Neither slavery nor colonisation had their origins in Locke’s Two Treatises. His ideas about how people could claim rights to property did justify a certain kind of colonisation. He argued that, by making objects, by farming the land, one could derive ownership, goods and ground. However, his was a more egalitarian ideal of ownership than that offered by King James I’s right of discovery by Christian princes who could then grant dominion – the right of ownership and governance. Locke’s was founded on individual action, the Stuart kings’ on divine status.
Such attention to historical context matters. These complex debates over justice shaped the early modern world, and continue to shape ours. If we pretend that Locke and the Stuart kings were the same, and that their policy struggles did not matter, we ignore the impact of our own policies. If we dismiss Locke’s ideas as paradoxical, we forget that in these fires were forged not only slavery but also crucial principles of human rights. It is not only that the big questions were fiercely contended, but that small policies often had huge impacts. Reversing Charles II’s reward of land for buying slaves was a major move against inequality and injustice, and against the idea that kings could grant dominion over others. So too was his suggestion that all people be naturalised and have equal protections under the law.
The effort to compress such fierce disputes into a flat narrative of hypocrisy belies not only the past but the present. The effort to condemn liberalism (and Locke) as a theory of slavery and oppression, and to see within liberalism the origin of slavery, misrepresents the very essence of his theory, which was about human rights. It silences intense political debates over such rights that had dramatic practical repercussions. Slavery was justified by theories that all people were born to a divinely ordained status, ideas that were harmonious with racism, but not defined by that racism. Slavery’s origins were in absolutism, not liberalism.
Liberalism arose in reaction to slavery. It sought inclusion, and defined rights with broad promises, albeit ones that could be opened to exclusions. Indeed, one could argue that the breadth of such promises made racism (and other forms of prejudice) necessary in order to once again justify hereditary hierarchies. But for many others, it opened wide promises of inclusion. The theory itself was one that strained for relative equality under the law for all those who could give meaningful consent. The similarity of these disputes to ones we conduct today becomes more apparent with such context. For example: do rights inhere in all human beings or only in citizens? Abstract philosophical debates emerged from real dilemmas but also helped to shape policies that affected millions of people’s lives. They still do.
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