Of Civil Government

by John Locke
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 258

The Glorious Revolution of 1688 saw the expulsion of James II from the throne of England and the triumph of Whig principles of government. James had been accused of abandoning the throne and thus violating the original contract between himself and his people. Two years later, John Locke’s Of Civil Government: The Second Treatise appeared in Two Treatises of Government and was looked upon by many as a tract that justified in philosophical terms those historical events. The first treatise had been an argument against the view that kings derive their right to rule from divine command, a view held by England’s royal family the Stuarts, especially James I, and defended with no little skill by Sir Robert Filmer in his Patriarcha (1680).

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After rejecting Filmer’s thesis, Locke looked for a new basis of government and a new source of political power. He recognized that the state must have the power to regulate and preserve property, and that to do so it must also have the right to punish, to use the death penalty and all lesser ones. In order to carry out the laws passed, the force of the community must be available to the government, and it must also be ready to serve in the community’s defense from foreign injury. Political power by which the government performs these functions ought to be used only for the public good and not for private gain or advantage. Locke then set out to establish a basis for this power, a basis that he considered moral and just.

Natural Law as the Basis of Government

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He turned to a concept used by political theorists since the time of the Stoics in ancient Greece: natural law with its concomitants, the state of nature and the state of war. Many philosophers have objected to the state of nature as a concept because history does not indicate that such a state existed. In Of Civil Government Locke tries to answer this objection by pointing to “primitive” societies known in his day, the nations of Indians living in the New World. However, that was not a strong argument and was not really needed by Locke. The concept of the state of nature can be used as a device to set off and point up the difference between a civil state in which laws are enacted by the government and a contrasting state in which either these laws are absent in principle or another set of laws prevails. In this way, the basis of civil enactments and the position of the individual within society may be better understood.

This applies also to the other concepts mentioned, the state of war and natural law. At any rate, Locke holds that in the state of nature one may order one’s own life as one sees fit, free from any restrictions that other people might impose; in this sense, each individual and all others are equal. They are equal in a more profound sense from which, as it were, their right to act as independent agents comes; that is, as children of God. By use of reason, people can discover God’s commands by which they should order their lives in the state of nature. These commands are called the “laws of nature.” Thus, although one is free to act as one pleases in the state of nature, one is still obligated to act according to God’s commands. This ensures that one’s actions, although free, will not be licentious. The basic restriction that God’s laws place on an individual is that one treat others as one would like to be treated. Because people are equal and independent, they should not harm one another regarding their “life, health, liberty, or possessions.”

Free Will

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Humanity’s glory as well as its downfall has been free will, whereby one may choose to do or not to do what one ought to do. To preserve oneself from those who choose to inflict harm, one has the right to punish transgressors of the law. Reparation and restraint are the two reasons that justify punishment when one by one’s acts has shown that one has agreed to live by a law other than that which common reason and equity dictate; that is, one has chosen to violate God’s orders. The right to punish is thus a natural right by which people in the state of nature may preserve themselves and humankind from the transgressions of the lawless. This right is the basis for the right of governments to punish lawbreakers within the state; thus, Locke provides a ground for one aspect of political power that he had noted earlier.

The State of War

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When an individual indicates through a series of acts that are apparently premeditated that he or she has designs on another’s life or property, then that person enters into a state of war, a state of enmity and destruction, toward the intended victim. In the state of nature, people ought to live according to reason and, hence, according to God’s commands. Each individual must be the judge of his or her own actions, for on earth there is no common superior with authority to judge between that person and another when a question of aggression arises and when relief is sought. One’s conscience must be one’s guide as to whether one is in a state of war with another person.

In the Declaration of Independence, the American colonists proclaimed that people had natural rights granted to them by their Creator and that governments were instituted by people with their consent to protect these rights. Locke, as pointed out, held these rights to be life, liberty, and property, whereas the Declaration proclaims them to be life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is interesting that Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, pondered whether to use “property” or “pursuit of happiness” and in an early draft actually had written the former. Much of Locke’s discussion in On Civil Government influenced the statesmen and leaders of the colonies during the period of the American Revolution.


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Locke seems to use various senses of “property” in his discussions. Speaking quite generally, one might say that whatever was properly one’s own—whatever God had endowed an individual with or whatever the legislature of the commonwealth had declared as legal possession—no one else had a claim to. In spelling out this idea, Locke starts first with one’s own body, which is God-given and which no one has a claim upon; an individual has a right to be secure in his or her person. Included in this idea is the fact that life itself is a gift to which no one else has a claim, as well as the freedom to move about without restriction.

There is next the more common use of “property,” which is often rendered “estate” and which refers to the proper possessions that one gains in working the earth that God has given people to use for the advantage of their lives and their convenience. Because working for one’s own advantage and convenience involves the pursuit of happiness, it can be seen in what way the terms “property” and “pursuit of happiness” are interchangeable. This more common use of “property” is, nonetheless, related to the first use in Locke’s theory. What is properly a person’s own may be extended when, with regard to the common property that God has blessed people with for their use, a person mixes labor with it and makes it his or her own. Divine command prescribes, however, that one take no more than one needs, for to take more than one’s share may lead to the waste of God’s gift and result in want for others. Locke believed that there was more than enough land in the world but that it should be used judiciously; he does complicate matters, however, by stating that disproportionate and unequal possessions may be acquired within a government through the consent of the governed.

Locke’s embryonic economic theory may be looked upon as an early statement of the classical or labor theory of value. This is especially so if we remember that aside from the “natural” or God-given articles of value that people have, they create objects of value by means of their own labor; more succinctly, labor creates value. This view was held by such influential thinkers in economic history as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Karl Marx. Locke had again provided a ground for the use of political power to regulate, preserve, and protect property in all its aspects by establishing its place in the state of nature prior to the institution of the commonwealth.

The Case for Government

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Locke has shown that although people ought to live according to divine commands, some do not and thus turn the state of nature into one of war. Because there is no common superior on earth to whom one can turn for restitution, people are often left helpless. It is obvious that not every injury imagined is a wrong, that two individuals in conscience may disagree, and that those instances of obvious wrongs are not always rectifiable when people have only their own judgments and strength to depend upon. A disinterested judge, supported by more power than a single person has alone, may provide people with a remedy for the insecurity that exists in the state of nature. In the most general sense of “property,” a commonwealth may provide the solution to its preservation and security by making public the laws by which people ought to live, by establishing a government by which differences may be settled through the office of known and impartial judges who are authorized to do so, and by instituting a police force to execute the law, a protection absent in the state of nature. People give up their rights to judge for themselves and to execute the laws of nature to the commonwealth, which in turn is obligated to use the power that it has gained for the ends that led to the transference of these rights. In giving up their rights, people consent to form a body politic under one government and, in so doing, obligate themselves to every member of that society to submit to the determinations of the majority. Note that everyone who enters into the society from the state of nature must consent to do so; hence, consent is unanimous and anyone who does not consent is not a member of the body politic. On the other hand, once the body politic is formed, its members are thenceforth subject to the vote of the majority.

In discussing consent and the general question “Who has consented and what are its significant signs?” Locke uses the traditional distinction between tacit and express consent. Although he is somewhat ambiguous at times, his position is apparently as follows. There are two great classes or categories of individuals within society, those who are members and those who are residents but not members. (A convenient and similar distinction would be those who are citizens and those who are alien residents.) Both these two groups receive benefits from the government and hence are obligated to obey it. By their presence, they enjoy the peace and security that goes with a government of law and order, and it is morally and politically justifiable that that government expect of them that they obey its laws. Those who are merely residents may quit the body politic when they please; their tacit consent lasts only as long as their presence in the state. Members, however, by their express consent create and perpetuate the society. They are not free to be or not be members at their whim; otherwise, the body politic would be no different from the state of nature or war from which its members emerged, and anarchy would prevail. Citizens usually have the protection of their government at home and abroad, and often, at least in the government Locke preferred, a voice in the affairs of their nation. Locke points out, however, that the people who form the commonwealth by their unanimous consent may also delegate their power to a few or to one (oligarchy or monarchy); but in any case it is their government.

Obligations of Government

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There are certain aspects of government that Locke believed must be maintained to ensure that it functions for the public good:1. The legislative, which is the supreme governmental power, must not use its power arbitrarily over the lives and fortunes of the people. The law of nature still prevails in the governments of humankind. 2. Nor should power be exercised without deliberation. Extempore acts would place the people in as great jeopardy as they were in the state of nature. 3. The supreme power cannot take property from a person without that individual’s consent. This principle applies also to taxation. 4. The legislative power cannot be transferred to anyone else, but must remain in the hands of that group to which it was delegated by the people. In so acting, the legislature ensures that political power will be used for the public good.

Separation of Powers

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Locke believed that the interests of the people would be protected more fully in a government in which the three basic powers—legislative, executive, and federative—were separate and distinct in their functions. The legislature need meet only periodically, but the executive should be in session continually, whereas the management of the security of the commonwealth from foreign injury would reside in the body politic as a whole. Strictly speaking, the federative power—treaty making and so forth—need not be distinguished from the legislative. It is interesting that the three branches of government in the United States include the judiciary rather than the federative, which is shared by both the executive and legislative branches of government. This structure reflects the influence of Montesquieu as well as Locke at the Philadelphia convention.

Government, which is made up of these three basic powers, of which the legislative is supreme, must not usurp the end for which it was established. The community, even after it has delegated its power, does not give up its right of self-preservation, and in this sense it retains forever the ultimate power of sovereignty. This power cannot be used by the community that is under obligation to obey the acts of the government unless that government is dissolved. It must be pointed out that the community is for Locke an important political concept. The exercise of its power after the dissolution of government is as a public body and does not involve a general return to the state of nature or war by its members. However, in what way is a government dissolved?

Violation of the Social Contract

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When a government exercises power beyond right, when public power is used for private gain, then tyranny prevails. Such acts set the stage for the dissolution of government. It should be pointed out that in forming a community and in delegating power to a government, the people, especially in the latter case, enter into an agreement or, analogously, into a social contract with their government to provide them with security, preservation, and those conveniences that they desire, in exchange for the transference of their rights and the honor, respect, and obligation that they render to the government. The violation of their part of the contract leads the government to declare them (as individuals) outlaws, to use its police force to subdue them and its courts to set punishment for them.

In discussing dissolution in general, Locke points out that it can apply to societies and communities as well as to governments. It is seldom that a community is dissolved. If it does happen, it is usually the result of a foreign invasion that is followed by the utter destruction of the society. Governments, on the other hand, are dissolved from within. Either the executive abandons his or her office (as was done by James II) and the laws cannot be carried out, or the legislative power is affected in various ways that indicate a violation of trust. If, for example, the property of the subjects is invaded, or if power is used arbitrarily, then government is dissolved.

Obviously, it falls upon the community to judge when this power is being abused. Generally, Locke holds, the people are slow to act; it takes not merely one or two but a long series of abuses to lead them to revolution. In fact, he points out that the term “rebellion” indicates a return to a state of war and a denial of the principles of civil society. However, when this happens in the dissolution of government, it is the government that has rebelled and not the community; it is the community that stands for law and order and puts down the rebellion. Thus, Locke rather cleverly concludes his treatise not with a justification of the right of rebellion but, rather, with the right of the people to put down unlawful government, unlawful in that it violates the trust and the law of nature, leading to tyranny, rebellion, and dissolution.


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Additional Reading

Ayers, Michael. Locke. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented and requiring no special background. Bibliography.

Brantley, Richard E. Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1984. Brantley alleges that John Locke influenced John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, and that Wesley’s work influenced the eighteenth century Romantic poets.

Chappell, Vere, ed. John Locke: Theory of Knowledge. New York: Garland, 1992. Thirty critical essays about the philosopher and his ideas concerning knowledge, reprinted from their original locations. This book is volume 8 in a series; Locke’s philosophy of politics is contained in volume 9.

Kramer, Matthew H. John Locke and the Origins of Private Property. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1997. A detailed analysis of Locke’s theories about the rewards of labor and the relationships between labor and ownership.

Lennon, Thomas M. The Battle of the Gods and Giants. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993. This book is about René Descartes and Pierre Gassendi, but a forty-page chapter and a few pages at the end of the book are devoted to Locke’s inheritance from both philosophers.

Schouls, Peter A. Reasoned Freedom: John Locke and the Enlightenment. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992. Compares Locke to Descartes, then invites comparison to other philosophers, such as Michael Oakeshott, by presenting Locke’s defense of reason and his explications of freedom, self-determination, and education.

Seliger, M. The Liberal Politics of John Locke. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1968. Seliger attempts to explain the ambiguities and contradictions of Locke and thereby explain his system. He has more argument with opinions about Locke than he has with Locke.

Tully, James. A Discourse on Property: John Locke and His Adversaries. Cambridge, England.: Cambridge University Press, 1980. Locke’s theories of property have long caused argument among political thinkers. This book is Tully’s attempt to reconsider what Locke said.

Zuckert, Michael P. Natural Rights and the New Republicanism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994. Locke (and many others) wrote about “natural rights.” This book about the thought of a number of philosophers features text about Locke and his influence on the Americans, on questions about natural law, on government, and on property.

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