John Locke Inc.: Professor David Armitage’s Thoughts on an Unexplored Aspect of An Intellectual Giant

On December 1st, the final iteration of the fall portion of the Seminar on Corporations & International Law’s Guest Speaker Series welcomed an especially distinguished guest, Professor David Armitage of Harvard University. Professor Armitage, the Lloyd C. Blankfein Professor of History, is the author of innumerable works including the award winning “The Ideological Origins of the British Empire” (2000) and a true superstar of intellectual history.

For his visit to the Seminar on Corporations & International Law, Professor Armitage wrote a brief paper on John Locke, which posited that various aspects of Locke’s life and works should cause there to be further discussion of the intersection between Locke’s writings on incorporation, which mainly dealt with the creation of states, the incorporation of other corporate bodies. The discussion which centered around this paper was broad ranging, and drew on a considerable number of interdisciplinary threads. Questions ranged from history, to economics, to religion, to the theoretical political science and human rights doctrines Locke is often connected with, to the proto-corporate and international quasi-legal frameworks of the seventeenth centuries, to modern corporate law.

The breadth of questions that can be drawn from Locke’s works were made abundantly clear by this session, and Professor Armitage admirably illustrated his great familiarity with even the most obscure details of Locke’s life and works in answering such a broad variety of questions. Several clear themes can be drawn from such a disparate array of questions however. First, Armitage clearly articulated the contradictions inherent in Locke’s popular image as the great father of liberalism. Throughout his work on the Constitution of Carolina, which was named for the seventeenth century Stuart King of England Charles I, he rubbed shoulders and worked side by side (even in the very same room) with one of the most prominent slave holders in the British Empire. Armitage also made it clear that Locke had also, as a result of his work connected to Carolina, been granted a considerable portion of land in the colony, and considered moving there to take up this land during a period of political turmoil in England. This would have, per Armitage, put him in the role of a plantation master – controlling and owning slaves and overseeing society in a manner not entirely dissimilar from a feudal lord.

As Armitage articulated, clearly alternative universe does not mesh well with the common portrait of Locke, the progenitor of many of the theories of the rights of man articulated in documents like the U.S. Constitution. Armitage even explained that Locke, in his role as a member of the Board of Trade, believed in what would today be considered a deeply illiberal economic policy – involving the granting of monopolies by the state and considerable forced interventions into the operation of the market. This juxtaposes him interestingly with later English thinkers such as Adam Smith and David Riccardo – even though all three are often placed or categorized within a broader vein of “liberalism.”

Driven by broad questions on the applicability of Locke to modern debates over the nature and proper role of corporations, Armitage reminded the audience of the need to continually remind ourselves of how broad the term corporation is. For instance, he positioned the modern business corporation as only one species, albeit the “apex predator,” within the broader genus of corporations – which properly includes bodies such as universities and municipalities within it. To understand the context in which the modern business corporation operates, he posited, it is necessary to understand the broader concepts animating it, such as incorporation, artificial persons, and legal fictions. In a broader sense, this discussion served to – as Professor Stern pointed out – adequately wrap up and provide a connective tissue for many of the disparate and broad concepts connected to corporations in international law as have been broached throughout the semester.

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