Two Treatises of Government

by John Locke

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1763

John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government established the author as the intellectual father of the modern constitutional state. The political theories set forth are the foundation for later political philosophers, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose Du contrat social: Ou, Principes du droit politique (1762; The Social Contract,1764) influenced the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789. Before Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776, he read and absorbed Locke’s Two Treatises of Government.

Locke lived during a time of tremendous political upheaval in England, including the Civil War (1642-1646), the beheading of King Charles I (1649), the interregnum (1649-1660), the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy (1660), and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. These events gave Locke the motivation to advocate the political changes that influenced his and future generations.

In his first treatise, Locke refutes the arguments of Sir Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha: Or, The Natural Power of Kings (1680), which defends the established order in England. Locke’s second treatise, the statement of his own political philosophy, rejects many statements in Leviathan (1651) by Thomas Hobbes, which advocates absolute power in the person of the king. The connection between Locke’s Two Treatises of Government and the Glorious Revolution is also clear. Manuscripts of his work circulated in England for several years prior to 1688, helping to produce the revolution. In the preface to the published version, written in 1689 after William and Mary were given the throne, Locke declared that his treatises “I hope are sufficient to establish the Throne of our Great Restorer, Our present King William.”

The major historical impact of Locke’s Two Treatises of Government is best defined by an analysis of the second treatise (which he subtitled “An Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent, and End of Civil Government”). The content of this essay is best summarized in five major points. The first major point is Locke’s definition and discussion of political doctrine. In this point, he declares his belief that government can exist only with the consent of free people. Locke then defines the political power that the government possesses as the power to make laws for the regulation and the preservation of property, to use the collective force of the people to execute the laws, and to protect the people and their property from foreign injury. This summary of the duties of government is notable for what it omits—religion, for example.

The biggest part of Locke’s discussion of political doctrine is devoted to the four principles of his philosophy of state. The first principle is that there is a need for a powerful political and social organization. Locke believes that all people are born free; he also believes that the only way free people can protect themselves and their property is to form a community. The second principle is that the only legitimate claim by which a ruler can justify his or her power is by a definite agreement between the ruler and the ruled. Locke uses this contract theory to form the basis for government by consent. The next principle is that different circumstances allow for different degrees of authority being given to the government. A community in need of strong leadership can give near-absolute power to its rulers, but a stable community may severely limit its leaders’ authority. In chapter 8 of his second thesis, Locke gives the example of the chiefs of Indian tribes in America, who were absolute rulers during times of war, but who exercised very little power during times of peace. The final principle in Locke’s philosophy of state is that once a legitimate government is established, the people are bound to obedience. Even if the government proves unsatisfactory, they cannot claim rights not contained in the agreement.

The second major point of Locke’s work expands his idea of government by consent into a social contract consisting of two parts. First is a pact of union, in which individuals surrender control over the natural rights to a community, which then acts as a unit to protect the rights of all. Second comes a compact of subjection in which each individual is subject to the will of the community, as long as the community does not violate the individual’s rights. Throughout his writings, Locke discusses community by consent but never defines the exact point of origin for that community. He also writes much about the state of nature, which is what exists before the community is formed, but does not precisely describe that state.

Any discussion of Locke’s theory of community must include his ideas on how consent is given and what the individual’s obligation to the community is afterward. Locke states that before an individual may be bound by community action, there must be solid evidence that he or she gave consent. Direct consent can be given when, upon reaching maturity, he or she takes an oath of allegiance to the government. Tacit consent may be assumed if a person stays in a community for a long period of time without going elsewhere. This tacit consent seems unrealistic, however, because, regardless of an individual’s attitude toward the government, he or she may be unable to depart for economic, political, or personal reasons. Even if he or she is able to leave, his or her choices may be so limited that he or she is no more satisfied than before. What Locke apparently means is that any individual living in a community where majority rule prevails is obligated to obey the laws of that community as long as his or her liberty and property are protected. This position establishes a sound moral basis for government, and it is considered one of Locke’s major contributions to the modern constitutional state.

The third major point of Locke’s second treatise is his discussion of separation of power in government, which can better be understood as a differentiation of power. Locke did not advocate three equal branches of government controlled by a system of checks and balances. Instead, he placed the basic power in the legislative branch, as he declares in chapter 11: “The first and fundamental positive Law of all Commonwealths, is the establishing of the Legislative Power; as the first and fundamental natural law . . . the preservation of the Society, and . . . is . . . sacred and unalterable in the hands where the Community have once placed it.”

Legislative supremacy is to be tempered by four limitations. The first is that the legislature cannot have arbitrary power over the lives and property of the people. The legislature has only the power that is transferred to it by consent. People have arbitrary control of their own lives and property, and they have no right to take away the life and property of someone else, so these powers cannot be transferred to the legislature. The second limitation is that the legislature cannot govern by arbitrary decree. It must follow established laws that are interpreted by known and authorized judges. The third limitation is that the legislature cannot take people’s property without their consent. Crucial to understanding this limitation is Locke’s definition of property, given in chapter 5 of his second treatise. The concept of property consists of two elements: property inherited by all from God and property consisting of one’s body and the labor thereof. Locke combined these elements by saying that acorns and apples are given by God to all, but they become the property of those who gather and pick them. That Locke was pleased with his definition of property is proven by a remark in a letter he wrote in 1703: “Property I have nowhere found more clearly explained than in a book entitled Two Treatises of Government.” The fourth and last limitation that Locke placed on the legislature is that it cannot transfer its lawmaking power to any other person or organization.

In contrast to legislative supremacy is Locke’s concept of executive necessity. The executive is necessary primarily to guarantee the perpetual execution of legislation. He also describes what he calls federative power, by which he means control of foreign policy. Although Locke separates the federative from the executive, he indicates that they are closely related. Conspicuous by its absence in Locke’s two treatises is judicial independence, since that concept was long a cornerstone of English constitutional tradition. He seems to include judicial power within the realm of the executive.

The fourth major point of the Two Treatises of Government, discussed in chapter 13, consists of the related political principles of popular sovereignty and representative democracy. Locke assigns popular sovereignty (his definition of the term is that the people are the supreme power) to the legislature. That legislature should contain, at least in part, representatives chosen by the people for a specific period of time. When that time is over, the representatives return to their positions as subjects. Locke gives to the executive the power to issue directives regarding the election of the representatives and the assembling of the legislature.

Chapter 19, the last chapter of Locke’s second thesis, covers the last major point of Locke’s work: the dissolution of government. After he briefly discusses dissolution from without (external force), Locke explains and justifies how a government can be dissolved from within. He describes what is commonly called the right of revolution. One basic reason for this right is if the legislature is altered by an overreaching executive. The alteration could be by the despot’s setting up arbitrary will in place of laws, preventing the legislature from assembling, or setting up a legislature of the ruler’s own choosing. Revolution would be justified in such cases. It would also be justified if the community is delivered to the subjection of a foreign power. The legislature itself can provoke a justifiable revolution if it breaks its contract, by invading the property of the subjects, for example.

Locke anticipates and answers the charge that his ideas about justifiable dissolution would be foment for revolution. He first states that ill-treated people have a right to seek change. Second, every small problem or abuse of trust does not necessitate a revolution. Finally, Locke indicates that the threat of a revolution may prevent the abuse of power that justifies a real revolution.

Locke’s Two Treatises of Government contributes at least three basic principles to the modern constitutional state. First, every member of a political society should have an equal voice in governing that society. Second, the idea of social contract helped pave the way for a formal, written constitution. Third, final sovereign power should rest with the people as a whole.

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