I really, really could not come up with a more effective pun for this title. Suffice to say that in this entry I try and explore Locke’s philosophy regarding slavery; both the lofty words and sentiment and the actual practice. It’s liable to be incomplete and cursory, but hopefully the start of something more trenchant. Here goes.
Like many of his compatriots John Locke was big on property. The ability to own, manage and profit from property was the key to individual liberty and the social contract was intended to safeguard that ability. Investing your labor and sweat into, say, gathering apples or felling a tree meant that you were therefore entitled to those apples or that lumber assuming that land had not already been claimed by another.
The matter of private property fit seamlessly in with the increasing prominence given to the contemporary rise of invisible capital. Slaves were part of the “oikos,” or household economies which were the basic unit of the colonial system. They were also a good investment for fledgeling colonies. “I do not see how we can thrive until we get into a stock of slaves sufficient to do all our business,” wrote John Winthrop’s brother-in-law. “I suppose you know very well how we shall maintain 20 Moores cheaper than one English servant.” The solution to cheap labor has already been discussed in prior entries; start a war with the neighboring Native Americans, enslave them, and subsequently trade them for African slaves.
John Locke must have been familiar with the Triangle Trade. He was certainly immersed in it. His patron, the upwardly mobile Earl of Shaftsbury, was heavily involved in trade and colonization, and was instrumental in founding the Carolinas. Locke helped draw up the Carolina Constitution which provided provisions for the management of slaves. If this scans contrary to Locke’s writings in Of Slavery where a man “cannot be put the absolute, arbitrary power of another” one must remember that slavery was a common metaphor in the discourse of the time. The halls of Parliament echoed with the rhetoric of orators accusing the king of trying to “enslave” the English people.
As for the slaves themselves, the Enlightenment thinkers tended to think in terms of social evolution. African societies (such as Oroonoko’s Coramentium) had been “left behind” by the march of progress; Oroonoko’s grandfather, the king, had “enslaved” his people through absolutism, after all. Slaves were happier and better off working on “modern” locales such as Europe and the New World. Or so went the common wisdom of the time. I am also curious as to whether Locke might have had a more “household-ey” version of slavery in mind when he wrote, but I will need to research that further.
Any thoughts, social science friends?
Hopefully a visit to 10 Hills Farm this weekend! With pictures!