Locke on Slavery
This week I got through another round of going through some of the main points of John Locke's political philosophy. One theme I emphasize is how strongly Locke's views condemn slavery and in particular the kind of slavery that was going on in his own day. That's why I was so surprised this semester to encounter the view that Locke was a slavery apologist. It just so obviously did not fit his quite explicit view on the matter. Slavery is, for Locke, an example of the kind of violation of the principle of equality and autonomy that absolute monarchy violates, and absolute monarchy is his main opponent. If I enslave someone, that is by its very definition a contradiction to the principle that government requires the consent of the government. Additionally, Locke explicitly says that no human being can take another human being as property, because we are not really even self-owned, and we are all God's property, and God has not given us the right to own each other. I don't know how someone could be any clearer than Locke is about such things.
But a colleague this semester mentioned in passing something about Locke's defense of slavery, and she didn't mean his allowance for the British legal penalty in a just war where those willing to initiate an unjust war, whose penalty might be death, could be spared the death penalty in exchange for servitude, something Locke does present in his Second Treatise on Government while going on to reject the actual practice of slavery of his own day in the entire rest of that work. No, she seemed to think Locke simply agreed with the practice of slavery of his own day. I couldn't imagine how anyone could read the Second Treatise and think such a thing. He explicitly rejects that practice throughout his work.
It turns out there is a movement to paint Locke as a racist who endorsed slavery and participated in it. I read the work of those who are presenting him that way, and I don't find it remotely convincing. It conflicts with what Locke actually says in the work that we know he originated and endorses. It also requires an ahistorical reading of a good deal of the claims that serve as premises in the argument. I have to think they have never read a good deal of what he has to say, or they read it so selectively that they can mischaracterize his views this way. His explicit views simply do not fit with how they are presenting him.
There are some arguments from his life, however, that at first glance might suggest a real contradiction between his views and how he lived, something akin to what you can accurately say about Thomas Jefferson, who is now widely known as a critic of slavery in his diaries while actually practicing it in some of the worst ways. In Locke's case, the two main pieces of evidence are his ownership of stock in companies that engaged in the slave trade and his work as a secretary for Shaftesbury in drafting up the policies of the king and of colonies that engaged in slavery. The argument is that no one who was opposed to slavery could have participated in those things. But it turns out his role in those was much more as a secretary or even something like a lawyer when drafting up the views of a client. And most of that stuff was chronologically before his publications that give us the best evidence of his own views. It was almost certainly his engagement with the policies and practices of slavery of his own day that he realized the contradiction between slavery and his own commitment to the principles of equality and government by consent of the governed.
Locke knew the practice of his slavery better than nearly anyone of his generation. He also found it despicable. He had to write up the views of those who endorsed it and put policies into practice furthering it, since that was his job. He was even paid for that work with shares in companies that engaged in the slave trade. It's not as if he decided to buy those shares in those companies. He would have seen precisely how the influencers of his day tried to defend slavery. Yet when he wrote his thoughts on the matter, the only allowance he had for slavery did not use any of those arguments. He does not apply the one justification of slavery that he does allow to the case of the African slave trade, when such an argument would require far greater ignorance of how the enslavement took place than Locke would have had. He does not use the arguments that those who did defend it used. He simply allows it as the one exception when slavery is not wrong, in his view, but he does not treat it as if such cases are even happening in his day. He could have done so if he had wanted to. He could have applied it to African enslavement. And he could have given the arguments that he knew very well were being used in his own day. Yet he didn't. Why? Because he thought they were terrible arguments for a terrible practice. He conceded one kind of slavery that he isn't opposed to, by the principles that he explicitly states to be the grounds for the moral wrongness of slavery in almost every case. But he rejected all the arguments and implementations of them that he had to deal with in his work as a secretary in writing up the policies of the king and how they were implemented in the colonies, and there are reasons to think Locke was trying to undermine those policies to the extent that he could.
In looking at all this, I found the work of historian Holly Brewer to be the most honest and historically grounded. One publicly accessible piece summarizing some of her work is here. She shows how a lot of the arguments that mischaracterize Locke on this do not take him in his historical context. (Update: a friend referred me to another piece by her, which is an excellent takedown of Ibram Kendi's irresponsible accusations against Locke, but those are more on the issues of racist portrayals of Africans rather than slavery. The article is now paywalled, but the Wayback Machine has it archived, since it was originally free to view, so I have linked to their archive of it.)
Philosopher William Uzgalis makes some good points as well (here is one article available for free online), although I think he's guilty of some of the ahistorical reasoning that Brewer complains about, particularly in his conclusion that Locke was a racist. Particularly, he seems to think Locke must have agreed with everything he was hired as a secretary to write and must have agreed with everything that went on around him as he was hired for clerical tasks working with government officials who set policy, a time that Brewer shows Locke to have been undermining slave policies to the extent that he could. I think Brewer shows what is wrong with that component of the article I just linked, but Uzgalis is good at resisting some of the arguments about Locke's views on slavery itself, and I find that helpful. His main argument in that article is pretty good at showing the unlikelihood that Locke saw his defense of slavery of prisoners of war as justifying the enslavement of Africans in his own time.
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Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.