Second Treatise of Government | Study Guide

John Locke

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Second Treatise of Government | Chapter 12 : Of the Legislative, Executive, and Federative Power of the Commonwealth | Summary



In this chapter, Locke distinguishes among three distinct (but sometimes overlapping) types of political power in the commonwealth. By legislative power is meant the power to make laws. Executive power functions to carry out or enforce the laws. Federative power refers to the handling of external relations with other commonwealths or outsiders. Locke discusses to some extent the separate spheres of these powers. However, he stresses that the executive and the federative powers will often be closely linked for the sake of a commonwealth's consistency and efficiency.


It is interesting to consider Locke's treatment of three powers of government here in the light of later developments in political theory. These include the influential analysis by Baron de Montesquieu (1689–1755) in The Spirit of the Laws (1748). They also include the development by the framers of the U.S. Constitution of three branches of government: legislative, executive, and judicial. In later theory after Locke, his "federative power" seems to have been subsumed into several different areas of authority. These involve, for example, the congressional power to declare war or the treaty-making power shared by the president and Congress.

Locke's use of the term "federative" should not be confused with the term "federalism." Federalism denotes the two-tier system, or concurrent jurisdiction, of national and state governments in the U.S. constitutional framework.

In the opening section of this chapter, Locke's comments on the frequency of the legislature's meetings are intriguing. He remarks that legislatures in well-ordered commonwealths do not meet continuously. The purpose of breaks in meeting is so that legislators should not accustom themselves to thinking that they are exempt from the laws. It is also so that they do not develop conflicts of interest. Therefore, Locke displays a concern with what the framers of the U.S. Constitution would later assert as the principle of "checks and balances."

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