“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.
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.