Last night I pondered John Locke’s perception of slavery. Actual slavery, I mean — Triangle Trade slavery, not metaphorical “the king has enslaved the English people slavery.” Did he see it in terms of small scale, household, domestic/handyman slavery, or large-scale plantation slavery? The grand answer to this is that, in the end, it doesn’t really matter.
From the standpoint of strict historicistism and the particulars of this project, it kinda sorta does. In a way. Small scale slavery was seen in a different conceptual light — note the interchangable use of the terms “servant” and “slave” in the Mass. code — and may have influenced Locke’s extremely complicated views regarding “slavery.”
The thing is, when one gets down to brass tacks, owning a human being is owning a human being regardless of whether we’re talking about Mississippi or Massachusetts. Before the North outlawed slavery their slaves were property and subject to abuses beyond imagining. Recalcitrant slaves were burned to death, broken on the wheel, and mutilated up North as well as down South. The situation for freed blacks wasn’t exactly rosy either. Throughout the 18th century community after community voted to prohibit blacks from owning property or even moving into town.
All that may well be a moot point because, as previously stated, Locke had little to nothing to do with New England slavery aside from his business dealings in the Triangle Trade. The constitution he drafted was for the Carolinas which included provisions that could only be described as “feudal.” The document allowed for powerful gentry entitled to “leetman” and slaves working the holdings of these landgraves. Also, of course, after American independence the Carolinas would engage in large-scale plantation slavery.
Even more auspicious is that Locke was heavily invested in the Triange Trade of his time. This triangle, which had its “Western leg” in old rather than new England, ferried slaves to the sugar plantations of Jamaica where they worked the plantations of trade magnates. One of these grandees, Isaac Royall, would become Master of Ten Hills Farm. Locke invested 600 pounds into the Royal Africa Company, whose logo was branded on the chests of slaves.
So the end result? It doesn’t really matter which kind of slavery Locke consciously turned a blind eye to, outside the domain of a research project.
Finally, I want to underscore again that this project is in no way, shape or form an apology to the Confederacy. While slavery is slavery is slavery, never had the institution been quite so insidious as it was in the Southern United States where an entire economy became reliant on the unpaid and brutal labor of enslaved Africans. The death of the Confederacy — and with it, institutionalized slavery — is nothing short of a cause for celebration.
That said, it is incumbant upon Northerners interested in the topic of slavery — like me — to take a long, hard look in the mirror in the harsh light of day. We may not have taken it to the extremes they did down South but we still dabbled in it. At the very least, we drew a profit from it.