John Locke and the Origins of British and American Democracy: A Reply to Ilion

Ilion, a long-term and respected commentator here, made the following comment on my post John Locke and the Origins of British and American Democracy:

“Black Britons, American and West Indians may well consider Locke’s comments on slavery profoundly wrong, considering their own peoples history of enslavement by Europeans.”

Only if they are either:
1) ignorant (which is curable);
2) stupid (which is not curable);
3) intellectually dishonest.

Locke: “‘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 “English,” much less a “gentleman”, should plead for it.’”

In other words: “How can a man call himself an Englishman, much less a gentleman, if he would argue *for* slavery?“

It’s a good point, and it raises a number of issues, which need to be examined.

Slavery Not Recognised in English Law by 17th century

Firstly, at the time Locke was writing slavery in England had long died out, and villeinage – serfdom – had more or less withered away. The last serf died in the middle of the seventeenth century, as I recall, and Cromwell’s government abolished the last legal remains of feudalism in England. This was important for the abolitionist cause when it arose in the eighteenth century. Abolitionist campaigners like Thomas Clarkeson brought a series of cases before the courts of Black slaves, who had been taken to England. Like the Dred Scott case in America leading up to the Civil War, Clarkeson and the other Abolitionists argued that as slavery did not exist under English law, these slaves were therefore free. They won there case, and during the 19th century a number of slaves came before the British authorities in the West Indies claiming their freedom, because their masters had taken them to England. They also believed that they were free by setting foot in a country that did not recognise the existence of slavery.

Slavery and Indentured Emigration to British Colonies in America and Caribbean

As slavery did not exist in English society, when slave traders turned up in Jamestown in 1621 to try to sell a consignment of Black slaves, the colonists initially did not what to do with them. Emigration to the British colonies in America and the Caribbean was largely through indentured servants, and slavery was not initially needed. Indeed, Hakluyt records in his Voyages and Discoveries the statement by one British sea captain to the African people he encountered that Englishmen did not enslave people, ‘nor any that had our shape’. Unfortunately, this attitude of some mariners did not prevent many others, such as the Elizabethan privateer, John Hawkins, from raiding Africa for slaves, which he attempted to sell to the Spanish in their colonies. By the end of the seventeenth century the British colonists in Barbados attempted to discourage further immigration by indentured servants, as all the available land was now occupied. They thus turned to importing Black slaves to supply the labour they needed on the plantations. These were for sugar in the Caribbean. In the British colonies in southern New England, by the early eighteenth century they were importing African slaves to work on the tobacco plantations.

Locke’s Hierarchical, Feudalistic View of Society

Now Locke, while the founder of modern theories of liberal representative government, wasn’t a democrat in the modern sense. He believed in a restricted franchise, which reserved the right to vote to the wealthy and a parliamentary upper house of landed aristocrats. His proposed constitution for Carolina was quite feudal, in that envisaged a social hierarchy of estates of increasing size, in ‘baronies’ and so on. Now I’ll have to check on this, but I’m not sure that Locke raised any objections to slavery in the New World. In any case, it continued regardless of his comments on how it was antipathetic to the English.

Frederick Douglas and the Irrelevance of the 4th July to Black American Slaves

One of the great abolitionist speeches in 19th century was Frederick Douglas’ ‘What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?’ Douglas’ point is that the rhetoric of free, White Americans celebrating their liberation from British slavery and tyranny, rang hollow and meant nothing to Blacks, who were still very much in bondage. It occurred to me while I was writing my post on Locke that some people could say the same thing about this great master of British constitutional theory.

17th Century Slaves Treated More Equally than Later On
Now there’s some evidence to suggest that as, as horrific as slavery is, in the 17th century it wasn’t quite as degrading and horrific as it later became. A few years ago I came across a paper on the material culture of slave and free burials in early colonial America in the collection of archaeological papers in Historical Archaeology, edited by Dan Hicks. This found that there was no difference in material culture, and the reverence with which the deceased were buried, between White American colonists and their Black slaves. Both were interred with the same amount of respect, suggesting that in life there was, at least in their case, a degree of equality between masters and slaves. It is a deep shame and pity that this did not continue, and lead to the decline of slavery in America as well as England.

Locke Still Founder of British Constitutional Liberty

As for Locke, his hierarchical views on the structure of society were very much standard for his time. Nevertheless, he laid the foundations for modern representative government and democracy, as opposed to centralised, monarchical absolutism.

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9 Responses to “John Locke and the Origins of British and American Democracy: A Reply to Ilion”

  1. Ilíon Says:

    As slavery did not exist in English society, when slave traders turned up in Jamestown in 1621 to try to sell a consignment of Black slaves, the colonists initially did not what to do with them. Emigration to the British colonies in America and the Caribbean was largely through indentured servants, and slavery was not initially needed. …

    The first person to legally own a black slave in the American colonies was black! — “Anthony Johnson was an Angolan brought over and held as an indentured servant. His master was a merchant who lived in the Virginia Colony in 1620. In those days, Africans brought over to the Colonies were indentured servants. They had a specific time that they served, and were later freed.

    After Johnson was freed, he became a successful tobacco farmer. Most notably, he was the first to legally own a black slave in the mainland of the American colonies. He managed to convince the court that his servant, John Casor, was his for life. Casor became the first state recognized slave in Virginia.

    Another notable thing about his life is that when Johnson died in 1670, the court said he was a legal alien and seized all his land, not letting him pass it to his family.

    Via the Wickedpedia

    Of course, the fact remains that even though Mr Johnson was freed upon the completion of his indenture, he was brought to these shores against his will, as would have been the case with almost all of the blacks who arrived here not explicitly as slaves.

  2. beastrabban Says:

    Thanks for the reply, Ilion. I really didn’t know this.

    Regarding the ownership of slaves by former slaves, this later became a real problem for the British in their attempts to stamp out the slave trade. The Maroons, the free Black Jamaicans, who had gained their freedom through a long campaign against the British, held slaves. They were compensated for the loss of their property when the British finally abolished slavery in 1838, along with White Jamaicans.

    There was a continued problem in the settlements the British founded for ‘Liberated Africans’ in Sierra Leone. When the British seized a slaver, they gave the slaves the option of being repatriated back to Africa. Sierra Leone had been founded by the British as a colony for freed slaves, as American abolitionists later founded Liberia. Unfortunately, some of these freed slaves saw nothing wrong in the institution of slavery per se. The British were several times forced to hunt down and act against former slaves, who had kidnapped other freed slaves.

    One such instance, where a man from Sierra Leone kidnapped a freed slave girl, resulted in the British passing expanding legislation classifying slavers as pirates. Under a law of Henry VIII, the British navy is empowered to pursue and destroy pirates in international territory beyond British law. The British expanded this legislation to cover slavers, so they could pursue that particular slaver down to where he had fled in what is now Nigeria, slay or capture him and free the girl.

    They were successful. He could run, but he couldn’t hide.

  3. Ilíon Says:

    The “peculiar institution” in America developed over time. As this page on the PBS site puts it, “We sometimes imagine that such oppressive laws were put quickly into full force by greedy landowners. But that’s not the way slavery was established in colonial America. It happened gradually — one person at a time, one law at a time, even one colony at a time.” And Mr Johnson’s choice to (permanently) enslave Mr Casor was an important part of that process.

    This page says: “Prior to 1655 there were no legal slaves in the colonies, only indentured servants. All masters were required to free their servants after their time was up. Seven years was the limit that an indentured servant could be held. Upon their release they were granted 50 acres of land. This included any Negro purchased from slave traders. Negros were also granted 50 acres upon their release.
    Anthony Johnson was a Negro from modern-day Angola. He was brought to the US to work on a tobacco farm in 1619. In 1622 he was almost killed when Powhatan Indians attacked the farm. 52 out of 57 people on the farm perished in the attack. He married a female black servant while working on the farm.
    When Anthony was released he was legally recognized as a “free Negro” and ran a successful farm. In 1651 he held 250 acres and five black indentured servants. In 1654, it was time for Anthony to release John Casor, a black indentured servant. Instead Anthony told Casor he was extending his time. Casor left and became employed by the free white man Robert Parker.
    Anthony Johnson sued Robert Parker in the Northampton Court in 1654. In 1655, the court ruled that Anthony Johnson could hold John Casor indefinitely. The court gave judicial sanction for blacks to own slave of their own race. Thus Casor became the first permanent slave and Johnson the first slave owner.

    Whites still could not legally hold a black servant as an indefinite slave until 1670. In that year, the colonial assembly passed legislation permitting free whites, blacks, and Indians the right to own blacks as slaves.
    By 1699, the number of free blacks prompted fears of a “Negro insurrection.” Virginia Colonial ordered the repatriation of freed blacks back to Africa. Many blacks sold themselves to white masters so they would not have to go to Africa. This was the first effort to gently repatriate free blacks back to Africa. The modern nations of Sierra Leone and Liberia both originated as colonies of repatriated former black slaves.
    However, black slave owners continued to thrive in the United States.
    By 1830 there were 3,775 black families living in the South who owned black slaves. By 1860 there were about 3,000 slaves owned by black households in the city of New Orleans alone.

    So, by a court decision in 1655, free blacks acquired the “right” to own other blacks as slaves, but not until the legislature acted in 1670 did free whites (and Indians *) acquire the “right” to own blacks.

    * My great-grandfather in the direct male-line was a 1/2 Indian who had integrated into white society prior to the Indian removals of the 1830s … and he owned slaves. Some of his relatives were among those forced into the trans-Mississippi wilderness.

  4. beastrabban Says:

    Thanks for posting this, Ilion – it adds a completely new perspective on slavery in America, and one which you really don’t hear anything about. Definitely worth reading.

    It sounds like your great-grandfather may have been part Cherokee. They were one of the ‘Five Civilised’ tribes, who also owned Black slaves.

    I read in one of the books on slavery years ago – I regret I can’t remember which one, that the reason the Founding Fathers did not take direct action to liberate the slaves during the American Revolution was that they expected that it, in the absence of connections to the British imperial mercantilist trade system, it would naturally wither away and die out. They did not foresee the massive growth in slavery due to the British demand for American cotton.

    As for your family’s ancient history as slave owners, you might like to read Ed Balls’ Slaves in the Family. Balls is descended from a family of White southern plantation owners. He has no guilt about his family’s history, as he said that all the money had long gone and the estate sold long before him. The book is his account of tracing his family’s history of slave ownership, and that of slavery in the southern American states generally. He also traces the family history of the plantation’s former slaves and their descendants. The book’s cover shows him talking to a young woman, one of the descendants of the plantation workers. It’s a really good book, and some of men and women descended from the plantation workers are really talented. One was an artist, who produced what most people would call ‘proper art’ – good, naturalistic portraits with real artistic skill. Several of them – the modern descendants – have pursued a career in the Armed Forces. As I said, it’s well worth reading.

  5. Ilíon Says:

    It sounds like your great-grandfather may have been part Cherokee.

    That’s what the family lore says about him. Three of my grandparents were said to have been be part Indian.

    I had wondered for many years whether I was in any way related to this woman. A couple of years ago, I came across some geneaology work that a Ward 2nd cousin had on the web, and it turns out that the Wards I’m related to are related to her (specifically, my Wards are descended from her white step-son, who, like his father, married into the Cherokee nation — and after seeing how many kids those Wards had over a number of generations, I wonder if half the Cherokee in the country must not be distant relatives).

    He has no guilt about his family’s history …

    Nor do I. I have my own sins; why should I claim the sins of a man who died 90 years before I was born?

  6. Ilíon Says:

    I read in one of the books on slavery years ago – I regret I can’t remember which one, that the reason the Founding Fathers did not take direct action to liberate the slaves during the American Revolution was that they expected that it, in the absence of connections to the British imperial mercantilist trade system, it would naturally wither away and die out. They did not foresee the massive growth in slavery due to the British demand for American cotton.

    Yep.

    I expect that that’s where the time-honored Americal political tradition of kicking the can down the road took root.

  7. Ilíon Says:

    I think some of the info presented in this recent Telegraph article has bearing on the development of race slavery in America — “So let us start to set the record straight on one point at least. The archives demonstrate that the Stuart monarchs Charles II and James II systematically drew up laws to enforce and spread hereditary slavery, mimicking the Spanish practice of the day and the “divine right” absolutism of the Habsburg empire.
    .
    They did so with relentless focus, stacking the courts to ensure favourable rulings, and carrying out police state sedition trials against opponents, not least because revenues from tobacco and sugar plantations became the chief source of wealth for the crown.
    .
    Professor Holly Brewer from the University of Maryland says Charles II was so enamoured with the Royal African Company that he engraved its symbols of elephant and castle on one side of his golden Guinea. “The Stuarts envisaged monarchy and slavery as, literally, two sides of the same coin,” she said.
    .
    Slavery had not been hereditary in British possessions before. There were African slaves, just as there were indentured white workers, but it was fluid, in a legal grey zone, and judges could not be counted on to enforce the recapture of runaways.
    .
    Prof Brewer said the findings she has uncovered in the archives show that Locke fought tooth and nail to reverse this new hereditary structure while on the Board of Trade in the 1690s under William of Orange.
    .
    Locke sought the stop linking land grants to the number of imported slaves – 50 acres per head – a “strangely perverted “practice, in his words, intended to ensure a plantation aristocracy built on slaves. He urged that the children of blacks should be “baptized, catechized and bred Christians” so that they could not be denied their civil liberties so lightly.

    As we saw above, it was not until 1670 — ten years into the reign of Charles II — that whites in America acquired the legal “right” to own a black servant as a permanent slave.

    Meanwhile, consider the injustice of Anthony Johnson’s children being (for the most part) dispossessed upon his death –specifically, realize that this injustice was based upon the same logic by which he himself perpetrated the injustice of making John Casor a legal slave, rather than an indentured servant who must be released from servitude after no more than seven years. As quoted above, “… when Johnson died in 1670, the court said he was a legal alien and seized all [*] his land, not letting him pass it to his family.” In both cases, the logic was this: “He’s not a member of our society; therefore, not all our laws … nor legal protections … apply to him and his heirs.” In 1654/5, that was Johnson’s argument in Virginia for enslaving Casor; in 1670, that was Maryland’s argument for dispossessing Johnson’s children.

    [*] Other accounts say that his children were allowed to keep a small part of the land.

    • beastrabban Says:

      Thanks for posting this, Ilion. I really didn’t know Locke fought so hard against the establishment of Black slavery in America. As for his attitude that Blacks should be baptised so that they knew their rights and were prepared to fight for them, that was the reason many plantation owners in America and the British Caribbean didn’t want their slaves baptised and strongly rejected any missionary endeavours amongst their slaves by the clergy. See Obeah, Christ and Rastaman: Jamaica and Its Religion by Ivor Morrish (Cambridge: James Clarke 1982). I did know that the Guinea coin was so-called after the gold mines in Guinea and the connection with the Royal Africa Company. However, I did not know that James connected it and the institution of slavery to the continental absolutism he admired, which explains why so many people were so keen to get rid of him.

  8. Ilíon Says:

    … You could say that Johnson’s enslavement of Casor, and his childrens’ later dispossession were both early instances, in America, of “multiculturalism” in action.

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