PHL302 Background

Ports of Call


Locke 3

John Locke and Afro-American Slavery

First Sightings

Readings for this part of your journey

  • Chapters 4 and 16 of the Second Treatise of Civil Gocernment
  • Equiano's Travels
  • Popkin, "The Philosophical Basis of Modern Racism" in your course packet.
  • Joseph Banneker, "Letter to Thomas Jefferson" in your course packet.

Locke 's theory of slavery in The Second Treatise

In this unit of the course we are going to focus on one aspect of Locke's account of civil government -- his theory of slavery. Since England was colonizing the eastern American seaboard during Locke's life time, and Locke served as a colonial administrator, some scholars assume that Locke's account of slavery is intended to justify the Afro-American slave trade. We are going to explore Locke's theory of slavery, the nature of the slave trade and the institutions and practices of Afro-American slavery, to see if Locke's theory justifies of condemns Afro-American slavery. We are also going to consider issues about race and racism. Richard Popkin claims that Locke was the originator of one of the two chief branches of modern racist theory -- the degeneracy theory. We will explore Popkin's account of the philosphical basis of modern racism.


John Locke
You have already been introduced to John Locke (1632-1704) in the two preceeding units of this course. Locke was an Oxford scholar and doctor who became involved with the governance of the colonies and in the great political conflicts in England. Locke is justly famous for writing An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which deals with the extent and limts of human understanding. Locke is also famous for writing the Two Treatises of Civil Government and the Letters Concerning Toleration which deal with conflicts in English politics.

At this point we are focusing on Locke's activities as the secretary of the Board of Trade and Plantations under Lord Shaftsbury and later; his role as Secretary of the Lords Proprietors of the Carolinas, and in general in his role as a colonial administrator, and investor in companies involved in the slave trade. We want to determine in what ways these activities intersect with and effect Locke's philosophy. Did Locke, for example, hold that all men were equal and had the natural rights to life, liberty and property, but that this doctrine did not apply to peoples of color?

Locke became involved with English trade and colonies through his relationship with Anthony Ashley Cooper, later the First Earl of Shaftsbury. As a colonial administrator, Locke came to know a great deal about Afro-American slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. It is the connection between Locke, racism and slavery that we are going to explore in this unit of the course.

The Earl of Shaftsbury

The First Earl
of Shaftsbury

Besides Locke, you have arlready encountered Anthony Ashley Cooper, Locke's parton. Cooper was a very rich commoner, who became involved in government under the Commonwealth. When that government began to collapse after the death of Oliver Cromwell, Cooper became involved in the consultations and negotiations which led to the restoration of Charles II. After the Restoration in 1660 Anthony Ashley Cooper played a major role both in the English government and in opposition to the government.

Locke met Anthony Ashley Cooper in 1666 and moved to London the next year to become his personal physician, secretary researcher, political operative and friend. Living with him Locke found himself at the very heart of the storm in English politics in the 1670s and 1680s. In 1668 Locke oversaw an operation in which a superating cyst was removed from his patron's liver. Miraculously Cooper survived the operation. (Remember this was a time before the theory of germs!) The family gave Locke all the credit for the success of the operation.

Shaftsbury held a number of important posts and eventually became Lord Chancellor of England. At that point he became the First Earl of Shaftsbury. Shaftsbury eventually had a falling out with the King (who probably never trusted him since he had been part of the Commowealth government). He was dismissed as Lord Chancellor in 1672 and became the leader of the opposition to the government. He was the leader of the Country Party (which shortly became the Whig party) in opposition to the Court party (which became the Tories). The Country Party sought to pass a bill excluding James, Duke of York, an avowed Catholic, from the throne. This led to the party engaging in several populist political campaigns in which they succeeded in gaining a powerful majority in the House of Commons which passed The Exclusion Bill by a huge majority. The Exclusion Bill died in the House of Lords because of opposition from King Charles II. Some of the Country Party gave up and went home, while some of its leaders, including Shaftsbury, began plotting armed insurrection and the assisination of the King and his brother. Shaftsbury had earlier been arrested and tried but found not quilty by a London Whig jury. The government, having gained control of the grand jury process was after him again. He was now a hunted man, moving from safe house to safe house. Eventually, the insurrection have been postponed too long, he could wait no longer, and slipped out of the country and into exile in Holland. He died soon after arriving there, leaving when the fortunes of his party were at their lowest ebb.

We are going to return to the time in the late 1660s just after Locke moved to London to become Shaftsbury's personal physician. While he was in government, Shaftsbury was enormously interested in trade and the colonies. Shaftsbury was a thoughtful patriot. He considered trade crucial to the strength of the country. Shaftsbury was also instrumental in founding the Carolina colonies. At Shaftsbury's behest, Locke served as secretary to the Lords Proprietors of the Carolinas and as Secretary to the Board of Trade and Plantations. As Secretary of the Board of Trade and Plantations, Locke collected information from all over the world about the colonies and trade for the English government . As Secretary to the Lords Proprietors of the Carolinas he was involved in a commercial enterprise which may have influenced Locke's views about colonies, economics and government. We will come presently to the ways in which these activities also involved Locke with the slave trade. Before doing so, however we should consider that trade.


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