Locke was fifty-six when he returned from Holland. He was already known in person to a large circle of friends and by repute to many others. But now he was to become a national figure, the prophet of the Whig party which had put William on the throne. His first publication was the Letter Concerning Toleration which appeared anonymously soon after his return. (The measure of toleration granted later by the new government in 1690 was niggardly and ungenerous, and the opportunity for uniting all the sects into one broad comprehensive Church, as Locke and the Latitudinarians desired, was lost.)
In 1690 appeared another anonymous publication upon which Locke had been working for some years, the Two Treatises on Civil Government. The first treatise is an attack on Filmer’s Patriarcha (published posthumously in 1680), the second presents Locke’s own positive contribution to political theory. The purpose of the book as a whole is made explicit in the preface: ‘to establish the throne of our great restorer, our present King William; to make good his title, in the consent of the people … and to justify to the world the people of England, whose love of their just and natural rights, with their resolution to preserve them, saved the nation when it was on the very brink of slavery and ruin.’ In 1690 also Locke’s greatest work, the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, appeared. For the copyright of the Essay Locke received the sum of £30.
During the years 1689-90 Locke resided in Westminster, London. He had been offered ambassadorial appointments by the King, but he politely refused them. Instead he accepted a post as Commissioner of Appeals that brought with it a salary of £200 per annum. When the London air affected his weak lungs he would retire to Lord Peterborough’s house on the fringes of the town. But frequently he found it necessary to go farther afield to Oates in Essex, where he was sure of a welcome from Sir Francis and Lady Masham. From the Clarke correspondence we can see that he visited Oates very shortly after his return from Holland. He spent many weeks there in the summer of 1690, and again in October and at Christmas.
Lady Masham or Damaris Cudworth was now a young woman of thirty-two, and Locke had known her for at least ten years. She fully recognized Locke’s worth and welcomed him warmly to her house, while he found in her steady friendship a comfort and support which proved invaluable to him in his declining years. Oates became his refuge and in 1691 he made it his permanent residence. ‘His company’, Lady Masham explains to Leclerc, ‘could not but be very desirable to us, and he had all the assurances we could give him of being always welcome here; but to make him easy in living with us it was necessary he should do so on his own terms, which Sir Francis at last consenting to, Mr. Locke then believed himself at home with us, and resolved, if it pleased God, here to end his days, as he did.’
At this pleasant retreat, in addition to Sir Francis and his wife, lived Mrs. Cudworth, Esther, Lady Masham’s step-daughter, and Francis, her six-year-old son. Other friends came to visit Locke. Already, in 1691, we read of visits from the Clarkes with their children, Edward and Elizabeth, and one also from Isaac Newton. Locke, no doubt, would be particularly happy to talk with Newton of his scientific work, although scientific subjects were not the only ones discussed, for Newton by this time was even more interested in Biblical criticism than in scientific inquiry. The years sped by at Oates pleasantly and quietly, being only interrupted by occasional visits to London. In 1693 appeared his Some Thoughts Concerning Education, a book based largely upon the letters sent to Clarke from Holland, in which Locke had outlined his ideal of a sound education. During these years he was also busy on the second edition of the Essay, which was already in demand, the first edition having been exhausted by September 1692. The correspondence with Molyneux, which had now begun, throws light on the task he had to face in connexion with the preparation of this second edition, while that with Clarke gives the gossip of Oates for these years and much information about Locke’s interests and properties in Somerset. The second edition of the Essay duly appeared in 1694. Already the work was attracting attention. It had been in use in Trinity College, Dublin, since 1692 and was not unknown to the other universities. The public at large had given it a good welcome, and although John Norris had criticized it adversely in 1690, his was as yet the only dissentient voice. By this time the Whigs were in full power and Locke could number amongst his friends the leaders of the party. Edward Clarke was a great force in Parliament. Somers, who became Lord Chancellor, and Montague, afterwards the Earl of Halifax, were close friends of Locke and were guided by his advice. Locke was one of the original subscribers to the Bank of England (subscribing £500). In Locke’s correspondence for these years there is also frequent reference to a small club, called the ‘College’, of which he was a member, which interested itself in public affairs and worked for reforms. In particular it concerned itself with the Coinage Act. The coin of the realm was being constantly clipped and much counterfeit coinage was in circulation. Already in 1692 Locke had made certain suggestions in a paper added to his Some Considerations of the Consequences of the Lowering of Interest and the Raising of the Value of Money and entitled Of Raising our Coin. And he co-operated with his friends in the intervening years to work out an effective plan of action. In April 1696 it was finally decided to call in all debased coinage and to re-coin it according to standard weight, the cost to fall upon the Exchequer. This reform was very much to Locke’s liking, and the correspondence of the time makes it abundantly clear that he and the ‘College’ played an important part in bringing it about.
Another undertaking of these years was the anonymous publication of the Reasonableness of Christianity in the summer of 1695. In it Locke sought to define the one essential of true Christianity, namely, the recognition of Christ as the Messiah. This theme might not appear very provocative, but it produced some very bitter controversy. The last decade of the seventeenth century witnessed the sudden rise of Unitarianism, and when the Reasonableness appeared Locke was at once suspected of belonging to that sect. He was known to be friendly with Thomas Firmin, the leader of the anti-Trinitarians, and his demand for a simpler Christianity was interpreted as Unitarianism. John Edwards attacked Locke vigorously in his Some Thoughts Concerning the Several Causes and Occasions of Atheism, especially in the Present Age. Locke replied with a Vindication, in which he emphatically denied that he was of the anti-Trinitarian party. In 1697 a second Vindication appeared, in answer to Edwards’s Socinianism Unmasked.
Throughout these years Locke continued to act as a Commissioner of Appeals, although there were frequent occasions when ill health prevented him from attending to his business in London. In May 1696 he was appointed a commissioner to the new Board of Trade and Plantations set up by Sir John Somers, at a salary of £1,000 a year. The secretary to the Board was William Popple, who had translated Locke’s Letter on Toleration. Locke set to work with characteristic zeal and industry. He was clearly the guiding spirit of the Board during its first years. And if one recalls that this body was the forerunner of both the present Board of Trade and the Colonial Office, it will be understood that the work to which Locke now gave himself was of real administrative importance. From June 1696 onwards the Board sat daily, and through the summer months Locke was in constant attendance. In 1697 he found the duties so heavy in his broken state of health that he tried to resign, but those in authority would not hear of his retirement, and he continued in the office, attending to it diligently whenever his health permitted, until 1700. After 1700 he avoided all public employment.
When attendance upon his health kept him at Oates he would turn to his literary work. It was during these last years of the century that Locke engaged himself in a prolonged debate with Stillingfleet, Bishop of Worcester. In his Discourse in Vindication of the Doctrine of the Trinity Stillingfleet sought for the philosophy behind the anti-Trinitarian movement and professed to find it in Locke’s ‘new way of ideas’ as expounded in the Essay. In January of 1697 Locke replied in A Letter to the Bishop of Worcester concerning some passages, relating to Mr. Locke’s Essay. Stillingfleet was ready for the fight and replied in April, to which Locke published his second reply in June. At the beginning of 1698 Stillingfleet published a further pamphlet ‘wherein his [Locke’s] Notion of Ideas is proved to be inconsistent with itself and with the Articles of the Christian Faith’. Locke replied in May 1698 (though the pamphlet was not published until 1699). We shall have occasion later to note some of the points at issue between the disputants. Many of the criticisms made by the Bishop were pertinent in the extreme, and Locke’s efforts to answer them throw much light on his position in general. Other opponents, Thomas Burnet and Sergeant, wrote against the Essay, but Locke did not consider himself called upon to answer any of these attacks.
In the winter of 1697-8 Locke was seriously ill. ‘My time’, he complains to Clarke, ‘is all divided between my bed and the chimney corner, for not being able to walk for want of breath upon the least stirring, I am a prisoner not only to the house but to my chair, so that never did anybody so truly lead a sedentary life as I do’. But under the constant care of Lady Masham and Esther, and through the ministrations of Elizabeth Clarke, now growing into womanhood, he strengthened sufficiently to return to his duties in London in 1698. This summer was made memorable by a visit from William Molyneux of Dublin, who spent some time with Locke. Molyneux had published a work on optics in 1692 in which he had praised Locke’s work highly. A correspondence ensued between them which continued for many years; the tone, at first respectful, soon became affectionate. In 1698 the two were able to meet for the first time. Locke found very great pleasure in the visit, and Molyneux, to judge from the letter he forwarded to Locke on his return to Dublin, found true happiness in Locke’s company. But this great joy was to be turned to sudden sorrow, for on the 11th October of the same year, a few weeks after his return from London, Molyneux died, and Locke was left to grieve the loss of a very worthy friend.
In his last years Locke’s interests turned more and more to theology, as the letters to Limborch reveal. He had been busy for some time with the fourth edition of the Essay, but when this was published in 1700 he turned to the epistles of Saint Paul and wrote a paraphrase of Garatians, Corinthians, Romans, and Ephesians, together with full comments. He also prepared a preface in which he exhorts the reader to read each epistle through at one reading, and to try to understand the background and the particular circumstances in which each was written. These commentaries were prepared for the press by Locke himself, but not published until 1705-7. Together they cover almost as many pages as the Essay itself, and Locke’s industry and vigor of mind in these last years are amazing.
In the intervals between his literary activities other matters required attention. His own needs were now few enough, ‘a man our of the world’, as he described himself, ‘who lies abed and dreams’. But he busied himself with his friends’ concerns, particularly with those of their children. Limborch’s son came to England on a visit and Locke gladly made the necessary arrangements. Clarke’s children went abroad and Locke knew of friends they should meet. Benjamin Furly’s son sought a post in England. The third Earl of Shaftesbury, whose tuition Locke had once undertaken, had become a politician of note and Locke gave him good advice. Finally, his own nephew, Peter King, required greater and greater attention. King was already a member of parliament. He had profited from a sound legal training and was showing very great promise. Locke wrote to him frequently and his letters are full of wise advice and anxious care. In their turn all these people came to visit him at Oates, and their visits were like balm to his weary heart. He found a new friend too in the young Anthony Collins. Their correspondence only begins in May 1703, but in the last year of his life Locke found much pleasure in the company of this gifted young man, and when Collins was away from him wrote the most affectionate letters to him.
When the spring of 1704 came round Locke knew that his end was near: ‘in the race of human life where breath is wanting for the least motion, one cannot be far from one’s journey’s end’. On the 4th August he wrote his last letter to Limborch. There was still time, however, for one celebration on which he had set his heart. Peter King had found a bride for himself in Glamorgan, and Locke wished to welcome her to Oates. Part of the letter which he wrote to King telling him what he was to order in London for the feast may here be quoted: ‘Four neats’s tongues. Twelve partridges … Four pheasants … Four turkey pullets, ready larded if they be not out of season. Four fresh rabbits, if they are to be got. Plovers, or woodcocks, or snipes, or whatever else is good to be got at the poulterer’s, except ordinary tame fowls. Twelve Chichester male lobsters, if they can be got alive; if not, six dead ones that are sweet. Two large crabs that are fresh. Crawfish and prawns … A double barrel of the best Colchester oysters … I desire you also to lay out between twenty and thirty shillings in dried sweetmeats of several kinds … do not be sparing in the cost, but rather exceed thirty shillings … If there be anything that you can find your wife loves, be sure that provision be made of that, and plentifully, whether I have mentioned it or no.’ The feast was duly held at the end of September, presided over by Locke himself aided by Lady Masham. How completely happy he must have been amongst this merry crowd!
And, then, when the banquet was over, there was little left to do. He was cheerful, but every day took its toll in increasing weakness. As the month of October came to its end Locke’s strength also ebbed away. On the 27th, a Friday, he was very weak indeed; the next morning he was a little better, and in the afternoon he rose and dressed, and then sitting down while Lady Masham read the Psalms to him, he presently closed his eyes and passed quietly away. ‘His death was like his life,’ wrote Lady Masham, ‘truly pious, yet natural, easy and unaffected.’
He had had sufficient time to arrange for the disposal of his estate. He left behind him between four and five thousand pounds in all, most of which he bequeathed to Francis Cudworth Masham. He gave all his manuscripts and half his books to Peter King. (These are now the Lovelace Collection.) He forgot none of his friends, nor the servants who had waited on him, nor again the poor of Pensford and of Oates. He was buried simply, as he had desired, in the parish church of High Laver.