Edes and Gill, the “Patriot Printers” & Locke’s Second Treatise

I published this post about three hours before the bombing in Boston as the second of two posts marking the Patriots’ Day holiday.  In the wake of the attacks, I pulled both posts off the site.  I’ve replaced the first post with a very different one.  This one, I think, can stand more or less as it was.

As Richard Sher and Michael Warner have reminded us, any discussion of an “American Enlightenment” had better pay attention to printers. And what better printers are there to attend to on “Patriots’ Day”  than the “Patriot Printers” Benjamin Edes and John Gill? Among their many other achievements, Edes and Gill were the publishers of the Boston Gazette, the newspaper that played a leading role in the anti-British agitation that culminated with the confrontation in Concord that citizens of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts celebrate today, among other ways, by gathering along the route of the Boston Marathon.

My interest in Edes and Gill is rather limited and focuses on their roleEdesGill in publishing the item on the right. Despite having lived in Boston, off and (mostly) on for almost four decades, my knowledge of eighteenth-century Boston is scandalous spotty. And, despite having taught John Locke’s Two Treatises more times than I would care to remember (it’s possible to teach introductory courses in political thought without teaching Locke, but why would anyone want to?), it was only recently that I became interested in when the practice of reading the Second and only the Second Treatise was established. Granted, there are good reasons why interest in the First Treatise was bound to fade once Sir Robert Filmer’s reputation began its decline (I’ve always savored the irony that Locke’s attack on Filmer in the First Treatise was so successful in driving Filmer from history that it also removed most of the reasons why anyone would want to read what Locke had to say about him — who wants to read an attack on a nobody?). But when did this shift in the sense of what mattered in Locke’s work begin to be reflected in editions of the Second Treatise that presented it as an independent text that could be read on its own?

The answer, it seems, is 1691, the date of the publication of a French translation by the Huguenot émigré David Mazzel (the title page says “a Londres,” but I assume Mazellthis was produced in Holland for smuggling into France). Mazzel’s translation eliminated the First Treatise and the opening chapter of the Second (which made it clear that it was a continuation of the argument begun there), and retitled the volume Du Gouvernment Civil. The work that resulted sported a table of contents that looks exactly like the current Hackett edition of the Second Treatise, the version that most undergraduates wind up reading.

Along with a variety of editions of the Two Treatises that were published in England over the course of the eighteenth century, WorldCat notes the appearance in London in 1753 of a work by Locke entitled Of Civil Polity. It describes itself in its Preface as having been “extracted from Mr. Locke’s Essay on Civil Government, with some Alterations and Additions”. A quick look at the copy available on ECCO reveals a very peculiar book: it eliminates quite a bit of the Second Treatise, including the important (and incendiary) chapter on the dissolution of government that concludes the work (and which is, after all, the point of the entire exercise) and patches in a discussion of “the establishment of religion” (a quick scanning of the chapter suggests that it may have been pulled from the Letter Concerning Toleration, though I’ve done no more than glance at the text). In contrast to the Mazzel translation, here is a book that provides scant evidence that what Locke had produced was a powerful argument for deposing a monarch. What we are presented with is a treatise on the nature of civil government that is capped, not by a discussion of the legitimate grounds for dissolving a government, but instead by a sketch of the differences between the ends of civil and ecclesiastical society.

It was not until the end of the eighteenth century that editions began to appear in the United Kingdom that follow the model provided by Mazzel. As a result, the 1773 edition produced by the patriot printers Edes and Gill would appear to have been the first edition anywhere in the world to do, in English, what Mazzel had done in French. Theirs would be the only edition of either of the two treatises to appear on the North American continent. It should come as no surprise that Edes and Gill, like Mazzel before them, included the chapter on the dissolution of government.

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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