History of the Early Modern Family according to John Locke.

A Pamphlet in Favour of John Locke’s ‘Natural Rights Family’ Model

Submitted by Sienna Lee-Coughlin on March 31, 2017 for HIS 104: Ten Days that Shook the World , Ryerson University.

My dear readers, it has come to my attention that a recently published treatise by the esteemed John Locke holds much that is in the interest of us neglected women. Amidst the chaos of the Glorious Revolution that established our present, good and true King William III, Locke offered his Two Treatises of Government (1689) to justify the necessary removal of the corrupt James II.[1] In his first treatise, Locke attacks the previously espoused doctrine of divine and absolute monarchy and patriarchy, and in the second treatise, which I will focus on, he proceeds to lay out a framework for civil society under the law of nature and social contract, in which liberty can replace tyranny.[2] It is this model of egalitarian society, and the model of the family which it includes, that our poor feminine hearts are apt to desire. I say, let the Protestant winds—which saved us from both the fearful Armada in 1588 and the Stuart tyrant exactly one hundred years later—blow away the patriarchal, absolutist household hierarchy that has rendered us ladies into slaves, and our children nearly less then. Now gentlemen, I do acknowledge that the maintenance of established patrimonies may appear necessary to the survival of social and political stability, especially since the family unit has remained the basic cell of Christian society for nearly a thousand years now. [3] And there is no doubt that we dearly need peace, after a century of civil strife. However, as I will demonstrate in this modest pamphlet, reforming the family is not peripheral to the ambition of liberal politics, but central to it.[4] Indeed, Locke himself, having come of age during the post-Civil War’s Interregnum years, is opposed to the passions of our past and instead is a proponent of reasonableness, simplification, and civility.[5] It is precisely because the family holds such importance in the maintenance of civil society that it must be the breeding ground for future liberty-loving subjects.[6]  Obliging readers, I insist that the ideology of patriarchalism is a false model for both state and home, and an egalitarian family structure, in which parental authority is conditional and temporary, is perfectly reasonable in our civil society. Indeed, Locke’s Treatise and the values he endorses can help relieve the plight of us wretched women, by reinstating our right as equal partners in the execution of parental, not paternal, authority.

Understanding the argument made by proponents of patriarchalism is integral to appreciating Locke’s complex attack on this devastating political ideology. The dramatic events of our last century, including both the Civil War and Glorious Revolution, have profoundly shaken our society, state, and church.[7] These rebellions challenged the theories of divine right monarchy and patriarchalism, and men of our age have lamented the disastrous effect this has had in turning society upside down on the streets and under their roofs.[8] However, we must pause to ask whether this is an exaggerated reaction. How often has the reality of family life  truly matched the ideal domestic monarchy, save in the “best-regulated” households?[9] Indeed, many a husband has failed to tame his wife, and has gone so far as to stand in awe of the strength of his frail helpmeet.[10] Political figures like Lord Clarendon mourned the weakening of parental authority after the Civil War, household manuals such as Richard Mocket’s God and the King (1615) defended patriarchy in the house and absolutism in the state, and Sir Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha (1680) defended the divine monarchist cause in the Exclusion Crisis of 1679-81.[11] However, as new understandings of human nature and social contract theory have emerged as of late, good and noble Whigs like Algernon Sidney, James Tyrrel, and our own dear Locke have grounded political power in acts of consent made by free-born and equal individuals.[12] These liberals who oppose regal absolutism have argued for the foundation of regency under “social contract” with the people, wherein the power to rule comes with the obligation to do so with the good of the governed in mind, at the risk of losing this right to authority if the bond should be broken.[13]

I will dwell a moment further on Filmer’s Patriarcha, for it is his defence of divine right patriarchalism that Locke’s treatise explicitly attacks. Locke aptly realized that in order to discredit absolute monarchy in the state, he must destroy the link that absolutists made between the divine right of the monarch and the father.[14] Filmer, and his fellow absolutists, argued that the analogy of the family as a microcosm of the state was what justified absolutism in the government, and this was used as part of a campaign to win control of Parliament and save the Catholic James Stuart from being removed from the line of royal inheritance.[15] Instead, Locke insists that “these two powers, political and paternal, are so perfectly distinct and separate” that this comparison simply cannot stand.[16] He argues that God’s commandment to honour us parents cannot be applied, as it has been for so long, to secular rulers.[17] Locke discredits patriarchal kingship in order to promote his ideal liberalism, which aims to reform the family to prevent fathers from acting like kings and to prohibit kings from acting like fathers.[18]

Some readers of Locke’s treatise have had trouble reconciling his claim that all men are born equal, while maintaining that children must remain under the authority of their parents, but it does in fact remain consistent with his theory of natural rights law.[19] The family has been and remains a strong instrument for the social control of children.[20] Alas, this system has often been unfair to our poor young ones, and as a mother I am more than sympathetic to their predicament. We often hear that children have been exposed, sold, or severely punished if they defy the “good” of the family.[21] Nevertheless, Locke argues that parental authority over children is not only necessary but beneficial for their own sake. Locke admits: “though I have said above (Chap. II) that all men are by nature equal…children, I confess, are not born in this state of equality, though they are born to it.”[22] Locke proceeds to clarify that the power parents have over their children is merely a utilitarian by-product of their duty to nourish and care for them until they are mature enough to care for themselves.[23] He further elaborates on the nature of this authority, explaining that it is conditional and temporary, and parental jurisdiction will lapse once children grow up and become adults equal to their parents.[24] This is a very child-centred approach, and I find my maternal instincts cannot help but be persuaded.[25] However, I do not ask you, dear readers, to be bought simply by my emotions. Rather, allow me to demonstrate the logic behind this familial model, and situate it within Locke’s prevailing natural rights theory.

Locke’s political theory maintains that it is for the good of the governed that fair and legitimate rule over equals must exist.[26] He defines “liberty” as being “free from restraint and violence from others” which cannot be without the help of law.[27] Locke contends that the purpose of political society is “to secure [men] in the Possession and the Use of their Properties,” and it is to this end that men must establish a trustworthy government with the “power to make Laws for the regulating of Property between the Subjects one amongst another.”[28] The importance of protecting one’s personal property in Locke’s political theory justifies his claim that the power relations between state and subject are not the same as between parent and child. The parent’s role is not to protect the child’s property, but rather to raise children to be competent property-managers once they come of age; indeed, a child whose property-ownership is protected would not be effectively taught to manage it on his own, rendering this tactic counter-productive.[29] Instead, the parent’s role is to nurture and protect their offspring while they are in the “imperfect state of childhood,” Locke insists.[30] The world is “peopled” with infants who are born “weak and helpless” and lack developed reason.[31] It is the parental duty to “supply the defects” of children, because “to turn him loose in an unrestrained liberty before he has reason to guide him is not the allowing him the privilege of his nature to be free,” but to abandon him to a wretched state.[32] Thus Locke insists that there is no place for absolute arbitrary dominion in the household, but parents must have a temporary command over their children that is for their own good.[33]

With this parental right come parental duties. According to Locke, parents must feed and nourish their young, and all girls and boys must be taught “good manners,” vice and virtue, the skills of a profession if needed, be aided in the choice of an appropriate spouse, and most importantly, be properly educated from birth.[34] In fact, it is the parental duty of education that renders children obliged to obey us in return.[35] Once this period of education lapses, and children reach maturity, this temporary obedience is replaced by a permanent respect. Locke clearly states that the temporary rule of the parents “terminates with the minority of the child” but the “honour due from a child places in the parents a perpetual right to respect, reverence, support, and compliance.”[36] The respect that we are owed by our children has long been encouraged by both scripture and secular literature, and for good reason, as in our old age we poor frail elderly parents are often in need of our sons and daughters.[37] The Lockean family thus rests on mutual duties between parent and child, and it is for this reason that it stands so consistently within his theories of liberalism and natural rights law.[38]

One might worry that this egalitarian mutually-beneficial model is an ideal that will likely not prevail in our often dismal and corrupt reality. For after all, are we not all prone to sin? However, Locke holds that “God has woven into the principles of human nature such a tenderness for [our] offspring that there is little fear that parents should use their power with too much rigor.”[39] He entreats parents to chastise their children “with tenderness and affection” and keep them “under no severer discipline than what was absolutely best for them.”[40] In reality, we have seen that the protection offered to children against parental violence has not been satisfactory in our time nor before.[41] However, this might not be so far from the possible now as it would have been before the great thinkers several centuries ago, during the great rebirth of culture, re-inspired our faith in the goodness of human nature.[42] Our forefathers in the Dark Ages may have turned to the rod in fear of spoiling their un-disciplined children, but recent and important authors such as Roger Ascham, Dorothy Leigh, and the Marquis of Halifax have encouraged the protection of innocence rather than the correction of sin.[43] We can now feel secure in a classical middle-way approach of maintaining our authority while indulging in flexibility when we can afford it.[44]

Now, allow me to end my pamphlet with a reflection on how this will help our fledgling female cause. I must begin this section by acknowledging that many an esteemed “lover of our sex” has critiqued Locke’s treatise for not explicitly advocating for female participation in political society and for maintaining that some degree of husbandly authority is sometimes necessary.[45] It is true that while he begins his chapter on family politics by arguing for “parental” rather than “paternal” authority, he later abandons his consistency with this terminology and falls to using the patriarchal “paternal” that he first claimed to detest.[46] Indeed, the authoress Mary Astell herself wittily challenged Locke in her Some Reflections Upon Marriage (1700): “If all Men are born free, how is it that all Women are born slaves? As they must be if the being subjected to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary Will of Man, be the perfect Condition of Slavery?”[47] It does indeed appear hypocritical that Locke rejects absolute authority in the state while allowing it to remain in the family, for he allows that since husband and wife should sometimes disagree, the ultimate rule should fall to the “man’s share, as the abler and the stronger.”[48] We must pause to reflect on our female obligation to submit to our husbands as unto the Lord.[49] It is a truth universally acknowledged, in both common law and society, that during marriage our foremost duty is obedience and our goods and person become subject to his rule.[50] Thus we must not maintain too high an expectation of Locke’s work, for its immediate purpose was political, specifically to combat the absolute monarchist cause. For this reason, he remained cautious in explicitly granting us women too much freedom, for fear of losing support from the socially conservative Whigs.[51] Such a radical suggestion could be disastrous in our society, where all men take for granted that they be treated as absolute monarchs within their homes.[52] Given this grave reality, the subtle lift that Locke’s work does provide us women may after all offer our old “querelle des femmes” some—albeit conservative—ammunition.[53]

In order to discredit Filmer’s theory of patriarchalism, which rested on Biblical references, Locke needed to engage in an exercise of scriptural exegesis himself. It was out of this experiment that he reinstated us mothers to the Fifth Commandment, which had for so long been cut short to only “honour thy father.”[54] Locke argues that we see in God’s word that he commands the obedience of children to be directed towards both parents. He lists multiple  scriptural passages support of this: “‘Honour thy father and thy mother’ (Exod xx. 12); ‘Whoever curseth his father or his mother’ (Lev xx. 9); ‘Ye shall fear every man his mother and his father’ (Lev. Xix. 5); ‘Children, obey your parents,’ etc. (Eph. Vi. I).”[55] He continues to note that in the beginning, God himself did not grant Adam authority over Eve, but rather foretold the fate of Eve and all her descendants outside of Paradise in an earthly post-Original Sin reality.[56] He digresses from assisting us females by justifying husbandly authority with reference to women’s disadvantage as the “weaker sex.”[57] Therefore we see that while Locke’s explicit objective was not to raise our female spirits up, there is much to be appreciated in his work. Locke explicitly argues that the term “paternal power” is problematic, because “it seems so to place the power of parents over their children wholly in the father, as if the mother had no share in it.”[58] He continues to insist that “if we consult reason or revelation, we shall find she has an equal title.”[59] Since both us mothers and fathers play a role in procreation, and both parents have a duty to share in the work of educating our children, it is only reasonable that we share the exercise of authority.[60] Therefore, even if Locke does not grant us women equality in marriage, he does grant us equality in our relationship to our offspring.[61] Even if elevating women’s status was only a mere consequence of his process of overthrowing the patriarchal monarch, I insist that we must still take heed of this progress.[62]

I am grateful to you, dear readers, for remaining with me throughout this humble pamphlet. I hope that I have successfully persuaded you to appreciate the true merit and wisdom of Locke’s “natural rights family,” and that abandoning patriarchalism in both state and home is an integral part of the political project of liberalism. Locke’s theory of universal equality fits within his understanding of the family, in which men are not born equal but to equality, thus rendering parental authority temporary and conditional. Locke ensures us selfless parents that our children’s obligation of duty and reverence will not terminate with the end of their obedience, and there is great value in Locke’s system of egalitarian parental (not paternal) family authority has for us females. In a society where our slavish role is accepted as true and lasting, the subtle shift in tone and terminology that Locke’s work provides is a step in the right direction. I urge you, both ladies and gentlemen, to accept Locke’s model of familial relations in your own households, for I guarantee that it will allow you to live in liberty and will protect your natural right to freedom.


[1] Thomas P. Peardon, introduction to The Second Treatise of Government, by John Locke (New York: The Library of Liberal Arts, 1952), x.

[2] Andrew Franklin-Hall, “Creation and Authority: The Natural Law Foundations of Locke’s Account of Parental Authority,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 42.3/4 (2012): 260; Peardon, introduction, x; and Jacqueline L. Pfeffer, “The Family in John Locke’s Political Thought,” Polity 33.4 (2001): 609.

[3] Ralph A. Houlbrooke, The English Family 1450-1700 (Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 1984), 134; Susan Dwyer Amussen, An Ordered Society: Gender and Class in Early Modern England, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 38; and Frances and Joseph Gies, Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages (New York: Harper & Row, 1987), 306.

[4] Lee Ward, John Locke and Modern Life (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 141.

[5] Peardon, introduction, vii and ix.

[6] David Foster, “Taming the Father: John Locke’s Critique of Patriarchal Fatherhood,” The Review of Politics 56.4 (1994): 670.

[7] Houlbrooke, English Family, 34.

[8] Melissa A. Butler, “Early Liberal Roots: John Locke and the Attack on Patriarchy,” The American Political Science Review 72.1 (1978): 137.

[9] Houlbrooke, English Family, 34

[10] Ibid.

[11] Houlbrooke, English Family, 168; and Amussen, Ordered Society, 55-56 and 64.

[12] Butler, “Early Liberal Roots,” 136; and Amussen 64.

[13] Chris Nyland, “John Locke and the Social Position of Women,” History of Political Economy 25.1 (1994): 39-40.

[14] Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 (London: Cox & Wyman Ltd., 1977), 265.

[15] Nyland, “John Locke,” 41; and Amussen, Ordered Society, 64.

[16] John Locke, The Second Treatise of Government, ed. Thomas P. Peardon (New York: The Library of Liberal Arts), 40.

[17] Houlbrooke, English Family, 35; and Foster, “Taming the Father,” 664.

[18] Foster, “Taming the Father,” 646 and 670; and Pfeffer, “The Family,” 597.

[19] Foster, “Taming the Father,” 647.

[20] Stone, The Family, 22.

[21] Foster, “Taming the Father,” 649.

[22] Locke, Second Treatise, 32.

[23] Stone, The Family, 239.

[24] Locke, Second Treatise, 32; and Foster, “Taming the Father,” 650.

[25] Franklin-Hall, “Creation and Authority,” 255.

[26] Ibid., 256.

[27] Locke, Second Treatise, 32.

[28] Locke as quoted in Pfeffer, “The Family,” 598.

[29] Pfeffer, “The Family,” 598.

[30] Locke, Second Treatise, 33.

[31] Ibid., 32.

[32] Locke, Second Treatise, 36.

[33] Ibid., 37

[34] Amussen, Ordered Society, 40.

[35] Jeffrey Bluestein, Parents and Children: The Ethics of the Family, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 78.

[36] Locke, Second Treatise, 38.

[37] Houlbrooke, English Family, 69; and Amussen, Ordered Society, 40.

[38] Foster, “Taming the Father,” 669.

[39] Locke, Second Treatise, 38.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Houlbrooke, English Family, 22.

[42] Ibid., 32.

[43] Houlbrooke, English Family, 141-42.

[44] Ibid., 144.

[45] Butler, “Early Liberal,” 146 and 149. Note: “lover of our sex” refers to the pseudonym Mary Astell uses on the title page of her A Serious Proposal to the Ladies Parts I and II, ed. Patricia Springborg (Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press, 2002), 50.

[46] Butler, “Early Liberal,” 146.

[47] Mary Astell,”Some Reflections Upon Marriage,” in Astell: Political Writings, ed. Patricia Springborg (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 19.

[48] Houlbrooke, English Family, 99.

[49] Ibid., 96-97

[50] Ibid., 22 and 96

[51] Ward, John Locke, 169.

[52] Nyland, “John Locke,” 41.

[53] Merry E. Weisner-Hanks, Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe, (New York: Cambridge University Press), 24-30.

[54] Butler, “Early Liberal,” 138.

[55] Locke, Second Treatise, 30.

[56] Nyland, “John Locke,” 43.

[57] Ibid., 43-44

[58] Locke, Second Treatise, 30.

[59] Locke, Second Treatise, 30.

[60] Bluestein, Parents and Children, 77.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Nylan, “John Locke,” 58.


Amussen, Susan Dwyer. An Ordered Society: Gender and Class in Early Modern England. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Astell, Mary. A Serious Proposal to the Ladies Parts I and II. Edited by Patricia Springborg.                     Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press, 2002.

——– “Some Reflections Upon Marriage.” Astell: Political Writings, edited by Patricia      Springborg, 7-80. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Originally published       in: Some Reflections Upon Marriage, Mary Astell (London: printed for John Nutt near       Stationers Hall, 1700).

Blustein, Jeffrey. Parents and Children: The Ethics of the Family. New York: Oxford University  Press, 1982.

Butler, Melissa A. “Early Liberal Roots: John Locke and the Attack on Patriarchy.” The      American Political Science Review 72.1 (1978): 135-50.

Foster, David. “Taming the Father: John Locke’s Critique of Patriarchal Fatherhood.” The    Review of Politics 56.4 (1994): 641-70.

Franklin-Hall, Andrew. “Creation and Authority: The Natural Law Foundations of Locke’s Account of Parental Authority.” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 42.3/4 (2012): 255-80.

Gies, Frances and Joseph. Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages. New York: Harper &  Row, 1987.

Houlbrooke, Ralph A. The English Family 1450-1700. Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 1984.

Locke, John. The Second Treatise of Government. Edited by Thomas P. Peardon. New York: The Library of Liberal Arts, 1952.

Nyland, Chris. “John Locke and the Social Position of Women.” History of Political Economy 25.1 (1993): 39-63.

Peardon, Thomas P. Introduction to The Second Treatise of Government, by John Locke, vii-xxii. New York: The Library of Liberal Arts, 1952.

Pfeffer, Jacqueline L. “The Family in John Locke’s Political Thought.” Polity 33.4 (2001): 593-618.

Stone, Lawrence. The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800. London: Cox &   Wyman Ltd, 1977.

Ward, Lee. John Locke and Modern Life. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Weisner-Hanks, Merry E. Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe. New York:          Cambridge University Press, 2008.