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Locke Slavery

Jun 02, 2018



  • 8/11/2019 Locke Slavery


    Political Theory

    DOI: 10.1177/00905917083178992008; 36; 495 originally published online May 6, 2008;Political Theory

    James FarrLocke, Natural Law, and New World Slavery The online version of this article can be found at:

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    can be found at:Political TheoryAdditional services and information for Alerts:

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    Political TheoryVolume 36 Number 4

    August 2008 495-522 2008 Sage Publications


    http://ptx.sagepub.comhosted at


    Authors Note: For help or commentary, I would like to thank David Armitage, RobertBernasconi, Daniel Carey, Terrell Carver, Mary Dietz, Ruth Grant, Russell Hanson, StephenLeonard, Kirstie McClure, Christophe Miqueu, J. R. Milton, Mark Schemper, WilliamUzgalis, Alden Vaughan, and Gene Waddell. I am also indebted to discussions with universityaudiences at Oxford, Duke, Northwestern, Memphis, and the American PhilosophicalAssociation in Portland.

    Locke, Natural Law,and New World Slavery

    James Farr Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois

    This essay systematically reformulates an earlier argument about Locke and

    new world slavery, adding attention to Indians, natural law, and Lockesreception. Locke followed Grotian natural law in constructing a just-war theoryof slavery. Unlike Grotius, though, he severely restricted the theory, making itinapplicable to America. It only fit resistance to absolute power in StuartEngland. Locke was nonetheless an agent of British colonialism who issuedinstructions governing slavery. Yet they do not inform his theoryor viceversa. This creates hermeneutical problems and raises charges of racism. If Locke deserves the epithet racist, it is not for his having a racial doctrine

    justifying slavery. None of this makes for a flattering portrait. Lockes

    reputation as the champion of liberty would not survive the contradictions inwhich new world slavery ensnared him. Evidence for this may be found inLockes reception, including by Southern apologists for slavery.

    Keywords: Locke; slavery; America; natural law

    In an 1819 letter, Thomas Jefferson paraphrased John Lockes definitionof a madman as someone who has a kink in his head on some partic-ular subject, which neither reason nor fact can untangle.


    Jefferson hadcertain Calvinists in mind; Locke, those enthusiasts persuaded of divineinspiration. But with respect to slavery , Locke as well as Jefferson had akink in his head and neither reason nor fact can untangle the contradic-tion of his conduct and writings.

    This essay engages persistent controversies that circulate aroundLockes practical role in and theorization about new world slavery. These

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    496 Political Theory

    controversies, since the eighteenth century, gained scholarly gravity in1960 with the publication of the definitive edition of the Two Treatises of

    Government by Peter Laslett, who connected Locke to new world slavery. 2Recently, the colonial reading of Locke has made the fact of his involve-ment in American affairs central to the interpretation of his writings. 3 Thereis by now a sizeable literature arguing that Locke intended to justify newworld slavery or his role in it; 4 and an equally sizeable one that he did not. 5

    Rejoining the latter, this essay offers a systematic reformulation of an ear-lier argument that played a part in this controversial literature. 6 It providesthe occasion to respond to critics, clarify misunderstandings, and cast a

    wider net across Lockes writings, both theoretical and colonial. In doingso, it also pays closer attentionas few haveto American Indians, naturallaw, and Lockes reception, as these bear on slavery.

    The abstract provides a crib of the general argument. We begin with abrief account of Lockes only theory of slaveryby just-warand somebiographical facts relevant to the colonial context. Then follow the kinksand contradictions.

    The Just-War Theoryand Lockes Colonial Context

    In the Second Treatise , Locke developed a natural law theory thatexplained and justified slavery as a consequence of just war. Slavery wasthe condition of total servitude for an unjust aggressor taken captive in war.Locke presented his just-war theory, with severe restrictions, in chapters 4and 16Of Slavery and Of Conquestwith further glimpses inchapters 3, 7, 15, and 18, from the state of war to the dissolution of govern-ment. He defines slavery [as] nothing else, but the State of War continued,between a lawful Conqueror, and a Captive. Slaves, then, are Captivestaken in a just War (2.24; 2.85). 7 By his unjust aggression, the captive hasforfeited his own Life, by some Act that deserves Death (2.23). Justly, hiscaptor may put him to service in lieu of death. His power and authorityhis dominionover the captive-now-slave is absolute and arbitrary. Theslaves condition, when justified, contrasts dramatically with a person or apeople who deserve their rights and freedom under the law of nature or thelaws of civil society. At this level of abstractionand subject to severerestrictions, belowslavery may exist, in principle, whenever hostilitiescease to the satisfaction of the aggressed party, whether in ancient Rome,Saxon Britain, or wilderness America.

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    Lockes intentions in forwarding his theory of slavery are not clear fromthe Two Treatises alone. If the theory were to be applied to the new world,

    Locke would have known everything relevant to its application. For he wasfully informed or involved in colonial slavery, the slave trade, and newworld conditions for Africans, Indians, and English colonists. This was dueto his long colonial service and personal interests which began in 1667upon joining the household of Anthony Ashley Coopermerchant adven-turer, Lord Proprietor of Carolina, and, in 1672, Earl of Shaftesbury andLord Chancellor. Besides serving as Ashleys personal secretary and coun-selor (for fifteen years), Locke served as secretary to the Lords Proprietors

    of Carolina (between 1671 and 1675) and the Council of Trade and ForeignPlantations (from 1673 to 1674). He also gained financially from hisservice under Ashley, investing alongside his patron in the Royal AfricanCompany (400 in 1674 and 200 more in 1675) and in the Bahamas trade(100 in 1675) which he liquidated at profit (in 1676). 8 Locke remained inShaftesburys colonial affairs until late 1682 when Shaftesbury fled toHolland and fell mortally ill. To judge by reading and correspondence,Locke never ceased to be informed about the new world, even during his

    political exile between 1683 and 1690. He again accepted colonial servicefrom 1696 to 1700, under William III, as a leading commissioner of theBoard of Trade for colonial affairs.

    As secretary, Locke read and often endorsed (with JL) sources of intelligence about slavery in the new world, including colonists raids, cap-ture, and trade of Indians. 9 Supplementing his official activities, Locke reador owned the leading atlases, travelogues, and discoveries, with theirdescriptions of African and Indian slaves. 10 Besides those by Jean de Lry(1578), Joseph Acosta (1604), Gabriel Sagard (1632, 1636), and Garcilasode la Vega (1633, 1658)which Locke cited in his writingsthese worksincluded A Relation of a Discovery Lately Made on the Coast of Florida(1664) by William Hilton, the atlas America (1671) by John Ogilby, and

    Discoveries . . . from Virginia to the West of Carolina (1672) by JohnLederer and dedicated to Ashley. In Hilton, Locke found an earlyProposal from the Lords Proprietors of Carolina soliciting first settlerswith land grants; slave-owners were to receive twenty acres for everyNegro-man or Slave and ten for every Woman-Negro or Slave. 11 FromOgilby, he read tales of Spanish cruelties toward slaves and other tales of slaves having killed themselves, despairing of ever being released fromtheir slavery. He was also apprised of Negro Slaves grown Masterless inJamaica after the Spanish departed and before they submit[ted] themselvesto the English Government. For Ogilby, Locke likely wrote at least part if

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