Locke on Corporations: Corpus, Corporeality, & Relation to Corporation

The final fall meeting of the Sawyer Seminar on Corporations and International Law welcomed Professor David Armitage, of Harvard University, to Durham on December 1, 2017. Professor Armitage presented on two short pieces, one a commentary recently published in Itinerario, and the other, titled John Locke, Inc., drafted specifically for the seminar.

While introducing his piece and presentation, Professor Armitage explained his consideration of John Locke and corporations through three different approaches: Locke on the page, through his writings; Locke in different personae, as philosopher, reader, bureaucrat, and information-gatherer; and Locke as a corporeal being, moving in space. He also noted his own love of puns and how relevant they were in this context, as he explored Locke’s corpus, corporeality, and relation to corporation and Locke as a person, personae, and though personation. Professor Armitage also drew an analogy to his reflection on Locke and international thought. That project, too, had begun as a reaction to the assertion that Locke had very little to say about, and thought very little about, the international sphere. Professor Armitage’s response—“That can’t be right!”—was supported and solidified by his later work on the topic.

Here too, even in such a short piece, Professor Armitage was able to illuminate Locke’s relationship with corporations and the corporate form through each of the three approaches. He fielded questions throughout the presentation on each form, with most attention focused on the first and third. Several questions revealed the potential for a great reconsideration of previous work about, and labels placed upon, John Locke. For example, Professor Armitage described the designation of Locke as “liberal” as a recent, American invention of the 1940s. Similarly, on the relationship of Locke to classical antiquity, he designated it double-edged. While Locke is often considered a remarkably unclassicizing thinker, based on the absence of both English common law language and direct reference to classical language and history in his writings, it is also very clear that he is drenched in Roman law. He included two paragraphs from Livy at the beginning of one of his treatises and details only two core rights—the right to hold property and the right to inherit—conveniently also the only two rights enumerated in Cicero’s On Duties. Locke is also thought to have held two texts as canonical for any English gentleman: the New Testament and On Duties.

Professor Armitage went on to explain the significance of the third approach, of Locke as a corporeal being, through a vignette from the summer of 1682. From such period, there exist copies of the Carolina Constitution with handwritten notes between Locke and the owner of the largest slaveholding plantation on Barbados—direct evidence that these men met and discussed the constitution’s terms and values. There is also evidence that, during the same summer, Locke was writing Chapter 5 of his Second Treatise of Government. Many scholars find the fifth chapter feels a bit “rammed into” a preexisting piece. Understanding the context of this chapter’s drafting and other near-in-time events in which Locke as physical person participated can provide new perspectives on his intentions, meanings, and thoughts.

As noted by Professor Stern, this final fall presentation was a perfect culmination of many of the themes of the seminar to date. Professor Armitage’s discussion, in the Itinerario piece, of the terminological problem of the word “corporation” and its modern-day association with “primarily or even exclusively a commercial body” brings to mind many earlier discussions. He also laid out three movements in the history of the corporation that have been significant themes: (1) the “presentist anxiety over corporate power”; (2) the historical movement to identify similarities between trading corporations and sovereign states; and (3) the understanding of companies and states as “divergent species within the genus of corporations.” Such insights, combined with the tripartite approach to Locke and corporations, served to tie together and tie through many of the contributions of earlier presenters to the seminar.

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