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Enlightenment Arguments against Slavery

During the Age of Enlightenment, there was an increasing emphasis on the use of human reason to understand the world and solve its problems. Yet that human reason, when applied to slavery, had mixed results, as selfishness, greed, and tradition often stood in the way of clear thought. As Maurice Jackson notes, "Because the Age of Enlightenment was also the golden age of the slave trade, people juxtaposed noble ideas and self-serving ideologies."

Important Enlightenment thinkers, such as John Locke, illustrate this conflicted perspective. He noted that "slavery is so vile and miserable an Estate of Man, and so directly opposite to the generous Temper and Courage of our nation; that 'tis hardly to be conceived that an Englishman, much less a Gentleman, should bled for 't." Slavery, he argues, is vile. Yet, at the same time, he argues that slavery is justified because those enslaved were "captives taken in a just war." He goes so far as to argue that "Every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over Negro slaves, of what opinion and Religion soever." His philosophical ideas were compromised by self-interest.

John Locke

While positions like Locke's were widespread, there were other Enlightenment figures working more consistently against slavery. For instance, Francis Hutcheson, a figure of the Scottish Enlightenment, argued that "all men have strong desires of liberty and property, have notions of right, and strong natural impulses to marriage, families, and offspring, and earnest desires of their safety." Because of that, he noted that "no endowments natural or acquired, can give a perfect right to assume powers over others, without their consent." In other words, human beings have a desire to control their own lives and that desire should not be taken by another by force. Hutcheson's ideas became very influential as they were taken up by Anthony Benezet and spread throughout the abolition movement.

To read Francis Hutchenson's A System of Moral Philosophy in Three Books, click here

Francis Hutcheson