Locke and Land Acknowledgements 

The following is a guest post by Kyle Swan, Professor of Philosophy and Director of Center for Practical and Professional Ethics at CSU Sacramento.


Stuart Reges is suing his employer, the University of Washington, for violating his First Amendment speech rights. The University initiated an investigation into whether Reges violated its anti-harassment policy for publishing a land acknowledgement statement on his course syllabus. His read, 

“I acknowledge that by the labor theory of property the Coast Salish people can claim historical ownership of almost none of the land currently occupied by the University of Washington.” 

Reges is protesting the recommended acknowledgment circulated by the University. The protest is clearly protected speech. I hope Reges wins his suit decisively. 

But what about Reges’s statement? He appears to be serious. In a Quillette article he writes, 

“I am a Georgist, and according to the Georgist worldview, Native Americans have no special claim to any land, just like the rest of us. But since few are familiar with that economic ideology, I leaned instead on a principle described in John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, now known as the labor theory of property or the ‘homestead principle.’ To the Georgist idea that land is owned in common by all living people, Locke added that by mixing one’s labor with the land, one encloses it from the shared property because people own the products of their labor. If, for example, you make the effort to grow corn on an acre of land, you come to own that acre of land, so long as there is still plenty of land left for others to use.” 

The labor theory Reges refers to is a theory of property acquisition. In its original state, the entire earth is given to us in common. Nobody owns stuff in the world. The question is, how can we remove things from the commons and make rightful claims to them that would allow us then to exclude others from using them? 

Locke provides some conditions. First, it has to be true that someone hasn’t already done that — the stuff has to not be already owned. Second, the person appropriating something from the commons has to do it in a way that improves it through their productive activity — gathering berries, hunting deer, growing vegetables, clearing trees — all kinds of activity counts. Finally, the way they do this has to leave enough and as good for others, so that no one would have reason to complain about the appropriation. 

Professor Reges’s acknowledgment is saying that Coastal Salish people weren’t ever in a position to claim ownership. They were never rightful owners. So when settlers came to the area in the late 1840s or whenever, he supposes these settlers were appropriating the land from the commons, rather than from a group of people. 

Professor Reges’s application of Locke’s theory is dubious. I’m a philosopher, not a historian, but it seems unlikely to me that there were no groups of native people engaged in productive activity in the relevant areas when settlers showed up. 

More importantly, though, if Reges is correct and there weren’t people there already with legitimate ownership claims, then the behavior of government authorities in the mid-19th C was very odd. Because what they were doing was negotiating treaties with the native peoples, including the Salish. Doing so suggests their recognition of legitimate claims made by these groups. Why were they making contracts to acquire land from these native peoples if they didn’t own the land? It seems incredible they would do this if they regarded the lands as unused, unoccupied, and unowned. So it looks like this was a transfer of land ownership rights, not an original appropriation of them. 

Now everything hangs on how these contracts were presented and executed. Were the negotiations above board? Were all the relevant people groups represented? Did they all sign? Were all the terms of the contract fulfilled? Again, I’m a philosopher, not a historian, but if not, if there were problems with the agreement, then there wasn’t a legitimate transfer of the Washington territories. 

If that’s right, then a different part of Locke’s theory applies, which you can find in a later chapter of the 2nd Treatise, Of Conquest. There Locke argues that an aggressor who “unjustly invades another man’s right can…never come to have a right over the conquered…. Should a robber break into my house, and with a dagger at my throat make me seal deeds to convey my estate to him, would this give him any title? Just such a title, by his sword, has an unjust conqueror, who forces me into submission. The injury and the crime is equal, whether committed by the wearer of a crown, or some petty villain. The title of the offender, and the number of his followers, make no difference in the offence, unless it be to aggravate it.” 

And so “the inhabitants of any country who are descended and derive a title to their estates from those who are subdued and had a government forced upon them against their free consents, retain a right to the possession of their ancestors….the first conqueror never having had a title to the land of that country, the people who are the descendants of, or claim under those who were forced to submit to the yoke of a government by constraint, have always a right to shake it off, and free themselves….If it be objected, This would cause endless trouble; I answer, no more than justice does.” 

Locke’s theory of acquisition has two parts. The first is a theory about how original appropriation would be legitimate. The answer has to do with labor and productive activity. But that part doesn’t seem to apply to this case, since it looks like the Salish already had an existing claim. The second part of the theory is about how acquisition by transfer would be legitimate. The answer here has to do with agreement, and everything depends on the quality of the agreement and how it was or wasn’t honored. But we see there’s more to the story. When there has been no agreement, no just transfer and only conquest, Locke says that people retain “the native right of their ancestors.” 

Locke has long been accused of providing intellectual and justificatory cover for the (mis)appropriation of Indigenous people’s land in America and around the world. But it seems like it’s been Locke’s views that have been misappropriated.