Locke and the Declaration

by John Q on July 5, 2015

I didn’t take part in the book event on Danielle Allen Our Declaration, except as a commenter. But, as it happened, I converged on some of the central questions by a different route. For some time now, I’ve been writing critically about John Locke and his propertarian theory of liberalism. Increasingly, I’ve come to the view that Locke is best seen as an American rather than an English political theorist, even though he was an absentee owner rather than an American resident.

Further, while his writings appear liberal if interpreted in the English context, and if attention is focused on the passages where he is seeking to diminish the power of the English monarchy, his crucial contributions to the theory of propertarian liberalism are his justifications of expropriation and enslavement in the American context. The combination of the two made him the ideal theorist for those who wanted a Declaration of Independence that justified rebellion against the British monarchy, in combination with rule by a slave-owning aristocracy in the newly independent country.

James Wilson’s contribution to the Danielle Allen seminar, The Declaration of Independence isn’t egalitarian enough explores many of the issues, as does Gabriel Winant.

I’ve made a start to spelling out the arguments in a piece for Jacobin magazine, entitled John Locke Against Freedom, which has given rise to some interesting discussions on Facebook, Twitter etc. Chris Bertram has raised some effective criticisms, and hopefully will spell them out in more detail later on. A couple of notable points, with partial responses

* I’ve overstated the extent to which Locke’s influence was confined to the American context, although it remains clear that his political theory mattered more in that context than in England

* Even if Locke himself advocated and benefited from expropriation and slavery, it’s not obvious (as I assert) that his theory of classical liberalism necessarily entails these things. I plan to spell out the argument in more detail soon.



beamish 07.05.15 at 9:12 am

passages where he is seeking to diminish the power of the English economy,

Did you mean ‘government’ here? (Or perhaps ‘monarchy’?)

D’oh! Fixed now. JQ


Peter T 07.05.15 at 10:00 am

I recall reading that much of Locke’s enthusiasm for expropriation derived from his active participation in the scramble for seized Irish land after the Boyne. But then the English rarely did something bad to anyone until they had first perfected the technique upon the Irish.


dn 07.05.15 at 3:32 pm

Several weeks ago I saw Ta-Nehisi Coates speak, and he actually based his entire message around a Locke quote: “What is my remedy against a robber, that so broke into my house?” He used it to frame his thesis about white ‘plunder’ and the robbery of black wealth. Interesting contrast that shows how the Lockean myth is still psychologically powerful.


Dan Nexon 07.05.15 at 3:52 pm

I should go read your essay, but in brief, I think it important to note that:

• Locke’s parameters for justifiable slavery are extremely narrow — especially given his theory of legitimate government — and probably rendered almost all slavery of the time illegitimate.

• His arguments about expropriation of Native American land are pretty par for the course in the period.

I take the implications not as a defense of Locke, but potentially of Lockean thought. He really has to strain a great deal — as well as incorporate bad evidence — to get his argument to support enslavement and colonial expropriation.


John Quiggin 07.06.15 at 12:11 am

Dan @4 I agree with all this. My claim is that the contradictions are inherent in the theoretical framework, and not (or not only) between the theory and Locke’s actions. I’ll try to spell this out in the next post.


Luis 07.06.15 at 4:47 am

Somewhat off topic, but is there/will there be a collected pdf of the symposium as there has been in past editions? I looked in the sidebar but don’t see it.


Luis 07.06.15 at 8:45 pm

Ah, I see now that it was created but the link to it (from the symposium wrapup post) is broken :/


TM 07.09.15 at 3:40 pm

Second mention of Danielle Allen is severely misspelled!


Ragweed 07.10.15 at 5:41 am


I have to raise an issue that was raised in the earlier post here at CT, about the depiction of Native Americans as hunter-gatherers. You partly acknowledged it with a dismissive nod toward slash-and-burn, but I don’t think that you fully appreciate the degree to which the woodland Nations that the first English settlements were highly effective and efficient farmers.

The Powhatan confederacy that were neighbors to the Jamestown colony, had a largely sedentary farming culture, supplemented with fish and game hunted in surrounding forests that were carefully managed through controlled burning (more like an English game-park of the time than a wilderness). They produced significant agricultural surplus and maintained large store-houses for winter and times of scarcity. The Jamestown colony survived the first two decades of its existence largely on that surplus – originally out of pity, then in trade for metal tools and the like, and then largely by force as the growing numbers of colonists sent out parties to raid storehouses and forcibly take food supplies from the Powhatan. In 1622, the Powhatan had enough and launched an attack that killed 347 settlers.

From James Wilson (not the same James Wilson as in the seminar, emphasis mine):

“The Indians attack on the colony was also seen as a license to take their land. ‘We, who hitherto have had possession of no more ground than their waste, and our purchase’ wrote Edward Waterhouse exultantly, ‘may now by right of Warre and law of Nations, invade the country and destroy them who sought to destroy us: whereby wee shall enjoy their cultivated places . . . Now their cleared grounds in all their villages (which are situate in the fruitfullest of places of the land) shall be inhabited by us. . .’ Bizarrely, but significantly, as the argument was developed during the 1620s into a coherent ideology of conquest, the Virginia Indians, on whose farming the colonists had so long depended, were reinvented in the old image of the non-agricultural nomad.” (James Wilson, The Earth Shall Weep, A History of Native America. 1999, p 71).

This is a crucial misconception that should be corrected at every opportunity. In the American context that argument would be used time and again to abrogate treaties and destroy or relocate Native people, even in cases like the Cherokee where the Native population had fully adopted Western agriculture techniques, government, and education and had a literacy rate and education level higher than the white settlers that displaced them. Unfortunately the Jacobin article does not challenge the fiction that the Native people were skilled agriculturalists rather than hunter-gatherers.

In a similar vein the fur trade largely began among mostly agricultural communities along the St. Lawrence, but soon took on a life of its own as the Native people became increasingly dependent on the trade, and it supplanted subsistence activity. The metal tools and weapons gave fur-trading communities a military advantage over non-trading tribes, forcing more to join the trade in order to get weapons to protect themselves. It is a classic example of a colonial market creation, and turned nations of largely agriculturalists into market hunters. While it is fair to say that it was the most economically profitable trade from hunter-gathering, it is important to note the extent to which it was an artificial trade that disrupted people who were not primarily hunter gatherers.

(The Wilson book I cite provides a good overview of the history, and has notes towards more in-depth sources).


Ragweed 07.10.15 at 5:43 am

oops – that should read “…the Jacobin article does not challenge the fiction that the Native people were hunter-gatherers rather than skilled agriculturalists.”


John Quiggin 07.10.15 at 6:16 am

TM D’oh! Silly autocorrect. Fixed now

Ragweed. You’re right. I’ll fix this next time I write on this

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