John Locke: APUSH Topics to Study for Test Day

Have you ever heard the phrase tabula rasa or the idea that we (humans) are born as “blank slates”? Well, you have the philosophy of John Locke to thank for that. Keep reading to get an idea of who this guy was and why his ideas are important to know for the APUSH exam.

Who was John Locke?

john locke apush

For the purposes of this blog post, I’m not going to spend too much time with John Locke’s biography. When he was born and when he died is not particularly relevant to the APUSH exam; however, you should know that Locke was a philosopher and political theorist during the 17th century. His ideas about government and human nature were important to the Early Enlightenment period and, consequently, the American Revolution.

OK, if John Locke’s ideas were so important, can you tell us what they were?


John Locke’s ideas are obviously more complex than I have time to spell out in this blog post. However, you should know these three, as they are central to understanding John Locke and the implications of his ideas.

  1. All people are born equal, as a blank slate. It is our experiences that make us who we are.
  2. Because we are all born equal, there are certain inalienable (guaranteed by the fact that you are human) rights. These, to Locke, were life, liberty, and the right to property.
  3. In order for government to not step on these rights, there needs to be a separation of powers.


You can watch this video to learn more about how these ideas relate more to one another.

Like most philosophers during the Enlightenment, Locke was challenging the accepted belief that absolute monarchies ruled by divine right.

In what is his arguably his most important work, the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke lays out a fairly optimistic view of human nature (this is in contrast to the view that Thomas Hobbes espoused where human nature is “nasty” and “brutish”); where Hobbes made the conclusion that human nature would lead to chaos and a strong leader would emerge to make sense of the chaos, Locke argued that, although human nature would lead to conflict, it would also lead to a government that interfered minimally in individual lives.

As Locke laid out in his Second Treatise of Government,

To properly understand political power and trace its origins, we must consider the state that all people are in naturally. That is a state of perfect freedom of acting and disposing of their own possessions and persons as they think fit within the bounds of the law of nature. People in this state do not have to ask permission to act or depend on the will of others to arrange matters on their behalf. The natural state is also one of equality in which all power and jurisdiction is reciprocal and no one has more than another. It is evident that all human beings—as creatures belonging to the same species and rank and born indiscriminately with all the same natural advantages and faculties—are equal amongst themselves. They have no relationship of subordination or subjection unless God (the lord and master of them all) had clearly set one person above another and conferred on him an undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty.

Wait! John Locke’s ideas sound really familiar, don’t they?

Yes! They do. And they should. Locke’s inalienable rights were used as justification for the Declaration of Independence.

Before Locke, many philosophers and rulers believed that the right to rule was based on a perceived ordained status by God. However, Locke put forward the idea that people were the ones who gave rulers their authority; this meant that if a ruler abused his – yes, ladies, these philosophers were strictly talking about men, but the ideas can be applied to any ruler regardless of gender – power, people had the authority to remove that individual from power. This idea can be seen most directly in the following line from the Declaration of Independence,

“…when a long train of abuses and usurpations…evinces (indicates) a design to reduce [the people] under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

Locke’s ideas were truly foundational for the young colonists ideas.

John Locke’s ideas sound awesome! Right?

Well, yes and no. Remember that one of the things APUSH wants you to think through is contextualization. Locke had some truly revolutionary and progressive ideas, but the context within which he lived still made him susceptible to some problematic thinking.

As you all know, the American Revolution made the colonies their own, distinct country under the idea that the former colonists would no longer be “slaves” to Great Britain. And yet, it took nearly 100 years for the United States to abolish its own system of slavery. What gives?

Well, there is some debate among historians about whether or not Locke believed in the institution of slavery, as it was practiced in the Western Hemisphere during the 17th century. Two chapters in his second treatise (“Of Slavery”, Chapter 4; “Of Conquest”, Chapter 16) do seem to argue that slavery can be justified in some very specific instances.

But here is where it becomes important to understand context:

John Locke died in 1704, before the true height of the colonial slave system. His ideas about slavery, as it existed after his death, are impossible to know. However, we do know that individuals used Locke’s ideas to justify treated blacks and indigenous people as “subhuman” or not-at-all human (after all, Locke said that humans are born with inalienable rights). Whether or not Locke would have supported these racist interpretations is the stuff of speculation, not historical interpretation.

What kinds of questions will I be asked about John Locke on the APUSH exam?

Because this is an APUSH exam, you will not likely be asked about Locke directly. Instead, you will have to understand his ideas and apply them to the United States context. These example questions do just that, and they are from the 2017 APUSH Practice Exam.

“Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence, 1776

1. The excerpt was written in response to the
A. British government’s attempt to assert greater control over the North American colonies
B. British government’s failure to protect colonists from attacks by American Indians
C. colonial governments’ failures to implement mercantilist policies
D. colonial governments’ attempts to extend political rights to new groups

2. The ideas about government expressed in the excerpt are most consistent with which of
the following?
A. The concept of hereditary rights and privileges
B. The belief in Manifest Destiny
C. The principle of religious freedom
D. The ideas of the Enlightenment

Correct answers:

1. A; see my blog posts on salutary neglect and the Navigation Acts
2. D; the ideas expressed in the Declaration of Independence reflect those of John Locke, an Enlightenment philosopher

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  • Allena Berry

    Allena Berry loves history; that should be known upfront. She loves it so much that she not only taught high school history and psychology after receiving her Master's degree at Stanford University, she is now studying how students learn history at Northwestern. That being said, she does not have a favorite historical time period (so don't bother asking). In addition to history, she enjoys writing, practicing yoga, and scouring Craigslist for her next DIY project or midcentury modern piece of furniture.

By the way, Magoosh can help you study for both the SAT and ACT exams. Click here to learn more!

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