Stewart on Armitage, “John Locke, Inc.”

David Armitage, Professor of History and Chair of the Department of History at Harvard University, joined us for this semester’s final meeting of the Sawyer Seminar on Corporations and International Law at Duke University this past Friday, December 1, 2017.  He presented on a paper that he had prepared for the seminar, then took questions from audience members, which flowed naturally as part of the discussion.


Professor Armitage’s paper John Locke, Inc. developed and applied three approaches to study Locke’s approach to the concept of the corporation.  These three approaches were (1) the examination of Locke’s treatment of and views toward corporations in his own writings, (2) the examination of Locke’s own interactions with corporations in his life, and (3) the examination of the corporeal Locke as he moved through spaces and interacted with corporations.  By employing these three approaches, Professor Armitage was able to ascertain at least a thin idea of how Locke thought about the corporation.


The seminar discussion focused on this paper.  Professor Armitage emphasized the fact that Hobbes is often turned to for his views on corporations, whereas Locke is often ignored in this realm.  He acknowledged the much heavier emphasis that Hobbes’ work placed on corporations (in comparison to Locke), but sought to examine Locke’s life and works to identify anything indicative of Locke’s views of the corporation.  Locke had a large field of material, both published and unpublished, but most people only know a narrow section of his work, which does not include views on international law or the corporation.  Professor Armitage emphasized the value of the third approach employed in his paper, the examination of a corporeal Locke.  This method involves thinking about the physical space in which Locke existed while he wrote.  It helps us answer what he knew and when he knew it, and sharpens our understanding, or at the very least identify with greater precision some of the pertinent questions, as we study Locke’s written work.


Important to the entire discussion was a concept that has permeated nearly all of the meetings of the seminar this semester.  Professor Armitage emphasized the importance of not projecting the modern bifurcation between business corporations and other corporations (e.g., states, towns, universities, etc.) into the past.  By examining the concept of the corporation holistically, and in a historically accurate way, we are better able to contextualize how historical figures (in this case Locke) viewed it.  One of the more interesting aspects of Locke’s work that was both addressed in the paper and discussed on Friday was Locke’s concept of incorporation as it applied to the emigration of individuals.  We discussed Locke’s concept of individuals’ ability to change sovereigns, either by emigrating into vacant land to create a new state or by moving to an existing state and pledging allegiance to that body and incorporating into that body.  This view of incorporation in the sovereignty context provides us with some idea of how Locke thought of incorporation generally.


Overall, Professor Armitage led a stimulating discussion that brought together scholars and students from across a wade range of disciplines.  Professor Armitage’s paper and presentation provided us with another useful way to study the historical and theoretical roots of the corporation.

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