John Locke and the Second Treatise on Government (2022)

In 1688, King James II was overthrown by a group of Parliamentarians. This was the result of what is now known as the Glorious Revolution, or the Revolution of 1688. Naturalist and political philosopher John Locke was present to witness these events and was so compelled by them, he wrote what is known as the Second Treatise on Government. In this, Locke would attempt to explain why King James II was justifiably overthrown, and why William III ascended him. He would define for us the “legitimate role of civil government”(Uzgalis).

The best way to figure this out, Locke reasoned, was to imagine a state in which no government existed. Then by seeing that state, determine where necessary laws and governing bodies are needed. Locke described the role of civil government like this: “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 defence of the common-wealth from foreign injury; and all this only for the public good”(Locke).

Locke believed, contrary to claims that God had “made all people naturally subject to a monarch”, that people are “by nature free.”(Tuckness). This belief was the foundation of his philosophy on Government. To Locke, a Government existed, among other things, to promote public good, and to protect the life, liberty, and property of its people. For this reason, those who govern must be elected by the society, and the society must hold the power to instate a new Government when necessary.

(Video) John Locke - Second Treatise | Political Philosophy

In this section of the Treatise -Chapter XIX- John Locke discusses the dissolution of government, the way in which a People can re-form that government, and the natural and just rebellions that occur from a monarchial abuse of power.

To understand the purpose of the document, one must first “distinguish between the dissolution of the society and the dissolution of the government.”(Locke 1). Locke argues that if the society is dissolved, the government will also dissolve: “It is impossible for the frame of a house to subsist when the materials of it are…jumbled into a confused heap by an earthquake.”(Locke 1). What makes a society (or community) is the agreement of many individuals to act as one body. If this agreement is broken, and the individual decides to separate “as he thinks fit, in some other society” then the community will dissolve. When a government no longer has its society, it too will dissolve. But when a Government dissolves with its society still intact, whether through “foreign force” or a rebellion, the people retain the right “to return to the state he was in before, with a liberty to shift for himself,” and most importantly, the right to re-form that government as they choose.

In this chapter Locke also states that if the legislative should attempt to take away property of its people or try to put them to slavery, the legislative forfeits its power to the people (Locke 1). If the legislative does not forfeit its power, Locke not only encourages rebellion and revolution, but also views it as societies obligation. One might think that if all society needs to do when they are not satisfied with their government is to rebel, that there would be frequent rebellion and unrest in the society.

John Locke argues that this does not happen because revolutions and overthrows only occur when a leader has a notorious abuse of power, and that societies are often “slow to change their old habits and customs”(Locke 1). The system works because it allows for a non-violent overthrow of power, by using the principal of majority rule, instead of a forceful taking of the government position. Thus the aim of the document is to persuade its reader that a government will be, and should be, dissolved if its society is unsatisfied with it.

(Video) Two Treatises of Government - John Locke and Natural Rights

Locke wrote alongside his contemporary, Thomas Hobbes, about this theory of the social contract. The social contract is the idea that when a People are dissatisfied with its state of nature, they will agree to transfer some of their rights to a government, while retaining some rights. The two would also both produce documents’, which were heavily influenced by their shared belief in Natural rights. Natural rights, as Locke and Hobbes viewed them, “are those rights which we are supposed to have as human beings before [a] government comes into being.”(Tuckness). Theses two philosophies are the underlying beliefs of which Locke writes all of his political theories- theories that would influence Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, and even the American Revolutionaries.

Perhaps the most evident of Locke’s theories in our own government is in the United States Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” John Locke wrote it only slightly different. He stated that the natural rights consisted of life, liberty and property.

He believed that “the reason why men enter into society is the preservation of their property; and the end while they choose and authorize a legislative is that there may be laws made, and rules set, as guards and fences to the properties of all the society…”(Locke 1). Jefferson borrowed heavily from Locke’s theories and considered him one of the “greatest men that [has] ever lived, without any exception, who [has] laid the foundation of those superstructures which have been raised in the Physical and Moral sciences”(Jefferson). During his drafting of the Declaration, Jefferson would put Locke at the forefront of American political philosophy, and ultimately, Democracy.

Locke would influence other founding fathers such as Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton was the first United States Secretary of the Treasury, a political philosopher, and co-wrote the Federalist Papers. Locke’s enlightenment theories and social contract is evident in Hamilton’s writings. James Madison, now considered to be the “Father of the Constitution”, was the principal author of the document. He too was very much influenced by Locke’s social contract and Natural rights.

(Video) 15. Constitutional Government: Locke's Second Treatise (1-5)

Locke was not against Government; in fact he was in favor of it, so long as it existed at the will of the people:

“The end of government is the good of mankind; and which is best for mankind, that the people should always be exposed to the boundless will of tyranny, or that the rulers should be sometimes liable to be opposed when they grow exorbitant in the use of their power, and employ it for the destruction, and not the preservation, of the properties of their people?”(Locke 3).

Thus it was up to the people to elect a government that they though fit. He believed that because the society would vote for their Representatives, that they must weigh both sides before voting, and that “those who give their votes before they hear the debate, and have [not] weighed the reasons on all sides, are not capable of doing.”(Locke 2).

Locke’s final argument is who shall be the judge of when a government is abusing its power, and is acting “contrary to their trust.” When this question was brought before Locke (most likely brought by himself), he replied that “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…”(Locke 4). In other words, who better to judge the integrity of a Representative, than those who voted for that certain integrity?

(Video) Locke: Second Treatise on Government pt. 1

All of these philosophies spring from Locke’s fundamental theory of Natural rights, and the social contract. These two ideas are what shaped Western government as of the 17th century, and are still the basis for most. John Locke’s role in political philosophy is undeniable, as is the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness that resulted from it.

"John Locke Chronology." John Locke Resources. 7 Feb. 2009. Web. 15 Oct. 2009.

Locke, John. The Second Treatise on Government. Print.

"Second Treatise on Government." John Locke. Mar.-Apr. 1998. Web. 15 Oct. 2009.

(Video) Locke's Second Treatise of Government

"Second Treatise on Government." Project Gutenberg. July-Aug. 2003. Web. 15 Oct. 2009.

Uzgalis, William. "John Locke." Stanford Encyclpedia for Philosophy. 21 July 2007. Web. 15 Oct. 2009.

FAQs

What is the main idea of John Locke's Second Treatise? ›

The Second Treatise of Government places sovereignty into the hands of the people. Locke's fundamental argument is that people are equal and invested with natural rights in a state of nature in which they live free from outside rule.

What is the purpose of government according to John Locke's Two Treatises of Government? ›

According to Locke, the main purpose of government is to protect those natural rights that the individual cannot effectively protect in a state of nature.

What is John Locke's Two Treatises of Government summary? ›

The main idea expressed in John Locke's Two Treatises of Government is that we can use the idea of a state of nature to justify a proper government. If we grant that humans are naturally free and equal, then government must protect the liberty of its subjects equally.

What are the key ideas raised by John Locke in his Second Treatise on Government? ›

Locke's primary aim in the Second Treatise is to show that absolute monarchy is an illegitimate form of government, lacking the right to coerce people to obey it.

What is Locke's reasoning for his beliefs? ›

In politics, Locke is best known as a proponent of limited government. He uses a theory of natural rights to argue that governments have obligations to their citizens, have only limited powers over their citizens, and can ultimately be overthrown by citizens under certain circumstances.

What were John Locke's ideas on government? ›

To Locke, a Government existed, among other things, to promote public good, and to protect the life, liberty, and property of its people. For this reason, those who govern must be elected by the society, and the society must hold the power to instate a new Government when necessary.

What are the three goals of Locke's two treatises? ›

Human rights, Locke says, are the rights granted to human for being human. He says that these "natural rights" cannot be taken away or rightfully eliminated for anyone. The composition of these natural rights includes three essential components: right of life, the right of liberty and the right of property.

What does John Locke believe is the best form of government? ›

Locke favored a representative government such as the English Parliament, which had a hereditary House of Lords and an elected House of Commons. But he wanted representatives to be only men of property and business. Consequently, only adult male property owners should have the right to vote.

What was Locke's lasting impact on government text to speech? ›

What was Locke's lasting impact on government? Government's authority was based on the consent of the governed and that government could be overthrown if it failed to respect people's rights were echoed in the American Declaration of Independence.

What is Locke's view of human nature? ›

John Locke

For him, human nature is guided by tolerance and reason. The State of Nature is pre-political, but it is not pre-moral. Persons are assumed to be equal to one another in such a state, and therefore equally capable of discovering and being bound by the Law of Nature.

What kind of government does Locke support? ›

Locke favored a representative government such as the English Parliament, which had a hereditary House of Lords and an elected House of Commons. But he wanted representatives to be only men of property and business. Consequently, only adult male property owners should have the right to vote.

How does Locke describe state of nature? ›

In Chapter 2, Locke explains the state of nature as a state of equality in which no one has power over another, and all are free to do as they please. He notes, however, that this liberty does not equal license to abuse others, and that natural law exists even in the state of nature.

What did Locke think would happen without government? ›

Locke believed that in a state of nature, no one's life, liberty or property would be safe because there would be no government or laws to protect them. This is why people agreed to form governments. According to Locke, governments do no exist until people create them.

How did John Locke criticize Robert Filmer's government? ›

Locke claims that Filmer's doctrine defies “common sense.” The right to rule by descent from Adam's first grant could not be supported by any historical record or any other evidence, and any contract that God and Adam entered into would not be binding on remote descendants thousands of years later, even if a line of ...

What were Locke's 3 main ideas? ›

Locke famously wrote that man has three natural rights: life, liberty and property. In his “Thoughts Concerning Education” (1693), Locke argued for a broadened syllabus and better treatment of students—ideas that were an enormous influence on Jean-Jacques Rousseau's novel “Emile” (1762).

How does John Locke influence today's society? ›

He leaves a legacy of thoughts on human understanding, religion, economics, and politics that still influence the structure, environment, and operation of public administration today. He is most noted for his concept of separation of powers and for his ideas about property as the basis for prosperity.

Why did John Locke believe in natural rights? ›

Locke believed if a ruler goes against natural law, the state can be overthrown. Theorists such as the English philosopher John Locke believed that if a ruler goes against natural law and fails to protect “life, liberty, and property,” then the people are justified in overthrowing the existing state.

Who or what was influenced by John Locke? ›

John Locke

What is the purpose of government according to John Locke quizlet? ›

According to Locke, what is the purpose of government? The purpose of government is to protect the right to life, the right to freedom and the right to property.

How does Locke describe political power? ›

John Locke defined political power as “a right of making laws with penalties of death, and consequently all less Penalties” (Two Treatises 2.3).

What are the four purposes of government? ›

A government's basic functions are providing leadership, maintaining order, providing public services, providing national security, providing economic security, and providing economic assistance.

Why do we need to government? ›

Governments are necessary to maintain law and order. Laws are essential for society to function. The government provides safety and security for its people. Government is responsible for providing infrastructure like build and maintain roads, run hospitals and schools.

Does Locke believe in free will? ›

Locke offers distinctive accounts of action and forbearance, of will and willing, of voluntary (as opposed to involuntary) actions and forbearances, and of freedom (as opposed to necessity).

What is Locke saying about the power of fear? ›

"What worries you, masters you." This quote refers to the way your fears can take over your mind. Problems in life have to be overcome in order for you to finally be in control.

What does Locke mean by reason? ›

Locke next defines reason and distinguishes it from faith: Reason, he says, is. the discovery of the certainty or probability of such propositions or truths which the mind arrives at by deductions [inferences] made from such ideas which it has got by use of its natural faculties, viz.

Why did Locke write the Second Treatise of Government? ›

The Treatises were written with this specific aim--to defend the Glorious Revolution. Locke also sought to refute the pro-Absolutist theories of Sir Robert Filmer, which he and his Whig associates felt were getting far too popular.

Who opposed John Locke? ›

This had the side effect of producing two of the brightest political minds in the English philosophical tradition: Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and John Locke (1632-1704). Hobbes and Locke each stood on fundamentally opposing corners in their debate on what made the most effective form of government for society.

What are John Locke's 3 natural rights? ›

Among these fundamental natural rights, Locke said, are "life, liberty, and property." Locke believed that the most basic human law of nature is the preservation of mankind. To serve that purpose, he reasoned, individuals have both a right and a duty to preserve their own lives.

What did the Second Treatise of Government inspire? ›

His integration of individualism within the framework of the law of nature and his account of the origins and limits of legitimate government authority inspired the U.S. Declaration of Independence (1776) and the broad outlines of the system of government adopted in the U.S. Constitution.

Which statement best describes the philosophy of John Locke? ›

Which statement BEST describes the philosophy of John Locke? There is no need for government since natural law will ensure that humanity continues to progress. Governments should have separation of powers to ensure their citizens retain the greatest possible liberty.

When did John Locke wrote Second Treatise? ›

Out of this context emerged Locke's major work in political philosophy, Two Treatises of Government (1689). Although scholars disagree over the exact date of its composition, it is certain that it was substantially composed before Locke fled to Holland.

What was the impact and influence of two treatises of government? ›

Locke's philosophical view on politics in his work, the Two Treatises Of Government, had a major influence on this movement where he tried to justify the fall of monarchy and a creation of a new form of government for the people.

What are 3 of John Locke's ideas? ›

Often credited as a founder of modern “liberal” thought, Locke pioneered the ideas of natural law, social contract, religious toleration, and the right to revolution that proved essential to both the American Revolution and the U.S. Constitution that followed.

What are the four purposes of government? ›

A government's basic functions are providing leadership, maintaining order, providing public services, providing national security, providing economic security, and providing economic assistance.

How does John Locke influence today's society? ›

He leaves a legacy of thoughts on human understanding, religion, economics, and politics that still influence the structure, environment, and operation of public administration today. He is most noted for his concept of separation of powers and for his ideas about property as the basis for prosperity.

What is Locke's view of human nature? ›

John Locke

For him, human nature is guided by tolerance and reason. The State of Nature is pre-political, but it is not pre-moral. Persons are assumed to be equal to one another in such a state, and therefore equally capable of discovering and being bound by the Law of Nature.

What is Locke's law of nature? ›

He claims that for Locke the fundamental law of nature is that “as much as possible mankind is to be preserved” (Two Treatises 2.135). At times, he claims, Locke presents this principle in rule-consequentialist terms: it is the principle we use to determine the more specific rights and duties that all have.

What is the state of nature according to Locke? ›

The state of nature in Locke's theory represents the beginning of a process in which a state for a liberal, constitutional government is formed. Locke regards the state of nature as a state of total freedom and equality, bound by the law of nature.

How did John Locke criticize Robert Filmer's government? ›

According to Locke, Filmer cannot be correct because his theory holds that every man is born a slave to the natural born kings. Locke refuses to accept such a theory because of his belief in reason and in the ability of every man to virtuously govern himself according to God's law.

What did Locke think would happen without government? ›

Locke believed that in a state of nature, no one's life, liberty or property would be safe because there would be no government or laws to protect them. This is why people agreed to form governments. According to Locke, governments do no exist until people create them.

How did John Locke change government? ›

His political theory of government by the consent of the governed as a means to protect the three natural rights of “life, liberty and estate” deeply influenced the United States' founding documents. His essays on religious tolerance provided an early model for the separation of church and state.

Why does Locke maintain that we need a civil government? ›

Locke believed that government derived from an agreement between men to give up life in the state of nature in favor of life in a political or civil society. They set up political society in order to guarantee their natural rights: life, liberty, and estate (or property).

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