Locke's Second Treatise on Civil Government

by: John Locke



The laws which have been hitherto mentioned, i.e. the laws of nature, do bind men absolutely, even as they are men, although they have never any settled fellowship, never any solemn agreement amongst themselves what to do, or not to do: but forasmuch as we are not by ourselves sufficient to furnish ourselves with competent store of things, needful for such a life as our nature doth desire, a life fit for the dignity of man; therefore to supply those defects and imperfections which are in us, as living single and solely by ourselves, we are naturally induced to seek communion and fellowship with others: this was the cause of men's uniting themselves at first in politic societies.

In Chapter 2, “Of the State of Nature,” Locke appeals to the laws of nature. A natural law is God-given and innate in humans. A natural law arises naturally from human reason. Here, Locke echoes the arguments of Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan. Like Hobbes, Locke recognizes that competition for resources will inevitably lead to people needing protection from each other, one reason why government seems necessary. Hobbes viewed humans as brutes needing to be controlled; therefore, he advocated absolute government. However, Locke saw humans as reasonable beings acting in their own self-interest. Therefore, he argued for government by and for the people.


So that, however it may be mistaken, the end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom: for in all the states of created beings capable of laws, where there is no law, there is no freedom: for liberty is, to be free from restraint and violence from others; which cannot be, where there is no law: but freedom is not, as we are told, a liberty for every man to do what he lists: (for who could be free, when every other man's humour might domineer over him?) but a liberty to dispose, and order as he lists, his person, actions, possessions, and his whole property, within the allowance of those laws under which he is, and therein not to be subject to the arbitrary will of another, but freely follow his own.

In Chapter 6, “Of Paternal Power,” Locke argues that the jurisdiction of parents over their children exists as temporary, lasting only until children become free adults. Locke explains what he means by freedom and liberty and describes the relationship between freedom and the law. Hobbes made similar arguments in Leviathan. However, Hobbes expected people to accept absolute rule in return for protection against violence, while Locke expected the laws to uphold a man’s right to his own life, liberty, and property. Here he states clearly that preserving and enlarging freedom represents the end, or purpose, of the law.


Where the legislative and executive power are in distinct hands, (as they are in all moderated monarchies, and well-framed governments) there the good of the society requires, that several things should be left to the discretion of him that has the executive power: for the legislators not being able to foresee, and provide by laws, for all that may be useful to the community, the executor of the laws having the power in his hands, has by the common law of nature a right to make use of it for the good of the society, in many cases, where the municipal law has given no direction, till the legislative can conveniently be assembled to provide for it.

In Chapter 14, “Of Prerogative,” Locke analyzes the monarch’s rights to make decisions and act on his own without consulting the legislature. Locke begins the chapter by describing his model government, in which the legislative branch makes the laws and the executive branch, in this case the monarch, enforces the laws and punishes those who break them. Locke carefully limits the executive’s power to its use for the good of society and makes clear that the monarch’s actions have to be reinforced by the legislature. Locke’s discussion of prerogatives expands his concepts of balance of power and limited government.