John Locke, an enemy of freedom

“Freedom Commissioner” Tim Wilson has been quoted in The Australian saying that Australian schoolchildren ought to learn more about classical liberal theorists like John Locke. While loath to squeeze yet more material into an already overcrowded curriculum, I’d certainly be glad if there was more awareness of Locke’s actual ideas and actions, as opposed to his prevailing image as an early apostle of freedom. A proper treatment of Locke would have to explain how

* His theory of natural rights in property was designed to justify the expropriation of indigenous populations
* His advocacy of freedom included support for slavery
* His theory of religious toleration excluded atheists and Catholics
* His theory of political freedom did not extend to freedom of speech.

How then did Locke get such a high reputation? The answer isn’t all that mysterious. Locke was closely involved in the British colonisation of North America, both as an investor and as a participant in political activity such as the drafting of the Constitution of the Carolinas, which ratified the expropriation of the indigenous population and enshrined the absolute power of slave-owners.

When the slave-owning colonists achieved independence from the British Crown, it was natural for them to look to Locke to provide the basis for their political theories (theories that did not preclude the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts restricting political freedom). Locke then benefitted from the same historical amnesia that has absolved all the US founders from their role in maintaining and extending slavery.[1]

Instead of Locke, it might be better for students to learn about that old-fashioned Tory, Dr Samuel Johnson, who remarked “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes”, and whose friendship with his Jamaican servant, Francis Barber, a former slave, was a striking testimony to his character.

fn1. of course, the American Revolution embodied much nobler hopes than those of the Southern aristocracy that dominated the early years of the United States. Realising those hopes took decades of struggle and a bloody civil war.

65 thoughts on “John Locke, an enemy of freedom

  1. @John Quiggin
    It’s perhaps also worth noting that Locke’s theory of self-ownership, or property in the person, doesn’t extend to one’s body, and so can’t serve as a ‘red line’ against the moral permissibility of slavery. God owns our bodies, and is responsible for placing them in that station of life which he chooses, and which we ought not to refuse or resist (which is also why suicide is impermissible – at least the Stoics allowed it as a way out of slavery that seemed unbearable). God also grants us the use of the body – with it, we are able to develop our ‘person’, in the sense of our unique mental life, which is the thing that we do in fact have a property in (because, surprise surprise, it is a product of our mental ‘labour’). Now, there is perhaps an argument from ownership of our mental life (via some concept of autonomy) to an argument against slavery, but it’s not one Locke makes. (Interested parties can find a thorough account of this in Seagrave AJPS 2011)

  2. I tried reading Locke once. The book is in a box in the shed at the moment.

  3. @Donald Oats

    Donald Oats, I’ve read your posts for year and cannot for the life of me see the remotest similarity between you and your ideas and Wilson, Abbott’s court-jester, a malign fraud.

    Am deeply wounded to think that you would think I’d compare you to Wilson.

    Abbott may be a representation of reaction but modern crypto fascism is a movement. It involves office stooges and backroom zealots, tabloid journos, executives who eat away at the heart of entities like the public broadcasting system like the worm in the rose, opportunists and narcissists and greedy and or poer hungry executives, al devoted to self worship and elitism.

    Because you are my brother in so many ways, I abjure you not compare yourself to a caricature, lest you be identified as one.

    RJL, as someone who has spent a lifetime internally correcting the “mistakes”of the social studies courses of the nineteen sixties, I will urge you not to conflate simplification with disinformation.

    Julie Thomas, thank you for brightening up my day.

  4. @John Quiggin

    But only them and only the ones who actually made the decisions. Not rank and file soldiers, not women or children (all non-combatants at the time), not other civilians. And you can’t seize the land of the decision makers either. This is direct repayment, so logically doesn’t extend to future children either.

    Hutcheson (and I think Carmichael too) interpret this as indentured servitude – you cause a hugely destructive war, you pay for it by your labour. But those in indentured servitude had human rights. Chattel slaves had none. Children of indentured servants were free. Children of chattel slaves were not.

    So Locke’s argument (which was, I suspect, focused on English rebels) would have ham-tied the Atlantic slave trade. As explained by Carmichael and Hutcheson, even tribal leaders who caused wars wouldn’t be chattel slaves.

  5. @John Quiggin

    What are your thoughts on the three-fifths clause, which is the one most relevant to the topic at hand?

    Thanks JQ, I’ll take you up on that. I think that first, I should point out that the three-fifths clause you mention was rendered null and void by adoption of the 13th amendment in 1865, and second, I think I should quote the relevant section of the US Constitution so that other readers can follow the discussion if they want. Here is the relevant text (Article I, s.2, 3rd para.):

    Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

    Here “other Persons” means slaves. The Founders intended to make the number of seats in the House of Representatives and the taxes levied by the Federal government to be in proportion to state populations. It all depended on how who was to be included in state populations. By linking Congressional representation and taxation the delegates at the 1787 constitutional convention were able to forge a compromise between the slave-owning and anti-slavery states. For the purpose of representation the northern (anti-slavery) states wanted slaves excluded from the population count on the basis that slaves were property not people. By excluding slaves Congressional representation of the southern (slave-owning) states would be diminished and the legislative power of the North would thereby be increased. For the purpose of taxation the North was quite happy to have slaves included in the count to maximize the tax burden on the South. Needless to say the South took exactly opposite position to the North regarding representation on one hand, and taxation on the other. By considering representation and taxation together the convention delegates neatly wedged the North and South positions, ultimately rendering a compromise that “other Persons” (slaves) are to be counted as three-fifths of a person when apportioning Congressional seats and federal taxes for each state.

    If you’re asking, JQ, whether I like the idea of slaves being counted as only three-fifths of a person, the answer is no, of course not. Almost everyone today considers slavery to be anathema, and I am no different. If, on the other hand you’re asking me do I approve of the political maneuvering that produced the three-fifths clause, I would have to say yes, because it was necessary at the time. When the Treaty of Paris formally concluded the end of the War for Independence in 1783, the Americans may have won the war, but were in danger of losing the ensuing peace. The Articles of Confederation under which the States had been united since 1777 were utterly deficient in producing a viable national government. The Articles ceded so little power and resources to the national government that firstly, the war against Britain was impeded , and secondly the ability of the US to defend itself against potential foreign adversaries was compromised. By 1787 the situation had grown so acute that the United States was rapidly becoming the DisUnited States. A constitutional convention was called, and delegates met in Philadelphia over that summer to revise the Articles of Confederation. What they came away with instead was a completely new constitution (however imperfect) for a federal republic, and the rest, as they say, is history.

  6. > I think that first, I should point out that the three-fifths clause you mention was rendered null and void by adoption of the 13th amendment in 1865

    Thank you for bringing this fact to my attention: I was not previously aware of it, and agree that it has a huge bearing on our understanding of decisions made ninety years earlier.

  7. @JKUU

    You write that the political manoeuvring that produced the three-fifths clause was ‘necessary’ and you also suggest that failure to produce a viable national government for the US was a ‘danger’. The implication is that the three-fifths clause was (a part of what was) necessary to avoid the danger of failing to produce a viable national government; in other words, that if the three-fifths clause had not been adopted a viable national government for the US might not have been produced. But if we consider the possibility of things having turned out differently from the way they actually did turn out, it is not necessary for us to evaluate that possibility negatively. The possibility of the three-fifths clause not having been adopted and of the US not having produced a viable national government is one that we might give a positive value to. In short, if things might have been different, they might have been better as easily as they might have been worse.

  8. @John Quiggin
    Mill’s opinion on India’s readiness for self-government is a bit embarrassing, given how right he is on so many current issues.

    Apologies if anyone has already made this comment.

  9. @J-D
    The three-fifths clause was one of a few key compromises that got the Constitution approved at the 1787 convention and subsequently ratified by the states. Equal Senate seats for the states was another compromise. It encouraged the smaller states to approve the constitution – the same compromise that enabled the Australian constitution to gain support from the smaller colonies more than a century later. I’m not sure that it is worthwhile to speculate on whether the US would have fared better by remaining under Articles of Confederation than it actually did under the Constitution. It’s about as worthwhile I suppose as speculating whether the Australian colonies would have been better off without federation. The Articles mention nothing about slavery, but they do say that the “free inhabitants” of the Union shall enjoy “all privileges and immunities” to which the “free citizens” of the states were entitled. Slavery remained legal in the States where it was legal. In my final paragraph I stated that the US was in danger of falling apart under the Articles, because the national government was ceded too little in the way of resources to govern safely. This is not just my opinion, historians tend to agree on this point. I’ve just finished reading “The Quartet – Orchestration of the second American revolution 1783-1789” by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph J. Ellis. My remarks on why the Articles needed to be superseded the Constitution draw heavily on Ellis’s work

  10. @JKUU

    I accept that the three-fifths clause was a key compromise that aided in achieving ratification of the Constitution, and so may have prevented the United States from falling apart.

    But if somebody writes that the three-fifths clause was necessary because it aided in achieving ratification of the Constitution, and so may have prevented the United States from falling apart, then I object that it was not necessary to achieve ratification of the Constitution or to prevent the United States from falling apart.

    John Quiggin’s remarks appeared to be an attack on the three-fifths clause, and in that context your response appeared to be suggesting that it was defensible. But it’s only defensible if you regard ‘We had to do it in order to achieve ratification of the Constitution and to prevent the United States from falling apart’ as a defence. Your attribution of motive for the adoption of the clause is probably correct, but whether a description of motive justifies or extenuates an action which is otherwise being condemned depends on how one judges that motive.

    I suppose you may never have been attempting to justify or extenuate the adoption of the three-fifths clause, but the context of John Quiggin’s remarks (to which you were responding) and your use of the word ‘necessary’ made it appear as if you were.

  11. I’m not sure that it is worthwhile to speculate on whether the US would have fared better by remaining under Articles of Confederation than it actually did under the Constitution.

    Neat two-hander, this one: first you insist that the question of the merits of the three-fifths compromise has to be considered in light of the constitutional and governance issues of the time, and then you deny the worth of considering the constitutional and governance issues of the time.

    JQ: much like sculpture, the way you get reasonable discourse is by taking away everything that isn’t reasonable discourse.

  12. Our government—God bless their cotton socks—has taken the poleaxe to the East Timor legal case, using the AFP as the bother-boy to harass an ASIS officer giving witness for East Timor’s case at the Hague. Furthermore, AG George “Bookshelf” Brandis has used the AFP raid on the officer’s home as a means of confiscating the officer’s passport, thereby preventing travel to the Hague to present evidence for the East Timor government’s case.

    Given that the ASIS officer is believed to possess knowledge of illegal activity by the Australian government (a previous Australian government), which is pertinent to the East Timor complaint, it is quite depressing to see the current government being the brawler and the below-the-belt puncher, rather than playing fair. Australia could have asked for any evidence (pertinent to ASIS operations) to be given under some confidential process, as often occurs in other cases where intelligence information is necessary evidence. Instead, Australia’s government seeks to bury the truth about whether illegal activity took place or not, by shooting the messenger.

    The ALP need to figure out whether they are on the LNP’s side, or Australia’s side, on this matter and many others. At this point, the default action should be to block all LNP bills where it is possible to do so, IMHO. Grrr.

  13. @paul walter
    Ah, perhaps I’ve created a false impression, unintentional on my part; for this I apologise.

    Now, to the nitty-gritty of the Allegiance, Brothers, to Team Austraya proposed legislation. In light of the “heads must roll” scorched Earth (and I emphasise the upper case) policy of PM Tony Abbott, on a substantial rampage over something some dropkick had to say on Q&A, there would be a few nervous dual-citizen nellies among the ranks of the Aunty…

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