David Armitage: Reconsidering John Locke and Unlocking His Theories

Before I reflect on the final installment of the Mellon Sawyer Seminar on Corporations and International Law, I have to admit to that it has been well over a decade since I studied the political theories of Locke or anyone else. Furthermore, I never studied the history of these thinkers. That being said, I was a bit skeptical when I walked into the final lecture of the speaker series, which was given by David Armitage whose introduction to the Foundations of International Thought was among my favorite readings from the course. I didn’t feel as though I had gotten much from his speaker’s paper entitled John Locke, Inc. The paper was a succinct argument for the reconsideration of Locke’s thoughts on things “international” and through this, a reconsideration of corporations and international law. It proposed looking at Locke’s theories on political incorporation, his personal involvement in commercial business and bureaucracy and, finally, examining the “corporeal Locke” — Locke in the moment.


I hope here to spark a similar reconsideration of Locke and corporations…[i]n particular, I want to suggest three possible approaches to the question of Locke and corporations…[t]he first is to ask what Locke himself says about incorporation, especially in the Two Treatises….[t]he second approach is to indicate some of Locke’s own interactions with contemporary corporations, notably late-seventeenth century trading companies, from the Royal African Company to the second East India Company. The third aspect is more speculative…[t]his entails thinking of the corporeal Locke as an embodied being moving in and through various spaces, including commercial, legal, and bureaucratic spaces, where he encountered contemporary corporations and their functions.[1]


After reading the paper, I honestly wasn’t sold on any of these approaches. I questioned the first approach, because Armitage so clearly stated that Locke’s theories were directed toward the rights of man and the individual.[2] So much our of work this semester focused on understanding and moving beyond the analogy of corporate rights to the rights of natural persons. His remarks applying Locke’s theories in this way seemed to me to be, if not a step in the wrong direction, then certainly circuitous reasoning. The second approach, I thought, seemed to read more meaning into the everyday occurrences of Locke’s life than could be reasonably justified. I questioned most that approach, which relied on the examination of a “corporeal Locke.” In part, I wasn’t clear exactly what was being captured within the bounds of a “corporeal Locke” and, in part, I wasn’t clear how distinct this third approach was from the second approach.

However, as the lecture progressed, the details of his argument were filled in, and the goal, not only of his paper, but also of his approaches became clearer. As I mentioned earlier, it has been a long time since I delved into political theory and even then, it was never to question it. What Professor Armitage answers to the various questions his lectures raised brought into focus for me, was the artificial divide between Locke, the theoretician and Locke, the man. At least in my understanding, the result of breaking down of this artifice was, in fact, to allow the emergence of a “corporeal Locke.” Armitage’s idea is that by using letters and other document to physically locate Locke at different points in time, we are able to match Locke’s actions with his theories to gain a context in which to base the development of his theories. In doing so, we gain a new perspective on not only Locke and his theories, but also on our contemporary understanding of those theories.

Professor Armitage illustrated this most artfully by noting that Locke, institutionalized by American political scientists of the 1950s and 60s as the Father of Liberalism for his writing on the rights of man, was granted and seriously considered accepting a substantial parcel of land in the Carolina Colony, which would have made him a part of the elite slaveholding class. He also noted that Locke most likely drafted a revised Chapter Five, of his canonical Second Treatise discussing property rights, during the same week in which he worked to draft the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina which incorporated two non-liberal ideas of an aristocracy and slavery into its articles.

By the end of Professor Armitage’s lecture, the value of reconsidering Locke and his theories in the context of corporations and, if not international law, then international and foreign relations, became much clearer. Not only did this lecture lead me to ponder the “corporeal Locke” more intensely and critically, but also the basis and supposed neutrality of liberal theory and it application in both a domestic and international context. While I might have arrived at this lecture skeptical of the argument, I left critical of my own understanding and challenged to learn more.


[1] David Armitage, John Locke, Inc., pg. 2, Mellon Sawyer Seminar on “Corporate Rights and International Law,” Duke University, 1 December 2017.

[2] Id. at pg. 1 “To think historically about rights at all—at least in the anglophone world—may be to think about Locke. Yet the rights we find in his works, and particularly in the Two Treatises of Government, are generally natural and individual…they are exercised first in an interpersonal state of nature and only later within civil society.”


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