Second Treatise of Government

Second Treatise of Government Summary and Analysis of Chapter IV: Of Slavery


Locke judges that the natural state of man is to be free from the dominion of other men and their laws. If a man is under the power of the law, it should only be through his own consent. When he does consent to be governed, the laws cannot go beyond what the trust placed within the government warrants.

Locke disputes Filmer’s definition of freedom, which states that all men can do what they want and not be subject to any laws. Under a government, freedom is actually characterized by a common law that all men are subject to; men retain their autonomy and free will as long as they do not violate the accepted law, and the authority should not act arbitrarily, erratically, or imprecisely.

When a man cannot be free from absolute and arbitrary power, his own life is threatened. When he has no control over his life, he cannot enter a compact, enslave himself to anyone, or more generally, place himself under the absolute control of anyone. A man cannot give more power than he has himself; this extends to his own life, which he cannot give to any other man.

If he committed a crime that deserves death, his life is now owed to the man to whom he wronged by his crime. This man may delay taking the criminal’s life and place him under his service as long as he does not harm him. If the criminal finds that his enslavement is more onerous than that of life itself, he can break his compact and commit suicide.

Slavery is no more than a state of war between a conqueror with absolute power and the conquered. The conqueror and the conquered can agree to form a compact where the conqueror accedes to limited rule and the conquered promises obedience; in this case, the state of war and slavery are over.

Locke notes that the ancient Jews did sell themselves, but not as pure slaves under an absolute rule; the master could not kill or even maim the slave, and he was free to depart at any time. This is different from the state of war Locke previously detailed.


In this chapter, Locke is interested in differentiating between legitimate and illegitimate forms of slavery. The only way slavery can be legitimate is for an unjust aggressor to be defeated in war and his victor to place him under his absolute rule. This is allowable because the aggressor violated the laws of nature by committing some transgression and did not emerge victorious when the wronged party sought restitution through force. The cause for enslavement is just and can end when the conqueror and the conquered negotiate new terms of obedience and leniency for their relationship.

By contrast, illegitimate slavery is when an absolute and despotic ruler exercises complete control over someone without any just cause. This is conspicuous in an absolute monarchy because there is no cogent reason for the individual to hold total power over every man. Slavery can never occur with a contract and is completely illegitimate if it is accomplished using bare force and conquest.

Some scholars believed this chapter on slavery validated the Afro-American slave trade of the 17th century. The slave trade had existed since the mid-15th century when the Portuguese negotiated with the rulers of several West African kingdoms to sell Africans in exchange for money and goods. The first slaves sent to America landed at Jamestown in 1619; current estimates suggest that 11 million Africans were sent to the New World. Adherents to the theory that Locke supported the slave system point to biographical information; Locke was the secretary of the Proprietors of Carolina from 1669 to 1670, the secretary and treasurer to the English Council for Trade and Foreign Plantations from October 1673 to December 1674, and secretary to the Board of Trade from 1696 to 1700. He is also the attributed author of the Fundamental Constitutions of the Carolinas (1669), which provided for serfs and slaves in the colonies (it was never ratified by the inhabitants of the Carolinas). Surely with knowledge of the inner workings of the New World colonies and their commerce with England, Locke developed a sympathetic view of the Afro-American slave trade and observed how it was economically beneficial.

However, Locke’s Second Treatise seems to support the slave system only superficially. A closer analysis of his distinction between legitimate and illegitimate forms of slavery negates the theory that he condoned the slave trade. Africans taken from their homeland were not legitimate slaves because they did not violate any laws of nature and did not deserve to be enslaved. Furthermore, in the chapter “Of Conquest” Locke details the limits on powers of a conqueror. The definition of what legitimately constitutes enslavement and the fact that there are limitations on a just conqueror do not suggest that Locke condoned the slave trade.

Locke’s work is fascinating in that it seems to allude to a specific time period, England and the crisis with King Charles II, King James II, the Glorious Revolution, and the installation of William and Mary to the throne, but is incredibly relevant on a more universal scale. Thus, if the writings on slavery in the Second Treatise were not written to offer support for the Afro-American slave trade, it may be that they, in conjunction with the sections on the state of war and conquest, were written to allude to King James’s enslavement of his own people. Alternatively, they may have been written simply to illustrate the problems with absolute monarchies as a whole. Many of Locke’s intentions in writing the Second Treatise are unknown, but that does not diminish its consequence and influence.