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Holly Brewer

When Holly Brewer saw the words “well done” in the margins of a 1699 report on slavery and land grants in colonial Virginia, she knew that the thin handwriting belonged to John Locke, the English philosopher whose ideas about democracy strongly influenced American revolutionaries. The document details how a Virginia governor in 1699, Francis Nicholson rejected the imperial British legal policy of granting land to anyone who bought slaves, a change he had introduced upon orders from John Locke and other members of England’s Board of Trade.

In an October 2017 article for “The American Historical Review,” Brewer traces how these words, “well done,” were the culmination of Locke’s efforts to implement a forty-page plan for law reform in Virginia. In the 1690s, Locke served on the British Imperial Board of Trade, and he used this influence to reform laws and government in Virginia.

Brewer, Burke chair of American history and associate professor at the University of Maryland, is a specialist in early American history and the early British empire. For her research, she has examined thousands of pages of legal and philosophical documents, including extensive records of the British imperial administration and Locke’s original manuscripts.

Brewer shows that British imperial laws, particularly those that tied laborers to land, were essential to the development of slavery in the Americas. The Virginia plan, which objected to royal land grants rewarding the purchase of slaves, was among Locke’s papers when they were given to the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England after World War II. However, the cataloguer who processed the papers insisted that Locke could not have written it, and for years it was ignored by scholars.  Brewer says that this omission, as well as assumptions that colonists shaped their own laws without British interference, has meant that large bodies of evidence about slavery’s emergence and its connection to the British monarchy have been ignored. It has thus shaped how scholars understand philosophical debates about democracy and slavery in the United States.

“Historians have been stuck in a narrative that equality for whites in America came only at the expense of inequality for blacks,” she says. “There is an incorrect assumption that America was always simultaneously liberal and racist.”

Brewer has been meticulously researching slavery in Britain’s early empire for more than a decade. She received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2014 to work on her current book project, “Inheritable Blood: Slavery and Sovereignty in Early America and The British Empire,” of which this article is a part.

One of the main sources historians have for understanding law and government in early Virginia and other English colonies are the reports and correspondence between the colonial governments and England. Brewer has spent years combing through “the archives of empire,” as she calls them.

“The amount of primary sources we have on early America and the British empire is astounding,” Brewer says. “There are hundreds of thousands of pages of correspondence from the Board of Trade alone.”

While reading through these conversations of the Board of Trade, she kept noticing references to Locke’s Virginia plan, which lead her to seek out the original document and verify its origin with Locke scholars and handwriting specialists.

“Locke was at the height of his political power and influence when he writes the Virginia plan,” Brewer says. “It’s exciting to see how he was thinking about what was happening on the ground of the most important colony in the British empire, and see how he was directly challenging the royal land grants that encouraged slavery.”

In her article, Brewer questions the prevailing narrative among early American historians that slavery in the United States emerged in conjunction with democracy. She asserts that slavery was bolstered by monarchical policies and British laws that encouraged slavery by rewarding slave buyers with land grants. Brewer points to Locke’s Virginia plan as proof that early colonial lawmakers did not develop slavery on their own, nor did they simply accept imperial laws promoting slavery. Slavery was debated on many levels throughout the empire in the seventeenth century, and appeared in close conjunction with policies of hierarchical government.

Brewer believes that understanding the historical and structural roots of slavery, and by extension racism in the United States, can help contemporary legislators as well as everyday people connect across political lines.

“There is nothing natural or inevitable about the emergence of slavery in the United States,” she says. “The history of the long legal and governmental struggle over rights can help us understand and challenge contemporary institutionalized racism.”


This release is based on an interview with Holly Brewer and the text of her article, “Slavery, Sovereignty, and ‘Inheritable Blood’: Reconsidering John Locke and the Origins of American Slavery,” in “The American Historical Review, Volume 122, Issue 4, 1 October 2017, Pages 1038–1078,