Few, if any, philosophers have had the impact on American constitutional law that John Locke has had. This is especially true with respect to the Religion Clauses. Lockean ideas about the proper separation of church and state, filtered through the early Virginia experience and the writings of Madison and Jefferson, are so familiar to us today that it takes real effort to examine them objectively. A new book from the University of Chicago Press, America’s Philosopher: John Locke, by historian Claire Rydell Arcenas (University of Montana) suggests that throughout history Americans have appropriated Locke for their own ends. Looks very interesting. The publisher’s description follows:

America’s Philosopher examines how John Locke has been interpreted, reinterpreted, and misinterpreted over three centuries of American history.

The influence of polymath philosopher John Locke (1632–1704) can still be found in a dizzying range of fields, as his writings touch on issues of identity, republicanism, and the nature of knowledge itself. Claire Rydell Arcenas’s new book tells the story of Americans’ longstanding yet ever-mutable obsession with this English thinker’s ideas, a saga whose most recent manifestations have found the so-called Father of Liberalism held up as a right-wing icon.

The first book to detail Locke’s trans-Atlantic influence from the eighteenth century until today, America’s Philosopher shows how and why interpretations of his ideas have captivated Americans in ways few other philosophers—from any nation—ever have. As Arcenas makes clear, each generation has essentially remade Locke in its own image, taking inspiration and transmuting his ideas to suit the needs of the particular historical moment. Drawing from a host of vernacular sources to illuminate Locke’s often contradictory impact on American daily and intellectual life from before the Revolutionary War to the present, Arcenas delivers a pathbreaking work in the history of ideas.

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