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Leave John Locke in the Dustbin of History

Some scholars and writers are trying to rehabilitate John Locke. They shouldn't — he was an apologist for slavery, not a champion of freedom.

John Locke, by Herman Verelst. Wikimedia Commons

The discovery, in the mid-twentieth century, that John Locke had invested in the slave-trading Royal African Company seemed at first like an embarrassing piece of personal hypocrisy for a figure long regarded as the principal theorist of liberalism, particularly that espoused by the Founding Fathers. But the more complete the historical picture we have of Locke, the worse he looks.

In a series of articles in Jacobin, I’ve summed up the evidence to make the case that, far from being an English political philosopher for whom America provided some convenient theoretical examples, Locke was deeply enmeshed in American affairs. And while in the British context Locke presented himself as a defender of liberty against the (metaphorical) “slavery” involved in submission to Stuart absolute monarchy, in the US he was a consistent theorist of enslavement and expropriation.

In addition to his role as an investor in slave trading, Locke authored the Constitution of the Carolinas, a document that enshrined both chattel slavery for blacks and hereditary serfdom for white “servants.” More fundamentally, Locke’s theory of property based on “mixing labour with land” rested both on the expropriation of Native Americans and on the assumed existence of a servant class.

In this context, the human subjects of capitalists were compared to livestock. Locke’s theory served to exclude both America’s original inhabitants and the servants who undertook agricultural labor from holding any property rights, while granting them to the owners of that labor — that is, the slaveholders and masters:

Thus the grass my horse has bit; the turfs my servant has cut; and the ore I have digged in any place, where I have a right to them in common with others, become my property, without the assignation or consent of any body. The labour that was mine, removing them out of that common state they were in, hath fixed my property in them [emphasis added]

As an earlier commentary by Lea Vandervelde notes, “The weakest persuasive example in any series is usually listed in the middle. It thus adds to the cumulative effect but escapes scrutiny.”

A recent article by Holly Brewer of the University of Maryland attempts to rescue Locke’s reputation. Brewer’s article has received a fair bit of attention, including from Reason magazine’s Jesse Walker, who quotes one of my previous articles:

If Locke is viewed, correctly, as an advocate of expropriation and enslavement, what are the implications for classical liberalism and libertarianism? … The most important is that there is no justification for treating property rights as fundamental human rights, on par with personal liberty and freedom of speech.

Walker observes that this view of Locke has come under “sharp scholarly challenge” from Brewer (though her work does not respond directly to mine).

Brewer dismisses the Carolina Constitution as a “work for hire,” and argues that “when Locke had a position of real power in the empire, which he did in the 1690s after the Glorious Revolution, that he tried to undercut the development of slavery in that empire in substantial and comprehensive ways.”

Yet most of the evidence Brewer cites points in the opposite direction. The key dispute in question arose with the allocation of “headrights,” which distributed land to people simply because they were owners (or masters) of servants, black and white. The Carolina Constitution incorporated headrights, but Brewer argues that these provisions were already inserted when Locke began work on the document — he merely left them unchanged.

She also notes that much later, under the reign of Queen Anne, Locke emerged as a strong opponent of headrights, in particular those associated with the ownership of black slaves, rather than white bonded laborers. She writes:

In practice, the legal concept of dominion took the form of headrights, which encouraged lordship, large estates, and bound labor. Barbados’s first proprietor, the Earl of Carlisle, gave men ten acres of land for each servant they owned. By royal proclamation, Charles I and Charles II promised “headrights” of fifty acres of land in Virginia to anyone who bought a servant, whether white or black.

Yet Locke made no objection to slavery itself, nor even to the principle of headright (which was entirely consistent with his theory of acquisition). His objection was that headright was being exploited to the extent that there was no land left for anyone but the great magnates to claim.

This was entirely consistent with his theoretical position, which justified land acquisition on the proviso that there was “enough and as good” left over. Of course, as I pointed out in my piece on Jefferson and Locke, this proviso was nonsense. Claimants to newly expropriated land invariably exhaust the supply within a few decades at most, as happened to Jefferson’s Louisiana purchase, which he imagined would last for “hundreds of generations.”

The main point to draw from all of this is that Locke was deeply enmeshed in American slavery throughout his life, yet never took a stand against it. Brewer excuses Locke on the grounds that

Repealing any of these Virginia laws (regarding slavery) was tricky. Locke could not suggest that the new governor ignore existing Virginia statutes, as that would undermine elected government

This combination of tender concern for self-government with acceptance of slavery led Samuel Johnson, at the time of the American revolution, to observe, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes.” It contrasts strikingly with Locke’s much-quoted claim that

Slavery is so vile and miserable an 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.

Of course, in this context, he meant the “slavery” of Stuart rule, not the actual buying and selling of human beings. In this latter context, Brewer quotes a passage from the Treatises that she regards as exonerating Locke from support for slavery

Those who were rich in the Patriarchs Days, as in the West-Indies now, bought Men and Maid Servants, and by their increase as well as purchasing of new, came to have large and numerous Families … can it be thought the Power they had over them was an Inheritance descended from Adam, when ’twas the Purchase of their Money? A Mans Riding in an expedition against an Enemy, his Horse bought in a Fair, would be as good a Proof that the owner enjoyed the Lordship which Adam by command had over the whole World by Right descending to him … since the Title to the Power, the master had in both Cases, whether over Slaves or Horses, was only from his purchase; and the getting a Dominion over any thing by Bargain and Money, is a new way of proving one had it by Descent and Inheritance.

Brewer remarks

Claims to power over slaves in the West Indies were therefore as flimsy as the Stuarts’ claims of lordship or dominion, both based upon fraud. Neither monarchy nor lordship over servants was hereditary back to Adam. “Men and maid servants,” which he here also called “slaves,” were bought — not inherited. Such purchase could not legitimate the dominion of one man over another.

This is completely misconceived, as the comparison of servants and horses (again!) shows. Certainly, Locke argues in both cases that ownership is derived from purchase rather than as an inheritance from Adam. This point is directed against Sir John Filmer, who sought to ground the “divine right of kings” in precisely such an inheritance.

But a consideration of Locke’s horse analogy makes it clear what he is and is not claiming. The idea that owning a horse demonstrates a right tracing back to Adam is of course ludicrous. But it is equally clear Locke did not intend to claim that the dominion of men over horses, acquired through capture, purchase, or breeding, was illegitimate. And, once acquired, ownership of horses, and their progeny, is heritable. There is nothing here to suggest that Locke objects to chattel slavery, including property in slave children.

It is true that Locke’s own theoretical justification for slavery, based on capture in defensive warfare, does not work for the children of slaves. But it is equally inapplicable to the vast majority of African slaves who, far from being aggressors, were the targets of warfare aimed at enslaving them for profit. There is no sign that this inconsistency ever bothered Locke — indeed, his proposal to extend hereditary status to white serfs shows the opposite.

Contrary to Brewer’s apologetics, Locke fully deserves his reputation as the theoretical inspiration for the dominant group among the Founding Fathers, who saw no problem in combining soaring rhetoric about liberty with practical accommodations to slavery. If anyone is worth emulating in that period, it’s anti-slavery radicals like Tom Paine and Benjamin Rush — not John Locke.