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'The Possession of Their Ancestors': Locke and the Levellers on Conquest And Native Rights

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This article argues that John Locke engaged more deeply with the philosophical problem of conquest than has previously been appreciated. It has long been thought that Locke was peculiarly silent on arguments favouring conquest and their critiques, a subject that vexed many of his contemporaries and had real implications for the crises of his day. This paper shows that Locke not only offered answers to several contemporary arguments in favour of conquest, but gave arguments posed specifically against the theory of the Norman Yoke. In doing so, he invoked the doctrine of 'native rights', which were inheritable and inalienable rights against foreign conquerors. However, a central premise of Locke's argument was the existence of sedentary agriculture on the land of the conquered. The native rights doctrine was therefore consistent with and even reliant upon his agricultural theory of settler colonialism. Only members of a Lockean commonwealth qualified as native to their land. For his theory and its articulation in the English context, Locke drew upon a strand of Leveller ideology from John Lilburne, contesting the Norman Yoke as depriving Englishmen of their native rights. However, in doing so Locke also rejected the radical Digger approach to the Norman Yoke and native rights discourse, which argued for a native right to cultivate common and enclosed lands. Despite the myriad contexts of Locke's conquest theory, this notion of native rights has received little scholarly attention.

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Political and Social Sciences, European University Institute, Via dei Roccettini 9, I-50014, San Domenico di Fiesole, Florence, Italy

Publication date: 2023

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