British Views of Liberty

John Locke, from The First and Second Treatises of Government

[Click on image to enlarge] John Locke (1632–1704), the philosopher whose theory of natural rights helped to define the principles of modern democracy, wrote his First Treatise of Government (1690) to refute Sir Robert Filmer's Patriarcha, or the Natural Power of Kings (written ca. 1638; published 1680). Against Filmer's belief in the absolute, God-given power of the monarch, Locke maintains the natural liberty of human beings; all people are born free, and the attempt to enslave any person creates a state of war (as opposed to the state of nature). Yet Locke himself had invested in the slave trade and drafted the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina (1669), which granted absolute power over slaves. This conflict is not Locke's alone; it represents the national conflict of theory and practice, of espousing freedom while profiting from the slave traffic.

From The First Treatise of Government (1690)

1. Slavery is so vile and miserable an Estate of Man, and so directly opposite to the generous Temper and Courage of our Nation; that 'tis hardly to be conceived, that an Englishman, much less a Gentleman, should plead for't. And truly, I should have taken Sr. Rt: Filmer's Patriarcha as any other Treatise, which would perswade all Men, that they are Slaves, and ought to be so, for such another exercise of Wit, as was his who writ the Encomium of Nero, rather than for a serious Discourse meant in earnest, had not the Gravity of the Title and Epistle, the Picture in the Front of the Book, and the Applause that followed it, required me to believe, that the Author and Publisher were both in earnest. I therefore took it into my hands with all the expectation, and read it through with all the attention due to a Treatise, that made such a noise at its coming abroad, and cannot but confess my self mightily surprised, that in a Book, which was to provide Chains for all Mankind, I should find nothing but a Rope of Sand, useful perhaps to such, whose Skill and Business it is to raise a Dust, and would blind the People, the better to mislead them, but in truth is not of any force to draw those into Bondage, who have their Eyes open, and so much Sense about them as to consider, that Chains are but an ill wearing, how much Care soever hath been taken to file and polish them.

2. If any one think I take too much liberty in speaking so freely of a Man, who is the great Champion of absolute Power, and the Idol of those who Worship it; I beseech him to make this small allowance for once, to one, who, even after the reading of Sir Robert's Book, cannot but think himself, as the Laws allow him, a Freeman: And I know no fault it is to do so, unless any one better skill'd in the Fate of it, than I, should have it revealed to him, that this Treatise, which has lain dormant so long, was, when it appeared in the World, to carry by strength of its Arguments, all Liberty out of it; and that from thenceforth our Author's short Model was to be the Pattern in the Mount, and the perfect Standard of Politics for the future. His System lies in a little compass, 'tis no more but this,

That all Government is absolute Monarchy.

And the Ground he builds on, is this,

That no Man is Born free.

3. In this last age a generation of men has sprung up among us, who would flatter princes with an Opinion, that they have a Divine right to absolute Power, let the Laws by which they are constituted, and are to govern, and the Conditions under which they enter upon their Authority, be what they will, and their Engagements to observe them never so well ratified by solemn Oaths and Promises. To make way for this doctrine they have denied Mankind a Right to natural Freedom, whereby they have not only, as much as in them lies, exposed all Subjects to the utmost Misery of Tyranny and Oppression, but have also unsettled the Titles, and shaken the Thrones of Princes: (For they too, by these Mens systeme, except only one, are all born Slaves, and by Divine Right, are Subjects to Adam's right Heir); As if they had design'd to make War upon all Government, and subvert the very Foundations of Human Society, to serve their present turn.

From The Second Treatise of Government (1690)

Chap. IV. Of Slavery.

22. The Natural Liberty of Man is to be free from any Superior Power on Earth, and not to be under the Will or Legislative Authority of Man, but to have only the Law of Nature for his Rule. The Liberty of Man, in Society, is to be under no other Legislative Power, but that established, by consent, in the Common-wealth, nor under the Dominion of any Will, or Restraint of any Law, but what the Legislative shall enact, according to the Trust put in it. Freedom then is not what Sir R. F. tells us, A Liberty for every one to do what he lists, to live as he pleases, and not to be tyed by any Laws: But Freedom of Men under Government, is, to have a standing Rule to live by, common to every one of that Society, and made by the Legislative Power erected in it; A Liberty to follow my own Will in all things, where the Rule prescribes not; and not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, Arbitrary Will of another Man. As Freedom of Nature is to be under no other restraint but the Law of Nature.

23. This Freedom from Absolute, Arbitrary Power, is so necessary to, and closely joyned with a Man's Preservation, that he cannot part with it, but by what forfeits his Preservation and Life together. For a Man, not having the Power of his own Life, cannot, by Compact, or his own Consent, enslave himself to any one, nor put himself under the Absolute, Arbitrary Power of another, to take away his Life, when he pleases. No body can give more Power than he has himself; and he that cannot take away his own Life, cannot give another power over it. Indeed having, by his fault, forfeited his own Life, by some Act that deserves Death; he, to whom he has forfeited it, may (when he has him in his Power) delay to take it, and make use of him to his own Service, and he does him no injury by it. For, whenever he finds the hardship of his Slavery out-weigh the value of his Life, 'tis in his Power, by resisting the Will of his Master, to draw on himself the Death he desires.

24. This is the perfect condition of Slavery, which is nothing else, but the State of War continued, between a lawful Conquerour, and a Captive. For, if once Compact enter between them, and make an agreement for a limited Power on the one side, and Obedience on the other, the State of War and Slavery ceases, as long as the Compact endures.


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