By any reasonable standard of measurement, Willmoore Kendall would have to be included in a list of the most important political scientists of the post-World War II era. Moreover, as regards the American political tradition, it is easily argued that Kendall is the most original, innovative, and challenging interpreter of any period. I believe these conclusions can be substantiated in this study.Born in Oklahoma in 1909, Kendall received his undergraduate degree from the University of Oklahoma, and his graduate degrees from Northwestern University, Oxford University, which he attended as a Rhodes Scholar, and the University of Illinois, where he earned his doctorate. Kendall taught at various universities, including fourteen years at Yale. At the time of his death in 1967, he was Chairman of the Department of Politics and Economics at the University of Dallas.


With his penchant for dealing with political basics and fundamentals, coupled with his keen interest in the American experience, it is not surprising that Willmoore Kendall was drawn to a study of John Locke. In terms of political ideas, invariably John Locke is considered the central figure of the American political tradition. Indeed, when speaking of the American experience often we speak of the “Lockean tradition” or the “Lockean heritage,” and every schoolboy knows (or is supposed to know) that Thomas Jefferson, the patron saint of American democracy, borrowed extravagantly from Locke in drafting the Declaration of Independence, which is considered by conventional wisdom as the most authoritative and eloquent statement of the theoretical foundations of the American tradition.

Willmoore Kendall’s best known work is his classic John Locke and the Doctrine of Majority-Rule. In the world of political philosophy, Kendall was the inveterate dissenter from “accepted interpretations,” and this book is a part of that legacy. Kendall contended that the conventional interpretation of Locke, depicting him as an exponent of individualism and natural rights which transcended majority sentiments, was in error. Why had conventional scholarship on Locke been in error? According to Kendall, it was “an illustration of what happens when scholars abdicate responsibility for reading the books they criticize.”[1] To put it otherwise (to use one of Kendall’s favorite phrases): “[T]he thesis of the present study is precisely that Locke did not say the things he is supposed to have said…“[2]

In the tradition of Leo Strauss, Kendall insisted on reading the original materials and in the “universal confrontation of the text.” In Kendall’s words, this approach “demands, in principle at least, that we accept no sentence or paragraph from the Second Treatise as Locke’s ‘teaching’ without first laying it beside every other sentence in the treatise, and attempt to face any problem, regarding the interpretation of that sentence or paragraph, posed by the presence within the text of those other sentences.”[3] Kendall contended that conventional Lockean interpreters had operated upon the  invalid assumption that the Second Treatise “will yield up its meaning to a hasty reader,” whereas in fact he insisted the Second Treatise was “a book that wants months and months, or even years and years, of poring over.”[4] After close textual analysis of this classic, Kendall challenged the conventional interpretation of Locke. Rather than a thinker wedded to notions of transcendent abstract natural rights and discrete individualism, Kendall found an exponent of absolute majoritarianism, who contended that the individual had only those rights which society, through the political majority, wished to bestow upon him. The nature and form of those rights will depend upon social needs as defined by society. Thus, individual rights are functional and changeable, not abstract and absolute.

Kendall argued that Locke’s state of nature was expository, not historical.[5] He expressly accepted G.E.G. Catlin’s observation that:

It is irrelevant to enter into a full discussion of how far the theorists of social contract ever thought of the contract as having taken place at any historical epoch. A study of these writers would seem to lead to the conclusion that…they were never guilty of this naivete. [6]

Kendall wrote, “[F]or Locke the law of nature and the law of reason are the same thing,” and he noted Locke’s statement that “no rational creature can be supposed to change his condition with an intention to be worse;” therefore, Kendall concluded, “The [Lockean] law of nature is, in short, a law which commands its subjects to look well to their own interests.”[7] With Kendall’s Locke, in pursuing its perceived interests through reason, society will define the rights, duties, and obligations of the individual. In this regard, society is antecedent to and controlling over any claimed inalienable or abstract rights of the individual. Kendall found the following representative quotations from the Second Treatise unequivocal and controlling on this point:

[The individual] gives up to be regulated by laws made by the society, so far forth as the preservation of himself and the rest of that society shall require; which laws of the society in many things confine the liberty he had by the law of nature.

[T]here and there only is political society where every one of the members has quitted his natural power, resigned it up into the hands of the community in all cases…

Whenever, therefore, any number of men are so united into one society as to quit every one his executive power of the law of nature and to resign it to the public, there and there only is a political or civil society… [Anyone a member of a society]… authorizes the society or, which is all one, the legislative thereof to make laws for him as the public good of the society shall require, to the execution whereof his own assistance, as to his own decrees, is due.

[E]very man, when he at first incorporates himself into any commonwealth, he, by his uniting himself thereunto, annexes also, and submits to the community, those possessions which he has or shall acquire that do not already belong to any other government…

[B]eing now in a new state, wherein he is to enjoy many conveniences from the labor, assistance, and society of others in the same community, as well as protection from its whole strength, he is to part also with as much of natural liberty…as the good, prosperity, and safety of the society shall require, which is not only necessary, but just, since the other members of the society do the like.

[M]en give up all their natural power to the society which they enter into…

Men, therefore, in society having property, they have such right to the goods which by the law of the community are theirs…

To conclude, the power that every individual gave the society when he entered into it can never revert to the individuals again as long as the society lasts, but will always remain in the community, because without this there can be no community, no commonwealth… [8]

Kendall’s Locke not only rejected any notion that individuals have rights superior to society’s demands, but in addition, Kendall found Locke had embraced majoritarianism as the means by which society should order and express its interests and desires. Kendall found the following statements from the Second Treatise clear and unmistakable:

When any number of men have so consented to make one community or government, they are thereby presently incorporated and make one body politic wherein the majority have a right to act and conclude the rest.

For when any number of men have, by the consent of every individual, made a community, they have thereby made that community one body, with a power to act as one body, which is only by the will and determination of the majority…and it being necessary to that which is one body to move one way, it is necessary the body should move that way whither the greater force carries it, which is the consent of the majority, or else it is impossible it should act or continue one body, one community, which the consent of every individual that united into it agreed that it should; and so every one is bound by that consent to be concluded by the majority. And therefore we see that in assemblies impowered to act by positive laws, where no number is set by that positive law which impowers them, the act of the majority passes for the act of the whole and, of course, determines, as having by the law of nature and reason the power of the whole.

And thus every man, by consenting with others to make one body politic under one government, puts himself under an obligation to everyone of that society to submit to the determination of the majority and to be concluded by it; or else his original compact, whereby he with others incorporates into one society, would signify nothing, and be no compact, if he be left free and under no other ties than he was in before in the state of nature.

Whosoever, therefore, out of a state of nature unite into a community must be understood to give up all the power necessary to the ends for which they unite into society to the majority of the community….

The majority having, as has been shown, upon men’s first uniting into society, the whole power of the community naturally in them, may employ all that power in making laws for the community from time to time, and executing those laws by officers of their own appointing: and then the form of government is a perfect democracy. [9]

In sum, Kendall’s Locke turned out to be the majority-rule democrat, and the majority had unlimited political power. Although not obligated under any notions of inalienable individual rights, is there any guarantee that Locke’s majority will be respectful in some form of the individual integrity of the person? In the final chapter of John Locke and the Doctrine of Majority-Rule, Kendall discussed Locke’s “latent premise,” by which Kendall meant that with effort one can tease out of the Second Treatise some evidence of limits upon majoritarian action; however, Kendall cautioned that Locke never fully developed the point, and he called Locke’s failure to deal in depth with this central issue the “capital weakness” of the Second Treatise. [10]

Throughout the Second Treatise, Locke offered such limitations on governmental actions as “reason and common equity,” “the public good,” and the avoidance of “absolute arbitrary power” or “tyranny”[11] Similarly, Locke concluded, “It [the legislative] is a power that has no other end but preservation, and therefore can never have a right to destroy, enslave, or designedly to impoverish the subjects.”[12] However, in these cases it is essential to understand that Locke was referring to limitations placed upon governmental institutions, such as the legislature or the executive, and not upon “the people.” In the Second Treatise, “the people” as a whole is the ultimate and “supreme power,” and everything else is subordinate.[13] In Locke’s words, “Who shall be judge whether the prince or legislative act contrary to their trust…. To this I reply: The people shall be judge….”[14] Lest there be any lingering doubt, Locke put the matter unequivocally in the final sentence of the Second Treatise:

But if they have set limits to the duration of their legislative and made this supreme power in any person or assembly only temporary, or else when by the miscarriages of those in authority it is forfeited, upon the forfeiture, or at the determination of the time set, it reverts to the society, and the people have a right to act as supreme and continue the legislature in themselves, or erect a new form, or under the old form place it in new hands, as they think good.[15]

Furthermore, on the ultimate matter of revolution, in Locke of the Second Treatise, it was not individuals flaunting abstract rights who were granted the right of revolting. In Locke’s words,

But if a long train of abuses, prevarications, and artifices, all tending the same way, make the design visible to the people, and they cannot but feel what they lie under and see whither they are going, it is not to be wondered that they should then rouse themselves and endeavor to put the rule into such hands which may secure to them the ends for which government was at first erected. [16] 

How do “the people” express their preferences in the matter? We are back to majoritarianism, for Locke wrote, “Nor let anyone think this lays a perpetual foundation for disorder; for this operates not till the inconvenience is so great that the majority feel it and are weary of it and find a necessity to have it amended.”[17]

It was Kendall’s contention in his discussion of the “latent premise” that having placed ultimate power in the majority will of the people, Locke did not give any explicit guidelines as to what shall limit the majority in exercising its power. That is, individuals and governmental institutions are limited, but what prevents the majority with unlimited power from trampling on the rights of individuals or minorities? In the Second Treatise there are no express limitations, according to Kendall, there is only the “latent premise” that the majority is “rational and just.”[18] 

Kendall published no article on Locke between 1941, the publication date of John Locke and the Doctrine of Majority-Rule, and 1966 when his article, “John Locke Revisited,” appeared in The Intercollegiate Review.[19] In this article, which is among the most intensely reasoned and intellectually challenging he has written, Kendall reevaluated his positions on Locke. Kendall adhered to the basic thesis of his earlier work that Locke is not the abstract natural rights theorist of conventional wisdom, but rather is a “majority-rule authoritarian.” In Kendall’s words, “I find in Locke…no limit on the power of the majority to set up any form of government that meets its fancy, and thereby to withdraw any and every supposed individual right.”[20] Hence, on this crucial point the Kendall of 1966 stands firmly with the Kendall of 1941.

Regarding the problem of “the latent premise,” Kendall reversed his position on this matter, and admitted his “embarrassment” at having proposed this premise in his earlier work.[21] Kendall rejected the “latent premise” argument that the majority can be counted on to respect individual natural rights and absolute standards of morality because it is “rational and just.” He contended that the “latent premise” is simply not in the Second Treatise, and “is produced out of thin air, and attributed to Locke in a fashion that can only be called wholly gratuitous.”[22] In his analysis of the text, the Kendall of 1966 refused to read into the text something that is not there solely for the purpose of giving a “sympathetic” treatment to an author in trouble. Thus, by dropping the “latent premise” contention of natural political virtue in the majority, the Kendall of 1966 sealed permanently Locke’s fate as a majority-rule authoritarian, who placed no restrictions on majority will.

Moreover, the Kendall of 1966 went beyond the Kendall of 1941 and expressly put Locke in the camp of the enemies of the great tradition of politics in the camp of Machiavelli and Hobbes. Kendall concluded that Locke is a progenitor of modern ideology and is not of the enduring tradition of political philosophy. This results from Locke’s basic premise in the Second Treatise that man

is willing to join in society with others who are already united, or have a mind to unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties, and estates, which I call by the general name ‘property.’ The great and chief end, therefore, of men’s uniting into commonwealths and putting themselves under government is the preservation of their property. [24] 

It is the “right of self-preservation” then that is at the center of Lockean thought. With this “right of self-preservation” being the first principle of Locke’s political science, it naturally follows, argued Kendall, that consent alone becomes the basis of governmental legitimacy. That is, man owes no binding obligation or duty to anyone or anything, for the right of self-preservation is the center and measure of all things political, and society will express and advance this right collectively through unlimited majoritarianism. Kendall contended that this Lockean philosophy contributed to the birth of modern ideology, and the death of the normative tradition of political philosophy, which had made rights correlative to duties. Modern ideology knows nothing of duties, morality, ethics, and obligations; it knows only of the “right of self-preservation,” and thereby it is at odds with the biblical and great traditions in political philosophy.[25] This was Kendall’s final analysis of Locke; he died a year after this important article, “John Locke Revisited,” was published.

John Locke and the Doctrine of Majority-Rule is generally considered a classic in the literature on Locke. It is invariably cited in any discussion on Locke, and in any bibliography relating to him. Kendall’s view of Locke as absolute majoritarian was unique and clearly at odds with conventional interpretations which pictured Locke as master exponent of the inalienable natural rights of the individual. Kendall’s thesis, although always cited, is generally ignored by writers on political thought. Typical are the well-known texts of George Sabine and William Ebenstein. Sabine wrote, “Locke set up a body of innate, indefeasible, individual rights which limit the competence of the community and stand as bars to prevent interference with the liberty and property of private persons,” and he concluded, “The foundation of the whole [Lockean] system was represented as being the individual and his rights, especially that of property. On the whole, this must be regarded as the most significant phase of his political theory, which made it primarily a defense of individual liberty against political oppression.”[26] Similarly, Ebenstein stated, “The text of the Declaration [of Independence] is pure Locke, and the main elements of the American constitutional system—limited government, inalienable individual rights, inviolability of property—are all directly traceable to Locke. “[27]

Sabine and Ebenstein cited Kendall in their bibliographies; however, and this is the crucial point, they did not accept or refute Kendall—they simply ignored him. In view of the fact that everyone concedes that John Locke and the Doctrine of Majority-Rule is a classic among works on Locke, this is a troublesome point for students of political philosophy, and it deeply concerned Kendall. In his 1966 article on Locke he wrote, “Judging  from…the ‘mainstream’ of political theory scholarship, Kendall’s 1941 Locke [has not] had any perceptible impact on the mine–run political theory scholars. The latter’s general practice would seem to be either first, to ignore [Kendall’s Locke] altogether, or second, to mention [him] en passant…but never, third, to enter into public debate with [him].”[28] Kendall observed, “I conclude that the political theory profession is suffering from a mortal sickness.”[29]

Kendall has a valid point. It is difficult to explain why an admittedly classic and seminal work would be cited but ignored in terms of the substantive ideas it offered. To accept or refute would be permissible courses of action, but to ignore is mystifying. Kendall was not protesting an imagined slight upon himself; rather, he was questioning why a glacial freeze should make the profession of political theory impervious to serious innovation.[30] Kendall was warning us that the study of political philosophy may have succumbed to ideology, and that the inertia of ideology had left us only with ancient symbols which we are expected to accept without challenge. In particular, Locke is the ideological symbol of individualism and abstract natural rights, and the raising of points to the contrary is declared out of order.

As to the validity of Kendall’s thesis, it does challenge anyone to read with care the Second Treatise and conclude that it stands as the supreme call for individualism and abstract natural rights. This author agrees with Kendall that it simply will not yield up that conclusion. At most, the Second Treatise presents a mixed picture of individualism and majoritarianism, but to find natural rights individualism as anterior and transcending society, government, and the majority will is to base conclusions on ideological assumption and not on careful textual analysis.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from Political Science Reviewer (Fall 1973).


[1] Willmoore Kendall, John Locke and the Doctrine of Majority-Rule (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965), p.132. The first edition of this work was published by the University of Illinois Press in 1941. All citations in this article refer to the 1965 edition.

[2] Ibid., p. 58.

[3] Nellie D. Kendall, ed., Willmoore Kendall Contra Mundum (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1971), pp.422-423.

[4] Ibid.,  p.423.

[5] Willmoore Kendall, John Locke and the Doctrine of Majority-Rule, p.75.

[6] Ibid. For some evidence refuting Catlin’s contention, see John Locke, Second Treatise, secs. 103, 104, 106, 112.

[7] Willmoore Kendall, John Locke and the Doctrine of Majority-Rule, p.77. For evidence supporting Kendall’s conclusion that Locke’s law of nature and the law of reason are identical, see Locke, op. cit., secs. 12, 19, 136.

[8] Locke, op. cit., secs. 129, 87, 89, 120, 130, 136, 138, 243.

[9] Ibid., secs. 95, 96, 97, 99, 132. Italics added.

[10] Willmoore Kendall, John Locke and the Doctrine of Majority-Rule, p.135.

[11] Locke, op. cit., secs. 8, 135, 171, 199.

[12] Ibid., sec. 135.

[13] Ibid., Chapter XIII.

[14] Ibid., sec. 240.

[15] Ibid., sec. 243. Italics added.

[16] Ibid., sec. 225. Italics added.

[17] Ibid., sec. 168. Italics added.

[18] Willmoore Kendall, John Locke and the Doctrine of Majority-Rule, p.134.

[19] Nellie D. Kendall, ed., op. cit., pp.418-448.

[20] Ibid., p.430, n.19.

[21] Ibid., p.426, n.12.

[22] Ibid., p.446.

[23] Ibid., pp.433, 439.

[24] Locke, op. cit., secs.123, 124.

[25] On this point, Kendall is agreeing with Leo Strauss. See Nellie D. Kendall, ed., op. cit., pp.433, 439.

[26] George Sabine, A History of Political Theory, 3rd ed. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1961), pp.529, 538.

[27] William Ebenstein, Great Political Thinkers: Plato to the Present, 4th ed. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1969), p.400.

[28] Nellie D. Kendall, ed. op. cit., p.447.

[29] Ibid., p.448.

[3o] Kendall criticized political theorists for ignoring Leo Strauss’s Thoughts on Machiavelli (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1958), and Harry V. Jaffa’s The Crisis of the House Divided (New York: Doubleday and Co., 1959). See Ibid.

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