Freedom, Markets, and Well-Being Fall 2022

Locke and Slavery


Our readings agree on some facts about Locke’s biography. They agree that Locke invested in companies that were involved in the Atlantic slave trade and that he played a role in the Carolina colony. In particular, he seems to have specifically endorsed a clause in its constitution giving slave owners absolute power over their slaves.

They disagree about what this means for Locke’s philosophy. Bernasconi and Mann think Locke used his philosophy to rationalize his behavior; they think the philosophy contains arguments meant to justify the enslavement of Africans. Uzgalis thinks he did not do this. He believes Locke’s philosophy argues against American slavery.

To put it another way, if Bernasconi and Mann are right, we do not know what the philosophy means unless we know the biography. If Uzgalis is right, the philosophy is independent of Locke’s biography; in fact, the two are at odds with one another.

The case for the prosecution

Bernasconi and Mann’s case rests on two pillars. One draws on Locke’s life to give evidence of his racism. The other is an analysis of the fourth chapter of Locke’s Second Treatise of Government: “Of Slavery.”

As evidence of Locke’s racism, Bernasconi and Mann describe Locke as the “principal architect” of the norms governing slavery in the American colonies. They argue that these were not formed at the time Locke participated in writing the Constitution of the Carolina colonies (Bernasconi and Mann 2005, 90). They note that there is an alteration to a draft of the constitution in Locke’s handwriting. Locke, they say, amended the clause giving slave owners “absolute authority” over their slaves to give them “absolute power and authority” (Bernasconi and Mann 2005, 92). They also refer to Locke’s commentary on a passage from the Bible that, they believe, shows he thought that it would be acceptable to keep Africans enslaved even if they were baptized as Christians (Bernasconi and Mann 2005, 94).

As for the analysis of chapter four of the Second Treatise, Bernasconi and Mann concede that their argument has to be indirect. Locke says that those who wage an unjust war may be enslaved if they are captured. Obviously, that is not going to justify hereditary slavery. Nonetheless, they maintain, Locke really did mean this argument to justify slavery as practiced in the Americas. They make three points.

  1. If taken literally, the argument would have meant that the enslavement of Christians was acceptable. But, they think, Locke would have found that unacceptable. Therefore, they conclude, we cannot understand Locke’s meaning if we rely solely on the text and ignore the contextual material they cite (Bernasconi and Mann 2005, 96 and 102).1

  2. Many of Locke’s contemporaries used this kind of argument to justify slavery. Even if it is a bad argument, Locke might have thought it was a good one just as other people at his time did (Bernasconi and Mann 2005, 99–100).

  3. There is no other reason for a justification of slavery to appear in the Second Treatise of Government. If you look at the text alone, you won’t be able to figure out why it is there. The answer, they imply, lies in Locke’s biography.

In sum, they concede that it is a bad argument. But, they say, racists make bad arguments. Since they are convinced that Locke was a racist, they do not think the analytical flaws of the argument show that their interpretation of it is mistaken.

The case for the defense

Uzgalis argues that Locke’s theory cannot be used to justify slavery. Locke thinks that human beings have natural rights, that it would be wrong to infringe on those rights, and that slavery can be justified only as a response to criminal behavior, like starting an unjust war. The whole thrust of Locke’s theory, according to Uzgalis, is to distinguish between might and right; slavery, in this theory, almost always falls on the wrong side of that distinction (Uzgalis 2017, 22–25).2

In other words, Uzgalis thinks reads the fourth chapter literally and does not think there is any problem with doing so that can be resolved only by using contextual material.

Uzgalis adds that if Locke had meant to justify slavery, he could have used a different, and presumably better, kind of argument (Uzgalis 2017, 25–27).3 As proof that Locke would have been aware of this argument, Uzgalis notes that it was advanced by Hugo Grotius, a very prominent contemporary of Locke’s.

Some more context

I think that one of the best points that Bernasconi and Mann have is a simple question: why is there a chapter on slavery in the Second Treatise of Government?

After doing a little more reading, I think this is probably the answer. Slavery was a punishment in English law. I imagine that Locke was simply trying to account for this.

According to Keith Thomas, slavery had been officially abolished in England in the twelfth century and the medieval practice of making landholding contingent on delivering services to a feudal landlord ended in the Tudor period. But slavery lived on in various parts of the law as a punishment.

In practice, Tudor governments were reluctant to abandon slavery altogether. In the early sixteenth century, there were royal proclamations ordering that vagabonds and spreaders of seditious rumors should be enslaved in the galleys, and a short-lived act of 1547 made slavery a punishment for those who refused to work. The Elizabethan Privy Council occasionally sent felons to serve in chains in the galleys; in 1602 it ordered that this should be the fate of all condemned criminals who were not “notorious or dangerous offenders.” In the same year the Star Chamber sentenced the libelers of Lord Buckhurst to lifetime servitude in the galleys. Until the mid-eighteenth century, there were intermittent proposals that enslavement should become a recognized part of the penal code and the poor law. From the early seventeenth century, vagrants, military prisoners, and criminals were regularly deported to North American and the West Indies, where as indentured laborers (i.e., temporary slaves) they were often cruelly treated. In the 1650s they were joined by Scottish and Irish prisoners of war, and in the 1680s by the Duke of Monmouth’s defeated rebels. A majority of the voluntary migrants to North America in the seventeen century went as indentured servants. (Thomas 2018, 179)

As Thomas notes, this is quite different from the mass enslavement of Africans. Still, he thinks, Locke used the idea of slavery as a punishment to rationalize that practice, much as Bernasconi and Mann say he did.4

Nonetheless, it is definitely possible to distinguish the two. For example, the thirteenth amendment to the US Constitution abolishes slavery but makes an exception for punishments. This is the first section of that amendment.

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

In 2022, several states had ballot questions about whether to prohibit slavery as a punishment. Which is to say that, prior to 2022, they recognized slavery as a valid punishment. California rejected such a law on the grounds that it would force the state to pay $15 an hour for prison labor. Efforts to remove the clause from the Federal Constitution have failed. In other words, slavery is basically recognized as a punishment in much of the United States.


Bernasconi, Robert, and Anika Maaza Mann. 2005. “The Contradictions of Racism: Locke, Slavery, and the Two Treatises.” In Race and Racism in Modern Philosophy, edited by Andrew Valls. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Thomas, Keith. 2018. In Pursuit of Civility: Manners and Civilization in Early Modern England. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press.
Uzgalis, William. 2017. “John Locke, Racism, Slavery, and Indian Lands.” In The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Race, edited by Naomi Zack. New York: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190236953.013.41.

  1. There is a long digression between this argument and the next one. It is taken up with discussion of what two other authors said: Jennifer Welchman and William Uzgalis (Bernasconi and Mann 2005, 96–99).↩︎

  2. This is the section titled “Locke’s Two Theories of Slavery in the Second Treatise,” pages 2-6 of the pdf.↩︎

  3. This is the section titled “Locke and the Natural Rights Tradition on Slavery,” pages 6-8 of the pdf.↩︎

  4. But Thomas does not say that the fourth chapter of the Second Treatise was written in order to justify American slavery.↩︎