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Locke against democracy: consent, representation and suffrage in the Two Treatises

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Abstract:

Interpretation of the classics in political theory seems to go in waves. For a while we had John Locke, the bourgeois thinker. Now we seem to be in a Locke-as-radical-democrat phase. Locke-the-bourgeois had problems of its own, but a radically democratic Locke -- not just the old Locke as liberal democrat but Locke as quasi-Leveller -- strains the interpretative imagination more than most; yet in recent years, several different kinds of argument have been advanced in support of it, both textual and contextual.

The most effective argument has proceeded by situating Locke in the context of radical Whig politics in the 1670s and '80s, the struggles over religious toleration and the royal succession, in particular the ‘Exclusion Crisis’ of 1679-81. This contextual argument has been accompanied by various textual interpretations having to do with Locke's conceptions of property, consent, representation, the right of revolution and natural law. Among other things, these are supposed to show that while Locke had nothing explicit to say about the extent of the franchise, the weight of evidence suggests that he would have supported a fairly wide franchise, perhaps even something like the (almost) manhood suffrage advocated by the Levellers (at least according to some, and probably the most convincing, interpretations of their ideas). Most recently, in these pages, Martin Hughes, building on the work of James Tully and Richard Ashcraft in particular, has pushed the argument as far as it can probably go. His argument on taxation and suffrage has provided a motivation here for a wider exploration of Locke's views on representation, consent and the franchise.

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: York University, Toronto.

Publication date: April 1, 1992

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