Robert Emmet’s copy of John Locke’s; Two treatises of government

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 3 (Autumn 2003), Robert Emmet, Volume 11

Robert Emmet entered Trinity College, Dublin, aged fifteen, in October 1793. One of the first books he read that year was John Locke’s Two treatises of government, a 1728 (‘5th’) edition, published by A. Betterworth, J. Pemberton and E. Symon of London. This copy was later bequeathed to Thomas Addis Emmet, Robert’s grandnephew, and the grandson of Robert’s elder brother, also Thomas Addis Emmet. Thomas Addis Emmet senior played a leading role in the national executive of the United Irishmen in the 1790s, and ended his career as a political exile and as a distinguished lawyer at the New York bar. His grandson, a medical doctor, also enjoyed a distinguished career in the United States. A Fellow of the American College of Surgeons, Emmet junior was active in Irish-American life and wrote a number of books, including The Emmet family (1898), Ireland under English rule (1903), Incidents in my life (1911) and Memoir of Thomas Addis and Robert Emmet (1915). Unlike his Church of Ireland ancestors, Emmet junior was Catholic—a Papal Knight of the Order of St Gregory and recipient of the Laetae Medal, awarded annually by the University of Notre Dame to honour distinguished American Catholics. On 18 April 1917, when he was 89 years old, Thomas Addis Emmet deposited his treasured possession, Robert Emmet’s copy of John Locke’s Two treatises of government, at Notre Dame.

The problematic relationship between political ideas and political practice

This copy of the Two treatises, which is closely annotated in Emmet’s own hand, prompts a number of questions, general and specific, about the problematic relationship between political ideas and political practice. Tracing the ‘ideological origins’ of political action is rarely a simple task, whilst for historians of a Namierite stamp it is a task scarcely worth doing. Lewis Namier dismissed the political ideas (or principles) invoked by eighteenth-century politicians as rhetorical posturing, designed to disguise, dignify or rationalise after the event the self-interested pursuit of power and office. If by the middle decades of the last century Namier had almost completely succeeded, as A.J.P. Taylor put it, in ‘taking the mind out of history’, since then the work of scholars such as Quentin Skinner, John Pocock and Bernard Bailyn on early modern republicanism has succeeded in putting the mind back in.
Nowadays the impact of political ideas is less likely to be dismissed, yet scepticism remains. For example, several Irish historians continue to deploy concepts such as ‘literary nationalism’, ‘verbal republicanism’ and ‘rhetoric’ in ways that imply word-worlds detached from and often deliberately cloaking ‘reality’. From that perspective politics are moved not by ideas but by self-interest, ambition, personal disappointments, recreational needs, the parish pump, or even sexual frustration.
The problem with ideological interpretations of political behaviour is that it is almost impossible to demonstrate the true springs of human motivation. How can we ever be certain that a politician meant what he said, or said what he meant? The short answer is that we can never know for sure. But if a politician acts on what he says or writes, particularly if he does so at some cost or risk to his political career, then it is reasonable to assume that his actions were principled. Edmund Burke’s championing of Irish Catholics in a political culture permeated by anti-popery was unlikely to win him many friends in the British parliament. (Namier, of course, was unimpressed. In his view, Burke’s dense and sophisticated contributions to political discourse were mere ‘cant’.)

Locke’s influence overstated?

The influence of Lockean theories on eighteenth-century British reformers and, even more so, on the American colonists stands as a classic and contested case study of the ideas-into-action dynamic. The Lockean assumptions of the ‘founding fathers’ of the American republic, together with the Lockean philosophical underpinnings of the American constitution, once enjoyed the status not only of scholarly orthodoxy but also of ‘national myth’. In 1978, however, in his brilliant exposition of the intellectual sources of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, Inventing America, Gary Willis argued that ‘there is no indication Jefferson read the Second Treatise carefully or with profit’; and again, that there is ‘no reason to keep assuming that a Lockean orthodoxy explains the early formation of Jefferson’s political thought’. Parallel re-evaluations of the diffusion and impact of the Two treatises in post-revolution Britain have led to parallel conclusions: Locke’s influence on subsequent generations has been overstated (although it revived somewhat in the later eighteenth century).
Patrick Kelly’s study of the uses of Locke in eighteenth-century Irish political discourse confirms the findings of British and American historians. Locke’s political works were more often cited in the second half than in the first half of the century, and it is the second ‘treatise’, The essay concerning the true original extent and end of civil government, not the first, which attracted attention and furnished arguments. As we shall see, Emmet’s copy of Locke in turn underlines Patrick Kelly’s findings. But in which ‘Locke’ did interest revive? The domesticated ‘Locke’, tamed and appropriated by the junta Whigs to buttress the status quo, based on a safe, uncritical reading of the never-to-be-improved-upon Glorious Revolution, or the subversive ‘Locke’, whose first principles—the right to resist tyranny and the contract theory of government—were as capable of challenging the status quo in the late eighteenth as in the late seventeenth century?
Radicals laid claim to the mantle of Locke but they could not monopolise interpretation of the texts. The United Irishman Revd William Steele Dickson listed Locke as one of the authors who shaped his political outlook. In the speech which he prepared, but did not in the end deliver, as a defence at his trial in 1794, Dickson’s fellow United Irishman Dr William Drennan stated: ‘my prime authority in politics was Locke’s Essay on Government’. Two years earlier the radical Northern Star newspaper had mischievously poked fun at the respectable ‘Locke’ of the conservatives by reprinting what it termed ‘Seditious Extracts’ from his Essay on human understanding. Revd Thomas Elrington, a Fellow of Trinity College, was so alarmed by the uses to which the philosopher had been put that he brought out an edition of the Essay on civil government, complete with his own notes alerting the students required to read it to the difference ‘between the system of Locke and the theories of the modern democrats’.

Undergraduate doodles

The first thing to note about Emmet’s copy is that it reinforces Patrick Kelly’s observation that the late eighteenth century’s Locke was essentially the Locke of the second ‘treatise’, The essay on civil government. Whereas the Essay is closely annotated, the first Treatise, a refutation of the theories of Sir Robert Filmer, is simply ignored. It cannot be assumed that Emmet even read it. Secondly, unlike many present-day undergraduates who deface the first twenty or so pages of a book before terminal boredom or exhaustion inevitably sets in, the young Emmet read the Essay through. He read it carefully, and perhaps, even, with profit. The marginalia consist of paragraphs from the text, underlinings, queries and, most interestingly, glosses, which are occasionally cross-referenced. Before examining the substance of these commentaries the intelligence that lay behind them should be registered. Here is early evidence of the quality of mind which, together with force of character, so struck so many of Emmet’s contemporaries, including those who opposed his doctrines. These personal attributes help explain how such a young man found himself at the head of a rebellion in 1803.
In general Emmet’s annotations reveal a fairly conventional ‘real’ Whig. Thus he writes: ‘Absolute monarchy inconsistent with civil law’ (p.201); ‘Absolute monarchy puts men in a worse state than a state of nature’ (p.205); ‘Consent necessary to constitute a lawful government’ (p.206); ‘The people have the power to remove the legislature’ (p.243); and ‘The people have the power to decide as to the extent of Prerogative’ (p.256). Lockean principles were potentially, but not axiomatically, subversive of established order. They can be interpreted as endorsing popular sovereignty and armed resistance: but what, on the other hand, did Locke mean by ‘the people’? Elrington, for one, argued that he meant the propertied. There can be little doubt, however, that Emmet entertained a broader definition. As a ‘modern democrat’ he had begun to push at the limits of traditional whiggery, stretching Locke in the process.
The primary concerns of eighteenth-century whiggery were constitutional and political, above all the preservation of liberty, Protestantism and property. The inalienability of property rights was understood not only as the foundation of liberty but in a sense as its object. Yet ‘property’, like ‘the people’, requires definition, and in the Essay on civil government Locke elaborated a ‘labour theory of value’, a theory to which Emmet paid particular attention. According to Locke:

Tho’ the earth and all inferior creatures be common to all men . . . Every man has a property in his own person: this nobody has a right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he had mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common [Emmet’s underlining] state nature hath placed it in, it hath by his labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men. For this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and a good left in common to others.

Emmet’s commentary on this passage is suggestive (pp160–1):
It can hardly be said that mixing labour which is our right, with something else which is not our right, until the right of thus mixing them be previously determined[.] [I]f a man has not a right to anything in a state of nature in order to make it his own—It w[ould] have been simple to have made the right of property our own welfare—the boundary of—that right the welfare of others a[nd] the qualification necessary for the exertion of that right of personal labour.

A few pages later he notes: ‘the foundation of the right of labour is self-preservation, the foundation of the right of accumulation is my own welfare, the boundary of that right is objects conducing most to the (greater) welfare of others than to mine’ (pp166–7).

Classic profile of a late eighteenth-century bourgeois revolutionary

I have argued elsewhere that the ideologies of the United Irishmen—or more precisely of some United Irishmen—had a social-radical dimension that should not be dismissed because it was unsystematic, poorly thought-out and imperfectly articulated—pre-socialist, perhaps, rather than proto-socialist. Robert Emmet never advocated a redistribution of property along egalitarian lines, or state ownership of all property, but neither, in his view, were property rights inalienable; rather, those rights were subordinate to the common good of the whole society. The first decree of his ‘Provisional Government’ stated that ‘tithes are forever abolished, and church lands are the property of the nation’—a transfer that would later, presumably, be ratified by the ‘sovereign authority [of] the people’ duly invoked in the twenty-seventh decree. Too much should not be read into this. Tithes were irredeemably unpopular and the pledge to abolish them ‘forever’ was calculated to maximise popular support for the would-be republic. Emmet himself fits the classic profile of a late eighteenth-century bourgeois revolutionary, but his constituency was the sans culottes world of Dublin artisans. At his trial the prosecutor witheringly catalogued the occupations of Emmet’s co-conspirators: a baker, ‘an eminent bricklayer’, ‘clerks, bankrupts and mechanics’. The judge, Lord Norbury, likewise ridiculed the ‘hostlers, bakers, butchers, and such persons . . .’ invited to council the provisional government. The evidence of young Emmet’s reflections on Locke, popular sovereignty and the nature of property suggests that he did not find this rough company to be as disreputable as did his accusers.

Jim Smyth is Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.

Further reading:

R. Ashcraft, Revolutionary politics and Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (Princeton, 1986).

J. Dunn, ‘The politics of Locke in England and America in the eighteenth century’, in J.W. Yolton (ed.), John Locke: problems and perspectives (Cambridge, 1969).

P.H. Kelly, ‘Perceptions of Locke in eighteenth-century Ireland’, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 89C (1989).


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