Background

We all have different experiences and perspectives, but different doesn’t necessitate bad. In fact, we’re taught to approach unfamiliar situations and people with an open mind. Otherwise we’ll likely miss out on truly insightful events and people.

The Reason

John Locke preached a rudimentary form of tolerance and acceptance. It’s in large part because of his numerous essays that the American government strives for equal rights among all citizens and acceptance of unfamiliar but harmless customs and religious practices.

John Locke

John Locke is a key enlightenment thinker. Sometimes called the Father of Liberalism, his essays influenced reform in government and philosophy.

The History

Perhaps one of Locke’s most instrumental ideas is that concerning the tabula rasa. Tabula rasa, or “blank slate” refers to the theory that the human mind, at birth, is entirely blank. It’s one’s experiences that impresses knowledge and beliefs onto them. 

This belief influenced nearly all of Locke’s major points in his essays on reform. Since we are all born as blank slates, we’re all born equal. No one is inherently better than anyone else.

Thus when Locke made the claim that man had certain natural rights, he was making a universal claim for all men. These three rights were life, liberty, and possession of property. While Thomas Jefferson altered the wording, the influence of these three ideals are felt throughout the entire Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. It was Locke who stated that the protection of these rights was one of the government’s main jobs.

An ideal government, according to Locke, would have separation of powers. In other words, one body would be in control of legislation, making laws, and another would be in charge of its execution, carrying out those laws. Locke believed this division of responsibilities would help protect these natural rights.

But not all forms of government are ideal or even tolerable. That’s why it’s important that whatever form of rule is in place, it has the consent of the governed. Even a king with his supposedly divine right to rule needs the approval of his people. Otherwise he must be removed.  

Though called the father of modern liberalism, it’s important to remember that John Locke wasn’t open to all ideas. He advocated for religious freedom, but only to an extent. It wasn’t practical for a government to determine which faiths were true or not – there was no way to definitively price such things. Furthermore, it wasn’t the government’s job to even attempt to do so. Therefore, governments should allow for diverse religions provided that one’s beliefs weren’t a threat to public order. While this may sound very reasonable, in Locke’s practice what was considered a “threat to public order” included Christians and atheists on principle, automatically labeling them untrustworthy chaos-inducers.

So What

Though science and psychology have proven that Locke’s idea of the blank slate isn’t entirely true, that doesn’t mean his theory isn’t valuable. People are born with biological predispositions – newborn babies display different temperaments despite having almost no life experience to inform such aspects of their personalities. However, just because one baby has a warmer disposition than another does not mean its life is worth more. While it’s important to remember that events shape an individual, Locke’s tabula rasa theory is vital because it insists on the equal worth of all persons. 

Locke’s ideas weren’t perfect but they paved the way for important political and civil rights movements. His attack on the monarchy and proposals concerning governing influenced modern democracy. Provided you aren’t causing harm to anyone, you have the right to express your beliefs and practice them, whether they be religious or otherwise. Your rights are just as important as anyone else’s rights. It’s because of John Locke that we’re able to enjoy such rights today.

    Learn More

    1. Ashcraft, Richard. John Locke: Critical Assessments. Routledge, 1991. ISBN: 0415008476.
    2. Dunn, John. “The concept of ‘trust’ in the politics of John Locke.” Philosophy in History: Essays in the Historiography of Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, 1984. ISBN: 0-521-27330-7. 
    3. Rogers, Graham A.J. “John Locke: English Philosopher.” Encyclopædia Britannica, January 2020. www.britannica.com.
    4. Wolterstorff, Nicholas. John Locke and the Ethics of Belief. Cambridge University Press, 1996. ISBN: 0-521-55118-8.
    5. Wootton, David. John Locke: Political Writings. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1993. ISBN: 978-0-87220-677-9. 

    Think Further

    1. Where do you see Locke’s idea of separation of power in the American government?
    2. Why do you think the rights of “life, liberty, and property” were later changed to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?”
    3. What are some other ways Locke’s ideas have been expanded upon?