For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Trade, Plantations, and Property: John Locke and the Economic Defense of Colonialism"

by Arneil, Barbara (1994)


John Locke's Two Treatises of Government has long been recognized as a tract which addresses the questions raised by the domestic political developments in England during the Restoration period,' but the importance of English foreign policy, in particular the colonization of America, has been largely overlooked. Given the quantity of books and correspondence in Locke's possession concerned with America and its natives, the number of specific references Locke makes to America in the Two Treatises, and Locke's involvement, through his patron the Earl of Shaftesbury, in the development of colonial policies throughout his life, this oversight is surprising. By examining the seventeenth-century political controversy surrounding England's colonization of America, one can discover that the debate was fierce and that critics of colonial policy far outnumbered those who supported it during this period.

Key Passage

 From its inception the natural right to property is defined in such a way as to exclude non-Europeans from being able to exercise it. In defending the English plantation from the skeptics in England, Locke creates a right of agrarian labor which is particularly English and Protestant. Unlike the Spanish conquistador or native American hunter, the Devonshire farmer described in the Second Treatise is the only legitimate proprietor and citizen. He is the "industrious and rational" being to whom, Locke claims, God gave the world. This English farmer, through the application of his reason and industry, becomes in turn the only legitimate member of the newly forming civil society. When seen in this light, the distinction between the state of nature and civil society, and the suppression of the former by the latter takes on a new meaning. The natural man or Indian could not, by Locke's theory, be forced to join civil society or give up their property. Conquest gave no such rights to the victors. Rather, Locke argued that it would only be through industry and reason that the American Indian could be converted from natural to civil man. Such a transformation, however, was inevitable. Thus the transcendence of the state of nature by civil society, which is so central to the development of liberal thought, when seen in the colonial context in which it was created, becomes a philosophical justification for both the usurpation of Indian land and the assimilation of "natural man" into civil society. (p.609)


Locke, History, History Of Ideas, Colonialism, Economic History, Political Economy, Labor


On Locke

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