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Locke 3

Commentary on Locke's Account of Slavery, Equiano and Popkin

Locke and slavery

Our goal in this unit is to understand Locke's theory of slavery and how it relates to Locke's world. To understand Locke's theory of slavery we need to consider both the content of the book in which the theory occurs -- The Second Treatise of Civil Government, and the context in which the book was written -- Locke's life and times. You will be asked to explore the content of the chapters on slavery in the Second Treatise. You will answer questions about the content of the book like these:

  • How does it fit together with the other pieces, the state of nature, the state of war and so forth?
  • What role does the theory of slavery play in the architecture of the book?

The context will help determine which interpretation to give the content of Locke's theory. This is because it will help you to determine Locke's intent when he wrote his theory of slavery. One element in the context which might provide insight into the theory of slavery in the Second Treatise is English involvement with the transatlantic slave trade. The second element we will consider is the intensifying conflict in English politics between the King and the Parliament, Protestants and Catholics. This context will provide us with several different ways to interpret the theory of slavery in Second TreatiseWas Locke trying to justify Afro-American slavery or was he accusing the King of England of trying to illegitimately enslave the English people? Both? Neither? We will then be considering questions like these:

  • What evidence would show that one or another of these interpretative hypotheses is false? Can we find such evidence in the content of the book or in the context in which it was written? And finally:
  • Which one of these interpretative hypotheses is best supported by evidence provided by the content of the book and the context in which it was written?

Our next task is to make clear what each of these interpretative hypotheses are, and to decide what evidence will convince us that one or the other of them should be rejected.

 

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