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Locke on Slavery and Inalienable Rights

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Jennifer Welchman*
University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Baltimore, MD21228-5398USA


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.

So begins the first of Locke's Two Treatises of Government. But this Englishman, gentleman, and self-styled ‘lover of liberty’ was not himself above pleading for slavery when it suited him. That plea has been an embarrassment to his admirers ever since. Locke attempted to legitimize slavery by portraying it as a form of punishment for crimes committed where no central political authority or justice system exists. If a victim of an assault is entitled to take his attacker's life in self-defense, Locke reasoned, he must also be entitled to take his attacker's liberty.

Research Article
Copyright © The Authors 1995

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1 Locke, John Two Treatises of Government, Laslett, Peter ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1988), 141CrossRefGoogle Scholar

2 Clapp, James GordonJohn Locke,Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol. 4 (New York: Macmillan [1967] 1972) 499Google Scholar

3 For an overview of recent interpretations of Locke's defense of slavery, see Glausser, WayneThree Approaches to Locke and the Slave Trade,Journal of the History of Ideas 51 (1990) 99216CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For a range of interpretations of Locke's defense as an error of philosophical judgment arising from either racist or bourgeois socialization see Popkin, RichardPhilosophical Bases of Modem Racism,’ in Walton, Craig and Alton, John P. eds., Philosophy and the Civilizing Arts (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press 1974) 126–65Google Scholar; Seliger, MartinLocke, Liberalism, and Nationalism,’ in Yolton, John W. ed., John Locke: Problems and Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1969) 1933Google Scholar; MacPherson, C.B. The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1962)Google Scholar; Grant, Ruth W. John Locke's Liberalism (Chicago: Chicago University Press 1987).CrossRefGoogle Scholar For a slightly different view, see Davis, David Brion The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press 1960)Google Scholar who argues that Locke's defense does at least work as a defense of some forms of classical slavery.

4 See ‘A Letter on Toleration,’ in The Works of John Locke, corrected ed., vol. 6 (Aalen: Scienta Verlag [1823] 1963), 54 and An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Nidditch, P.H. ed., (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1975), 607Google Scholar. Moreover, Locke never speaks of slaves,classical or contemporary, as being less than human or incapable of distinctively human activities, including judgment, warfare, and religion. See, respectively, Locke's, Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul, Wainwright, Arthur W. ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1987) esp. 201–2Google Scholar on slaves’ erroneous judgments about their status after conversion to Christianity; Two Treatises of Government, 237, describing New World slaves as capable of combat; and ‘A Letter on Toleration’ on religion (cf. ‘The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina,’ n. 10 below.

5 Farr, JamesSo Vile and Miserable an Estate: The Problem of Slavery in Locke's Political ThoughtPolitical Theory 14 (1986) 263–89CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Dunn, John The Political Thought of John Locke (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1969)CrossRefGoogle Scholar for a similar sort of interpretation.

6 Farr, James ‘So Vile and Miserable an Estate,’ 281Google Scholar

7 Locke, Two Treatises, 269Google Scholar

8 Farr, ‘So Vile and Miserable an Estate,’ 285Google Scholar

9 Anthony Ashley Cooper, first Earl of Shaftesbury, went under a variety of titles during his lifetime. For the sake of convenience, he will be referred to as ‘Shaftesbury' throughout.

10 In what follows I am drawing on standard sources; e.g., Cranston, Maurice John Locke: A Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1984)Google Scholar and Bourne, Henry Richard Fox The Life of John Locke (Aalen: Scientia Verlag [1876] 1969).Google Scholar

11 ‘The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina’ in The Works of John Locke, 10th ed., vol. 10 (London 1801) 175-99

12 There is extant a draft of the Fundamental Constitutions in Locke's own hand (Public Records Office, London, 30/24/47/3). Precisely how large a part Locke played in its composition is disputed. P. Des Maizeaux, the first to print it under Locke's name (A Collection of Several Pieces of John Locke, Maizeaux, P. Des ed. [London 1720])Google Scholar, presented it as Locke's own work on the authority of an unnamed friend of Locke's who had shown Des Maizeaux a copy. Fox Bourne disputes the suggestion that the work is wholly Locke's on the grounds that (1) Des Maizeaux's sources had proved faulty in another of his attributions and (2) Shaftesbury was in his opinion not the sort of man to keep his hands off such a project (Bourne, Fox A Life of John Locke, vol. 1, 239)Google Scholar. However, there is some independent evidence for Locke's being the Fundamental Constitutions’ primary author — a letter from Sir Peter Colleton, who credits Locke for ‘that excellent form of government in the composure of which you had so great a hand’ (Bodleian Library, MSS Locke, c. 6, f. 215; quoted in Cranston, John Locke, 120Google Scholar).

13 Locke, ‘The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina,’ 196Google Scholar

14 See Beer, E.S. de ed., The Correspondence of John Locke, vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1976), 395.Google Scholar The letter is quoted in Cranston, John Locke, 196Google Scholar, and Bourne, Fox A Life of John Locke, 292.Google Scholar

15 Public Records Office, London, C05/286/266-303 and quoted in Farr, ‘So Vile and Miserable an Estate,’ 269Google Scholar

16 Locke, Paraphrase and Notes, 198, 201Google Scholar

17 Ibid., 201. See also his notes on 1st Corinthians 7:23 (202) and Romans 13:1-7 (588).

18 Locke, Two Treatises, 269Google Scholar

19 Ibid., 286

20 Ibid., 271

21 On Locke's conception of our natural rights to property in such things as liberty and the fruits of our labors, etc., as a form of usufruct, see Tully, James A Discourse on Property: John Locke and His Adversaries (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1980).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

22 Locke, Two Treatises, 284Google Scholar

23 Ibid., 290

24 Ibid., 311

25 Ibid., 315

26 Ibid., 307

27 Ibid., 271

28 Ibid.

29 Recently, Locke's position has been challenged by A. John Simmons, who questions whether the loss of one's natural rights to life and liberty entails a loss of all one's rights. He writes: ‘Locke seems to have thought that if one forfeits the right not to be killed, one must in the process have forfeited all other (“lesser“) rights. He is far from alone in this view. But we may allow, contra Locke, that the warmaker retains at least some rights (e.g., the right not to be cruelly degraded), even while losing the rights not to be killed or used for labor’ (Simmons, A. John The Lockean Theory of Rights (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1992), 196).Google Scholar

The problem Simmons leaves unresolved is how such an allowance can be given any sense. To take his own example, how can a slave be further degraded? Surely to be enslaved is the ultimate degradation since it is to be reduced to the status of an entity incapable of degradation, i.e., property.

This does not mean Locke is obliged to turn a blind eye to the behavior of cruel slaveholders. Locke can hold that slaves ought not be treated cruelly, just as he can hold that animals ought not be treated cruelly, on the grounds that it violates the owner's duties to be virtuous, rather than any ‘rights’ of the beings owned.

30 For Locke, acts that violate one's natural duties in the relevant respects include not only deliberate assaults upon others’ rights to freely command their persons, but also their liberty and property. Locke writes: ‘This makes it lawful for a man to Kill a Thief, who has not in the least hurt him, nor declared any design upon his Life, any farther then by the use of Force, so to get him in his Power, as to take away his Money, or what he pleases from him; because using force, where he has no Right, to get me into his Power, let his pretense be what it will, I have no reason to suppose that he, who would take away my liberty, would not when he had me in his Power, take away every thing else’ (Two Treatises, 279-80).

31 Locke, Two Treatises, 324.Google Scholar On the distinction between political or civil society and life in a State of Nature, see esp. 323-6.

32 Ibid., 294; and see 295, 336-7, 339-40.

33 For a discussion of Locke's interpretation of the status of native North Americans in the context of European colonization, see Tully's, JamesRediscovering America: The Two Treatises and Aboriginal Rights,’ in his An Approach to Political Philosophy: Locke in Contexts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1993).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

34 Locke, Two Treatises, 269Google Scholar

35 Ibid., 389

36 It should perhaps be noted that the later, American practice of making a child's status wholly dependent upon its mother's would be indefensible from Locke's standpoint, since the practice permitted the enslavement of children whose fathers were free.

37 Locke, Two Treatises, 390Google Scholar