saac Cruikshank, Abolition of the slave trade Or the inhumanity of dealers in human flesh exemplified in Captn. Kimber's treatment of a young Negro girl of 15 for her virgen [sic].  Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Republican or Racist? John Locke’s Stance on Slavery

John Locke is one of the most celebrated political philosophers of the seventeenth century, one that scholars have looked to for a better understanding of how intellectuals conceived of freedom and equality.  To this day, both conservative and liberal political theorists still cite Locke in debates about constitutional law, and his name even became mainstream as a character on the popular television show Lost on the ABC network.  Despite Locke’s popularity however, recent trends in academic scholarship are critical of the philosopher, labeling him anti-republican, or even a racist.

Today, political theorists who cite Locke usually do so in reference to the Founding Fathers and the Constitution, but even the Founders have come under scrutiny by scholars who are familiar with Locke’s work.  Bernard Bailyn, in his classic text, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, reminds us that in pamphlets written by the Founders, it is apparent that they knew little about the philosopher except the basics.  Bailyn noted that Locke was used for an agenda, and learned men like James Otis tended to cite his work haphazardly.  As Bailyn put it, Locke “is referred to in the most offhand way, as if he could be relied on to support anything the writers happened to be arguing.”1  Oscar and Lilian Handlin echoed and amplified this interpretation, suggesting that “neither John Locke nor any other European writer exercised a determinative influence on the American Revolution,” and historians must remember that “even the most intelligent politicians were not philosophers, not now and not in the eighteenth century.”2  Edmund Morgan complicated how the Founders understood Locke even further by suggesting that the Founders “could more safely preach equality in a slave society than a free one,” and therefore in Virginia “a belief in republican equality had to rest on slavery.”3  Does this mean republicanism is inextricably intertwined with slavery?

In his recent article, “John Locke, Carolina, and the Two Treatises of Government,” David Armitage briefly touches upon one of the fundamental problems plaguing scholars who study Locke’s impact on political theories.  He argues that Locke’s life could be divided into essentially two periods: One of relative conservatism, having been dependent upon the patronage Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper, the first Earl of Shaftsbury, for his livelihood.  The other, more liberal, viewed through the lens of Locke the philosopher, and anti-monarchal author of the Two Treatises of Government.4  How are the opinions of these two seemingly different personalities to be reconciled?  At the heart of this question lies the continuing scholarly debate about Locke’s stance on the African slave trade.

saac Cruikshank, Abolition of the slave trade Or the inhumanity of dealers in human flesh exemplified in Captn. Kimber's treatment of a young Negro girl of 15 for her virgen [sic].  Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Isaac Cruikshank, Abolition of the slave trade Or the inhumanity of dealers in human flesh exemplified in Captn. Kimber’s treatment of a young Negro girl of 15 for her virgen [sic]. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
To say that Locke’s position on the slave trade is complicated is an understatement. Though the philosopher never left definitive evidence that concretely revealed his opinion either way, historians have formulated arguments that Locke’s theory did not justify the trade nor the slavery of Africans. Conversely, scholars have also claimed that he participated in it, and supported it wholeheartedly, because “Locke was a racist.”5  The contrast of these conclusions is divergent enough to warrant an examination of Locke’s life in the seventeenth century, and how historians have interpreted (or misinterpreted) his actions in relation to African slavery.

John Locke did not have financial independence for most of his life, a fact that shaped his relationship with the slave trade.  He depended on the patronage of the Earl of Shaftsbury for his income, and even though Locke held several important positions, including the appointment of secretary of the Council of Trade and Plantations and an unofficial secretary for the Board of the Lord Proprietors of Carolina, he never received a salary.  He lived off of the investments jointly made with Lord Shaftsbury, including six hundred pounds Locke invested in the Royal African Company.  One scholar, Wayne Glausser, who has studied Locke’s finances, has suggested that Locke was very careful with his money, and his investment in the slave trade would have been a calculated risk.6  Several authors have thus concluded that this is a sign that Locke was an advocate of the slave trade.  Robert Bernasconi and Anika Mann have argued that “Locke’s investment in the slave trade is . . . damning” proof that his philosophical theory of slavery was meant to legitimize the institution of African slavery.7  David Brion Davis has also assumed that because “he was to become an investor in the Royal African Company . . . [he] clearly regarded slavery as a justifiable institution.”8

There are several reasons why this stance becomes problematic.  First, does investment in an institution make one complicit with it?  Contemporaries widely understood that England’s colonies brought a vast amount of wealth, and as African slaves were increasingly being used instead of indentured labor in the colonies, the slave trade would have been a logical investment to meet the rising demand for labor.  If Locke is condemned as condoning slavery for his investment in the Royal African Company – an institution that is systemic to the overall economy of Britain – then what could Locke have invested in that had no connection to the slave trade at all?  Are all of those who had any investment connected even remotely to the slave trade to be deemed as its advocates?

John Locke.  Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
John Locke. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

As Secretary for the Board of the Lord Proprietors of Carolina, Locke supposedly helped draft the Fundamental Constitutions of 1669 which sanction slavery.  Under the supervision of his patron, Lord Shaftsbury, Locke aided in creating a government in which “every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his negro slaves, of what opinion or religion soever.”9  Due to Locke’s involvement with the Fundamental Constitutions, historians have looked intently at this statement a litmus test to determine his opinion about slavery.  Bernasconi and Mann argue that this is evidence that “Locke was one of the principal architects of a racialized form of slavery whose severity was by no means predestined.”10  Such a polarizing statement surely needs to have an empirical basis, yet the authors provide no evidence to support their hypothesis.  An important question that needs to be answered is even if he did help to draft the document, was he responsible for the content?  As someone who was in an unpaid position and dependent on the patronage of Lord Shaftsbury for financial support, it seems unlikely that Locke had much autonomy in creating this document.  Certainly, he was told the conditions that would be expected in the new government by the Board, and he followed its direction.  Armitage has also recently reminded scholars that Locke never actually admitted to writing the Fundamental Constitutions and therefore, any suggestion that Locke was personally responsible for adding the amendment about slavery seems tenuous at best.11

When Locke served on the Board of Trade in 1696, he wrote to the governor of Virginia, Francis Nicholson, asking him “to gett a law pass’d restraining Inhumane Severities . . . towards Slaves, and that Provision be made therein that the willful killing of Indians and Negroes may be punished with Death.”12  Recent authors who argue that Locke was racist neglect this element of humanity which was introduced into the historiography by James Farr in 1986.  This one statement however, cannot prove that Locke was sympathetic to the plight of African slaves any more than his supposed composition of the Fundamental Constitutions can prove that he was determined to spread the institution across the New World.  Nevertheless, it does suggest compassion toward those in bondage.

The vast majority of the debate about Locke’s involvement in the slave trade centers on his Two Treatises of Government (1689).  One must examine exactly what he wrote concerning slavery before reaching a conclusion.  The first book, Of Government, specifically attacks Robert Filmer’s, Patriarcha – a pamphlet that advocated the divine right of kings and absolute authority over subjects.  Locke distinguished his second book from Filmer by entitling it, Of Civil-Government, suggesting that a monarchy was anything but civil.  Locke began the first book by invoking the evils of slavery:

Slavery is so vile and miserable an estate of man, and so directly opposite to the generous temper and courage of our nation; that it is hardly to be conceived that Englandman, much less a gentleman, should plead for it.13

Though Locke clearly was referring to the institution polemically, in reference to Filmer’s Patriarcha, it nevertheless is a powerful opening statement that underscores the importance of slavery as unequivocally the lowest possible state of the human condition. The first book is littered with refutations of Filmer’s argument, and this in itself becomes essential to understanding the text as a whole.  The second book is less of a counter to Filmer than a blueprint for the ideal “civil” government.  Locke devotes his fourth chapter to the issue of slavery and states that, “the natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on earth, and not to be under the will or legislative authority of man, but to have only the law of nature for his rule.”14

Stowage of the British slave ship Brookes under the regulated slave trade act of 1788.  Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Stowage of the British slave ship Brookes under the regulated slave trade act of 1788. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

However, slavery could still exist in the Lockean world.  There was a “perfect condition of slavery, which is nothing else, but the state of war continued, between a lawful conqueror and a captive.”15  A state of war could only be initiated if there were “force, or a declared design of force, upon the person of another, where there is no common superior on earth to appeal to for relief.”16  These statements never address the African slave trade specifically.  In fact, James Farr argues that readers need to separate the idea of slavery from the context of African slavery and rejoin it to the context of English politics in the late seventeenth century.17  This conveniently compartmentalizes the issue of slavery to the pamphlet war between Filmer and Locke.  It also trivializes the experiences Locke personally had with the institution through his investments and the Fundamental Constitutions.  The question then becomes was Locke writing from his personal knowledge of the state of slavery in the greater world, or from exclusively abstract reasoning?  Surely, Locke could not divorce his own experience from his theories.

Scholars have also argued that the slavery of Africans is indeed consistent with Locke’s general theory of the state of war.  Jennifer Welchman suggests that by refusing to end inter-tribal warfare, Africans were responsible for putting themselves into a state of slavery.18  Bernasconi and Mann take this even further by suggesting that the Two Treatises was in fact “a manifesto for a political group that had long seen its power and wealth tied to the conditions of North America.”19  Their personal interpretations of Locke’s theory however, are again contradicted by a complete lack of evidence of the author’s intention.  Nevertheless, if one supposes for a moment that they were right and Locke’s theory of slavery was applicable to the context of the African slave trade, they still do not explain how the state of war between Africans can be used to sell slaves to Europeans, a third party.

Part of the problem of analyzing Locke’s position on slavery is his relative silence about the issue.  Locke even denied being the author of the Two Treatises until he was on his deathbed.  As scholars have looked to Locke as one of the founders of Republicanism, they have to grapple with the fact that he did not speak out against the institution.20  Could Locke have betrayed the very notions of equality he helped to create?  Is he a traitor to his own principles?  Without further evidence, we can only speculate as to Locke’s feelings about African slavery.