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Slave Ship (1840) by J M W Turner. Courtesy the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Slavery-entangled philosophy

John Locke took part in administering the slave-owning colonies. Does that make him, and liberalism itself, hypocritical?

Holly Brewer

Slave Ship (1840) by J M W Turner. Courtesy the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Holly Brewer

is Burke chair of American history and associate professor at the University of Maryland. She is co-editor of the American Society for Legal History's book series and has served on their board of directors. She is the author of By Birth or Consent: Children, Law, and the Anglo-American Revolution in Authority (2005) and of a recent article in the American Historical Review (October 2017), "Slavery, Sovereignty and 'Inheritable Blood': Reconsidering John Locke and the Origins of American Slavery." 

3,400 words

Edited by Sam Haselby

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John Locke, who lived through two revolutions in 17th-century England, remains perhaps the most important theorist about democracy. Translated into many different languages, Locke’s ideas inform contemporary philosophical debates about justice and rights, from relative egalitarians such as John Rawls to libertarians such as Robert Nozick to Amartya Sen’s critique of Western-based theories of justice. Locke’s writings inspired the language of rebellion in the United States’ Declaration of Independence (1776) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract (1762), which shaped the French Revolution.

After the Second World War, Locke’s ideas circumscribed debates over democracy and social justice within the United Nations and in international law. The principles that government should be based on the consent of the governed, that most people can make reasonable choices, that all men are created equal, that people have inalienable rights – his animosity towards hereditary privilege – have had many critics too. Locke’s influence probably reached its height in the 1960s. Since then, criticism has grown. On the Right, critics see him as too idealistic and impractical: all people are not and cannot be equal. On the Left, critics contend that Locke was a hypocrite, a philosopher who put forth radical ideas while working on behalf of slavery and colonialism. C B Macpherson’s The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (1962) made the most influential case that Locke regarded private property above all, including property in slaves. Postcolonialist thinkers, in particular Uday Singh Mehta in Liberalism and Empire (1999), saw Locke’s philosophy as emblematic of ‘Western’ ideas about democracy and rights that serve as a cover for the oppression of indigenous peoples. Implicating Locke in the causes of slavery and colonialism has cast a shadow over Western liberalism, and indeed democracy itself.

John Locke by Godfrey Kneller (c1697). Courtesy Hermitage Museum/Wikipedia

However, history tells a different story. Colonialism and slavery emerged from ideas and practices much older than Locke about the divine and absolute rights of kings. As a mid-level functionary in 17th-century England, Locke directly encountered the realities of monarchy and inherited status. Such experiences opened his eyes. Over time, he came to believe that slavery was deeply wrong, that it was the most extreme instance of the evils of inherited status that infected the entire social order. Locke’s celebration of consent defined his political theory. As his opposition to royal policies developed, he faced punishment for his radical ideas.

During the English Civil War of 1649, Locke’s father sided with Parliament and the principles of ‘consent of the people’. At the end of the war, King Charles I was tried for treason against his own people and executed on 30 January 1649. Locke was 16. His school was a 10-minute walk from Charles’s execution site by the steps of Banqueting House, Whitehall, and he almost certainly witnessed and supported it. But after more than a decade of political instability, Locke supported a new king. In May 1660, in the person of Charles II, monarchy returned to England. London mobs and rival armies readied to fight each other, opening a spectre of anarchy. Locke wrote that he would fight, if only he knew for whom: ‘Tis the great misery of this shatterd and giddy nation that warrs have producd noething but wars, and the sword cut out worke for the sword.’

Over the next few years, Locke lived in Oxford, as a scholar and tutor, specialising in medicine and philosophy. He probably would have stayed there, and written little of note, had he not in 1668 saved the life of Anthony Ashley Cooper, later the first Earl of Shaftesbury. Shaftesbury drew Locke into Stuart court restoration politics, into imperial governance, and into the thick of the king’s promotion of slavery.

Those who emphasise Locke’s hypocrisy point to two pieces of evidence during this decade. First, they contend that Locke authored The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina (1669), which explicitly supported hereditary nobility and slavery: ‘Every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his negro slaves …’ Second, they show that Locke owned stock in the Royal African Company, which ran the African slave trade for England.

Two views of Cape Coast Castle in modern-day Ghana, exit point of no return for Africans enslaved by the Royal African Company. Courtesy Wikipedia

Of course, Locke’s service to the Earl of Shaftesbury and involvement in the Stuart court shaped his ideas. But his political philosophy developed in opposition to the policies and practices of Charles II’s court, not in harmony. Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1689) argued against the very root of slavery: inherited status, which derived from the same set of ordering ideas and commitments as the monarchy – the divine and hereditary rights of kings. Just as a prince is born the son of a king, with a right to rule, a subject was born to a subject, and a slave born to a slave, each with the obligation to obey king and master.

During 1660-85, England under Charles II pursued slavery vigorously, and not only because it helped to justify monarchy. Slaves helped to produce profitable crops such as sugar and tobacco that generated huge tax revenues for the monarch. By 1687, the tax revenue (in the form of customs) on these staples comprised a third of crown revenue, paying for the navy, the army, and much else. Charles II married Catherine of Braganza from Portugal for her dowry, which included forts off the African coast. He put his brother James in charge of a new Royal African Company to enable the slave trade; James led two wars against the Dutch to gain access to the slave trade.

In England’s colonies in the Americas, Charles II appointed royal governors who supported slavery and offered rewards of land to those who purchased slaves or indentured servants. In Virginia, the king offered 50 acres per slave or servant bought; thus, some men accrued estates of 20,000 acres and more. Charles II’s judges presided over court decisions, especially one in 1677 that said that those who were aliens (ie, not subjects) had no rights under the law, and could be considered simple property.

Locke was a secretary who drafted a legal document as a lawyer drafts a will

Historians have long noted Locke’s role in drafting the Carolina constitutions, and its protections for slavery. The implication is not so much personal hypocrisy as evidence that Western liberalism, from its foundational theorist, promoted slavery. But such a story is based on a misapprehension of Locke’s position. In terms of the Carolina constitutions, Locke was a secretary – he drafted a legal document as a lawyer drafts a will. He composed it for the eight men who owned the Carolinas (given to them as a reward by Charles II). These men desired ‘that the government of this province may be made most agreeable to the monarchy under which we live’. They sought to ‘avoid erecting a numerous democracy’. The principles it espoused – including hereditary nobility and slavery – both predated Locke’s involvement, and reflected the ideals of the owners. It is a deep error, therefore, to contend that Locke’s role in the Carolina constitutions should guide interpretation of his later work, much less liberalism.

The matter of the Royal African Company stock has also lent itself to misinterpretation. Beginning in 1672, Charles II put Shaftesbury in charge of the Council on Foreign Plantations, which oversaw England’s colonies overseas. Locke was Shaftesbury’s personal secretary and so became the Council on Foreign Plantations’ official clerk. In 1672-73, Charles paid Locke in Royal African Company stock. During this period, the council sought political reform overseas (less power for governors) but mostly did the king’s bidding. There is much in these records about African slaves, and Locke’s handwriting, as clerk, transcribes that word over and over.

But within two years, both Locke and Shaftesbury stopped cooperating with the king and his policies. Shaftesbury had emerged as Charles II’s strongest opponent, inasmuch as one could safely criticise the king during that period. Shaftesbury opposed not only the Test Act of 1673 (barring both Catholics and Dissenters – non-Anglican Protestants – from political office) but also probably a 1674 attempt to create an imperial slave code for England, both of which Charles supported. In 1675, Shaftesbury and Locke co-wrote and published debates in the House of Lords questioning if Charles II sought too much ‘absolute’ power. Charles ordered the book burned as seditious. Locke fled to France for four years ‘for his health’, and Shaftesbury ended up imprisoned without trial in the Tower of London. In July 1675, Locke sold his stock in the Royal African Company, and Shaftesbury quickly followed.

If the story ended here, we would know little of Locke. He was a minor actor in a political contest dominated by major figures struggling over empire and questions on the nature of power. But the story did not end in 1675, which rather marked an abrupt turning point.

From today’s perspective, it is easy to think that ideas about human rights and democracy have always existed in some kind of fully articulated form. Perhaps they are culturally innate: certainly the Golden Rule ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ – from the New Testament – inspired Locke, and exists in many forms in different cultures. But the broad-based arguments about human rights that emerged in Locke’s (and others’) writings during this period had a very specific origin. They began as a repudiation of claims of divine and hereditary absolute power. They responded to Charles II’s court and council, to ideas articulated and enacted by ministers, politicians and political thinkers, on behalf of royal power.

More substantively, Locke and Shaftesbury grew horrified over what they found to be Charles II’s oppressive governance of England and its colonies, and also his promotion of slavery. They began to argue that absolutism possessed a common essence, and took different forms – of kings over subjects, and masters over slaves – but that all forms were wrong. Without his involvement in imperial policymaking, Locke would never have composed the Second Treatise, his theory of democratic governance. He wrote it not to propound Stuart ideals and practices, but against them, compelled by his legal and administrative encounters with slavery, a corrupt colonial government and a tyrannical monarch. His Two Treatises was a different kind of constitution than the one he had helped to draft for Carolina.

Locke opposed slavery on the same grounds as hereditary monarchy

Locke’s hatred of absolutism and slavery helped to justify the Glorious Revolution of 1688 against James II. That revolution was necessary, Locke contended, because every pulpit in England preached the principles of ‘an advocate for slavery’. James II was in fact the governor of the Royal African Company at the same time he was king. Ministers of the Church of England, of which he was head, preached passive obedience to him because he was chosen by God to lead them. During the 1680s, the Royal African Company brought as many as 100,000 people from Africa to England’s colonies in the New World. James II was directly involved in that trade in human cargo.

Locke’s First Treatise begins: ‘Slavery is so vile and miserable an estate of man … that ’tis hardly to be conceived’ that anyone would support it. He attacked the principle of divine and hereditary power methodically. Why should the eldest son inherit all power by primogeniture, even over his brothers? He also compared the king’s claims to power to the also-illegitimate claims of masters over their slaves: neither had hereditary and rightful claims. The king might argue that his right to rule descended from Adam, but neither he nor masters of slaves had power over others by such specious claims. Locke’s Second Treatise speculated about what form of government would emerge in a state of nature. He began with postulates (including the Golden Rule) and built principles: government should be based on consent, and has particular purposes, mainly to protect its subjects. People do not have to obey a government that no longer protects them, and the consent of an ancestor does not bind the descendants: each generation must consent for itself.

Locke supported slavery only as punishment for a terrible crime for which one’s life could be forfeit – in particular, for starting a war that was unjust. And he insisted that it should never be hereditary. He opposed slavery on the same grounds as hereditary monarchy. People do not inherit their status. Government should be based on the consent of the governed, not on divine and hereditary privilege. Labour, also, should be based on consent. The first thing anyone owns and cannot give away is his own person. It is a propriety, a belonging, that is higher than any other kind of ownership. ‘Man being born, as has been proved, with a title to perfect freedom, and an uncontrouled enjoyment of all the rights and privileges of the law of nature, equally with any other man … hath by nature a power … to preserve his property, that is, his life, liberty and estate …’ Thus each person has a right to his own person and labour, a right that includes the ability to contract with someone else. That right is very different from slavery, which is forced labour.

After the Glorious Revolution, King William and Queen Mary gradually retreated from many earlier policies that had encouraged slavery. Shaftesbury’s political party, the Whigs, gained control over Parliament. Under pressure from them, William III appointed Locke to a new and more powerful governing council over the colonies, which he called the Board of Trade. There, Locke sat in judgment over many colonial policies. He became particularly concerned about abuses of power in Virginia. Along with other members, he investigated Virginia’s laws and constitution. He then wrote a 40-page plan for law reform in Virginia. That plan resides in the Bodleian library at Oxford, where librarians discovered it rolled into a cubby hole in his desk when they acquired his papers. It has long been assumed, even though it was in his handwriting and that of his secretary, that he did not write it. I show that he did. His work on Virginia’s constitution reflects Locke’s own ideas.

That plan for reforming Virginia’s constitution led to a reversal of many of the earlier policies that had promoted hierarchy and slavery. In particular, it admonished that Virginia should no longer follow Charles II’s policy of granting masters 50 acres of land for each slave or servant purchased, a policy that had fostered large estates and bound labour. Locke arranged for the appointment of a new governor for Virginia: Francis Nicholson. By court decision in 1699, Nicholson got rid of the land bounty for buying a slave. He sent a copy of that decision back to England. Next to the report that masters would no longer be rewarded with large estates for the ‘Importation of Negroes’, Locke responded, ‘Well Done.’

Courtesy the author

Locke’s plan for Virginia specified that all people should have equality under the law. ‘As people of different perswasions enjoy Lybertie of Conscience, so let people of all Nations be naturalised, and enjoy equal privileges with the other English inhabitants residing there.’ However, he understood that under English law at that time, most rights belonged only to subjects, and to become a subject one had to swear an oath of loyalty to the king – and to do that one had to be Christian. Locke was also familiar with the English High Court decisions that had justified slavery only for aliens. He therefore urged that the children of ‘negroes’ and ‘Indians’ should be ‘baptised, catechised, and bred Christians’.

By urging their baptism, Locke was undercutting the rationale for slavery. Subjects could claim rights to protections against maiming and assault, to trial by jury, to testify, to own land, and to freedom from forced labour. The High Court decisions affected American colonies then just as Supreme Court decisions often affect state law today. These judges were appointed and dismissed at the king’s pleasure. So King James II could dismiss judges and appoint new ones on his slightest whim, which he did. After the Glorious Revolution, Parliament fired and punished all of James II’s judges for corruption. William III appointed completely new judges. In 1696, they reversed the earlier High Court decisions and ruled that no man could own another. That new decision worked hand in hand with Locke’s Virginia plan to undercut slavery.

Slavery’s origins were in absolutism, not liberalism

Of course, slavery did not end in Virginia in 1699. Locke’s actions faced broad political headwinds. After a political crisis that led to the fall of the Whigs in 1700, Locke, who was old and sick, resigned from the board. William III died after a hunting accident in 1702. And his successor Queen Anne, daughter of James II whose court idealised slavery as the source of imperial wealth, reversed all of these policies again. Her crowning achievement was obtaining a grant to supply the Spanish empire with all their slaves for the next 30 years. That contract, the asiento, made Britain the main importer of slaves to the New World by 1750.

Neither slavery nor colonisation had their origins in Locke’s Two Treatises. His ideas about how people could claim rights to property did justify a certain kind of colonisation. He argued that, by making objects, by farming the land, one could derive ownership, goods and ground. However, his was a more egalitarian ideal of ownership than that offered by King James I’s right of discovery by Christian princes who could then grant dominion – the right of ownership and governance. Locke’s was founded on individual action, the Stuart kings’ on divine status.

Such attention to historical context matters. These complex debates over justice shaped the early modern world, and continue to shape ours. If we pretend that Locke and the Stuart kings were the same, and that their policy struggles did not matter, we ignore the impact of our own policies. If we dismiss Locke’s ideas as paradoxical, we forget that in these fires were forged not only slavery but also crucial principles of human rights. It is not only that the big questions were fiercely contended, but that small policies often had huge impacts. Reversing Charles II’s reward of land for buying slaves was a major move against inequality and injustice, and against the idea that kings could grant dominion over others. So too was his suggestion that all people be naturalised and have equal protections under the law.

The effort to compress such fierce disputes into a flat narrative of hypocrisy belies not only the past but the present. The effort to condemn liberalism (and Locke) as a theory of slavery and oppression, and to see within liberalism the origin of slavery, misrepresents the very essence of his theory, which was about human rights. It silences intense political debates over such rights that had dramatic practical repercussions. Slavery was justified by theories that all people were born to a divinely ordained status, ideas that were harmonious with racism, but not defined by that racism. Slavery’s origins were in absolutism, not liberalism.

Liberalism arose in reaction to slavery. It sought inclusion, and defined rights with broad promises, albeit ones that could be opened to exclusions. Indeed, one could argue that the breadth of such promises made racism (and other forms of prejudice) necessary in order to once again justify hereditary hierarchies. But for many others, it opened wide promises of inclusion. The theory itself was one that strained for relative equality under the law for all those who could give meaningful consent. The similarity of these disputes to ones we conduct today becomes more apparent with such context. For example: do rights inhere in all human beings or only in citizens? Abstract philosophical debates emerged from real dilemmas but also helped to shape policies that affected millions of people’s lives. They still do.

Holly Brewer

is Burke chair of American history and associate professor at the University of Maryland. She is co-editor of the American Society for Legal History's book series and has served on their board of directors. She is the author of By Birth or Consent: Children, Law, and the Anglo-American Revolution in Authority (2005) and of a recent article in the American Historical Review (October 2017), "Slavery, Sovereignty and 'Inheritable Blood': Reconsidering John Locke and the Origins of American Slavery."
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