The Unvarnished Doctrine: Locke, Liberalism, and the American Revolution

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In The Unvarnished Doctrine, Steven M. Dworetz addresses two critical issues in contemporary thinking on the American Revolution—the ideological character of this event, and, more specifically, the relevance of "America’s Philosopher, the Great Mr. Locke," in this experience. Recent interpretations of the American revolution, particularly those of Bailyn and Pocock, have incorporated an understanding of Locke as the moral apologist of unlimited accumulation and the original ideological crusader for the "spirit of capitalism," a view based largely on the work of theorists Leo Strauss and C. B. Macpherson. Drawing on an examination of sermons and tracts of the New England clergy, Dworetz argues that the colonists themselves did not hold this conception of Locke. Moreover, these ministers found an affinity with the principles of Locke’s theistic liberalism and derived a moral justification for revolution from those principles. The connection between Locke and colonial clergy, Dworetz maintains, constitutes a significant, radicalizing force in American revolutionary thought.
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"Provocative and challenging, Dworetz’s argument is calculated to unsettle intellectual complacency and to prompt Americans to a new appreciation of the liberal philosophic foundations of liberal philosophy."—Wilson Carey McWilliams, Rutgers University
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822314707
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 12/28/1989
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 264
  • Product dimensions: 6.02 (w) x 8.96 (h) x 0.76 (d)

Meet the Author

Steven M. Dwortez is Associate Professor of Political Science at Wheaton College, Norton, Massachusetts.

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The Unvarnished Doctrine

Locke, Liberalism, and the American Revolution

By Steven M. Dworetz

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1990 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8224-9


The Historiographie Revolution: The Rise of "Cato" and the Decline of Locke in American Revolutionary Thought

For any political society the interpretation of its founding ideology is of great significance. The more overtly ideological or theocratic regimes take no chances in this regard. They institutionalize the interpretation of founding doctrine in a high political office. In such systems tinkering with that doctrine is serious political business, never to be undertaken without official approval and supervision; and a fundamental reinterpretation, were it to occur at all, would undoubtedly be a politically revolutionary act.

In contrast, regimes rooted in the liberal-democratic tradition do not appoint a "Secretary for Ideology" to guard, monopolize, and enforce the interpretation of the founding doctrine. In part, this is because liberal-democratic ideology itself includes toleration and free speech among its essential principles and thus precludes the cultivation and enforcement of ideological or religious purity by the state. In these systems, of which the United States is one, the founding doctrine is always, in principle, open to critical review by citizens. Moreover, a reinterpretation need not be the work of political revolutionaries; scholars could do it. But in these matters, even a scholarly revolution can have far-reaching political consequences.

After all, a society's understanding of its founding doctrine is an integral part of its self-consciousness and the ultimate source of its sense of purpose and normative vision. The ideology of the founding furnishes the standards by which citizens evaluate contemporary events, practices, and arrangements. The dominant understanding of the founding doctrine thus reveals something of the political society's moral condition. It also contains prescriptive implications for public policy and constitutes the essential source of historical legitimacy for any general political program.

The contenders in a political-ideological struggle, for example, often seek legitimacy for their agendas in the founding ideology and therefore, consciously or not, selectively interpret that ideology, or selectively appropriate from interpretations developed by others, to accommodate their specific partisan needs. So, while relatively "disinterested" or apolitical scholars may initiate changes in a society's understanding of its founding doctrine, political leaders, parties, and movements will make use of their work—perhaps in ways that the scholars themselves fail to anticipate.

For these reasons a revolution in the historical understanding of the ideology of the founding is very serious—even, and perhaps especially, when it occurs in a society with a liberal-democratic political tradition which is conducive to such a national soul-searching and self-reevaluation. For example, there could be a great deal more at stake than the egos of dueling antiquarians if the reinterpretation of the American founding doctrine calls into question the historical significance of the first principles of liberal-democratic ideology itself. Suppose the reinterpretes exclude from the ideology of the American Revolution, or radically demote therein, the one tradition of political thought that inherently authorizes religious toleration, constitutional politics (understood as lawful, limited government), and popular revolution against actual or intended tyranny? In effect, the new interpretation would undermine the historical legitimacy of toleration, constitutional politics, and popular revolution in the American context. And if that new interpretation were to become the prevailing view, it would permit the critics of those uniquely liberal political principles to label them, and those who believe in them, as "un-American."

This turn of events could become life-threatening if the reinterpretation "altogether replaces" liberalism with a "classical republican" political tradition. Civic virtue, the preeminent value in republican ideology, can be incompatible with personal freedom, which only the banished liberalism seems to defend by instinct rather than merely for convenience. Militarism, imposed social and religious conformity, and even American slavery are known to have been justified in the language of civic republicanism. Indeed, although this republican tradition is presumed to be rooted in the ideals of the ancient polis, the acknowledged primary textual source of American republicanism too often reads (as we shall see) like a prospectus for the Leviathan.

In any case, with the substitution of republicanism for liberalism in the founding ideology, not only would the one doctrine that innately authorizes constitutional politics and personal freedom be purged from the founding, but its place would be filled by a doctrine that does not inherently preclude, and may in part be inclined toward, the antithesis of constitutional politics and personal freedom, that is, to use the generic term employed by the American Revolutionists, tyranny. And that inclination could become the dominant tendency precisely in the absence of liberal mediation.

In American historiography there has indeed been a fundamental reinterpretation of the founding doctrine—specifically, of the ideology and political thought of the American Revolution—and this scholarly achievement has some serious political implications. Inadvertently, it seems, scholars have cut the historical grounds of legitimacy out from under the defense of constitutional politics by denying that liberalism was an essential ideological component of the founding doctrine; and they have escalated the danger by reinterpreting Revolutionary thought primarily, or even exclusively, in terms of that republican tradition (which is referred to in the literature as classical republicanism, civic republicanism, civic humanism, "country" ideology, the libertarian creed, the commonwealth tradition, etc.). Consider briefly how this historiographic revolution in the study of American Revolutionary thought has transformed our understanding of that chapter of the founding doctrine.

Liberalism once was deemed by scholarly consensus to have held undisputed sway over the political thought of the American Revolution, and historians proclaimed "the Great Mr. Locke, America's Philosopher," as the Revolution's "guide and prophet." From this perspective John Locke's Two Treatises of Government looked like "the textbook of the American Revolution" and the source "from which Americans drew the 'principles of 1776.'" Locke's political thought had thoroughly "dominated the political philosophy of the American Revolution," the totality of which could therefore be summarized simply as "an exegesis upon Locke." A few years later Louis Hartz, in his classic study, The Liberal Tradition in America, extended Lockean intellectual dominion beyond the Revolutionary period, to the whole of American political thought and behavior. With Hartz (and to Hartz's apparent dismay) the triumph of "Lockean liberalism" was complete.

By the late 1960s, however, a new consensus had begun to emerge. Scholars now criticized the interpretation of Revolutionary thought that comprehended Loche et praeterea nihil They initiated an "essential historical shift away from Locke" and began to develop a new interpretative paradigm to replace what I shall call the Locke model of interpretation.

To these iconoclastic historians Locke appeared as merely "a negligible influence upon American political thought before 1776." Only "in few cases," wrote John Dunn, in an influential essay, could the Revolution "possibly have been thought to have been in any sense about the Two Treatises of Government of John Locke." This demotion of Locke was then taken to the extreme by scholars who questioned not only the extent but also the nature of the relationship between his thought and the ideology of the American Revolution. J. G. A. Pocock, a pioneer in the study of the history of political thought and one of the founders of the revisionist movement, led the way by suggesting that we count Locke among the adversaries of Revolutionary political thought as this began to take shape within the new interpretative paradigm that Pocock himself was helping to fashion. From this soonto-be sovereign historiographical perspective, the principles of liberalism appeared to be inconsistent with the "principles of 1776."

As we can see, the interpretation of American Revolutionary thought has shifted dramatically with respect to Lockean-liberal thought. Revisionist historiography has converted the intellectual "guide and prophet" of the Revolution into the Revolution's ideological enemy. Locke et praeterea nihil has become omnia praeter Lockern, as a new interpretative paradigm—pioneered by Pocock and Bernard Bailyn, often deemed hostile to liberalism, and referred to as the "republican synthesis" or the "republican hypothesis"—has completely replaced the Locke model of interpretation in the study of the founding ideology. Scholars now credit the republican tradition with having furnished the language, the normative concerns, and the inspirational fire of Revolutionary ideology and political thought.

The historiographic radicalism of the republican revision should be carefully considered. It represents a profound and, indeed, unprecedented realignment in the history of political thought. I am not aware of any development in the study of the history of political thought that can match the decline of Lockean theory, and of liberalism in general, and the corresponding rise of civic republicanism in the historiography of the American Revolution. With astonishing speed and thoroughness, scholars have abandoned one interpretation of the founding doctrine in favor of another, apparently antithetical, understanding of Revolutionary ideology.

It is not too difficult to see why, the radical nature and far-reaching significance of the historiographic revolution notwithstanding, the republican synthesis encountered so little resistance in its rapid ascent to the Kuhnian summit. It promised a historical alternative to Hartz's seemingly inescapable Lockean paradigm. Above all, it proclaimed that the Revolutionists fought for virtue's sake and not for "commerce," thus casting a very appealing light upon the motivations of the Founding Fathers. Nevertheless, I feel we have been too hasty and uncritical in accepting both the historical and the interpretative claims of this new account of Revolutionary thought. We should pause to consider what has happened to our understanding of the founding doctrine, how and why it has happened, and what it might mean for American politics now and in the future.

The place to begin is the historiographic revolution itself. That is the subject of this book: a critical examination of the republican revision and a reassessment of the role of Lockean-liberal ideas in the American Revolution. The book is based on historical research, that is on the writings from the Revolutionary period; and it approaches those writings from the interpretative perspective of political theory, sensitive to the content of the classic texts. It respects the republican revision's many positive contributions to the study of Revolutionary thought (including the debunking of the monolithic Locke model of interpretation). But it criticizes the historical and theoretical distortions of revisionist scholarship and worries about the implications these distortions hold for liberal-constitutionalist politics in America.

The stakes are high, for both citizens and scholars. The historiographic revolution has changed America's historical self-understanding and thus deeply affects the republic as a whole and all of its citizens. On another level it represents a major revision in the history of political thought and thus falls within the jurisdiction of the ivory tower. But as a historical account of Revolutionary doctrine, and with regard to the interpretation of Lockean and republican political theory, revisionist historiography is seriously flawed.

On the one hand, the revision either denies the historical significance of Locke's liberalism or casts it in an anti-Revolutionary light, while proclaiming the decisive importance of republican sources in the formation of American Revolutionary thought. But it will be shown that in relation to the most crucial issues in the Anglo-American dispute (for instance, representation, taxation, consent, religious liberty, the limits of civil authority per se, the right and duty of revolution, and the ultimate sovereignty of the people), the Revolutionists' writings do not support either of these claims. The historical-textual evidence testifies consistently and often explicitly in the language of "Locke on Government." On the other hand, the republican revision rests on specific, unexamined interpretations both of Lockean thought and of the political thought that, the revisionists say, inspired and shaped the development of American republicanism. Yet these interpretations either fail the test of close textual analysis or are historically inappropriate for the period under investigation.

This point about the interpretation of political theory is extremely important. What the republican revision lacks in its most important formative works is, if you will, the interpretative discipline of political theory, born of an intimate acquaintance with the classic texts. As recently noted by Thomas Pangle: "In attempting to assess the merits of this contemporary infatuation with 'classical republicanism,' one cannot avoid being struck by the ignorance its proponents display as regards the original texts of the 'classical republican' philosophers to which they constantly refer. The contemporary scholars of early American history appear to know these texts only casually, or on the basis of secondhand reports." If the goal is to estimate the relative significance of different theoretical traditions in a specific historical context, and to determine the nature of their impact within that context, then a clear, and clearly defined, understanding of those traditions, and of their parent texts, is absolutely essential. It should be obvious that this kind of historical research therefore requires the consistent application of some rigorous standards of interpretation.

For example, the search for Locke in American Revolutionary thought should be informed by an understanding of Lockean thought that satisfies two criteria of interpretation. First, the interpretation must be textually sound, or available in Locke's texts; that is, it should be an interpretation that can be legitimately carved out of the Lockean corpus. Second, in developing or choosing a textually sound interpretation of Lockean thought (for there could be more than one textually available Locke), we should try to be sensitive to how Lockean thought most likely would have been interpreted by the contemporaries of the period under investigation. The interpretation, then, must also be appropriate for the Revolution's historical context; that is, it should be an interpretation that most likely would have been carved out of Locke's texts by eighteenth-century American readers.

So far, the study of American Revolutionary thought has not satisfied both of these criteria of interpretation with respect to Lockean thought. The seminal works of the historiographic revolution are not adequately informed by the interpretative discipline of political theory thus understood. This book seeks to fill that lacuna in the reinterpretation of the founding doctrine by introducing these elements of political theory into a historical study of Revolutionary thought. A preview of some of the arguments made later in the book provides an indication of what is at stake.

First, consider Catos Letters. We have heard a great deal about this remarkable text, coauthored by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon in their poignant struggle to retard the rise of modern British politics in the Age of Walpole. In republican historiography "Cato" is reputed to have been "of the utmost importance in the creation of American republicanism." This may be so. But what does that tell us about American republicanism?

The fact is, the revisionists have failed to deliver a credible interpretation of Cato's political thought, leaving us uninformed about some of the sinister possibilities in American republicanism. As the major source of American republicanism (and the principal alternative to Locke), Cato is presumed to have conveyed to the American colonists the civic humanist ideals of citizenship, participation, and virtue (thereby enabling them to resist the so-called Lockean-liberal temptations of unbridled self-interest and capital accumulation). Analysis, however, raises the suspicion that Cato would have found the Leviathan more congenial than the polis. And who is to say that it wasn't the Hobbesian elements in Cato's republicanism that appealed, perhaps intuitively, to the Revolutionists who knew his argument? Would they, indeed, have sought refuge under the Sovereign were it not for their overriding Lockean-liberal commitments to constitutional politics?


Excerpted from The Unvarnished Doctrine by Steven M. Dworetz. Copyright © 1990 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface to the Paperback Edition
1 The Historiographic Revolution: The Rise of "Cato" and the Decline of Locke in American Revolutionary Thought 3
2 A Discourse on Method 39
3 The Lockean Response to British "Innovations" 65
4 Historiography and the Interpretation of Political Theory 97
5 Theistic Liberalism in the Teaching of the New England Clergy 135
6 History, Myth, and the Secular Salvation of American Liberalism 184
Notes 193
Index 241
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