Holly Brewer. She is co-editor of the American Society for Legal History's book series and has served on their board of directors.
Edited by Sam Haselby. John Locke, who lived through two revolutions in 17th-century England, remains perhaps the most important theorist about democracy. The principles that government should be based on the consent of the governed, that most people can make reasonable choices, that all men are created equal, that people have inalienable rights — his animosity towards hereditary privilege — have had many critics too. Since then, criticism has grown.
On the Right, critics see him as too idealistic and impractical: all people are not and cannot be equal. On the Left, critics contend that Locke was a hypocrite, a philosopher who put forth radical ideas while working on behalf of slavery and colonialism. Implicating Locke in the causes of slavery and colonialism has cast a shadow over Western liberalism, and indeed democracy itself.
However, history tells a different story. Colonialism and slavery emerged from ideas and practices much older than Locke about the divine and absolute rights of kings. As a mid-level functionary in 17th-century England, Locke directly encountered the realities of monarchy and inherited status.
Such experiences opened his eyes. Over time, he came to believe that slavery was deeply wrong, that it was the most extreme instance of the evils of inherited status that infected the entire social order. As his opposition to royal policies developed, he faced punishment for his radical ideas. At the end of the war, King Charles I was tried for treason against his own people and executed on 30 January Locke was But after more than a decade of political instability, Locke supported a new king.
London mobs and rival armies readied to fight each other, opening a spectre of anarchy. Over the next few years, Locke lived in Oxford, as a scholar and tutor, specialising in medicine and philosophy. He probably would have stayed there, and written little of note, had he not in saved the life of Anthony Ashley Cooper, later the first Earl of Shaftesbury.
Just as a prince is born the son of a king, with a right to rule, a subject was born to a subject, and a slave born to a slave, each with the obligation to obey king and master. During , England under Charles II pursued slavery vigorously, and not only because it helped to justify monarchy.
Slaves helped to produce profitable crops such as sugar and tobacco that generated huge tax revenues for the monarch. By , the tax revenue in the form of customs on these staples comprised a third of crown revenue, paying for the navy, the army, and much else. He put his brother James in charge of a new Royal African Company to enable the slave trade; James led two wars against the Dutch to gain access to the slave trade.
In Virginia, the king offered 50 acres per slave or servant bought; thus, some men accrued estates of 20, acres and more. The implication is not so much personal hypocrisy as evidence that Western liberalism, from its foundational theorist, promoted slavery. In terms of the Carolina constitutions, Locke was a secretary — he drafted a legal document as a lawyer drafts a will. He composed it for the eight men who owned the Carolinas given to them as a reward by Charles II. The matter of the Royal African Company stock has also lent itself to misinterpretation. But within two years, both Locke and Shaftesbury stopped cooperating with the king and his policies.
Shaftesbury opposed not only the Test Act of barring both Catholics and Dissenters — non-Anglican Protestants — from political office but also probably a attempt to create an imperial slave code for England, both of which Charles supported. Charles ordered the book burned as seditious. If the story ended here, we would know little of Locke. He was a minor actor in a political contest dominated by major figures struggling over empire and questions on the nature of power. But the story did not end in , which rather marked an abrupt turning point.
They began as a repudiation of claims of divine and hereditary absolute power. They began to argue that absolutism possessed a common essence, and took different forms — of kings over subjects, and masters over slaves — but that all forms were wrong. Without his involvement in imperial policymaking, Locke would never have composed the Second Treatise , his theory of democratic governance.
He wrote it not to propound Stuart ideals and practices, but against them, compelled by his legal and administrative encounters with slavery, a corrupt colonial government and a tyrannical monarch. His Two Treatises was a different kind of constitution than the one he had helped to draft for Carolina.
For exclusive thoughts, photos and reading recommendations, sign up for his newsletter. He actually argued that the three-fifths clause was a good example of how the Constitution would lead to good government—by protecting property. Hence the battles over the admission of slave and free states that punctuated the path to Civil War. Powered by RebelMouse. The refusal to mention slavery as property or anything else in the Constitution means something. But of the 11 clauses in the Constitution that deal with or have policy implications for slavery, 10 protect slave property and the powers of masters. People who are on Lightning Bolt's exceedingly loud, improvisational vibe will find plenty to like here.
Ministers of the Church of England, of which he was head, preached passive obedience to him because he was chosen by God to lead them. James II was directly involved in that trade in human cargo. He attacked the principle of divine and hereditary power methodically. Why should the eldest son inherit all power by primogeniture, even over his brothers? The king might argue that his right to rule descended from Adam, but neither he nor masters of slaves had power over others by such specious claims.
He began with postulates including the Golden Rule and built principles: government should be based on consent, and has particular purposes, mainly to protect its subjects. People do not have to obey a government that no longer protects them, and the consent of an ancestor does not bind the descendants : each generation must consent for itself.
And he insisted that it should never be hereditary. He opposed slavery on the same grounds as hereditary monarchy. People do not inherit their status. Government should be based on the consent of the governed, not on divine and hereditary privilege. Labour, also, should be based on consent. The first thing anyone owns and cannot give away is his own person. It is a propriety, a belonging, that is higher than any other kind of ownership.
That right is very different from slavery, which is forced labour. A fter the Glorious Revolution, King William and Queen Mary gradually retreated from many earlier policies that had encouraged slavery. Under pressure from them, William III appointed Locke to a new and more powerful governing council over the colonies, which he called the Board of Trade. There, Locke sat in judgment over many colonial policies. He became particularly concerned about abuses of power in Virginia.
He then wrote a page plan for law reform in Virginia. The popular narrative of the American Revolution depicts a colonial population united in frustration and anger with Britain. But the history is more complicated — it always is. With the other, they defined an enemy. In their effort to construct a singular American people, the patriots attached new meaning to whiteness, conflating it with reason, with freedom, with citizenship.
Thousands of blacks and Native peoples fought for a revolution whose architects excluded them as members of the new polity. In his book, Waldstreicher asks readers to hold two ideas in their minds simultaneously. First, that the egalitarian ideals of the American Revolution produced a sincere politics of antislavery. Vermont, for example, eliminated slavery in its Constitution, and Pennsylvania introduced gradual emancipation in In Virginia, where 40 percent of the population was enslaved, some planters freed their slaves.
Even Thomas Jefferson, as a member of Congress under the Articles of Confederation, proposed a ban on slaves in the western territories after It failed by a single vote. Americans were conflicted on how blacks would fit into their new republic, but a growing number could not reconcile the rhetoric of liberty with the practice of bondage. At the same time, the American revolutionaries were committed to the protection of private property.
Which, for many of the most prominent, powerful men in the country, meant property in enslaved people. Principles of liberty may have weakened slavery in the North, but they did the opposite in the South. When delegates gathered in Philadelphia in to construct a new government, slavery was the issue of key concern.
It came to the floor during the first days of deliberation and would shape nearly every decision of that summer. How could it not? The framers wanted a national government with the power and flexibility to confront any problem the Republic might face. They wanted to be able to govern.
But every question of representation and federal power touched slavery. It was inescapable. It is common, and accurate enough, to say that the federal republic could not have been created in had not slavery been left alone, but the convention went further and deeper than that. Conservative critics have challenged the Project with a series of claims and assertions about slavery and the founding. There are clear answers and rejoinders.
Rich Lowry points to the Northwest Ordinance of , which banned slavery in the territories between the Great Lakes and the Ohio River, as evidence of the antislavery intent of the founding generation. But this argument misses a provision in the ordinance for the return of fugitive slaves, as well as considerable evidence that Southerners backed the ban on slavery for commercial concerns, not out of lofty idealism.