"America’s Philosopher: John Locke in American Intellectual Life"

Event Details

End: March 6, 2023
Contact: rwheatley@historians.org

This event is part of the Washington History Seminar series. It is sponsored by the AHA and features author Claire Rydell Arcenas and commentators Leslie Butler and Holly Brewer. Register here. 


For more than three centuries, the English philosopher John Locke has captivated Americans. In America’s Philosopher: John Locke in American Intellectual Life, Claire Rydell Arcenas shows that, although Locke has always played a central role in American life, the nature of that role has changed dramatically over time. Between the eighteenth century and today, Americans transformed Locke—once known to them primarily as an epistemologist and authority on everyday activities from childrearing to reading the Bible—into an icon of American liberalism and, more recently, American conservatism.

Claire Rydell Arcenas is an associate professor of history at the University of Montana. She received her PhD from Stanford University in 2016. She is the recipient of numerous grants and fellowships, including awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Academy of Education and Spencer Foundation. Her first book, America’s Philosopher: John Locke in American Intellectual Life, was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2022 and will be released in paperback in the fall of 2023.

Leslie Butler is a professor of history at Dartmouth College. She primarily teaches courses in American cultural and intellectual history. She received her doctorate at Yale University and taught at Reed College and James Madison College (at Michigan State University) before coming to Dartmouth in 2003. Her research has explored the contours and complexities of 19th-century Anglo-American liberalism. Her first book, Critical Americans: Victorian Intellectuals and Transatlantic Liberal Reform, examines a group of liberal intellectuals who sought to remake public life in the second half of the nineteenth century. Her current project (titled American Democracy and 'The Woman Question') explores what debates over women's role in the family, economy, and polity can tell us about political thought in the nineteenth century.

Holly Brewer is Burke Professor of American History and Associate Professor at the University of Maryland. She is a specialist in early American history and the early British empire as well as early modern debates about justice. Her first book traced the origin and impact of "democratical" ideas across  the empire by examining debates about who can consent in theory and legal practice: By Birth or Consent: Children, Law, and the Anglo-American Revolution in Authority. She is currently finishing a book that examines the origins of American slavery in larger political and ideological debates: it is tentatively entitled "Slavery & Sovereignty in Early America and the British Empire,” for which she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2014. She is also currently working on two database projects.