia didn't have a Trenchard and Gordon, or a long tradition of the principles of Judeo-Christian Natural Law built into their society. Maybe we have a chance.

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Karen Renfro
on February 04, 2021 at 12:41:36 pm

Professor Schaefer makes many fine points in his essay. Particularly distressing to my mind is his point about the failure of the nation to acknowledge and celebrate the 400th anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims in 1620, especially when that event is considered in light of the comments of Tocqueville in the second chapter of Democracy in America. One wonders, though, whether something couldn't still be salvaged from this situation we find ourselves in. Although the historical sources are not as clear as we might like, it does seem that indeed something like the "first Thanksgiving" was held at Plymouth in the fall of 1621. It also seems to be the case that attendance at this feast was voluntary by all parties (although those preparing it--presumably women--didn't know that they would have so many guests or that the party would last so long!). In any case, any remotely fair analysis of this event shows it to be among the least objectionable of all interactions between Europeans and native Americans in history. Surely the nation can celebrate in a big way this coming November!?

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Douglas Kries
on February 04, 2021 at 15:08:53 pm

Yes, I agree with you. And most people do not know of the great influence Roger Williams, a leading Protestant Reformer who came to America in the 1630's as a religious exile, had on the British Enlightenment. As a young man, he worked for Sir Edward Coke. This meant he was immersed in principles of English Common Law, the Rule of Law, Individual rights--including property. Williams came to America as a religious exile for his controversial views on the Church. He was a Separatist turned Baptist, and then he disagreed with both of them n certain points. He brought the great principle of Liberty of Conscience to the New World, the much-misunderstood teaching on Separation of Church & State. He said that combining the authority of the civil government with the authority of church government gives them both too much power over the conscience individuals. Basing his opinions on traditional teachings on the Two Tables of the Law, in which the First Table of the Law teaches us that our Duty to God is between ourselves and our Creator--not the business of any earthly power, and our Duty to Man is within the province of the magistrate to enforce by punishing those who violate the second Table of the Law. He wrote that Separation of Church and State is to keep the "wilderness of the world" from corrupting the "garden of the church". His writings influenced John Locke. William Penn and many others. Thomas Jefferson was influenced by him, too, though maybe not directly. There a really great biography of Williams, groundbreaking and deeply plowed, by John Barry (Penguin), entitled "Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of American Liberty." I think you'll enjoy it, the author not only has a gift got narrative, but he understands his subject better than anyone I've read on it.
As for the story of the first thanksgiving, I recommend Rod Gragg's "The Pilgrim Chronicles". It is a mix of commentary by Gragg and extensive passages from the Pilgrims themselves, and he also has a solid grip on his subject. He tells the story of the Pilgrim's first year when they formed a communal society with no private property and half of them died because of a lack of food, including Governor John Carver. Then, they elected William Bradford and he divided up their colony among the heads of households so the families were highly-motivated to work hard. At the end of the harvest season they all had surplus and could trade. The First Thanksgiving was a turning point for them. You can even use this book as a resource to celebrate a historical Thanksgiving with the same foods as they did 400 years ago. The traditional American Thanksgiving as we know it now began in the 18th Century, with each region of the young United States serving special dishes that are still popular today. I especially like the way Gragg describes the friendship between the Wampanoags and the Pilgrims. They had a treaty that lasted 40+ years--until the deaths of Chief Massasoit and Bradford. Some of the other tribes were enemies of the Wampanoags and also not too friendly toward the Pilgrims. When other Englishmen came to the colony and mistreated the Indians and vice versa, that is when the trouble started. But the men and women who came on the Mayflower were not a party to the mistreatment. It is a fun book to read aloud to your family. And you can go one chapter at a time, or one or two sections at a time. It is accessible to young and old and has lots of illustrations. For musical background, listen to old Scottish hymns based on the Psalms. You'll be able to find them in any good old-fashioned hymnal from the Reformed tradition.

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Karen Renfro
on February 04, 2021 at 13:03:18 pm

I certainly agree that the United States is an extraordinary human achievement and deserves immense respect and appreciation. But surely there's some middle ground between "extreme pride" and "disgust." Nobody can "purify" himself of the horrors of history, but it isn't wise to transmute history in all its complexity into a monotone idolatry. Augustine explained that the Patriarchs acted in ways we think wrong but that the point was to remember that we're probably doing things future generations will condemn us for. The study of history should produce humility, not pride. Humility does not mean passivity but rather a fresh resolve to do better and let the dead bury the dead.

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Donald Marshall
on February 04, 2021 at 15:28:31 pm

Agree. Who was it said, "Those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them"?

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Karen Renfro
on February 04, 2021 at 08:43:16 am

[…] Lewis Schaefer has written an insightful essay defending John Locke’s legacy against woke cancel culture. Historical perspective is often […]

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