John Locke and American Slavery

John Locke and American Slavery:

Determining Whether Locke Would have Advocated for or Against the Enslavement of African Americans Through a Close Look at his Second Treatise of Government

John Locke’s arguments regarding slavery have been cited by both abolitionist and Confederate leaders in defending their positions. I am interested in how the same document, Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, gave rise to such different interpretations about whether or not Locke believed that slavery was justified. After considering arguments from multiple scholars, I will then attempt to determine whether Locke would have advocated for or against the enslavement of African Americans in America, a topic which he never discussed in print.

In regards to Locke’s notion of slavery, it is important to consider the context in which he was writing. James Farr has written a series of essays on Locke. Locke, writing during the time of European expansion, argued that only conquest of a certain peoples during a just war could justify their enslavement.[1] In 1986, Farr coined this as “Locke’s just-war theory of slavery,” and went on to acknowledge that “this theory is woefully inadequate as an account of Afro-American slavery.”[2] We must remember Locke’s main intention behind authoring the Second Treatise of Government: to lie down the principles of Liberalism. Farr argues that Locke had “local objectives in mind: namely, to refute the theorists of royal absolutism.”[3] Since Locke remained silent on the issue of African American enslavement, one that wishes to justify enslavement by citing Locke must look to some other grounds in Locke’s political thought, of which Farr argues there is none. According to Farr, Locke simply “was not a racist in the strong sense required to justify slavery.”[4]

Holly Brewer raises equally important points in her article titled “Slavery, Sovereignty, and ‘Inheritable Blood.’” Brewer agrees with Farr, claiming that Locke opposed slavery, but while Farr condemns Locke’s silence and inaction on the issue, Brewer admires him for taking steps “to challenge Stuart slave practices” after James II was dethroned.[5] Locke critiqued James II’s right to rule on the same ground as he critiqued slavery and servitude in the West Indies. Locke did not believe that masters or kings could claim perpetual and permanent hereditary power from Biblical Adam. Since slaves were bought, not inherited, “such purchase could not legitimate the dominion of one man over another.”[6] This idea went directly against the Stuarts’ common-law principle of dominion, a principle which justified creating a nation of slaves. When taking Locke’s action against the Stuarts and masters in the West Indies into consideration, it is difficult to prove that Locke would have supported such an institution of servitude in America.

Unlike Farr and Brewer, C. B. Macpherson and following scholar Jennifer Welchman believe that Locke would have supported chattel slavery. He claims that Locke’s capitalist theories “erased the moral disability with which unlimited capitalist appropriation had hitherto been handicapped.”[7] According to Macpherson, Locke set only three restrictions on the accumulation of property, the pertinent one being the “supposed labor limitation”[8] in which one may only acquire property through one’s own labor. As Locke continues his argument, however, Macpherson believes that he transcends this restriction by claiming that labor can be alienated. Macpherson cites a passage from Locke’s Second Treatise as evidence: “the turfs my servant has cut… become my property, without the assignation or consent of anybody.”[9] According to Macpherson, this is a clear indication that Locke believed that one could own a servant’s labor, for just as a man can establish property by his own labor, “[property] is equally established by the labour he has purchased.”[10]

Jennifer Welchman argues that Locke intended to justify new world slavery and his role in it. Though Welchman agrees with Farr’s idea that Locke had a local objective to counter the monarchists’ arguments, she argues that “there is no inconsistency between Locke’s political philosophy and chattel slavery.”[11] Welchman argues that by Locke’s standards, sub-Saharan Africa was in a state of nature. According to Locke, anyone who assaulted or tolerated the assault of another in the state of nature could be enslaved by “the executive right of the law of nature.”[12] Welchman argues that Africans were in an extended state of tribal warfare, assaulting one another and thus “forfeit[ing] their natural rights.”[13] Thus, their enslavement was a legitimate exercise of the executive right, and, Africans, “being property … might be sold, bartered, or given to whomever his captor pleased–even Europeans.”[14] This argument alone, however, is not sufficient to justify the extended practice of slavery unless coupled with her following argument that Locke supported hereditary slavery. She acknowledges that this seems inconsistent with his argument that “a child’s natural rights always survive the loss of its parents’ rights.”[15] But, when slavery is introduced, she argues, society is permanently divided into “two ranks, right-bearing human persons and non-right-bearing human property.”[16] Thus, children born to slaves are neither children of men nor entitled to natural rights.

In the Second Treatise of Government, particularly the chapter titled “Of Slavery,” Locke begins with a discussion about political slavery, writing that consenting to the rule of another is only legitimate under the “Legislative Power […] established, by consent, in the Common-wealth.”[17] By Locke’s account, if one wishes to enter political society, he or she must choose to give up certain rights to the government to secure better enjoyment of their lives, liberty, and property. Thus, unless this is the case, one cannot be submitted or submit oneself to another’s will, for “Freedom from Absolute, Arbitrary Power, is so necessary to, and closely joined with a Man’s Preservation, that he cannot part with it.”[18] In understanding the weight that this sentence carries, it is important to note that Locke believed that man’s desire for self-preservation was the “first and strongest desire God Planted in Men.”[19] A threat to your freedom is tantamount to a threat to your closest and most important desire—that for self-preservation. After considering this, it is hard to believe that Locke would have supported an institution of slavery in America that so strongly jeopardized man’s most strong desire.

As Farr mentions, Locke’s aforementioned discussion was meant to refute arguments of royal absolutism and lay down the groundwork for his new form of political society. Locke extends his discussion of slavery beyond this, however, explaining that the “perfect condition of slavery […] is nothing else but the State of War continued, between a lawful Conquerour, and a Captive.”[20] I agree with Farr in that Locke’s just-war theory is “woefully inadequate as an account of Afro-American slavery”[21] but for different reasons than he presents. By Locke’s definition of the State of War, it is impossible that chattel slavery could have persisted, for masters, once taking slaves’ freedom, place themselves into a State of War with the slaves. Locke would agree, for he claims that “he who attempts to get another Man into his Absolute Power, does thereby put himself into a State of War with him.”[22] Since all people, including slaves, have the natural right to self-preservation, one is allowed to defend oneself when another threatens his or her freedom. Slaves, with their freedom and thus their self-preservation having been threatened, would have every right to revolt against their masters according to Locke.

Even if one were to apply the just-war theory of slavery to African American slavery, the argument that Locke would not have supported such an institution still holds. I will take an approach similar to Welchman’s in defending this position. After looking at accounts of Africa in the late seventeenth century, it is impossible to believe that the slave trade was confined to captives of just wars. The mere fact that women and children were part of the slave trade is enough to refute the idea that only combatants were enslaved. If all Africans had actually been defeated in a just war, then Locke would have supported the slave trade. Even if this were the case, however, Locke would claim that slavery would have to end with the death of the supposed defeated combatants. This is due to the fact that the extended practice of slavery would directly contradict Locke’s ideas that “all men are naturally in a state of perfect freedom […] and equality”[23] and that enslavement from a just-war is limited to “those, who have actually assisted, concurr’d, or consented to that unjust force.”[24] Thus, children of slaves, having committed no injustice, would be born free, making it impossible to justify an institution of slavery that persisted for centuries.

When considering Locke’s position on slavery, it is impossible to ignore the fact that he helped author the Fundamental Constitution of Carolina, a document that advocated for hereditary nobility and slavery. Locke writes: “every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his negro slaves, of what opinion or religion soever.”[25] Multiple scholars cited this as evidence when defending their cases that Locke would have supported slavery in America. It seems that Locke could not have been more explicit! However, “only the first two paragraphs were written by Locke,” neither of which mentioned hereditary nobility or slavery.[26] Locke’s main position was one of a secretary. He was simply following orders from the eight men who owned the Carolinas whose values unfortunately aligned with the values of Charles II. Locke was not in the position to erect his ideal form of government and rather had to include principles that he directly spoke against in his Second Treatise of Government. I anticipate the argument, and perhaps it has already been developed, that had Locke truly been opposed to these principles, he would not have drafted such a document. I find this to be a troubling point of which I struggle to find an objection. Perhaps he developed a certain moral laxness out of his own financial interest. Whatever the case may be, Locke’s role in the constitution alone does not constitute sufficient evidence that he was proslavery. It is evident that he was willing to include principles in the constitution that he strongly opposed, for though his thoughts on slavery are unclear, he explicitly opposes hereditary nobility in the Second Treatise of Government.

It is important to understand the implications of this thesis. If one believes that Locke would have regarded African American enslavement in America as a justifiable institution, multiple problems arise, both theoretical and practical. Locke is widely regarded as the most successful modern political philosopher. If he was racist, perhaps we should not give his work so much credit nor give him nearly as much praise. Perhaps we should not include his work in curricula or if we do, we should teach students to be wary of his writings.

There is a more pressing problem, however, that arises when one believes that African American slavery is compatible with Locke’s political theory. Locke was the founder of Liberalism, and Liberalism is now a dominant ideology in much of the world. In the Second Treatise of Government, Locke essentially presents the principles of this form of government. If his political theory supports or even tolerates chattel slavery, it could be dangerous to base our form of government off of his theory. In such an environment, slavery could easily arise and supporters of slavery could point to Locke in defense of their position. Political Scientist Francis Fukuyama theorized that “mankind’s ideological evolution” will end with the “universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”[27] Multiple scholars share his idea that Liberalism will govern the material world in the long run and look to events such as the collapse of the Soviet Union as evidence. If this is true and if Liberalism leaves room for chattel slavery, everyone’s freedom may be at stake.

Conversely, if one accepts either Farr’s, Brewer’s, or my interpretation of Locke— that his theory does not justify the enslavement of African Americans— these problems go away. In this view, Liberalism protects our desire for self-preservation since it does not target our right to freedom, and Locke should still receive immense recognition for his work. Liberalism and chattel slavery cannot coexist, and anyone living under a liberal democracy cannot rightfully justify this form of slavery.


Armitage, David. “John Locke, Carolina, and the Two Treatises of Government.” Political Theory 32, no. 5 (October 2004): 602–27. doi:10.1177/0090591704267122.

Brewer, Holly. “Slavery, Sovereignty, and ‘Inheritable Blood’: Reconsidering John Locke and the Origins of American Slavery.” American Historical Review 122, no. 4 (October 2017): 1038–78.

Farr, James. “So Vile and Miserable an Estate: The Problem of Slavery in Locke’s Political Thought.” Political Theory 14, no. 2 (1986): 263–89.

Fukuyama, Francis. “The End of History and the Last Man.” New York: Free Press, 1992.

Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. Edited by Peter Laslett. Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511810268.

Macpherson, C. B. (Crawford Brough). The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1962.

Thorpe, Francis. The Federal and State Constitutions, Colonial Charters, and other Organic Laws of the States and Territories now or heretofore forming the United States of America. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1909.

Welchman, Jennifer. “Locke on Slavery and Inalienable Rights.” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 25, no. 1 (1995): 67–81.

  1. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1988), 224.
  2. James Farr, “So Vile and Miserable an Estate: The Problem of Slavery in Locke’s Political Thought,” Political Theory 14, no. 2 (1986): 264.
  3. Farr, “So Vile,” 264.
  4. Farr, “So Vile,” 264.
  5. Holly Brewer, “Slavery, Sovereignty, and ‘Inheritable Blood’: Reconsidering John Locke and the Origins of American Slavery,” American Historical Review 122, no. 4 (October 2017): 1057.
  6. Brewer, “Slavery,” 1056.
  7. C. B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1962), 221.
  8. C. B. Macpherson, The Political Theory, 214.
  9. Locke, Two Treatises, 299.
  10. C. B. Macpherson, The Political Theory, 214.
  11. Jennifer Welchmann, “Locke on Slavery and Inalienable Rights,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 25, no. 1 (1995): 71.
  12. Locke, Two Treatises, 272.
  13. Welchmann, “Locke on Slavery,” 79.
  14. Welchmann, “Locke on Slavery,” 79.
  15. Welchmann, “Locke on Slavery,” 79.
  16. Welchmann, “Locke on Slavery,” 80.
  17. Locke, Two Treatises, 283.
  18. Locke, Two Treatises, 284.
  19. Locke, Two Treatises, 206.
  20. Locke, Two Treatises, 284.
  21. Farr, “So Vile,” 264.
  22. Locke, Two Treatises, 280.
  23. Locke, Two Treatises, 269.
  24. Locke, Two Treatises, 388.
  25. Francis Thorpe. The Federal and State Constitutions, (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1909).
  26. David Armitage, “John Locke, Carolina, and the Two Treatises of Government.” Political Theory 32, no. 5 (October 2004): 608.
  27. Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History and the Last Man.” (New York, Free Press, 1992), 4.