How could humanity be fruitful and multiply if they are all slaves to their fathers?
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
For most of Locke’s contemporaries in seventeenth‐century England, Biblical authority was enough to settle any argument. For someone who shared the fundamental conviction that the Bible was literally true and yet believed that God did not create some few to rule over all his other creatures, the Biblical case for absolutism was a powerful enemy. Certainly, since the Norman Conquest of 1066, England too had her absolute monarchs, her dictatorial kings and queens, and even the rogue republican despot; but, nonetheless, Locke and the early Whigs recognized that Filmer and Hobbes’ style of intellectualized absolutism was a different beast than your run‐of‐the‐mill feudal‐strongman despotism. Here was a generation of scholars and clergymen whose sole purpose in life was erecting an edifice for kings to make sure that nothing like the Civil Wars ever happened again. Locke’s liberals did not want another civil war, either, but neither did they think the Bible condemned humanity to slavery.
Just as the political vacuum opened during the war allowed radical political ideas (like Levellerism) to flourish, new religious doctrines proliferated at a rate unseen since the Reformation itself a century earlier. Everywhere across England, new sects of Dissenters sprung into existence, each with its own interpretation of the Bible, each driven by a different set of fundamental moral and philosophical convictions, and each with its own peculiarities of practice and social organization. Everywhere people tested alternative lifeways and remade society—from fields and villages in North America to nascent “hydrarchy” on privateering vessels, from the Digger encampment on St. George’s Hill to the average Quaker meetinghouse. Everyone could now take their pick from any number of rapidly‐circulating political and religious ideas, and in important ways we may well overlook today, many people had never felt more personally free nor more personally enslaved. The two notions, after all, are fundamentally entangled in an inverse relationship—free people feared nothing so much as slavery, and slaves desired nothing so deeply as their liberty.
For Filmer and the absolutists, personal freedom was an historical fiction cooked up by Dissenter fanatics. In actual fact, God appointed Adam sovereign over all the earth and all of its creatures—including Eve and all their progeny. Therefore, to counter Filmer’s account of Biblical history, Locke would have to show the interpretation’s inconsistencies. He would have to argue not simply the factual account of what happens in Genesis, but also appeal to his audience’s individual capacities for reason: even given the empirical case Filmer proposes to make for Adam’s absolute power over the earth, the interpretation of these facts is logically flawed. Locke concludes, then, that Filmer’s analysis of God’s words must be wrong, no matter what translation one uses. God’s charge to be fruitful and multiply was inconsistent with absolute slavery to the monarch, and downright disturbing at that: “And if God made all mankind slaves to Adam and his heirs by giving Adam dominion over every living thing that moveth on the earth…methinks Sir Robert should have…satisfied the world, that princes might eat their subjects too, since God gave as full power to Noah and his heirs, to eat every living thing that moveth, as he did to Adam to have dominion over them, the Hebrew words in both places being the same….”
By John Locke Thomas Hollis Edition. (London: A. Millar et. al.) 1764.
Two Treatises of Civil Government
Book I: Of Government
Chapter 3: Of Adam’s Title to Sovereignty by Creation.
SIR Robert, in his preface to his Observations on Aristotle’s politics, tells us, A natural freedom of mankind cannot be supposed without the denial of the creation of Adam: but how Adam’s being created, which was nothing but his receiving a being immediately from omnipotence and the hand of God, gave Adam a sovereignty over any thing, I cannot see, nor consequently understand, how a supposition of natural freedom isa denial of Adam’s creation, and would be glad any body else (since our author did not vouchsafe us the favour) would make it out for him: for I find no difficulty to suppose the freedom of mankind, though I have always believed the creation of Adam. He was created, or began to exist, by God’s immediate power, without the intervention of parents or the pre‐existence of any of the same species to beget him, when it pleased God he should; and so did the lion, the king of beasts, before him, by the same creating power of God: and if bare existence by that power, and in that way, will give dominion, without any more ado, our author, by this argument, will make the lion have as good a title to it, as he, and certainly the antienter. No! for Adam had his title by the appointment of God, says our author in another place. Then bare creation gave him not dominion, and one might have supposed mankind free without the denying the creation of Adam, since it was God’s appointment made him monarch.
But let us see, how he puts his creation and this appointment together. By the appointment of God, says Sir Robert, as soon as Adam was created, he was monarch of the world, though he had no subjects; for though there could not be actual government till there were subjects, yet by the right of nature it was due to Adam to be governor of his posterity:though not in act, yet at least in habit, Adam was a king from his creation. I wish he had told us here, what he meant by God’s appointment: for whatsoever providence orders, or the law of nature directs, or positive revelation declares, may be said to be by God’s appointment: but I suppose it cannot be meant here in the first sense, i.e. by providence; because that would be to say no more, but that as soon as Adam was created he was de facto monarch, because by right of nature it was due to Adam, to be governor of his posterity. But he could not de facto be by providence constituted the governor of the world, at a time when there was actually no government, no subjects to be governed, which our author here confesses. Monarch of the world is also differently used by our author; for sometimes he means by it a proprietor of all the world exclusive of the rest of mankind, and thus he does in the same page of his preface before cited: Adam, says he, being commanded to multiply and people the earth, and to subdue it, and having dominion given him over all creatures, was thereby the monarch of the whole world; none of his posterity had any right to possess any thing but by his grant or permission, or by succession from him. 2. Let us understand then by monarch proprietor of the world, and by appointment God’s actual donation, and revealed positive grant made to Adam, as we see Sir Robert himself does in this parallel place, and then his argument will stand thus, by the positive grant of God: as soon as Adam was created, he was proprietor of the world, because by the right of nature it was due to Adam to be governor of his posterity. In which way of arguing there are two manifest falsehoods. First, It is false, that God made that grant to Adam, as soon as he was created, since, tho’ it stands in the text immediately after his creation, yet it is plain it could not be spoken to Adam, till after Eve was made and brought to him: and how then could he be monarch by appointment as soon as created, especially since he calls, if I mistake not, that which God says to Eve,the original grant of government, which not being till after the fall, when Adam was somewhat, at least in time, and very much distant in condition, from his creation, I cannot see, how our author can say in this sense, that by God’s appointment, as soon as Adam was created, he was monarch of the world. Secondly, were it true that God’s actual donation appointed Adam monarch of the world as soon as he was created, yet the reason here given for it would not prove it; but it would always be a false inference, that God, by a positive donation, appointed Adam monarch of the world, because by right of nature it was due to Adam to be governor of his posterity: for having given him the right of government by nature, there was no need of a positive donation; at least it will never be a proof of such a donation.
On the other side the matter will not be much mended, if we understand by God’s appointment the law of nature, (though it be a pretty harsh expression for it in this place) and by monarch of the world, sovereign ruler of mankind: for then the sentence under consideration must run thus: By the law of nature, as soon as Adam was created he was governor of mankind, for by right of nature it was due to Adam to be governor of his posterity; which amounts to this, he was governor by right of nature, because he was governor by right of nature: but supposing we should grant, that a man is by nature governor of his children, Adam could not hereby be monarch as soon as created: for this right of nature being founded in his being their father, how Adam could have a natural right to be governor, before he was a father, when by being a father only he had that right, is, methinks, hard to conceive, unless he will have him to be a father before he was a father, and to have a title before he had it.
To this foreseen objection, our author answers very logically, he was governor in habit, and not in act: a very pretty way of being a governor without government, a father without children, and a king without subjects. And thus Sir Robert was an author before he writ his book; not in act it is true, but in habit; for when he had once published it, it was due to him by the right of nature, to be an author, as much as it was to Adam to be governor of his children, when he had begot them: and if to be such a monarch of the world, an absolute monarch in habit, but not in act, will serve the turn, I should not much envy it to any of Sir Robert’s friends, that he thought fit graciously to bestow it upon, though even this of act and habit, if it signified any thing but our author’s skill in distinctions, be not to his purpose in this place. For the question is not here about Adam’s actual exercise of government, but actually having a title to be governor. Government, says our author, was due to Adam by the right of nature: what is this right of nature? A right fathers have over their children by begetting them; generatione jus acquiritur parentibus in liberos, says our author out of Grotius. The right then follows the begetting as arising from it; so that, according to this way of reasoning or distinguishing of our author, Adam, as soon as he was created, had a title only in habit, and not in act, which in plain English is, he had actually no title at all.
To speak less learnedly, and more intelligibly, one may say of Adam, he was in a possibility of being governor, since it was possible he might beget children, and thereby acquire that right of nature, be it what it will, to govern them, that accrues from thence: but what connection has this with Adam’s creation, to make him say, that as soon as he was created, he was monarch of the world? for it may be as well said of Noah, that as soon as he was born, he was monarch of the world, since he was in possibility (which in our author’s sense is enough to make a monarch, a monarch in habit,) to outlive all mankind, but his own posterity. What such necessary connection there is betwixt Adam’s creation and his right to government, so that a natural freedom of mankind cannot be supposed without the denial of the creation of Adam, I confess for my part I do not see; nor how those words, by the appointment, &c. how ever explained, can be put together, to make any tolerable sense, at least to establish this position, with which they end, viz. Adam was a king from his creation; a king, says our author, not in act, but in habit, i.e. actually no king at all.
I fear I have tired my reader’s patience, by dwelling longer on this passage, than the weightiness of any argument in it seems to require: but I have unavoidably been engaged in it by our author’s way of writing, who, hudling several suppositions together, and that in doubtful and general terms, makes such a medly and confusion, that it is impossible to shew his mistakes, without examining the several senses wherein his words may be taken, and without seeing how, in any of these various meanings, they will consist together, and have any truth in them: for in this present passage before us, how can any one argue against this position of his, that Adam was a king from his creation, unless one examine, whether the words, from his creation, be to be taken, as they may, for the time of the commencement of his government, as the foregoing words import, as soon as he was created he was monarch; or, for the cause of it, as he says, creation made man prince of his posterity? how farther can one judge of the truth of his being thus king, till one has examined whether king be to be taken, as the words in the beginning of this passage would persuade, on supposition of his private dominion, which was, by God’s positive grant, monarch of the world by appointment; or king on supposition of his fatherly power over his off‐spring, which was by nature, due by the right of nature; whether, I say, king be to be taken in both, or one only of these two senses, or in neither of them, but only this, that creation made him prince, in a way different from both the other? For though this assertion, that Adam was king from his creation, be true in no sense, yet it stands here as an evident conclusion drawn from the preceding words, though in truth it be but a bare assertion joined to other assertions of the same kind, which confidently put together in words of undetermined and dubious meaning, look like a sort of arguing, when there is indeed neither proof nor connection: a way very familiar with our author: of which having given the reader a taste here, I shall, as much as the argument will permit me, avoid touching on hereafter; and should not have done it here, were it not to let the world see, how incoherences in matter, and suppositions without proofs put handsomely together in good words and a plausible stile, are apt to pass for strong reason and good sense, till they come to be looked into with attention.
Chapter 4: Of Adam’s Title to Sovereignty by Donation
HAVING at last got through the foregoing passage, where we have been so long detained, not by the force of arguments and opposition, but the intricacy of the words, and the doubtfulness of the meaning; let us go on to his next argument, for Adam’s sovereignty. Our author tells us in the words of Mr. Selden, that Adam by donation from God,was made the general lord of all things, not without such a private dominion to himself, as without his grant did exclude his children. This determination of Mr. Selden, says our author, isconsonant to the history of the Bible, and natural reason. And in his Pref. to his Observations on Aristotle, he says thus, The first government in the world was monarchical in the father of all flesh, Adam being commanded to multiply and people the earth, and to subdue it, and having dominion given him over all creatures, was thereby the monarch of the whole world: none of his posterity had any right to possess any thing, but by his grant or permission, or by succession from him: The earth, saith the Psalmist, hath he given to the children of men, which shew the title comes from fatherhood.
Before I examine this argument, and the text on which it is founded, it is necessary to desire the reader to observe, that our author, according to his usual method, begins in one sense, and concludes in another; he begins here with Adam’s propriety, or private dominion, by donation; and his conclusion is, which shew the title comes from fatherhood.
But let us see the argument. The words of the text are these; and God blessed them, and God said unto them, be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. from whence our author concludes, that Adam, having here dominion given him over all creatures, was thereby the monarch of thewhole world: whereby must be meant, that either this grant of God gave Adam property, or as our author calls it, private dominion over the earth, and all inferior or irrational creatures, and so consequently that he was thereby monarch; or 2dly, that it gave him rule and dominion over all earthly creatures whatsoever, and thereby over his children; and so he was monarch: for, as Mr. Selden has properly worded it, Adam was made general lord of all things, one may very clearly understand him, that he means nothing to be granted to Adam here but property, and therefore he says not one word of Adam’s monarchy. But our author says, Adam was hereby monarch of the world, which, properly speaking, signifies sovereign ruler of all the men in the world; and so Adam, by this grant, must be constituted such a ruler. If our author means otherwise, he might with much clearness have said, that Adam was hereby proprietor of the whole world. But he begs your pardon in that point: clear distinct speaking not serving every where to his purpose, you must not expect it in him, as in Mr. Selden, or other such writers.
In opposition therefore to our author’s doctrine, that Adam was monarch of the whole world, founded on this place, I shall shew,
1. That by this grant, God gave no immediate power to Adam over men, over his children, over those of his own species; and so he was not made ruler, or monarch, by this charter.
2. That by this grant God gave him not private dominion over the inferior creatures, but right in common with all mankind; so neither was he monarch, upon the account of the property here given him.
3. That this donation, gave Adam no power over men, will appear if we consider the words of it: for since all positive grants convey no more than the express words they are made in will carry, let us see which of them here will comprehend mankind, or Adam’s posterity; and those, I imagine, if any, must be these, every living thing that moveth…of which words the scripture itself is the best interpreter: God having created the fishes and fowls the 5th day, the beginning of the 6th, he creates the irrational inhabitants of the dry land….
When God had made the irrational animals of the world, divided into three kinds, from the places of their habitation, viz. fishes of the sea, fowls of the air, and living creatures of the earth, and these again into cattle, wild beasts, and reptils, he considers of making man, and the dominion he should have over the terrestrial world, and then he reckons up the inhabitants of these three kingdoms, but in the terrestrial leaves out the second rank [of] wild beasts: but here, where he actually exercises this design, and gives him this dominion, the text mentions the fishes of the sea, and fowls of the air, and the terrestrial creatures in the words that signify the wild beasts and reptils, though translated living thing that moveth, leaving out cattle. In both which places, though the word that signifies wild beasts be omitted in one, and that which signifies cattle in the other, yet, since God certainly executed in one place, what he declares he designed in the other, we cannot but understand the same in both places, and have here only an account, how the terrestrial irrational animals, which were already created and reckoned up at their creation, in three distinct ranks of cattle, wild beasts, and reptils, were here, actually put under the dominion of man, as they were designed, nor do these words contain in them the least appearance of any thing that can be wrested to signify God’s giving to one man dominion over another, to Adam over his posterity.
And this further appears from Gen. ix. 2. where God renewing this charter to Noah and his sons, he gives them dominion over the fowls of the air, and the fishes of the sea, and the terrestrial creatures…which by no means can comprehend man, the grant being made to Noah and his sons, all the men then living, and not to one part of men over another: which is yet more evident from the very next words, where God gives every every moving thing, the very words used, to them for food. By all which it is plain that God’s donation to Adam, and his designation, and his grant again to Noah and his sons, refer to and contain in them neither more nor less than the works of the creation the 5th day, and the beginning of the 6th….From whence I think it is past all doubt, that man cannot be comprehended in this grant, nor any dominion over those of his own species be conveyed to Adam. All the terrestrial irrational creatures are enumerated at their creation, under the names beasts of the earth, cattle and creeping things; but man, being not then created, was not contained under any of those names; and therefore, whether we understand the Hebrew words right or no, they cannot be supposed to comprehend man, in the very same history, and the very next verses following….And if God made all mankind slaves to Adam and his heirs by giving Adam dominion over every living thing that moveth on the earth, as our author would have it, methinks Sir Robert should have carried his monarchical power one step higher, and satisfied the world, that princes might eat their subjects too, since God gave as full power to Noah and his heirs, to eat every living thing that moveth, as he did to Adam to have dominion over them, the Hebrew words in both places being the same….
To maintain this property and private dominion of Adam, our author labours in the following page to destroy the community granted to Noah and his sons….
Our author probably foreseeing he might not be very successful in persuading people out of their senses, and, say what he could, men would be apt to believe the plain words of scripture, and think, as they saw, that the grant was spoken to Noah and his sons jointly; he endeavours to insinuate, as if this grant to Noah conveyed no property, no dominion; because, subduing the earth and dominion over the creatures are therein omitted, nor the earth once named. And therefore, says he, there is a considerabledifference between these two texts; the first blessing gave Adam a dominion over the earth and all creatures; the latter allows Noah liberty to use the living creatures for food: here is no alteration or diminishing of his title to a property of all things, but an enlargement only of his commons. So that in our author’s sense, all that was said here to Noah and his sons, gave them no dominion, no property, but only enlarged the commons; their commons, I should say, since God says, to you are they given, though our author says his; for as for Noah’s sons, they, it seems, by Sir Robert’s appointment, during their father’s life‐time, were to keep fasting days.
Any one but our author would be mightily suspected to be blinded with prejudice, that in all this blessing to Noah and his sons, could see nothing but only an enlargement of commons: for as to dominion, which our author thinks omitted, the fear of you, and the dread of you, says God, shall be upon every beast, which I suppose expresses the dominion, or superiority was designed man over the living creatures, as fully as may be; for in that fear and dread seems chiefly to consist what was given to Adam over the inferior animals; who, as absolute a monarch as he was, could not make bold with a lark or rabbet to satisfy his hunger, and had the herbs but in common with the beasts. In the next place, it is manifest that in this blessing to Noah and his sons, property is not only given in clear words, but in a larger extent than it was to Adam. Into your hands they are given, says God to Noah and his sons; which words, if they give not property, nay, property in possession, it will be hard to find words that can; since there is not a way to express a man’s being possessed of any thing more natural, nor more certain, than to say, it is delivered into his hands. And to shew, that they had then given them the utmost property man is capable of, which is to have a right to destroy any thing by using it; Every moving thing that liveth, saith God, shall be meat for you; which was not allowed to Adam in his charter. This our author calls, a liberty of using them for food, and only an enlargement of commons, but no alteration of property. What other property man can have in the creatures, but the liberty of using them, is hard to be understood: so that if the first blessing, as our author says, gave Adam dominion over the creatures, and the blessing to Noah and his sons, gave them such a liberty to use them, as Adam had not; it must needs give them something that Adam with all his sovereignty wanted, something that one would be apt to take for a greater property; for certainly he has no absolute dominion over even the brutal part of the creatures; and the property he has in them is very narrow and scanty, who cannot make that use of them, which is permitted to another. Should any one who is absolute lord of a country, have bidden our author subdue the earth, and given him dominion over the creatures in it, but not have permitted him to have taken a kid or a lamb out of the flock, to satisfy his hunger, I guess, he would scarce have thought himself lord or proprietor of that land, or the cattle on it; but would have found the difference between having dominion, which a shepherd may have, and having full property as an owner. So that, had it been his own case, Sir Robert, I believe, would have thought here was an alteration, nay, an enlarging of property; and that Noah and his children had by this grant, not only property given them, but such a property given them in the creatures, as Adam had not: For however, in respect of one another, men may be allowed to have propriety in their distinct portions of the creatures; yet in respect of God the maker of heaven and earth, who is sole lord and proprietor of the whole world, man’s propriety in the creatures is nothing but that liberty to use them, which God has permitted; and so man’s property may be altered and enlarged, as we see it was here, after the flood, when other uses of them are allowed, which before were not. From all which I suppose it is clear, that neither Adam, nor Noah, had any private dominion, any property in the creatures, exclusive of his posterity, as they should successively grow up into need of them, and come to be able to make use of them.
Thus we have examined our author’s argument for Adam’s monarchy….Wherein I think it is impossible for any sober reader, to find any other but the setting of mankind above the other kinds of creatures, in this habitable earth of ours. It is nothing but the giving to man, the whole species of man, as the chief inhabitant, who is the image of his Maker, the dominion over the other creatures. This lies so obvious in the plain words, that any one, but our author, would have thought it necessary to have shewn, how these words, that seemed to say the quite contrary, gave Adam monarchical absolute power over other men, or the sole property in all the creatures; and methinks in a business of this moment, and that whereon he builds all that follows, he should have done something more than barely cite words, which apparently make against him; for I confess, I cannot see any thing in them, tending to Adam’s monarchy, or private dominion, but quite the contrary. And I the less deplore the dulness of my apprehension herein, since I find the apostle seems to have as little notion of any such private dominion of Adam as I, when he says, God gives us all things richly to enjoy, which he could not do, if it were all given away already, to Monarch Adam, and the monarchs his heirs and successors. To conclude, this text is so far from proving Adam sole proprietor, that, on the contrary, it is a confirmation of the original community of all things amongst the sons of men, which appearing from this donation of God, as well as other places of scripture, the sovereignty of Adam, built upon his private dominion, must fall, not having any foundation to support it.
But yet, if after all, any one will needs have it so, that by this donation of God, Adam was made sole proprietor of the whole earth, what will this be to his sovereignty? and how will it appear, that propriety in land gives a man power over the life of another? or how will the possession even of the whole earth, give any one a sovereign arbitrary authority over the persons of men? The most specious thing to be said, is, that he that is proprietor of the whole world, may deny all the rest of mankind food, and so at his pleasure starve them, if they will not acknowledge his sovereignty, and obey his will. If this were true, it would be a good argument to prove, that there never was any such property, that God never gave any such private dominion; since it is more reasonable to think, that God, who bid mankind increase and multiply, should rather himself give them all a right to make use of the food and raiment, and other conveniences of life, the materials whereof he had so plentifully provided for them; than to make them depend upon the will of a man for their subsistence, who should have power to destroy them all when he pleased, and who, being no better than other men, was in succession likelier, by want and the dependence of a scanty fortune, to tie them to hard service, than by liberal allowance of the conveniences of life to promote the great design of God, increase and multiply: he that doubts this, let him look into the absolute monarchies of the world, and see what becomes of the conveniences of life, and the multitudes of people.
But we know God hath not left one man so to the mercy of another, that he may starve him if he please: God the Lord and Father of all has given no one of his children such a property in his peculiar portion of the things of this world, but that he has given his needy brother a right to the surplusage of his goods; so that it cannot justly be denied him, when his pressing wants call for it: and therefore no man could ever have a just power over the life of another by right of property in land or possessions; since it would always be a sin, in any man of estate, to let his brother perish for want of affording him relief out of his plenty. As justice gives every man a title to the product of his honest industry, and the fair acquisitions of his ancestors descended to him; so charity gives every man a title to so much out of another’s plenty, as will keep him from extreme want, where he has no means to subsist otherwise: and a man can no more justly make use of another’s necessity, to force him to become his vassal, by with‐holding that relief, God requires him to afford to the wants of his brother, than he that has more strength can seize upon a weaker, master him to his obedience, and with a dagger at his throat offer him death or slavery.
Should any one make so perverse an use of God’s blessings poured on him with a liberal hand; should any one be cruel and uncharitable to that extremity, yet all this would not prove that propriety in land, even in this case, gave any authority over the persons of men, but only that compact might; since the authority of the rich proprietor, and the subjection of the needy beggar, began not from the possession of the Lord, but the consent of the poor man, who preferred being his subject to starving. And the man he thus submits to, can pretend to no more power over him, than he has consented to, upon compact. Upon this ground a man’s having his stores filled in a time of scarcity, having money in his pocket, being in a vessel at sea, being able to swim, &c. may as well be the foundation of rule and dominion, as being possessor of all the land in the world; any of these being sufficient to enable me to save a man’s life, who would perish if such assistance were denied him; and any thing, by this rule, that may be an occasion of working upon another’s necessity, to save his life, or any thing dear to him, at the rate of his freedom, may be made a foundation of sovereignty, as well as property. From all which it is clear, that though God should have given Adam private dominion, yet that private dominion could give him no sovereignty; but we have already sufficiently proved, that God gave him no private dominion.