John Locke Justifies Slavery

Let’s talk John Locke.

On 16 January 1811, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to Benjamin Rush stating:

The room being hung around with a collection of the portraits of remarkable men, among them were those of Bacon, Newton & Locke. Hamilton asked me who they were. I told him they were my trinity of the three greatest men the world had ever produced,

So what did the “great” John Locke say?

Second Treatise on Government, by John Locke (1689)

Chapter 4: Of Slavery

What I have been discussing is the condition of complete slavery, which is just a continuation of the state of war between a lawful conqueror and a captive. If they enter into any kind of pact—agreeing to limited power on the one side and obedience on the other—the state of war and slavery ceases for as long as the pact is in effect. For, as I have said, no man can by an agreement pass over to someone else something that he doesn’t himself have, namely a power over his own life.

I like the phrase “lawful conqueror”. ‘Cause, you know, the conquest of people is apparently sometimes “lawful” 🙂

Chapter 7: Of Political or Civil Society

Master and servant are names as old as history, but given to those of far different condition; for a free man makes himself a servant to another by selling him for a certain time the service he undertakes to do in exchange for wages he is to receive; and though this commonly puts him into the family of his master, and under the ordinary discipline thereof, yet it gives the master but a temporary power over him, and no greater than what is contained in the contract between them. But there is another sort of servant which by a peculiar name we call slaves, who being captives taken in a just war are, by the right of Nature, subjected to the absolute dominion and arbitrary power of their masters. These men having, as I say, forfeited their lives and, with it, their liberties, and lost their estates, and being in the state of slavery, not capable of any property, cannot in that state be considered as any part of civil society, the chief end whereof is the preservation of property.

John Locke is a defender of expropriation and enslavement. Truly, one “of the three greatest men the world has ever produced”.

Thanks for reading,


Locke’s oft-quoted statement in his First Treatise of Government that “SLAVERY is so vile and miserable an estate of man, and so directly opposite to the generous temper and courage of our nation; that it is hardly to be conceived, that an Englishman, much less a gentleman, should plead for it” sounds like a statement of absolute condemnation.

Given Locke’s personal life and his comments on the Second Treatise, you can see that the quote above is severely out of context. In truth, Locke provided the intellectual justification for slavery which the American founding fathers were more than happy to agree with.

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