Second Treatise of Government | Study Guide

John Locke

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Second Treatise of Government | Chapter 13 : Of the Subordination of the Powers of the Common-wealth | Summary



The legislature is the supreme power in a commonwealth. However, it possesses only fiduciary power, delegated or assigned by the people, who retain supreme sovereignty. The people can remove the legislature if that body acts contrary to the people's interest or the public good.

The executive power may also be vested in a single, "supreme" executive. This person (who in England was normally the king) can claim allegiance and obedience only in his capacity as a public person. He cannot do so as a private person, since he is vested by the power of the law, rather than inherently able to demand allegiance.

Whereas the legislature need not convene all the time (see the remarks in Chapter 12), it is required that the executive operate continuously. The reason is that, although new laws are not necessary all the time, the enforcement of law is continuously necessary.

As for elections in a commonwealth, the civil government's constitution may call for elections to be held at certain times. Alternatively, the executive may be entrusted with the calling of elections. The executive may fail to do this and use force to prevent elections. If this occurs, Locke says that it puts itself in a state of war with the people. The people then have a right to oppose and remove it by force. The executive's power to convene the legislature does not make the executive superior to the legislative power. Government must recognize that fair and equal representation of the people is an essential objective. The objective is in conformity with the Latin motto, salus populi suprema lex esto ("the safety of the people is the highest law").


Locke's analysis of the hierarchy, or ranking, of powers in the commonwealth is unequivocal in making the legislative the supreme power. This line of thinking was followed by the framers of the U.S. Constitution. They had a concern for establishing a stronger national government than was provided for by the Articles of Confederation. Yet the framers still made Congress—the House of Representatives and the Senate—the premier branch of governmental power. Article I of the Constitution is by far the lengthiest section of the document. It gives Congress the power to declare war, power to impose taxes directly, and oversight of interstate commerce. It also provides the power to establish courts inferior to the Supreme Court and the power to tax imports and exports. Finally, Article I gives a variety of checks and balances on the executive branch of government.

Locke's discussion of the executive and legislative powers should be read in the context of the relationship between the king and Parliament in Locke's time. The king may be considered a hybrid figure. He plays a role in both branches of government because the laws enacted by Parliament required royal assent. Thus, Locke is careful to specify that the "supreme executive" receives allegiance and obedience not because he is inherently empowered to do so. His power and authority flow from the people, as they are represented by the legislature.

Locke's remarks on the possibility that the executive will block elections are particularly incisive. He comments that such an action is an abuse, legitimately warranting the people's opposition by force. Here Locke anticipates some of his main ideas in the final chapter of the Second Treatise, "Of the Dissolution of Government."

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