Rachael Devecka, Slavery, Humanity, and Locke

“This freedom from absolute, arbitrary power is so necessary to, and closely joined 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. Nobody 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 outweigh the value of his life, it is in his power, by resisting the will of his master, to draw on himself the death he desires. 

This is the perfect condition of slavery, which is nothing else but the state of war continued between a lawful conqueror and a captive, for if once compact enter between them, and make an agreement for a lim- ited power on the one side, and obedience on the other, the state of war and slavery ceases as long as the compact endures; for, as has been said, no man can by agreement pass over to another that which he hath not in himself—a power over his own life.

I confess, we find among the Jews, as well as other nations, that men did sell themselves; but it is plain this was only to drudgery, not to slavery; for it is evident the person sold was not under an absolute, arbitrary, despotical power, for the master could not have power to kill him at any time, whom at a certain time he was obliged to let go free out of his service; and the master of such a servant was so far from having an arbitrary power over his life that he could not at pleasure so much as maim him, but the loss of an eye or tooth set him free…”

One issue I’ve wondered about, was what Locke’s take on slavery would be. I first imagined that he would justify it by saying that by removing another person from the state of nature, you’d make them your ‘property.’ However, Locke’s actual stance is nothing of the kind. He first declares that nobody can enslave themself to anyone else, because we don’t have absolute right over our own lives and can’t give away more power than we have. He goes on to say that slavery is justified as a punishment (which is written into the 13th ammendment, so it’s easy to see the influence Locke had). Then there’s a bit about war and ‘perfect’ slavery, which I struggled to understand––both as a concept and in how it connected to the previous idea of crime. Locke ends the passage by going into examples of people who, it could be argued, did sell themselves––but into drudgery. At first, I didn’t understand the distinction between drudgery and slavery, but after looking up ‘drudgery’ and discussing the paragraph with classmates, we came to the conclusion that it referenced indentured servitude––which a person with rights to their own labor but not life could freely give. It wasn’t until I read Professor Quillen’s notes that I understood that Locke was being literal in his war comment, and actually considered war a justification for slavery. I now interpret the passage as saying that slavery is invalid between humans under normal circumstances, but servitude is okay, because it’s voluntary and the “master” has only limited control. I believe that Locke thinks that exercising absolute authority over another person is valid after the enslaved person committed a crime or entered into a state of war (which is essentially trying to commit a crime) and forfeited their intrinsic rights. This connects to the question of who is human and who is not. If Locke defines humans as having freedom, and slaves lack freedom, then, to him, people who commit (or attempt) crimes deserving of death are less than human.

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