Globalization, John Locke, and the American Revolution
Even though the Enlightenment thinker John Locke lived in Europe, through globalization, his political philosophy still managed to get across to the Thirteen British Colonies by developing seafaring technologies and an Atlantic book trade. In the colonies, it became settled in the political atmosphere. This caused these ideas of equality, liberty, and property to directly influence the American Revolution, and become clearly visible in texts like the Declaration of Independence. This shows the immense power that globalization holds, not just over physical objects, but also over the thoughts and actions of people.
More than two hundred years ago, the iPhone and the plane did not yet exist. Still, ideas and people managed to traverse the globe and influence areas far away from their homes. This was done through trade, travel, war, and many other ways. This process, where different parts of the world become increasingly connected, is often called globalization. One such example of globalization was the accidental discovery of the Americas for Europeans in 1492, after which large parts of the Americas were colonized (Steger, 2020). More than two hundred years later, in 1776, the American Revolution took place. The Thirteen British Colonies in North America revolted against Great Britain (van den Brand, 2020).
One of the main influences behind this revolution was one person, namely, John Locke. He was one of the most influential philosophers of the Enlightenment, a period during the 17th and 18th centuries, when people were responding and going against previously held dogmatic beliefs, like those of the Catholic Church. These thinkers like Locke, and others like Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Hume, Descartes, and Kant, tried instead to use logic to get to their beliefs (van den Brand, 2020).
Locke hereby contributed hugely to the development of political philosophy, amongst other fields. Nowadays, he is regarded as “the father of liberalism” and his political writings have had a long-lasting influence, including on the American Revolution. which can most clearly be seen in his ideas that come back in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution. Ironically enough, and in another example of globalization, Locke did not come from the colonies, nor did he live there. He was born in and lived in England, an ocean away, on a separate continent (McDaniel, 2009).
The objective of this essay is then to understand how it was possible that Locke’s ideas were able to have such a strong impact so far away from him. To do so, globalization will be used as a lens through which to view these events. The main question that follows is then: How did globalization enable John Locke’s political philosophy to influence the American Revolution? To answer this, three smaller subquestions will be posed, namely: How was Locke’s philosophy able to get to the colonies?, How did Locke’s philosophy become incorporated into the political atmosphere in the colonies?, and How did Locke’s philosophy come into form in the revolution?
Prior to the 18th century, the Age of Discovery had taken place. This was a time, between the 1400s and the 1600s, when European nations were taking to the seas, in search of new wealth and knowledge. This went hand in hand with developments in technological fields like navigation and shipbuilding. These two aspects mainly facilitated this early stage of globalization and allowed the Americas to be discovered. In the centuries after this, globalization developed further (Briney, 2020; Voorhies, 2002).
After the Age of Discovery, countries yearned for more and colonized larger land areas (van den Brand, 2020). The population of the colonies grew from a few thousand around 1620 to more than two million around 1770 (Rodriguez, 2007). After this process of colonization, countries started a process of imperialism during the 18th century. Countries wanted more than direct influence over their colonies. They also wanted influence over the ideologies of these regions. The British had strong feelings of superiority and felt an obligation to bring their morals and knowledge, to the ‘uncivilized’ regions and peoples of the world (van den Brand, 2020).
This went hand in hand with further developments in shipbuilding and navigation, which built upon the progress from previous centuries and significantly decreased shipping times (Tipping, 1998). Around 1500, it took two months to cross the Atlantic, while around 1700 it took half that time (Ulvlog, 2015).
Many of the ships going to the colonies had books with them, which formed a flourishing book trade between the colonies and Britain leading up to the revolution. These books held within them the new ideas forming in Europe during the Enlightenment, including those of John Locke. Readers in the colonies were able to get updates from Europe almost simultaneously (Lundberg & May, 1976). The British government did censor certain books that it deemed unfit for readers, like those that went against the government (Amory, 2007). This could have included those of Locke, as he was a controversial thinker at that time, and he was even forced to flee to the Netherlands to escape political persecution (Mack, 2020). Yet, many of these censored books, which could have included those of Locke, still managed to get to the colonies through an underground book trade (Amory, 2007). And aside from the imperialist motives, there were also religious reasons for the flourishing book trade, as a large part of the population of the colonies was protestant. This meant that there was an understanding of printing, reading, and writing because of the focus on it religiously, which gave reason to import books (Amory, 2007; Mark, 2021).
Because of the presence of Protestantism, education in the colonies also developed. Literacy rates improved, many new colleges were created, and their curricula changed to include more mathematics, science, history, and politics. This would have given the students and professors access to works from the Enlightenment, including those from Locke, and would have helped with settling in Locke's ideas in the political atmosphere (Robson, 1985).
What also helped was the very well-connected system of (news)paper communication. Papers took over stories from other papers from neighboring towns, leading to an extremely wide spread of information, reaching hundreds of kilometers across the colonies. These papers, but also many pamphlets, allowed the spread of revolutionary ideas (Parkinson, 2015). And although the Patriots, supporting the revolution, did not form the majority of the population (Calhoon, 2008), it could be argued, as Claude Lévi-Strauss (1961) does, that writing holds power over speech, and because the Patriots made use of a lot of writing, that they were able to gain more influence because of that (Amory, 2007).
Many of the authors of these writings ended up becoming central figures in the revolution, many of them founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson (Middlekauff, 2005; Kramnick, 2019). Jefferson himself very often referred to Locke in his writings (Jefferson, 1825) and can also be cited as having said "Bacon, Locke, and Newton are the greatest three people who ever lived, without exception.” (Setton, 2015, para. 5). James Otis, the Patriot who came up with the then and now famous phrase "No taxation without representation,” also referred to Locke in his writings (Engler & Scheiding, 2005) and many other Patriots quoted Locke during protests (McDaniel, 2009), hence Joseph Loconte says, "There was no philosopher who was quoted more often than John Locke by the American revolutionaries” (Allen, 2021, para. 3). These references to Locke were often about his belief in equality. This is to be seen in the phrase “No taxation without representation,” as it makes clear that the Americans, because they pay taxes, just like the British, should also be equally represented in the government of the United Kingdom. Other references are to Locke’s beliefs that people have inalienable rights, like the right to liberty and to property. That is because these ideas went against the actions of the British that increased taxes, and so took away from the property of the Americans and from their liberty (McDaniel, 2009).
Even most Loyalists, people that wanted to remain under British rule, accepted Locke's theories (Cincotta, 1994). This included William Franklin (the son of Benjamin Franklin), seen as the leader of the Loyalists (Roos, 2021).
When the revolution took place between 1776-1783, John Locke's influence was most clearly seen in the writings that were produced during that time. Many tracts and pamphlets were used during the war, just like before it, which contained references to Locke (Engler & Scheiding, 2005). These writings helped to unify the Patriots under a common cause/idea (American Antiquarian Society, n.d.).
Locke's influence is seen best in Thomas Jefferson's writings like in his Notes on the state of Virginia, Summary View of the Rights of British America (Kessler, 1983; Keough, 2008), and most importantly in the Declaration of Independence. The declaration was written in 1776 by Jefferson and then handed to Congress which edited and officially declared the revolution.
Locke's influence on the declaration comes mainly from: A Letter Concerning Toleration and Second Treatise of Government. In these he states that all people have the right to life, liberty, and property (Goforth, 2019). This comes back in the declaration in the form of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (US, 1776, para. 2) and like Locke, it mentions that these rights are inalienable and belong to everyone. Locke also holds that everyone is equal, that there should be a division of the legislative, judiciary, and executive branches of government, and that the citizens of a state should be allowed to rebel against their government if it does not function for their benefit. All these beliefs come back in the declaration (US, 1776; Stern, 1966; Goforth, 2019).
John Locke was a central figure of the Enlightenment in Europe, yet his influence did not stop there. His ideas managed to cross the Atlantic Ocean and settle in the Thirteen British Colonies in North America. This was able to happen through ever-developing seafaring technologies, as well as through a flourishing book trade. After that, his ideas spread through the colonies through an intricate (news)paper communication system and were supported by growing educational institutions. Locke’s ideas on equality, liberty, and property, then managed to grab a hold of the people, especially those in politics, as the colonies were becoming increasingly strained with taxes from their British ruler. Eventually, the Revolution broke out and the colonies issued their Declaration of Independence. In this piece of writing, as well as in many others, Locke’s political influences were also clear.
These developments show the process of globalization, a process of increasing interconnectivity between regions and peoples around the globe, and how it finally enabled John Locke’s political philosophy to influence the American Revolution. This influence is not just something physical, but it shows the ability of globalization to also shape the minds of people and shape them so much as to lead them to action, to a revolution.