Second Treatise of Government | Study Guide

John Locke

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Second Treatise of Government | Chapter 14 : Of Prerogative | Summary



By "prerogative," Locke means a power to act for the public good according to discretion. Such power, which normally belongs to the executive, may transcend or even conflict with the law.

In the opening section of this chapter, Locke observes that there are many contingencies that the law cannot foresee or provide for. The holder of executive power is thus called upon to exercise initiative. This is in accordance with the principle that the primary purpose of government is the optimal preservation of as many people as possible within society.

Prerogative, it must be remembered, is power delegated by the people. Therefore, to speak of an encroachment on prerogative is a contradiction in terms. Nothing can be regarded as an encroachment if it conflicts with or hinders the public good. Prerogative accrues to the executive as the result of the people's consent, and through its delegation of power.

Considering English history, Locke remarks that England's wisest and best monarchs have employed prerogative. He is careful, however, to point out that such monarchs had no inherent right to absolute rule. Nor did the power of "calling" (assembling) parliaments—traditionally a royal prerogative—make kings superior to the nation's people.


Once again, Locke's definition and discussion of "prerogative" must be read within the context of his times. Supporters of rule by divine right made much of the concept of "royal prerogative." For example, they stressed the sanctity of the king's person. They also emphasized his inherent immunity from the laws that applied to his subjects. Locke rejects such assumptions, arguing that prerogative is only another example of power that is delegated by the people and assigned by their consent.

In this chapter's opening paragraph, Locke provides an example of the use of prerogative in a specific situation. He tells about pulling down an innocent man's house in order to prevent the spread of a rampaging fire. This is quite likely rooted in the author's personal experience. We know that Locke became closely associated with the Earl of Shaftesbury in 1666. He moved to Shaftesbury's house in London to act as his personal aide and physician. In early September of that year, a catastrophic fire, which raged for a number of days, destroyed four-fifths of the city. Locke's contemporary, the government official and diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), wrote the following entry as an eyewitness to the disaster:

... So I was called for, and did tell the king and Duke of York what I saw, and that unless His Majesty did command houses to be pulled down, nothing could stop the fire. They seemed much troubled, and the king commanded me to go to my Lord Mayor from him, and commanded him to spare no houses.

This incident clearly illustrates what Locke had in mind when he wrote about executive "prerogative."

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