Locke, natural law, and new world slavery

James Farr*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

40 Scopus citations

Abstract

This essay systematically reformulates an earlier argument about Locke and new world slavery, adding attention to Indians, natural law, and Locke's reception. Locke followed Grotian natural law in constructing a just-war theory of slavery. Unlike Grotius, though, he severely restricted the theory, making it inapplicable to America. It only fit resistance to "absolute power" in Stuart England. Locke was nonetheless an agent of British colonialism who issued instructions governing slavery. Yet they do not inform his theory-or vice versa. This creates hermeneutical problems and raises charges of racism. If Locke deserves the epithet "racist," it is not for his having a racial doctrine justifying slavery. None of this makes for a flattering portrait. Locke's reputation as the champion of liberty would not survive the contradictions in which new world slavery ensnared him. Evidence for this may be found in Locke's reception, including by Southern apologists for slavery.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)495-522
Number of pages28
JournalPolitical Theory
Volume36
Issue number4
DOIs
StatePublished - Aug 1 2008

Keywords

  • America
  • Locke
  • Natural law
  • Slavery

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science

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