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Dating Locke's Second Treatise

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There is as yet no general agreement about exactly when Locke's Second Treatise of Government was written. Primarily as a result of Peter Laslett's arguments, the old assumption that it was written after the Revolution of 1688 has been abandoned, and it is almost universally agreed that both of the Two Treatises were written (apart from a small number of additions made in 1689) in the period between Locke's return to England from France at the end of April 1679 and his departure for Holland in August 1683.

An earliest possible date for the First Treatise can be established without difficulty. It cannot have been started before Filmer's Patriarcha was published in the winter of 1679-80, and probably not before Locke bought his own copy on 22 January 1680. Theories about the composition of the Second Treatise may therefore be divided into two classes: those which suppose, with Laslett, that it was begun in 1679, before Patriarcha was published, and therefore before Locke could have formed any intention of writing the First Treatise; and those which hold that it was not started until Locke had written at least the main part of the First. The second is of course the traditional view, and one that was taken for granted before Laslett's work; its most notable defender has been Richard Ashcraft, who has accepted Laslett's demolition of the 1689 dating, but has diverged from him in ascribing the Second Treatise to the period after the dissolution of the Oxford Parliament in March 1681. Ashcraft's criticisms of Laslett have been accepted by several recent writers, notably David Wootton, Mark Goldie and John Marshall, but they themselves have not agreed with each other or with Ashcraft in their positive claims. The whole question is therefore worth examining again.
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Keywords: Laslett; Locke; Richard Ashcraft; Second Treatise of Government; Two Treatises

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: King's College, London.

Publication date: March 1, 1995

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