For classical liberals (often called libertarians in the US context), the founding documents of liberalism are John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government and Letters on Toleration, which set out the case for a limited government, respectful of private property rights and tolerant of religious differences. Locke lived in England (and for five years in exile in the Netherlands) in the seventeenth century, and his work is normally interpreted in terms of the struggles between the English king and parliament from the Civil War to the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, in which the absolutist Stuart dynasty was overthrown.
For those who get around to actually reading the Treatise, there are some unappealing passages in which Locke justifies slavery (as applied to captives taken in war) and denies that his theory of property rights applies to hunter-gatherer societies such as those of Native Americans. But these issues seem so far removed from Locke’s social context in seventeenth-century England as to be mere asides, irrelevant to the main argument.
Considering both his own life and his historical impact, however, Locke is more accurately regarded as an American philosopher than an English one, even though he never crossed the Atlantic in person. Recent scholarship on Locke has focused on facts that have always been well known but, like other unpleasant historical facts, have been overlooked or disregarded. This historical reappraisal implies a new and radically different understanding of his political philosophy.
In a career of fluctuating fortunes, Locke was intimately involved with American affairs. As secretary to the Earl of Shaftesbury, then chancellor of the exchequer, Locke assisted in drafting the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina. He was secretary to the Council of Trade and Plantations (1673–74) and a member of the Board of Trade (1696–1700), with responsibility for the American colonies. He was a major investor in the English slave trade through the Royal African Company and the Bahama Adventurers company.
Thus, when Locke wrote about slavery and the conditions under which property in land might be acquired, American conditions were far more directly relevant than those in England, where chattel slavery was unknown, and where the original acquisition of land was a historical fiction.
Given his reputation as a defender of property rights and personal freedom, Locke has been accused of hypocrisy for his role in promoting and benefiting from slavery and the expropriation of indigenous populations, actions that would seem to contradict his philosophical position. This is too charitable.
The real contradictions are to be found within Locke’s philosophical writings. These are designed to fit his political positions both in England, where he supported resistance to the absolutist pretensions of the Catholic James II, and in America, where he was part of the slave-owning ruling class (albeit from afar).
An early example of Locke’s doctrinal flexibility can be found in his Letters Concerning Toleration. Although the argument for toleration appears general, Locke manages to find reasons for excluding both Catholics and atheists. So, in the context of seventeenth-century England, the only group who would benefit from Locke’s proposed policy of toleration was Protestant dissenters from the established Church of England. This was, not surprisingly, the group to which Locke belonged.
Locke’s theory of property is similarly self-serving. It’s generally seen as a historical fiction, used to justify currently existing property rights, despite the fact that they cannot really have been acquired in the way that Locke suggests. As Hume objected, “there is no property in durable objects, such as lands or houses, when carefully examined in passing from hand to hand, but must, in some period, have been founded on fraud and injustice.”
That’s true of course. Considered in the American context, however, Locke is not offering a theory of original acquisition. Rather, his theory is one of expropriation, designed specifically to justify the “fraud and injustice” to which Hume refers.
Locke’s central idea is that agriculturalists, by mixing their labor with the soil, thereby acquire a title to it. He immediately faces the objection that before the arrival of agriculture, hunters and gatherers worked on the land and gained sustenance from it. So, it would seem, the would-be farmer has arrived too late. The obvious example, to which he refers several times, is that of European colonists arriving in America. Locke’s answer is twofold.
First, he invokes his usual claim that there is plenty of land for everybody, so appropriating some land for agriculture can’t be of any harm to the hunter-gatherers. This is obviously silly. It might conceivably be true for the first agriculturalist (though on standard Malthusian grounds there is no reason to suppose this), or the second or the fiftieth, but at some point the land must cease to be sufficient to support the preexisting hunter-gatherer population. At this point, well before all land has been acquired by agriculturalists, his theory fails.
Locke must surely have known his claim to be false, not as a matter of abstract reasoning, distant history, but in terms of contemporary fact. His Treatises on Government were published in 1689, a year after the outbreak of King William’s War (the North American theatre of the Nine Years War). The core issue in this war, as in a string of earlier conflicts, was control of the fur trade, the most economically significant form of hunter-gatherer activity. But underlying that was the general pressure arising from the steady expansion of European agriculture into lands previously owned by Indian tribes.
As a capitalist, and shareholder in American businesses such as the (slaveholding) Bahama Adventurers, Locke could scarcely have been unaware of these facts. Indeed he refers in the Treatise to American contacts who gave him his information.
Locke’s real defense is that regardless of whether there is a lot or a little, uncultivated land is essentially valueless. All, or nearly all, the value, he says, comes from the efforts of the farmers who improve the land. Since God gave us the land to improve, it rightfully belongs to those who improve it.
This is exactly the reasoning of the Supreme Court majority in Kelo v. City of New London. Ms Kelo and her neighbors were indeed occupying the land in question, but, so the Court concluded, they weren’t able or willing to make the best use of it. So, the only way the city could ensure the best economic use of the land in question was to use its eminent domain power of compulsory acquisition.
All of this relates back to the point I’ve raised before, that the credibility of any Lockean theory defending established property rights from the state that established them depends on the existence of a frontier, beyond which lies boundless usable land. This in turn requires the erasure (mentally and usually in brutal reality) of the people already living beyond the frontier and drawing their sustenance from the land in question.
Now for Locke on slavery. Locke’s reputation as an opponent of slavery rests in part on misunderstanding and in part on the fact that he offered a more limited justification of slavery than earlier writers.
As regards misunderstanding, Locke’s oft-quoted statement that “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 an Englishman, much less a gentleman, should plead for it” sounds like a statement of absolute condemnation. In fact, however, it is more appropriately understood as an early rendition of the jingoism expressed in the sentiment that “Britons never, never, never, shall be slaves.”
Locke’s intention, in this passage, was to demolish the idea of Sir Robert Filmer that Englishmen (including English Americans) could voluntarily agree to submit to a government with the absolutist claims of the Stuarts — it was this submission to which the term “slavery” referred. At the same time, he allowed for absolute chattel slavery, with power of life and death, in the case of “prisoners taken in a just war.” In his work on the Constitution of the Carolinas, Locke extended the same absolute power to the owners of African-American slaves.
There’s an obvious contradiction here. While Africans were frequently enslaved as a result of war, there was no reason to suppose this war to be just, and it was obviously impossible to extend this justification to their children.
Some Locke scholars have concluded, as a result, that his political position was in hypocritical contradiction of his theoretical views. That seems too generous to Locke as a theorist.
As we’ve seen, his theory of property in general has precisely the same characteristics: a liberal-sounding defense of the rights of Englishmen to property and freedom, used to justify their deprivation of those rights from indigenous people. Similarly, in his much-vaunted Letters on Toleration, he managed to find reasons to exclude Catholics and atheists, so that the only proposed beneficiaries of toleration were dissenting Protestants like himself.
Locke is American in another crucial respect. His writings were largely ignored in England, and gained their prominence almost entirely from their influence on the founders of the United States.
More precisely, Locke’s principles perfectly suited the Southern Federalists who dominated the early years of the United States. On the one hand, they justified rebellion against the British Crown. On the other hand, they rejected any interference with property rights, including slave ownership. More broadly, Locke’s theory stood in opposition to the radical democratic possibilities of the American Revolution, represented by figures like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine.
The contradictions inherent in Locke’s position were pointed out by critics at the time, and summed up by that old-fashioned Tory, Dr Samuel Johnson, who remarked, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes?” (Johnson’s friendship with his Jamaican servant, Francis Barber, a former slave, was a striking testimony to his character.)
But history is written by the winners. Locke benefitted from the same historical amnesia that has absolved all the US founders, most notably Jefferson and Madison, along with antebellum leaders like Calhoun and Clay, from their role in maintaining and extending slavery. This amnesia was reinforced by the dominance of the pro-slavery Dunning School in historical discussion of the Civil War and Reconstruction Era. It is only since the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement that these questions have been reopened.
If Locke is viewed, correctly, as an advocate of expropriation and enslavement, what are the implications for classical liberalism and libertarianism? The most important is that there is no justification for treating property rights as fundamental human rights, on par with personal liberty and freedom of speech.
The true liberal tradition is represented not by Locke, but by John Stuart Mill, whose wholehearted commitment to political freedom was consistent with his eventual adoption of socialism (admittedly in a rather refined and abstract form).
Mill wasn’t perfect, as is evidenced by his support of British imperialism, for which he worked as an official of the East India Company, and more generally by his support for limitations on democratic majorities. But Mill’s version of liberalism became more democratic as experience showed that fears about dictatorial majorities were unfounded. By contrast, Locke’s classical liberalism has hardened into propertarian dogma.
As Mill recognized, markets and property rights are institutions that are justified by their usefulness, not by any fundamental human right. Where markets work well, governments should not interfere with them. But, when they fail, as they so often do, it is entirely appropriate to modify property rights and market outcomes, or to replace them altogether with direct public control.
Received ideas change only slowly, and the standard view of Locke as a defender of liberty is likely to persist for years to come. Still, the reassessment is underway, and the outcome is inevitable. Locke was a theoretical advocate of, and a personal participant in, expropriation and enslavement. His classical liberalism offers no guarantee of freedom to anyone except owners of capitalist private property.