The Public Interest

What remains of toleration?

Adam Wolfson

Winter 1999

IN 1776 Thomas Jefferson set down in his journal what he thought of John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration. He began by noting that Locke sweepingly denied toleration to those who entertain opinions contrary to the moral rules necessary for the preservation of society.  As for those who teach that faith is not to be kept with heretics, or that kings, once excommunicated, forfeit their crowns, or that dominion is founded in grace, or that dominion is due to some foreign prince, well, they too, Jefferson observed of Locke’s theory, were not to be tolerated. But that was not the end of it. Jefferson also took note that Locke would deny toleration to the intolerant and to atheists. With a touch of condescension (and perhaps some measure of eager anticipation?), Jefferson wrote, “It was a great thing to go so far ... but where he stopped short, we may go on.”

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