Monday, August 24, 2020

Was John Locke's Liberalism Proslavery?

In August of 1619, the English settlers in Jamestown, Virginia, bought 20 or more African slaves from English pirates, who had stolen them from a Portuguese slave ship that had forcibly taken them from the west coast of Africa.  This was the beginning of slavery in America, only 12 years after the English had first settled in Jamestown.  Over the next two centuries, over 12 million Africans would be taken captive by slave traders and sold as slaves in the New World.  Over 400,000 of them were sold to British colonists in North America.

In August of last year, on the 400th anniversary of that first landing of slaves in America, The New York Times began its "1619 Project"--a series of articles arguing that America was founded on and shaped by slavery.  It began with a special issue of The New York Times Magazine devoted entirely to the history of slavery and racial segregation in America.  This has sparked an intense controversy over whether these articles accurately depict the importance of slavery as manifesting the racist immorality of American culture, or whether these articles distort that history in ways that advance an ideology of cynical attacks on American traditions.

I will be writing about that controversy in a later post.  Here I am taking up a related controversy.  The 1619 Project has been influenced by historians and other social scientists who in recent decades have contended that the early modern liberal tradition was not only compatible with, but was even dependent upon, slavery.  It is said that the liberal defense of liberty included a defense of the liberty of European slave traders and slave masters to enslave Africans.  Moreover, it is argued that much of the wealth achieved in modern liberal capitalist societies was originally built up through slave labor.  One important piece of evidence for this view of liberalism as founded on slavery is the claim that the preeminent proponent of liberalism--John Locke--justified and profited from slavery.  If this is true, this might help to explain why the signers of the Declaration of Independence could affirm Locke's teaching about the human equality of the natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, while continuing to own slaves: the American Founders were following the example of Locke himself.


Those who argue for this view of Locke point to three kinds of evidence: Locke's helping to write the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, Locke's stock investment in the Royal African Company, and his just-war theory of slavery in the Second Treatise.  What I see here, however, is evidence that Locke engaged in secret writing in his often confusing and contradictory account of slavery--so that his careful readers could see that he was condemning slavery without explicitly saying so.  Nevertheless, I must admit that this does not resolve the question of Locke's apparent hypocrisy in supporting the Royal African Company and colonial slavery.

In 1669, the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina were adopted by the eight Lord Proprietors of the Province of Carolina, which included most of what is now North Carolina and South Carolina.  It has often been included in publications of Locke's works (Locke 1997).  One of the eight proprietors was Anthony Ashley Cooper (later the First Earl of Shaftesbury), who employed Locke as an advisor and secretary who was also a member of the Shaftesbury household.  Locke acted as a secretary to the Lord Proprietors from 1669 to 1675.  The original manuscript of the Fundamental Constitutions shows Locke's handwriting in the first two paragraphs and in most of the large number of amendments.  

For those who see Locke as a supporter of slavery the most notorious sections are the two sections that recognize slavery.  In section 98, it is made lawful for slaves to join any church that they prefer; but yet, "no slave shall hereby be exempted from that civil dominion his master has over him, but be in all other things in the same state and condition he was in before."  In section 101, it is declared: "Every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his negro slaves, of what opinion or religion soever."

In 1672, Locke invested in the British slave trade by buying stock in the Royal African Company, which Charles II had just established as a chartered corporation with a monopoly over all British trade with Africa, which included buying enslaved Africans on the west coast of Africa for shipment to the New World (Pettigrew 2013).

In 1690, Locke's Two Treatises of Government was published.  It was an attack on the royal absolutism claimed by the Stuart monarchs and defended by Robert Filmer as an absurd attempt to persuade all men that they are born slaves.  Locke's scorn for slavery began with the first sentence of the book: "Slavery is so vile and miserable and Estate of Man, and so directly opposite to the generous Temper and Courage of our Nation; that 'tis hardly to be conceived, that an Englishman, much less a Gentleman, should plead for't" (FT, sec. 1).  

Oddly, however, Locke also seemed to defend slavery in the Second Treatise when he identified "the perfect condition of Slavery" as one where the slave has "by his fault, forfeited his own Life, by some Act that deserves Death; he, to whom he has forfeited it, may (when he has him in his Power) delay to take it, and make use of him to his own Service, and he does him no injury by it" (ST, sec. 23).  In particular, we can properly identify slaves as those "who being Captives taken in a just War, are by the Right of Nature subjected to the Absolute Dominion and Arbitrary Power of their Masters" (ST, 85).  Scholars like Peter Laslett have inferred from this that Locke regarded "negro slaves as justifiably enslaved because they were captives taken in a just war, who had forfeited their lives 'by some Act that deserves Death,'" and that Locke was satisfied "that the forays of the Royal Africa Company were just wars of this sort, and that the negroes captured had committed such acts" (Laslett 1988, 284-85).


Challenging  this apparent evidence of Locke's proslavery position, historian Holly Brewer--writing in the American Historical Review (2017)--has argued that Locke and the liberalism he initiated emerged in opposition to slavery and absolutism as based on the same principle of inherited status.  Explaining the idea of hereditary obligation that Locke denied, Brewer wrote: "Kings inherit the right to rule; subjects inherit the obligation to obey; and so did slaves inherit the obligation to obey masters" (2017, 1045).  Locke and Lockean liberalism rejected all of this.  (Brewer's short summary of her argument is available online.)

Brewer denies that the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina--in affirming the master's "absolute power and authority over his negro slaves"--testifies to Locke's support of slavery.  Locke was only acting as a secretary for the eight Lord Proprietors, Brewer insists, so "he wrote Carolina's constitution as a lawyer writes a will" (2017, 1052).  He was not endorsing anything said in the Fundamental Constitutions.

But in saying this, Brewer understates Locke's involvement in Carolina and its Constitutions.  In 1671, he was made a landgrave (a nobleman) of Carolina. Peter Colleton, one of the Lord Proprietors, wrote to Locke in 1673 remarking "that excellent form of government in the composure of which you had so great a hand."  Locke purchased a hundred copies of the Constitutions and distributed them to his friends.  He clearly was proud of what he had done in the Constitutions, and he was involved in revising them in 1782 (Armitage 2004).

Brewer also denies that Locke's stock in the Royal African Company shows his endorsement of the African slave trade.  When Locke received his stock in the RAC in 1672, Brewer explains, he was the secretary to the Council of Trade and Foreign Plantations, which was Charles II's committee with oversight over colonial affairs.  Shaftesbury was the chair of that committee.  Since the crown was short of money at that time, Charles II had both Locke and Shaftesbury paid in RAC stock.

In June of 1675, Locke sold his RAC stock; and Shaftesbury began selling his.  1675 was the year in which Locke and Shaftesbury broke with the Stuart monarchy because of its increasing absolutism, which they saw as the enslavement of all the king's subjects.  They became leaders of the new Whig Party in opposition to the Tories.  Shaftesbury was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower.  Locke fled to France.  In 1683, Locke and Shaftesbury fled to Holland.  Charles II attempted to have Locke extradited on charges of treason.

After 1675, the RAC shifted more towards the slave trade rather than trade in African goods.  Charles II and James II promoted the slave trade because of the huge revenue it brought to the crown.  After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, with William and Mary on the throne, the number of slave trading voyages of the RAC dropped dramatically, as shown in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, although independent traders who competed with the RAC increased their voyages (Pettigrew 2013, 11-13).

In 1696, William created a new Board of Trade and Plantations, and he appointed Locke as one of the members.  Locke used his position on the Board, Brewer argues, to reform the laws in British colonies to favor liberty over inherited status.

The Board began to investigate the laws and practices in Virginia, the first and largest of the colonies in America.  They found many problems.  One of them was that while originally the King had provided that anyone settling in Virginia would be granted 50 acres of land, this rule had been changed so that people were granted 50 acres for each indentured servant or slave that they purchased.  Consequently, large landowners owning many servants and slaves could hold 20 to 30 thousand acres of land, much of it uncultivated.  The Board condemned this headright system as a perversion of the original rule.  They instructed the new Governor of Virginia--Francis Nicholson--to change this.  As chief justice of Virginia's General Court, the Governor in 1699 ruled that the headright of 50 acres of land should go only to individual settlers not to those who might be their masters.  Locke received a written report about this decision saying: "He has made an order against taking up land for the importation of negroes."  In the margin, Locke wrote: "Well Done."  For Brewer, this is a clear indication of Locke's efforts to reduce the slave trade (Brewer 2017, 1065-1070).  Unfortunately, she observes, these efforts were overturned after the death of King William, when Queen Anne renewed the promotion of the slave trade favored by the Stuart monarchs.

Still, however, we might wonder whether Brewer's argument for Locke being anti-slavery is refuted by Locke's just-war theory of slavery--that those who have been taken captive in a just war may by natural right be enslaved as the proper punishment for their crime of unjust aggression.  As Brewer indicates, Locke here seems to be following the traditional justification of slavery, as expressed by Bracton: "Free men are made bond by capture."  But Locke puts severe restrictions on this traditional teaching, so that it cannot justify the actual practice of African-American chattel slavery.

The just conqueror who repels an unjust invasion cannot take the invader's property, which belongs to his family (ST, sec. 180).  Nor can the conqueror enslave those who did not participate in the unjust invasion, because they have not earned the punishment of enslavement (sec. 179).  Nor can the conqueror enslave the children of the unjust invaders, because the children share no responsibility for the unjust war.  Consequently, slavery cannot be an inherited status.

Moreover, contrary to what Laslett says, Locke never says that the slave traders were taking captives in a just war.  In fact, the slave traders were themselves unjust aggressors who took their captives by force, and so their captives would be justified, on Lockean grounds, in rebelling against their captors.

Once one sees that Locke's standards for his just-war theory of slavery cannot possibly be satisfied by African-American slavery, one must suspect that Locke was aware of this, and that he might be intimating to his careful readers the injustice of such slavery.


James Farr has written some of the best articles on Locke's view of slavery (Farr 1986, 2008).  And although he does not directly say so, I see Farr's writing as suggesting that Locke engaged in secret writing in his account of slavery--so that his careful readers could see that he was condemning slavery without explicitly saying so.

Farr notes that Locke's complicity in the slave trade and in colonial policy allowing slavery contradicts his teaching about human equality in natural rights, and that he "never addressed, much less resolved, this contradiction," because he remained silent about this (1986, 263).

Farr goes on to argue that Locke's just-war theory of slavery is consistent with his natural rights teaching.  But Farr also wants "to show that this theory is woefully inadequate as an account of Afro-American slavery and, further, that Locke knew this.  Indeed, Locke's theory positively condemns 17th century slave practices and any ongoing institution of slavery whatsoever" (264).  So Locke knew that his theory condemned slavery!

Farr also says that "he wrote not a word" to justify New World slavery (2008, 510).  In explaining his just-war theory of slavery, Locke never says that the African-American slaves had been captured in a just war.  Indeed, Locke does not even give one example of people being enslaved in a just war.

 Moreover, Farr says, "no one thought Locke succeeded in justifying slavery in America" (515).  Farr also observes that the antebellum Southern apologists for slavery "rejected Locke's just war theory" and his argument for natural rights in the Second Treatise, which was condemned by people like George Fitzhugh (513).

Farr also notes that Locke ridiculed as childish the notion that "A Negro is Not a Man" because white color is a defining trait of the human species (Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 4.7.16; Farr 1986, 279).

So while Locke was silent about how his liberal political theory condemned slavery, he surely understood this.  Moreover, we know that some of Locke's careful readers saw this.  For example, Farr quotes from James Otis' Rights of the British Colonists Asserted and Proved (1764), who quoted Locke's teaching about the natural equality of rights among human beings in support of the claim that "the Colonists are by the law of nature free born, as indeed all men are, white or black." So Otis understood Locke's principles as condemning slavery in all forms, including the American enslavement of African-Americans (Otis 1764, 6, 29; Farr 2008, 511).

Farr says that "Locke is not unlike Aristotle in his mismatch of theory and practice despite their substantive differences about natural slavery" (2008, 520, n. 57).  Aristotle seemed to justify slavery as natural.  But his standards for what counted as a natural slave could not be satisfied by the actual practice of slavery, which was by convention or law (nomos) not by nature (physis).  For that reason, Bartolome de Las Casas could use Aristotle's standards to condemn the enslavement of American Indians as contrary to nature.

All of this looks to me like a secret teaching that slavery is contrary to Lockean natural rights, although Locke does not openly say this.

I grant that this still leaves unresolved the question of Locke's apparent hypocrisy in supporting the Royal African Company and colonial slavery.


Armitage, David. 2004. "John Locke, Carolina, and the Two Treatises of Government." Political Theory 32: 602-627.

Brewer, Holly. 2017. "Slavery, Sovereignty, and 'Inheritable Blood':  Reconsidering John Locke and the Origins of American Slavery." American Historical Review 122: 1038-1078.

Brewer, Holly. 2018. "Does Locke's Entanglement with Slavery Undermine His Philosophy?." Aeon, September.

Farr, James. 1986. "'So Vile and Miserable an Estate': The Problem of Slavery in Locke's Political Thought." Political Theory 14: 263-89.

Farr, James. 2008. "Locke, Natural Law, and New World Slavery." Political Theory 36: 495-522.

Otis, James. 1764. Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved. Boston: Edes and Gill.

Pettigrew, William A. 2013. Freedom's Debt: The Royal African Company and the Politics of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1672-1752. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.


W. Bond said...

1) Is it possible from this chronology that Locke's Whig views of The Second Treatise represent a maturing of his thought on this question through the 1670s-1680s?

2) Off the top of my head, I recall from Churchill's Marlborough that by the latter part of the 17th c. it was the foxhunter landed Torys who increasingly became interested in the slave model as a way to counter the growing wealth and influence emerging from Whig banking and commerce. If roughly true, I wonder if there was a shift in attitudes towards a somewhat more partisan (i.e. Tory vs Whig) view of the New World African slave labor economic model in Britain from, say, 1670-1700? If so, Locke's own attitudes might have been a part of this (without imputing either simple causality nor historical necessity).

Larry Arnhart said...

Holly Brewer argues something like that--that Locke changed his mind and chose to break with Stuart absolutism, and that part of this was a turning away from slavery and the slave trade. Working under King William, he tried to reform colonial policy to favor Whig principles.

Doug1943 said...

Clearly, the current BLM hysteria, and the subsequent poisoning of intellectual life in America (and increasingly in Britain), have nothing to do with seeking a more objective appraisal of the past.

We're just seeing the totalitarian Left advancing towards its goal of establishing Thoughtcrime as a legal category.

Everything is changing. All of the comfortable assumptions about the rock-solid foundations of liberal democracy in America are becoming more and more untenable by the day.

Rational people will now start examining those assumptions and discarding them, and begin to think the unthinkable.