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Contextualizing Justice: John Locke and the debates over slavery and absolutism in England’s empire

In the last two years of his life John Locke devoted himself to translating and interpreting and contextualizing St. Paul’s Epistles from the Bible. Published after his death, in 1705, his 400 page treatise went through dozens of editions over the next century. It seems a puzzle: the preeminent theorist of reason and enlightenment devoted himself at the end to a painfully meticulous treatise on an obscure religious topic, one which became a runaway bestseller. He did so because justifications for both absolutism and slavery—in England’s empire—especially and again under Queen Anne—relied on that section of the Bible. To decenter the powerful arguments he heard about the divine rights of kings and masters, his Two Treatises of Government was not enough: to paraphrase its 1689 preface “the principles of an advocate for slavery” were still “preached in every pulpit” in 1702. He sought to put St. Paul into a historical context, a context that delegitimated Paul’s strongest statements about the just powers of kings and masters, but that took such statements, and such ideas seriously. Just so historians and philosophers need to take such ideas seriously, and to put them—and him, in the rich context of vibrant debates over slavery and absolutism in England’s seventeenth century empire, debates that continued over the next two centuries. In a world where the king or queen was also personally in charge of both the slave trade and the Church of England, slavery and absolutism were intimately connected. Putting Locke’s ideas in context reveals not only his early cooperation with Charles II, but how his ideas developed over time into a multi-pronged critique of divine and hereditary right, whether of masters or kings. It also brings to life a rich debate over real slavery and power throughout England’s early empire, a debate within which he grew to adulthood and participated over his entire adult life. His final text on St. Paul's Epistles was so widely read in the eighteenth century--because it helped to undermine religious arguments that supported both slavery and absolute power. This talk builds on my article in the American Historical Review (Oct 2017)  to show how and why Locke began to challenge absolutism and slavery, not only in theory-- but as an imperial official and politician--in practice.

Holly Brewer is the Burke Chair of American History at the University of Maryland.



Wednesday, October 10, 2018. 05:15 PM


Humanities Center Boardroom


Devin Devine,, 650.725.1219


Free and open to the public.