I’m a big fan of John Locke (of Enlightenment “Two Treatises on Government” fame). (Yes, I’m a nerd.) Although he wasn’t the only philosopher of his time to think in terms of a social contract, he was arguably the most consequential; his approach to the role of government had an enormous influence on the Founders who crafted America’s constitution. So when I came across this article about a previously unknown text of his, I was fascinated.

A “once in a generation” discovery of a centuries-old manuscript by John Locke shows the great English philosopher making his earliest arguments for religious toleration, with the scholar who unearthed it calling the document “the origin and catalyst for momentous and foundational ideas of western liberal democracy”.

Dated to 1667-8, the manuscript titled “Reasons for tolerateing Papists equally with others”, was previously unknown to academia. It had been owned by the descendants of one of Locke’s friends until the 1920s, when it was sold at auction to a book dealer. From there, it went into private collections until it was donated to St John’s College, Annapolis, in the latter half of the 20th century. It lay unstudied in archives until Locke scholar JC Walmsley noticed a reference to it in a 1928 book dealer’s catalogue, and raised an eyebrow: Locke, a hugely influential Enlightenment thinker, was not known to have extended his arguments for religious tolerance to Catholics.

Because tolerance of Catholics (or, in Catholic countries, tolerance of Protestants) was pretty much unthinkable at the time he wrote, attributing such sentiments to Locke seemed an unlikely stretch, so scholars put the newly discovered manuscript through a number of tests in order to determine whether it was, indeed, Locke’s.

It was.

“Locke is supposed to have never tolerated Catholics,” said Walmsley. “All his published work suggested that he would never even consider this as a possibility. This manuscript shows him taking an initial position that’s startling for him and for thinkers of his time – next to no one suggested this at this point. It shows him to be much more tolerant in certain respects than was ever previously supposed.”

Locke, who died in 1704, is known for his Two Treatises on Government, which which became a foundational text for modern western democracy. His other hugely influential texts included the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which provided philosophical grounds for the scientific revolution, and A Letter Concerning Toleration, which influenced James Madison’s thinking on the separation of church and state in his work on the US constitution.

The newly-discovered document was written before A Letter Concerning Toleration, and adds to our understanding of Locke’s approach to what we now call “nondiscrimination.” As America’s religious and racial diversity explodes, the growth of “toleration”–or more properly, civic equality and inclusion–becomes an ever more critical element of a functioning polis.

Joseph Macfarland, dean of St John’s College, said it was “an unexpected pleasure to find that we are in possession of a manuscript by Locke himself on a question so critical to American political life and to liberal democracy generally”.

Calling the question critical is an understatement. We either overcome our innate tribalism and learn to live amicably together, or this experiment we call America is over.

The 2020 election provides us with a stark choice: We can re-elect Trump and validate various degrees of intolerance of anyone who isn’t a white Christian male, or we can reject the politics of hate and division and embrace “toleration.”


  1. I admit I am a Left-leaning partisan, however isn’t today’s real problem the intransigence of the extreme Right? It seems to me that, while we are not perfect, the majority of us acknowledge, accept and welcome that we are a diverse racial, religious, and ethnic country and world and have no problem with that. However, there is a dogmatic and vocal minority who refuse to accept the growing diversity.

  2. Tolerance is one of those individual things. What one person will tolerate, another will not. Case in point: a local hooker complained to residents here on the East Side that people did not “respect” her occupation.

  3. Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others.
    Abraham Lincoln–January 27, 1838 Lyceum Address

    “We have, as all will agree, a free Government, where every man has a right to be equal with every other man. In this great struggle, this form of Government and every form of human right is endangered if our enemies succeed.”
    Abraham Lincoln–August 22, 1864 Speech to the One Hundred Sixty-fourth Ohio Regiment

    Mankind soon learn to make interested uses of every right and power which they possess, or may assume. The public money and public liberty, intended to have been deposited with three branches of magistracy, but found inadvertently to be in the hands of one only, will soon be discovered to be sources of wealth and dominion to those who hold them… They [the assembly] should look forward to a time, and that not a distant one, when a corruption in this, as in the country from which we derive our origin, will have seized the heads of government, and be spread by them through the body of the people; when they will purchase the voices of the people, and make them pay the price. Human nature is the same on every side of the Atlantic, and will be alike influenced by the same causes. The time to guard against corruption and tyranny, is before they shall have gotten hold of us. It is better to keep the wolf out of the fold, than to trust to drawing his teeth and talons after he shall have entered.
    Thomas Jefferson 1785

    Just a couple of quotes, but quotes with foresight.

    Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson realized how fragile democracy can be. Alexis D Tocqueville called us the great experiment. But when you have a minority ruling a majority, this is not democracy, the experiment has failed, at least to this point. He find a current strongmen beholding to foreign powers, someone who does not respect the rule of law or the Constitution, someone who openly flouts his executive power and dares anyone to stop him. This is what our founding fathers feared, but they could not foresee a future with social media, 24 7 instantaneous global news reporting, instantaneous and subversive global communications, clandestine shenanigans that leave no paper trail. How could they? That is why originalists not wanting to update our Constitution, updates that might have been able to prevent what is happening now.

    You cannot have a democracy when you have subversives working as a political party trying to dismantle every protection against authoritarianism, to allow a minority control majority. This in itself is socialism, this in itself is the communist form of government. This is a caste system with an elevated upper echelon controlling most of the treasure. It is a lot of things but it not a democracy!

    The damage that has been done will take generations to repair, that is, if there is anything to repair.

    The worst thing anyone can do, is think that these things are just a blip and the worst cannot happen here, well, the worst is happening right now. When you have someone who does not obey the law, one who is obviously mentally deranged, one who has a staunch following that refuses intercede in the insanity, you’ve lost our system of government.

  4. As Theresa so wisely stated; “Tolerance is one of those individual things.” Tolerance is also a two-edged sword; those who tolerate the individuals but not the religion or politics they support. She and I have both commented on that issue more than once on this blog about the split within families, friends, coworkers and neighbors which has exploded in this country since Trump’s appointment as the Republican nominee for president and the Electoral College appointment to that position. Amendment I: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof:…” This section only prevents government from invading religion; it does not prohibit religion from invading our government.

    Was this an unspoken belief of the founding fathers that those who followed their chosen religion would not want it to become political? The Constitution and Bill of Rights appears to evidence the founding fathers assumed common sense and “truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” would be the basis of this government “of the people, by the people and for the people” would reign in this country. Who the hell could possibly envision anything or anyone like a Donald Trump would be handed the reins to freely run amok and rule by chaos and turmoil?

    “As America’s religious and racial diversity explodes, the growth of “toleration”–or more properly, civic equality and inclusion–becomes an ever more critical element of a functioning polis.”

    Are we to tolerate the explosion of diversity just this week? The “mouth that was heard around the world”; our own insane self-proclaimed “stable genius” has now aired his dirty laundry and asked other nations to tolerate his actions and rescue him from two named possible Democratic presidential candidates. This is no longer the United States of American; known for acceptance and tolerance of all “others”; the powers that be are demanding acceptance of one morally bankrupt madman.

  5. It seems that Locke was more enlightened than John Milton (also 17th century), who wrote a stirring defense of intellectual freedom (Areopagitica), except for Catholics.

  6. Religion is just another “ism”. Yes, it is another reason to form into tribes. That’s the whole point of sects and cults, isn’t it? Unfortunately, we, as a species, will forever be saddled with the tribalism that helped us evolve into “civilized” societies of such great complexity and size. In Rebecca Costa’s terrific book, “The Watchman’s Rattle”, she postulates that we have evolved MUCH faster socially than we have biologically, so we are trying to rationalize our “modern-ness” with a cave man’s mind and brain.

    Add to that the primitive nature of hoarding/greed/economics and we get certain tribes to embrace Milton Friedman’s horror-engendering philosophy of “Supply-side Economics”. In Naomi Klein’s famous and disturbing book, “Shock Doctrine”, we learn that the “religion” of economics that he proposed was actually super-capitalism wrapped in intolerance. In the 70s, when our CIA was ever-so-twitchy about anything socialistic and communistic, that they funded and perpetrated some of the most horrific abuses of cruelty on unsuspecting “patients”, but on entire nations as well: Chile, Argentina, Uraguay and Brazil were doing quite well until Friedman’s doctrines were imposed upon them. What resulted were military coups and the killing of hundreds of thousands of resisting people, to say nothing of the economic disasters that followed.

    So, good for Locke and our idealistic founders. Bad for our slothful citizens who can’t be bothered with politics or getting off their lazy asses to participate in this great “experiment” in democracy. It is OUR fault that we have tribalism, because we picked bad representation that allowed corporatists to rule the system. It is OUR fault for not participating in our democracy by not voting. Donald Trump and his collection of idiots is OUR fault. That said, it is WE THE PEOPLE who can repair the damage and return to the path of democratic idealism. Or not….

  7. It seems counter intuitive that we began with Locke and what we seem to have come to is Hobbes.

  8. Vernon is right on…everyone who is not happy with our current politics must NOT ONLY VOTE, but also work ACTIVELY (not just marching or speaking out) to elect servant leaders and get the “great unwashed” middle to vote, especially young people.

  9. Reading is dangerous, especially reading history and philosophy. Doing so might bring one to the conclusion that our current state of affairs is in dire need of restorative change. No wonder the right wing, and more broadly, capitalism, is crushing liberal arts; the former with a universe of “alternative facts” and raging proliferation of outrageous conspiracy theories, and the latter with the commodification of knowledge and education and the bogus claim that the liberal arts have no return on investment worth keeping them around.

  10. Who exactly are we supposed to “tolerate?”

    Maybe Trump and his band of heretics?

    The great experiment started with slavery and capitalism and then had a civil war over both items shortly thereafter. It was never about “We the People”. Women and blacks were excluded. The pressure between urban and rural was already intolerant of each other.

    FDR saved this country from imploding during the first Gilded Age. We are well into the second Gilded Age and we have more plunderers in the WH and Wall Street than FDR-types. We’re too fat and lazy to be tolerating our fellow man. We can’t even tolerate ourselves.

    I doubt Locke could have envisioned the direction we’d be heading, but we do have Orwell. He seemed to have his finger on the pulse and the insight to see where it was heading.


  11. Todd has a good point. There is lots in the world that demands intolerance. The Revolution, Civil, World Wars and civil rights movement all addressed what was and should have been intolerable even to the point of giving up ones life to eradicate it.

    The Declaration of Indepence was perhaps humanity’s best literary effort to draw the line.

    “When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

    “That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.’

    “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”

    Freedom by democracy is the only form of the institution of government that has been found to allow collaborative progress and individuality.

    It is as surely threatened by the current administration as it was by the imperialist aristocracy of Great Britain that was our history that prompted that Declaration of Independence. Our forefathers put in a public declaration that government was absolutely necessary to defend our individual rights and freedoms and that we would enforce that by giving those governed the right to hire and fire those who govern instead of the European tradition of choosing them by blood line.

    We are called on today to enforce those sentiments again but this time by living up to the words not having to invent them as our founders were called on to do.

    Time to fire those who govern today.

  12. “We either overcome our innate tribalism and learn to live amicably together, or this experiment we call America is over.”

    While I believe that our country will eventually overcome the worst of our tribalism I think it may take several more generations before that will be achieved. Currently, the squeaky wheels of the most extreme tribal protectionists continue to get louder and louder as they recognize that their numbers are dwindling. Eventually they will die down to such a small number that their voices will no longer be heard.

  13. Two views of “tolerate” from the dictionary:

    “allow the existence, occurrence, or practice of (something that one does not necessarily like or agree with) without interference.”

    Certainly fits with all things illegal and inhuman. But, I think back to white nationalists marching in Skokie, IL and the civilized discussions as to dealing with this under our 1st Amendment.

    “accept or endure (someone or something unpleasant or disliked) with forbearance.”

    Tough stuff, that “forbearance”. We seem to have lost that – we spend our energy, instead on decrying what bothers us, instead of using that time and energy for the common good.

    JoAnn Green: “Who the hell could possibly envision anything or anyone like a Donald Trump would be handed the reins to freely run amok and rule by chaos and turmoil?”

    Admittedly, the Trump era is an anomaly, but apparently, several million deplorables imagined such a thing. In fact, it is the job of all citizens and the special responsibility of certain elements of government (justice and intelligence, for instance), to imagine such things.

    What we have had here is a failure of imagination…and a refusal to pay attention to, and even a desperate desire to Demonize, those who do have imagination. Worse: in order to dodge that citizen responsibility and evade blame, we cry that we should not have to, we cannot be expected to, imagine such things.

    Just hang onto the myth of automatic exceptionalism and exceptionalism will always be there; is that to be our only strategy?

    “I can’t think about it today; I’ll think about it tomorrow.” Trump is what we get for adopting Scarlet O’hara’s philosophy.

    A nation of Pollyannas too spoiled to put down the teacup and “The Little Book of Optimism” and examine reality is destined sooner or later to be reality’s tea.

  15. “Calling the question critical is an understatement. We either overcome our innate tribalism and learn to live amicably together, or this experiment we call America is over.”

    Hurray for Ms. Kennedy, Nancy et al!

  16. Those who live in fear of competing as no more than equals with everyone hadn’t gotten over diversity yet and now are hit by the prospect of equality too.

    It’s terrifying to them even to the point of arming themselves to pretend entitled is still in force.

  17. Please read the article that George Conway wrote for The Atlantic a few days ago, and you will understand why we must not tolerate a continuation of the Trump presidency. He is demonstrably unfit for office.

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