Victor Nuovo: The Carolina Colonies

It is common belief that the English philosopher John Locke was one of the principal founders of modern liberalism. Central to liberal doctrine is the principle that all human beings are born free and equal, and that no human being has the right to rule another without his or her consent, and then, only in ways that do not infringe on the native right to liberty common to all. Locke’s liberalism is a thesis professed by many notable scholars and even more by politicians; it has become a mantra, repeated in political speeches, but also in academic lectures and textbooks. However, it is at best a half-truth. And because Locke is commonly regarded as a precursor of American liberalism, it is important that a balanced and accurate picture of the man be carefully drawn. You may ask, what has this to do with the Carolina Colonies? I will explain.
John Locke’s status in English society was of the lower middle class. His father was a lawyer, who served as a court clerk. He was well connected, and through him, his son gained the sponsorship of notable men, and with their influence he gained admission to leading educational institutions: Westminster School — one of the leading English public schools — and the University of Oxford. At Oxford he studied the classics, mastered Greek and Latin, and gained a sufficient knowledge of Hebrew to allow him to become familiar with the latest biblical scholarship. After completing his undergraduate studies, he had to choose between one of the professions: law, medicine, or theology. He chose medicine and took a bachelor’s degree in medicine. He later became a research assistant of the leading English physician, Thomas Sydenham, and together they did fundamental research in the transmission of infectious diseases.
Like many educated young men of modest means, it became necessary that Locke find a sponsor. He was fortunate in finding a position as family physician in the household of Anthony Ashley Cooper, a man of great wealth and political influence, who would soon become Lord Chancellor of England and ennobled, becoming the first Earl of Shaftesbury. As a member of Shaftesbury’s household, Locke did much more than look after the health of Shaftesbury and his family. He was Shaftesbury’s intellectual companion and secretary. Shaftesbury became his political mentor. And he shared in his political fortunes. Among Shaftesbury’s achievements was the founding of the first political party in England. Indeed, he may have invented the very idea. I will write more about parties in a future essay.
In 1670, the king, Charles II, appointed Shaftesbury one of eight Lords Proprietors of the newly established Carolina colonies. The Lords Proprietors constituted a grand council to conduct the business of the colonies. Locke was appointed its secretary. Among the council’s first tasks was to draft a constitution. Shaftesbury most likely presided and is believed to be the principal author of what became known as “The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina.” Locke oversaw its several stages of revision and may also have composed parts of it.
Given the liberalism of Shaftesbury and Locke, one would expect that their liberal views would be reflected in the constitution. They were not. The form of government prescribed for the Carolina Colonies was not democratic, but feudal. Carolina was to be a county palatine. “County” is an English term signifying the chief administrative districts of England. A county palatine is an administrative district established by Royal authority and ruled by a hereditary lord or lords, who enjoyed a degree of autonomy. Two fifths of the land was divided between them, and they possessed the authority to subdivide their portions and grant them to lesser lords, who enjoyed a similar autonomy. Locke was made one of these lesser lords of manor and held the title of Landgraf; he later sold the property and gave up the title.
The Lords Proprietors and the lesser nobles did not themselves work the land, and few of them visited it. Rather they leased it to commoners who worked it. The remaining three-fifths of the land was divided into colonies, and it could be possessed by commoners, who farmed it. These are referred to in the “Constitutions” as freemen or freeholders, and altogether as “the people.”
The colonies were governed by the Grand Council headed by the senior Lord Proprietor, and by a parliament, that met biennially. It was the principal legislative body and was constituted by all major and minor nobility — a House of Lords. The judiciary, and all the other administrative departments necessary to conduct civil business and maintain order and public safety also were under the direction of the lords. The land was leased to freemen, who cultivated it, and paid a yearly rent to the proprietors.
To qualify as a freeman, one must believe that God exists and “is to be publicly and solemnly worshipped” and must practice some religion. The policy was designed to encourage immigration by “heathens, Jews, and other dissenters from the purity of the Christian religion.” The expectation was that this would put them in proximity to true Christianity, as practiced by the Church of England, and that after time reason and charity would persuade them to conform. Atheists were not included. This is hardly a liberal stance.
Finally, because agricultural labor was needed for the economy of the colony, slavery was introduced, and owning slaves became a right of all classes of society, including the lowest class of freemen. But slaves possessed no rights. Indeed, “every freeman of Carolina shall have the absolute authority over his negro slaves.” Whether the scope of this authority included power over life and death is not stated, but it certainly meant that negro slaves were regarded not as persons, but as property. This is not liberal, indeed, it is as far from it as one can get.
The picture is different in Locke’s “Second Treatise of Government.” There it is prescribed that a civil society is formed by the consent of the governed, and that the people, who are all born free and equal, create their society by covenanting together. And Locke is emphatic, only the people, this collection of free and equal persons, is sovereign. This is the liberal Locke who was the guide to the founders of our nation. But even in this work, and in the new American nation, the people included only freeborn men. It did not include women. And it did not include “negro slaves.” Yet it seems a contradiction to describe a civil society as liberal that allows the rights of freedom and equality only to a select class and gender. It is for this reason that I hesitate to characterize John Locke or his opinions as liberal.

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