Locke's Second Treatise on Civil Government

by: John Locke



Political power, then, I take to be a right of making laws with penalties of death, and consequently all less penalties, for the regulating and preserving of property, and of employing the force of the community, in the execution of such laws, and in the defense of the commonwealth from foreign injury; and all this only for the public good.

Locke defines political power in Chapter 1 of the Second Treatise. Locke’s definition summarizes his view of government: The government’s functions are to regulate and preserve property, execute the laws, and defend the commonwealth. The government’s only purpose is the public good. From the word only in this quote, the reader may infer that political power that is not exercised for the public good is deemed illegitimate. Such an idea represents one of Locke’s most radical ideas, and this idea still stands as the gold standard for modern democracies.


Thus we see, that the kings of the Indians in America, which is still a pattern of the first ages in Asia and Europe, whilst the inhabitants were too few for the country, and want of people and money gave men no temptation to enlarge their possessions of land, or contest for wider extent of ground, are little more than generals of their armies; and though they command absolutely in war, yet at home and in time of peace they exercise very little dominion, and have but a very moderate sovereignty, the resolutions of peace and war being ordinarily either in the people, or in a council. Tho’ the war itself, which admits not of plurality of governors, naturally devolves the command into the king’s sole authority.

In Chapter 13, Locke cites the Indians in America as an example of limited executive power. Locke describes eastern Native American government fairly accurately. He knew more about America than most of his contemporaries—as secretary to the proprietors, he helped draft the 1669 constitution for the Carolina colony. Locke’s perceptions of Native Americans, including many idealizations and prejudices, influenced his ideas on the state of nature, natural law, parental power, and the balance of legislative and executive power.


He, that shall consider the distinct rise and extent, and the different ends of these several powers, will plainly see, that paternal power comes as far short of that of the magistrate, as despotical exceeds it; and that absolute dominion, however placed, is so far from being one kind of civil society, that it is as inconsistent with it, as slavery is with property. Paternal power is only where minority makes the child incapable to manage his property; political, where men have property in their own disposal; and despotical, over such as have no property at all.

In Chapter 15, Locke compares paternal, political, and despotical power. In all three forms, property determines the relationship between the ruler and the ruled. Paternal power applies only until a child becomes mature enough to manage his own property. Despotical power is absolute rule that allows men no security in their property at all. Political power is the power that rules a civil society, in which men “have property in their own disposal.” Locke’s distinction among the three powers supports his concept of limited government. Paternal government does not include political power over grown children. Unlimited government will become despotical.


Here, it is like, the common question will be made, Who shall be judge, whether the prince or legislative act contrary to their trust? This, perhaps, ill-affected and factious men may spread amongst the people, when the prince only makes use of his due prerogative. To this I reply, The people shall be judge; for who shall be judge whether his trustee or deputy acts well, and according to the trust reposed in him, but he who deputes him, and must, by having deputed him, have still a power to discard him, when he fails in his trust?

In Chapter 19, “Of the Dissolution of Government,” Locke describes government as a continual process of feedback and response between rulers and their subjects. This view of government as continually evolving represents another radical element of Locke’s writing. Locke’s claim that the ruler’s power stems from the people’s trust leads logically to the people’s right to discard a ruler who violates their trust. In this case, Locke wants the people to judge prerogatives, or rights to act, claimed by a prince—a reminder that claiming too many royal prerogatives got James II overthrown.