Unknown John Locke Manuscript Found at a College in Maryland

Written well before the philosopher wrote his seminal treatise on the subject, the text discusses religious tolerance

Locke Manuscript
St. John's College

Inspired by the recent discovery of several unknown books from John Locke’s personal library by Cambridge scholar Felix Waldmann, Craig Walmsley set out to see if there were any unpublished Locke manuscripts hidden away.

Walmsley, a London-based business strategist who wrote his doctoral thesis on the Enlightenment philosopher, started by looking online. Nothing new popped up until he found a 1928 catalogue from a book dealer called Maggs Bros. listing a Locke manuscript entitle “Reasons for Tolerating Papists Equally with others”, c.1689. A work by that title did not appear in any Locke bibliographies.

At first, Walmsley writes, he assumed the manuscript was misattributed, since Locke did not actually defend religious tolerance for Papists, a derogatory term for Roman Catholics. But when he found a hard copy of the Maggs Bros. catalogue at the British Library, it included an image of the first page of the work in Locke’s unmistakable handwriting. He was then able to track the manuscript down to St. John’s College's Greenfield Library in Annapolis, Maryland, which acquired it sometime in the 20th century. Though the library had the manuscript listed in its catalogue, no one at the institution was aware it was an unknown work by Locke.

The new work, which is dated 1667-8, is discussed in The Historical Journal in a paper co-authored by Waldmann. The full text of the manuscript is available online from St. John’s College a press release details.

Every so often an unknown letter or document signed by Locke is found, but identifying a substantive work is extremely rare. The manuscript also reveals something new about Locke. “Locke is supposed to have never tolerated Catholics,” Walmsley tells Alison Flood at The Guardian. “All his published work suggested that he would never even consider this as a possibility. This manuscript shows him taking an initial position that’s startling for him and for thinkers of his time—next to no one suggested this at this point. It shows him to be much more tolerant in certain respects than was ever previously supposed.”

This work was written before “A Letter Concerning Toleration,” one of the essays that led Thomas Jefferson to advocate for the separation of church and state in the U.S. Constitution. Many of the ideas found in the letter are proposed in the newly discovered manuscript. “This manuscript is the origin and catalyst for momentous and foundational ideas of western liberal democracy – which did include Catholics,” Walmsley argues.

Political scientist Cole Simmons says that the manuscript, which is in the form of two lists, shows Locke brainstorming. “Everyone kind of has down that Locke doesn’t and isn’t willing to tolerate Catholics, so the surprising thing is that he entertained tolerating Catholics for some time,” Simmons explains in the press release. “But the reasons for tolerating and not tolerating are very Lockean, in either respect: When he gives reasons for tolerating Catholics, all of the reasons are to the prince’s interest—basically, if [toleration] can benefit the Commonwealth or the prince, you should tolerate Catholics. And the second list is ‘if not tolerating Catholics will benefit the prince or the Commonwealth, you shouldn’t tolerate Catholics.’”

Analysis of the document also answers a long-standing question for Locke scholars about whether the philosopher read the pamphlet by Sir Charles Wolseley called Liberty of Conscience the Magistrates Interest. The content suggests that the manuscript is in part a response to that work.

So how did the manuscript end up in St. John's Greenfield Library? In 1683 some of Locke’s associates were beheaded as part of the foiled Rye House Plot to kill Charles II. The Crown, as Jason Willick at the Wall Street Journal explains, began cracking down on political opponents. Locke, in turn, fled to the Netherlands, handing over his papers to his friend Edward Clarke. It’s believed Clarke's family held onto the works, including the manuscript, until the 1920s, when they auctioning them off. From there, the document was donated to the college. In a time before internet resources and easy access to samples of Locke's handwriting, it’s unlikely anyone suspected its significance.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.