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...
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