In , the most dangerous man in the world fled from England to Holland.
He didn’t look like much. He was years old, thin and asthmatic, and his face, according to one description, was “long, with a large nose, fleshy and soft, melancholy eyes.”
However, the King of England considered him one of his deadliest enemies. As the right-hand man of Charles II’s main political opponent in the country, he was suspected of plotting to assassinate the king.
But what really made him a threat to the throne was not his skill in the arts. lethal, but his genius in the literary arts.
In the hand of John Locke, the pen was indeed mightier than the sword.
Locke departed from the England with a mighty weapon: one that would eventually overthrow not just one monarch, but all of them. This weapon was a book, at that time an unpublished draft: “Two Treatises on Government”.
This book made a philosophical defense of freedom. Locke knew that his anti-absolutist book could get him killed by the absolute monarch of England. Indeed, later that year, Locke’s ally Algernon Sidney was executed for treason, and the book “Discourses Concerning Government” of Sydney were cited as evidence at his trial.
Thus, Locke did not publish his ‘Treatises’ until 1689, a year after Charles II’s successor, James II, was deposed in the “Glorious Revolution” — and even then, only anonymously. Locke publicly denied authorship for the rest of his life, only admitting it in his will. Locke died in 1704.
Later in that century, the ideas of “Two Treatises on Government” became up the elements of America’s founding philosophy:
- Equality ), in the original sense, not of equal abilities or equal wealth, but of non-subjugation;
- Inalienable rights, not to the rights of government, but to life, liberty and property;
- Democracy, in the original sense, not of mere majority vote, but of popular sovereignty: the idea that governments should not be masters, but servants of the people;
- Government Consent: the idea that governments can legitimately govern only by the consent of the governed, that is, of the sovereign people;
- Limited government: the idea that the sole purpose and proper scope of legitimate government is only to secure the rights of the people;
- Right of Revolution: the idea that any government that goes beyond its limits and tramples over the very rights that it has been charged with guaranteeing is a tyranny, and that the people have the right to resist, alter and even abolish tyrannical governments.
These ideas animated the American Revolution and permeated the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. The hugely successful American experience boosted the global prestige of Lockean political philosophy. As Locke’s political principles were adopted around the world, freedom spread and absolutism receded.
The ideas contained in the papers that John Locke smuggled from England in
This wonderful achievement for the humanity has been partially reversed in many ways. The enemies of liberty twisted Locke’s terms to pervert their meaning and serve modern variants of absolutism.
But world history took a much freer course because Locke lived, thought, wrote, and published.
Whether he knew it or not at the time, John Locke was the most dangerous man in the world, as well as the most heroic: a threat to tyrants and a liberator of generations.
Dan Sanchez is Director of Content at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) and Editor-in-Chief of FEE.org.