Readings for this part of your journey

  1. The Second Treatise of Civil Government
  2. Locke on Maxims from Book IV of An Essay Concernin Human Understanding
  3. Equiano's Travels
  4. Popkin's "The Philosophical Basis of Modern Racism" in the class packet


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:

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 trans-atlantic slave trade. The second element we will consider is the 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:


You have already been introduced to John Locke (1632-1704), the author of the Second Treatise of Civil Government in the 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 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. Locke's views have had an enormous impact on our thinking in various ways. The Letters Concerning Toleration argue for a distinction between Church and State. Locke's prestige as a philosopher make his arguments in favor of this position influential. Similarily, the Second Treatise along with his other works, very much impressed Thomas Jefferson. So, Locke's ideas very likely played a role in the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.


The First Earl of Shaftsbury

Anthony Ashley 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, Shaftsbury 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. He eventually became Lord Chancellor of England and at that point was made 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).

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 was enormously interested in trade and the colonies. He considered trade crucial to the stength 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.


The Execution of slave
What is a slave? One answer might be that a slave is a person who is owned by another person, and is thus divested of all freedom and personal rights. You can imagine what this could mean. A slave was the lowest in the social hierarchy. Slavery, however, was different things for different people at different times. In 1492, while there were some moral qualms amongst Europeans about slavery, slavery was a widespread institution accross the world. Part of what is intersting about the history of slavery is how the moral judgement of slavery changed in the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, so that now, if you ask almost anyone, they will tell you that chatel slavery is one of the most morally obnixous practices they can think of. This process was gradual and had a variety of different causes. In the end, however, the transformation in our moral assesment of slavery was so dramatic, it is hard to think of another concept which has undergone similar moral devaluation.

Loango slaves
Slavery existed in Africa in 1492. Slaves were sent accross the desert to the Berber kingdom in North Africa along with gold. Europeans exploited and greatly expanded the already existing trade in slaves in Africa. African slavery was distinctively different from Afro-American slavery. The conditions of African slavery tended not to be as inhumane and horiffic as the plantations of the new world.

Africans were generally enslaved for four main reasons:

  1. War
  2. Destitution
  3. Debt
  4. Crime

Europeans greatly expanded the already existing African slave trade by offering money and other commodities for larger and larger numbers of slaves. These inducements led Africans to go on raids to capture other Africans to sell into slavery. These became the "wars" which led to the enslavement of many. Whole societies came to be based on slave raiding. War often leads to destitution, thus people would sell their children into slavery to buy food for the remaining members of the family. Or, if one failed to pay one's debts, one could sell oneself into slavery in order to pay them. And finally, there were relatively few crimes for which one might be enslaved in African societies. These included murder, sorcery and adultery.

When you read Locke's account of slavery, and Equiano's Travels it will be important to keep this list in mind. Which of these reasons for enslaving people (if any) does Locke accept as legitimate? Which of these did Equiano experience?

The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

A Slave Ship

The transatlantic slave trade represents the biggest movement of peoples in the modern era. During the course of the slave trade, (three and a half centuries) roughly ten million black Africans were landed in the Americas (not counting several million more who died before or during the passage). Eighty percent were transferred between 1700 and 1850 and about a quarter of that total in British ships. Thus, while Locke was in government and engaged with commerical enterprises involving slavery, it was at the beginning, before the great bulk of slaves were moved in English ships in the eighteenth century.

Revolt on board a slave ship

The conditions on these ships were usually terrible. Often the black slaves were crowded together in chains and utterly disgusting, unsanitary and inhumane conditions on these long passages. Why shipmasters felt compelled to do this is an interesting economic question. It would seem that more slaves might have survived had they been transported under more humane conditions. Nonethelss, because they were in effect prisoners, being transported under terrible conditions and quite against their will, these black Africans needed to be closely guarded to prevent revolts on board the ship, shuch as the now famous Amistad revolt.

The slave trade was part of a larger pattern of trade which has come to be know as "the triangular trade." The triangular trade involved sailing with from British ports such as Liverpool to the Western coast of Africa carrying trade goods which could be exchanged for slaves. Once the slaves were on board, the ship would sail for the West Indies or other ports in the Americas -- the second leg of the triangular trade. In the West Indies the slaves would be sold, and products such as sugar cane, rum or tobacco would be taken on board for the third and final leg of the trip back to England. No wonder that by 1723 John Houstoun described the trade as: "the hinge on which all of the trade of the globe moves."

The Plantations

A Jamica Sugar Plantation

Slavery in the new world was rather different from slavery in Africa. For one thing, in Africa a slave might well be treated as part of the family of the person to whom they were enslaved. Their owner might work alongside of them and work just as hard as the slave. American slavery by contrast was what one might call industrial slavery. Slave labor was need to produce labor intensive crops such as sugar cane, tobacco and later cotton. So slaves worked in gangs in the fields, with a whith overseer with a whip to keep them working.

Cutting Sugar Cane

So, slaves worked in the hot sun, with a white overseer, while the master of these slaves simply ran his establishment or lived in England. Slaves and masters were also divided by endemic and widespread racism. Whites viewed blacks as inferior for a variety of reasons. You will learn about these reasons when you read Popkin's "The Philosophical Basis of Modern Racism" in the packet for this course.


The Royal Africa Company -- the company which carried on the slave trade for England was chartered in 1665. Locke, along with Shaftsbury and many others bought shares in the Royal Africa Company. Locke later sold his shares at a profit. Locke also held a significant share in the Bahama Adventurers -- another company which traded in slaves in the Bahama Islands.

Given his involvement with English colonial policies, commercial ventures involvving the colonies and English trade, it is clear that Locke knew as much or more than anyone in England about the colonies the slave trade and slavery. Thus, when he wrote his theory of slavery in the Second Treatise he was writing with detailed knowledge of the nature of the slave trade and the practices of Afro-American slavery in the 1670s.



The second main theme in terms of the context of the Second Treatise is Lord Shaftsbury's substantial role in English politics from the 1660s to the Exclusion Crisis of the 1680s.

Catholics in 17th century England were viewed by the Protestant majority as communists were in the United States in the 1950s -- as evil agents of a foreign power. For a variety of reasons, however, Catholicism was a much more integral element in English life, than Communism was in the United States. For one thing, England had, like all other countries in Europe, been a Catholic country. This ceased when Henry the Eigth created the Anglican Church because the Pope refused to give him a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Because of the way in which is was created, the Anglican church had much in common with Catholicism, even though the King of England and not the Pope was at its head. After the death of Henry, his son Edward VI restored a reformed version of Catholicism, and Mary (Edward's half sister) restored relations with the Papacy. Elisabeth I restored the independence of the Church of England in two acts in 1560 -- the Elisabethean settlement. This settlement satisfied those who wanted a "reformed Catholicism" (reformed in worship and custom, but Catholic in doctrine and practice). Two other groups, however, did not accept the settlement. The first wished the Church to return to Rome altogether, and the second -- who thought the reforms did not go far enough. The seventeen century was the period of influence of the latter -- the Puritans. Thus one had the split between the High Church and the low church.

In addition, Charles I had a Catholic French princess for a wife. So, in the conflicts between King and Parliament which led to the English Civil War, the death of Charles I and the exile of his family, as well as the rise of Oliver Cromwell and the Commonwealth government, there was an element of religious conflict as well as political conflict. When Cromwell defeated Charles (born 1630), the Prince of Wales at the Battle of Worcester (1651), Charles escaped with the help of English Catholics. He and his mother lived in exile at the court of his most Catholic majesty of France, Louis XIV.

Charles II
After the Restoration, and after he had spent some time in the government of Charles II, Shaftsbury came to suspect Charles II and his brother of wishing to make England an absolute monarchy and a Catholic country like France. These suspicions had some foundation. In a secret treaty at Dover in 1670 Charles had agreed to try to make England a Catholic country in return for a large sum of money from the French king. Charles certainly had his problems with Parliament -- which often refused to give him the money he needed to carry on the business of government. The Parliament did not want the king operating in financhial independence of the Parliament. The King, given his frustrations with getting money from the suspicious Parliament, would very much have liked to operate in financhial independence of that body.

The King and Lord Shaftsbury became increasingly suspicious of one another. Finally Charles dismissed Shaftsbury from the government and Shaftsbury became one of the most prominent parliamentary leaders of the opposition to the government. Locke served the Earl of Shaftsbury when the latter left the Government and became the leader of the opposition to Charles II, though he did spend four years after Shaftsbury's dismissal in France travelling about for his health. He was back in time for the Exclusion crisis.

James, Duke of York, was next in line to succeed his brother Charles II as King of England. Ironically, Charles, who was known to keep a number of mistresses and had a fair number of illegitimate child ren, did not have a legitimate heir. The Queen, Catherine of Braganza (a Portugese princess), was unable to conceive. The Duke was an avowed Catholic. James was not as subtle or astute as his brother. He was an overt Catholic. Many in the country feared (and as it turned our quite rightly) that where James to become King, he would try to make England a Catholic absolutist monarchy. Shaftsbury and other opposition leaders wished to prevent the Catholic Duke of York from succeeding his brother Charles II as King. Shaftsbury proposed to pass a bill in Parliament to exclude the Duke of York from succeeding his brother. To do this, several political campaigns were necessary, but eventually the House of Commons passed an Exclusion Bill by the wide majority which Shaftsbury thought would force the King to sign it. He, and the other opposition leaders had badly miscalculated Charles' loyalty to his brothers. The King made it plain to the Lords that the bill was unacceptable to him, and the Exclusion bill was defeated in the House of Lords.

The failure of the Exclusion Bill led many in the opposition to simply give up. Others, including Shaftsbury and Locke, began to plan an armed revolution. Part of the plot involved an effort to trap the King and his brother as they returned to London from the Newmarket races in a narrow road. The king's guard was to be cut off at a bridge, and the King's coach fired upon from the windows of a house overlooking the narrow street. This was called the Rye House plot after the name of the house and the street. It did not come off because the King and his brother returned to London early from the races. Nonetheless the effort to organize and general rising continued. It was not to be, however. First Shaftsbury gave up and fled to Holland where he died in 1683. Then someone revealed the Rye House Plot to the government and Locke fled to Holland.

While Locke was living in exile in Holland, Charles II died on Feb. 6, 1685 and was succeeded by his brother -- who became James II of England. Recent scholarships suggest that while in Holland Locke was closely associated with the English revolutionaries in exile. While the English government was much concerned with this group, the English intelligence service infiltrated this group and effectively thwarted their efforts -- at least for a while. In fact, when one of Charles' illegitimate sons, the Duke of Monmouth, invaded England to try to overthrow James II, the government knew where the force was going to land before the troops on the ships did! The revolt was crushed. Ultimately, however, the rebels were successful. William of Orange was invited to bring a Dutch force to England, and after his landing James II fled the country to exile in France. This became known as the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the end of the rule of the House of Stuart in England. It is an watershed in English history. For it marks the point a which the balance of power in the English government passed from the King to the Parliament. Locke returned to England in 1688 on board the royal yacht, accompanying Queen Mary on her voyage to join her husband.


The introduction of the work was written latter and until this century gave people the impression that the book was written in 1688 to justify the Glorious Revolution. We now know that the Two Treatises of Civil Government were written during the Exclusion crisis and were probably intended to justify the general armed rising which the Country Party leaders were planning. It was a truly revolutionary work.

In the Second Treatise of Civil Government Locke gives an account of the state of slavery (Ch. 4 and Ch. 16)

This explanation of slavery depends on his explanation of the state of nature (Ch 2) and the state of war (Ch 3).

Supposing that the Two Treatises may have been intended to explain and defend the revolutionary plot against Charles II and his brother we might wonder why Locke is concerned with slavery. What would lead Locke to devote a chapter to slavery along with the state of nature and the state of war? What is its significance in the architecture of the whole work?


The context in which Locke lived and worked, supplies several ways to understand the significance of the theory of slavery in the Second Treatise of Civil Government. Here are some of these hypotheses:

  1. Brithish Tyranny

    The first hypothesis is that Locke intended his theory of slavery to show that the Stuarts were illegitimately attempting to enslave the English people. To do this he needed an account of what constitutes legitimate slavery. One of the chief efforts of the book is to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate civil government; the account of slavery may be simply a variant on this theme.

  2. Afro-American Slavery

    A second hypothesis says that Locke's theory justifies and legitimizes the institutions and practices of Afro-American slavery, and has nothing to do with enslaving the King of England! Locke was up to his neck in the slave trade as a government official, and as an active commercial venturer until a few years before he wrote the Two Treatises. So, while the chief reason for writing the book may have been to justify resistence to the King, a subsidary reason may have been to justify the practices of the Afro-American slave trade, because Locke viewed it as so important to the national power of England.

  3. British Slaves No! African Slaves Yes!

    A third hypothes is that Locke is rejecting the Stuart effort to illegitimately enslave the English people, while accepting Afro-American slavery because Black Africans are not human or are so subhuman that the theory of natural rights and the theory of slavery of the Second Treatise does not apply to them.

  4. The Same Tyrannical Principle

    A fourth hypothesis says that the theory of slavery explains both why royal autocracy and chattel slavery are wrong -- for they represent 'the same tyrannical principle.' Just as the efforts of the English king to illegitimately enslave his people is wrong, so the efforts of African and English slave traders and slave holders is illegitimate.

Your job is to try to determine which of these hypotheses is the most plausible given the available evidence. You have been introduced to the context, now you will consider the content of Locke's theory of slavery. You will do this by reading Chapters IV and XVI of the Second Treatise and writing an essay in which you answer questions about Locke's theory.