John Locke and the Second Treatise on Government

By Sawyer A. Theriault
2009, Vol. 1 No. 10 | pg. 1/1

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).

John Locke

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

"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.

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