Locke's Second Treatise on Civil Government

by: John Locke

Rights

1

[T]o establish the throne of our great restorer, our present King William; to make good his title, in the consent of the people, which being the only one of all lawful governments, he has more fully and clearly, than any prince in Christendom; and to justify to the world the people of England, whose love of their just and natural rights, with their resolution to preserve them, saved the nation when it was on the very brink of slavery and ruin.

In the first paragraph of the “Preface,” Locke clearly states his purposes in writing. Locke published the work in 1689. In the Glorious Revolution of 1688, England’s Parliament deposed King James II and offered the throne to King William and Queen Mary. Locke considers the new monarchy lawful because the people consented and, in doing so, asserted and defended their “just and natural rights.” The first of the Two Treatises counters the arguments for absolute monarchy. In the Second Treatise, Locke argues for the right of the people to form their own government.

2

To understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider, what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man. A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another[.]

In Chapter 2, “Of the State of Nature,” Locke defines the natural state of men as one of perfect freedom and equality. He defines freedom as independence from the will of any other man. Locke claims that people have the natural right to decide for themselves what to do and what to own. Natural equality acts as the necessary premise for Locke’s ideas about government by common consent and for the good of the people. After all, if one person were naturally superior, that person might claim the rights to rule absolutely and to act only for his own good.

3

Men being, as has been said, by nature, all free, equal, and independent, no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent. The only way whereby any one divests himself of his natural liberty, and puts on the bonds of civil society, is by agreeing with other men to join and unite into a community for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living one amongst another, in a secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security against any, that are not of it. . . . This any number of men may do, because it injures not the freedom of the rest; they are left as they were in the liberty of the state of nature. When any number of men have so consented to make one community or government, they are thereby presently incorporated, and make one body politic, wherein the majority have a right to act and conclude the rest.

In Chapter 8, “Of the Beginning of Political Societies,” Locke argues that the earliest governments were formed by consent. To form a community, people give up some of their natural liberties and transfer those rights to a body politic, which then has the right to govern by majority. Locke counters the traditional view that the right to govern comes from God with the view that the right to govern comes from the people. Locke also grants people the right to modify and replace their governments. These radical ideas make Locke one of the forefathers of American independence.

4

But if they have set limits to the duration of their legislative, and made this supreme power in any person, or assembly, only temporary; or else, when by the miscarriages of those in authority, it is forfeited; upon the forfeiture, or at the determination of the time set, it reverts to the society, and the people have a right to act as supreme, and continue the legislative in themselves; or erect a new form, or under the old form place it in new hands, as they think good.

In the last paragraph of the Second Treatise, Locke reaffirms the right of the people to “act as supreme” and choose their own form of government. Locke gives the people power to redress “miscarriages of those in authority” by removing from such authorities the right to govern. Locke specifically refers here to legislative power, or the power to make laws. The possible choice to “under the old form place it in new hands” reminds readers that England, in the Glorious Revolution, retained its parliamentary government while replacing the executive power, the monarch.