Locke's Second Treatise on Civil Government

by: John Locke



As much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property. He by his labour does, as it were, enclose it from the common. . . . God, when he gave the world in common to all mankind, commanded man also to labour, and the penury of his condition required it of him. God and his reason commanded him to subdue the earth, i.e. improve it for the benefit of life, and therein lay out something upon it that was his own, his labour. He that in obedience to this command of God, subdued, tilled and sowed any part of it, thereby annexed to it something that was his property, which another had no title to, nor could without injury take from him.

In Chapter 5, “Of Property,” Locke declares that every man owns himself and his own labor. He also argues that every man has the right to private ownership of land that he has labored to improve. Locke even implies that owners of private property are following the command of God. By Locke’s time, much of the common land in England had been enclosed, or fenced off by private owners. Locke supports the property rights of the owners who have enclosed the land and put their land to use.


Thus in the beginning all the world was America, and more so than that is now; for no such thing as money was any where known. Find out something that hath the use and value of money amongst his neighbours, you shall see the same man will begin presently to enlarge his possessions.

In Chapter 5, “On Property,” Locke directly attributes the enlargement of personal property to the invention and subsequent acquisition of money. Gold, silver, and other monetary metals don’t perish easily, which allows owners to accumulate more wealth than meets their immediate needs. In this comment and many others, Locke uses America to stand for a state of nature, in which people live under natural laws. Here he describes ancient times, even in America. However, Locke knew that his Native American contemporaries did use currency. In Chapter 16, “Of Conquest,” he refers to “the wampompeke of the Americans.”


This makes him willing to quit a condition, which, however free, is full of fears and continual dangers: and it is not without reason, that he seeks out, and is willing to join in society with others, who are already united, or have a mind to unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name, property. Sect. 124. The great and chief end, therefore, of men’s uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property.

In Chapter 9, “Of the Ends of Political Society and Government,” Locke explains why men are willing to give up their natural freedom. In the state of nature, man is free but unsafe and insecure. The purpose of a commonwealth is “mutual preservation of their lives, liberties, and estates.” Locke considered private property almost sacred. His model for ideal government assumed that large landholders and other men of property would be in charge. Based largely on Locke’s ideas, the founders of the United States made the same assumption.


The legislative acts against the trust reposed in them, when they endeavour to invade the property of the subject, and to make themselves, or any part of the community, masters, or arbitrary disposers of the lives, liberties, or fortunes of the people . . . whenever the legislators endeavour to take away, and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power, they put themselves into a state of war with the people, who are thereupon absolved from any farther obedience, and are left to the common refuge, which God hath provided for all men, against force and violence.

In Chapter 19, “Of the Dissolution of Government,” Locke describes the conditions under which people have the right to dissolve their own governments. Attempts to take away or destroy people’s property represent the worst government offenses, amounting to a declaration of war. In such instances, Locke believes people have the God-given right to defend themselves against force and violence. Locke lived through the English Civil War, the Commonwealth, the Restoration, and the Glorious Revolution. Many properties changed hands, and many families lost inheritances during these upheavals. Locke’s insistence that government protect private property is his reaction to the events he witnessed.