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John Locke: Philosopher of American Liberty
Book Discussion Guide

Welcome to the John Locke: Philosopher of American Liberty Book Discussion Guide from our American History Book Club. We invite you to join in and read this informative and eye-opening book by prolific author Mary-Elaine Swanson with us.

John Locke: Philosopher of American Liberty by Mary-Elaine Swanson

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Our Discussion Guide contains a synopsis of the events in each chapter, several thought provoking questions about the reading, interesting points we would like to point out and some key quotes from the chapter. You can use the Discussion Guide for a formal discussion group or just use it to guide you through the reading on your own. It will help you to get the most important thoughts out of what you are reading.

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You will find the discussion guide for Chapters 1 and 2 on this page, while there are links to the other chapters at the bottom of the page. Note that this reading guide is not yet finished because we are posting as we read!

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John Locke: Philosopher of American Liberty

John Locke

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John Locke
by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1697

John Locke: Philosopher of American Liberty covers the life and writings of John Locke, a 17th century British writer, theologian, politician and philosopher, who was extremely influential to the United States' own Founding Fathers. Most of our website deals with America's Founders, but understanding Locke is a key to understanding their philosophy.

John Locke was so influential upon the Founders that Thomas Jefferson included him in his "trinity of the three greatest men the world had ever produced." Benjamin Franklin said that Locke was one of "the best English authors," for the study of "history, rhetoric, logic, moral and natural philosophy."

Declaration of Independence signer Benjamin Rush said Locke was a "justly celebrated oracle, who first unfolded to us a map of the intellectual world," having "cleared this sublime science of its technical rubbish and rendered it both intelligible and useful;" and James Wilson, a signer of both the Declaration and the US Constitution, wrote that "The doctrine of toleration in matters of religion... has not been long known or acknowledged. For its reception and establishment... the world has been thought to owe much to the inestimable writings of the celebrated Locke."

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You may not be familiar with Locke's name, or you may have heard of him, but know little about him. One thing is for sure though, you are familiar with his ideas, because much of our own government is built upon them. Ideas that shaped the American Revolution and founding period, such as religious tolerance, government by the people, the right to private property, the right to "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness," the separation of church and state, freedom of conscience and the separation of government powers, were largely influenced by John Locke. In fact, much of the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights to the US Constitution read as if they were taken verbatim from Locke's own writings.

Mary-Elaine Swanson was a distinguished historical researcher, biographer, author, educator and speaker. She wrote over 80 biographies of historians, artists and politicians. Her most important work, The Education of James Madison: A Model for Today, won numerous awards and accolades. Mary-Elaine served as a researcher, writer and speaker for numerous organizations such as The Mayflower Institute, the American Christian History Institute, Colonial Williamsburg and the Foundation for American Christian Education. Mary-Elaine was also a co-author of the best-selling book and TV film The American Covenant: The Untold Story. Mary-Elaine passed away in 2011, shortly before the publishing of this book.

You can order John Locke: Philosopher of American Liberty by clicking on the Amazon image to the upper left.

John Locke: Philosopher of American Liberty
Book Discussion Guide

John Locke: Philosopher of American Liberty

Chapter 1 - Puritan Beginnings


  • John Locke is born and brought up in a strictly Puritan home and is taught to revere the Bible.
  • Puritan ideas of equality, freedom of conscience and self-governance create conflict in England with the idea of the Divine Right of Kings to rule however they see fit.
  • When John is a young boy, civil war breaks out between the largely Puritan Parliament and Charles I over the proper form of government, the two choices being consent of the people or monarchy.
  • Locke attends Westminster School in London at the age of fifteen for three years, where he is taught "a deep suspicion of powerful men" and "never to accept their views without careful examination."
  • Locke then attends Christ Church, Oxford at the age of twenty where he learns from the Independent leadership that the government has no business controlling churches or enforcing doctrine. Instead, he is taught that people and churches should have independence of conscience and religious practice.
  • John Locke is first published in 1653 by Dr. John Owens, chaplain to Oliver Cromwell and Dean and Vice Chancellor of Christ Church, Oxford.
  • John Locke becomes a professor at Christ Church and the monarchy is reestablished under Richard II.
  • Locke takes his first trip to the continent as a secretary to Sir Walter Vane.

Discussion Questions

  • You can easily see how the experiences of John Locke's childhood and education led to his belief system of later years. How have your own childhood experiences and education shaped your belief system?
  • In Locke's time, the government forced people to belong to a particular church and to hold particular religious view. It punished non-conformers. How would you feel and respond if the government had the authority to tell you how to believe and how you should practice those beliefs?
  • John Locke was obviously a very religious person. The idea that such a religious person had a profound effect on the Founding Fathers of the United States makes some people uncomfortable and they try to play down the fact. Why would this make some people uncomfortable? How do you feel about the idea yourself?
  • Locke found the teaching method at Oxford, which utilized lectures and argument to be dry and unfruitful. He found personal experience and personal tutors to be much more effective. What are your thoughts about the differences of the two styles?

Things That Caught Our Eye

  • The separation of church and state is often viewed as a protection of the state from the church in modern times. In Locke's time, however, it is easy to see that the idea was intended to protect the church from the government.
  • This book truly shows us how our understanding of American history is incomplete without an understanding of English history.
  • It's very interesting that Locke's first work was in support of monarchical power. It shows how people's views can change over time.
  • It's also interesting that one of the reasons for reestablishing the monarchy was to prevent all of the infighting of various factions seeking to attain power in the Commonwealth.


  • "The Puritan was bound by his very religion to examine every claim made on his civil and spiritual obedience by the powers that be; and to own or reject the claim, as it accorded with the higher duty which he owed to God."
  • "It is atheism and blasphemy and a high contempt in a subject to dispute what a king can do, or to say that a King cannot do this or that." - King James I
  • "Lord King... believed that Englishmen of his day owed 'any true notion of religious liberty, or any general freedom of conscience to the Independents at the time of the Commonwealth' and to Locke who was 'their most illustrious and enlightened disciple.'"
  • "He believed that a return to the rule of a monarch, if balanced and checked by Parliament, was the remedy for England's civil ills. In his unpublished essay on the powers of the civil magistrate, he wrote of his conviction - that were the freedom his opponents contended for 'generally indulged in England, it would prove only a liberty for contention, censure and persecution.'"

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Thanks for reading John Locke: Philosopher of American Liberty with us. If you have not yet ordered the book and would like to, you can order from Amazon here.

John Locke: Philosopher of American Liberty

Chapter 2 - Into the World of Whig Politics


  • Locke becomes friends with Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Earl of Shaftsbury and enters his household as a tutor, medical advisor, political researcher and ghost writer.
  • Locke becomes one of Shaftsbury's closest advisors, advising him on matters of politics, law and religion.
  • Locke writes the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina for the proprietors of the new colony and includes freedom for religious diversity, drawing many persecuted sects to Carolina.
  • Locke begins attending an Arminian church, where he is taught that salvation is by faith in Jesus Christ and not by predestination determined by God.
  • Locke meets and apparently falls in love with Damaris Cudworth, later Lady Masham, who becomes a lifelong and very close friend.
  • Locke publishes several of his major works and begins to suffer exhaustion from overworking for Shaftsbury's family.
  • Shaftsbury falls out of favor with Charles II over disagreements about war with Holland, but Locke remains loyal to Shaftsbury.
  • Shaftsbury tries to prevent the ascension of Prince William of the Netherlands to the British throne, placing himself squarely at odds with Charles II.

Discussion Questions

  • Calvin taught that the "elect" or the "saved," and the "damned" or "unsaved" were chosen or predestined beforehand by God and that the individual had no choice in the matter. Arminius taught that Jesus Christ's sacrifice was made for all people, that salvation was available to all through faith in Jesus Christ and that no one was predestined to heaven or hell, but this is a matter of choice by the faith of the individual. What is your opinion on this matter and why would the conclusion be of importance?
  • Locke believed that moral or good actions were actions that were in line with God's will and that there can be no morality apart from God. Some people today claim that decisions can be moral without even the existence of a God and that human reason provides the knowledge of that which is good. What is your opinion on this matter? If there is no God, who or what determines that which is right from that which is wrong?
  • From the quotes and passages of Locke given in this chapter, it is obvious that he was a Bible believing Christian. Why do you think some modern educators have painted Locke as an unbeliever?

Things That Caught Our Eye

  • The term philosophy can be a bit vague. Basically it has to do with matters of existence, values, the purpose of life, etc. You can see how the matter of where our knowledge of morality comes from, from God or from human reasoning, is a matter of philosophy.
  • It's almost hard for our minds to conceive today of the government dictating the "proper" religious doctrine and enforcing it with the death penalty or other severe punishments, but this was a very real matter in Locke's day and in much of European history. That's why it was so important to the Founding Fathers! If they hadn't emphasized the idea of religious toleration and the separation of church and state, we might very well still be living under such a system today.
  • Another key to understanding English and therefore American history, is the historical division and animosity between Catholicism and Protestantism in Europe.
  • The machinations between King and Parliament are very interesting to watch. Lord Shaftsbury didn't want the rightful heir to the throne, Prince William of the Netherlands, to take the throne because he may be too autocratic. Instead, he tried to engineer the ascension of Charles' illegitimate son because he was young and inexperienced and probably wouldn't provide any threat to Parliament.


  • "(Thomas) Sydenham wrote... that Locke was 'a man in whom, the acuteness of his intellect, in the steadiness of his judgment, and in the simplicity, that is, in the excellence of his manners, I confidently declare to have amongst the men of our own time few equals and no superior.'"
  • "He was to return repeatedly to the necessity of reason and Revelation as always tied together because man's unassisted reason never could provide him with a true moral code through reason alone."
  • "This ordinance stipulated that anyone who denied the doctrine of the Trinity, or the divinity of Christ, or that the Bible was the Word of God, or the resurrection of the body, or a future day of judgment, and who refused to recant when put on trial, would be put to death."
  • "The Holy Scripture is to me, and always will be, the constant guide of my assent; and I will always hearken to it, as containing the infallible truth relating to things of highest concernment."
  • "The country was divided, wrote Green, into two great factions known as 'petitioners' and 'abhorrers,' the germs of the two great parties of 'Whigs and Tories' which have played so prominent a part in our political history from the time of the Exclusion Bill."

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John Locke: Philosopher of American Liberty Book Discussion Guide Chapters

Chapters 1 and 2 Chapters 3 and 4

Thanks for reading John Locke: Philosopher of American Liberty with us. If you have not yet ordered the book and would like to, you can order from Amazon here.

Find other book discussion guides on our American History Book Club page.

Published 1/29/13

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