Second Treatise of Government | Study Guide

John Locke

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Second Treatise of Government | Chapter 16 : Of Conquest | Summary

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Summary

At the outset, Locke repeats his contention that political systems must be based on the consent of the people. Human ambition, however, has caused war and conquest to dominate history. Locke asserts that conquest is a fallacy or an illegitimate form of government. Even though conquest may appear to replace one commonwealth with another, a substitution without the people's consent has no validity.

Locke employs a number of commonsense examples to show that an unjust conqueror—whether a crowned head or a "petty villain"—is a criminal. A conqueror in an unjust war has no right to the obedience of the conquered.

Locke then considers the case of a just war, in which the victor happens to be on the right side. He discusses the paradoxical example of the victory of William the Conqueror in 1066. William's victory, Locke declares, cannot justify absolute monarchy. The law now makes no distinction between the descendants of the Saxons and Britons whom William subdued and the Normans who accompanied him.

It must be admitted, asserts Locke, that force is mingled with damage in most wars. He discusses the issue of reparations, emphasizing that conquerors have no right to dispossess the descendants of the conquered. Summarizing, Locke says that the victor in a just war does not acquire dominion over those who did not oppose him. The victor does not acquire dominion even over the descendants of those who did. If such a conqueror attempts to impose a government on a subdued people, the people are not obliged to obey this government.

At the conclusion of this chapter, Locke summarizes his main points. He says a conqueror in a just war acquires only limited rights. He has no power over those who withheld their consent from the conflict. Nor does he have power over the descendants of his opponents.

Analysis

In the final four chapters of this treatise, beginning with Chapter 16, Locke discusses the demise, replacement, or disestablishment of governments. His first extended example of such dissolution or deconstruction is the case of conquest.

As he makes clear at the outset, Locke regards conquest as illegitimate. It typically results from aggression, warfare, and force, and it nearly always involves damages. The conqueror in an unjust war may be compared to a robber who assails his victim at knife point, he says. The only difference between petty villains and robbers on a grand scale, he ironically observes, is that the latter are often hailed with laurels.

Conquest, of course, loomed large in English history. Six centuries before Locke wrote his treatise, Duke William of Normandy (in northern France) had led an invading force. He conquered Britain at the Battle of Hastings (1066). Locke betrays a certain ambivalence about this event. He says that in any case, William's victory does not support the claim that the British monarch is entitled to absolute rule.

The case of conquest in a just war is more complex, and Locke devotes considerable space to it. At best, the winner in a just war acquires very limited rights. Once again, Locke's keystone for judgment is the presence or absence of consent. The winner in a just war may attempt to impose a government on a subdued people without their consent. In that case, the people are under no obligation to obey. Locke uses the homely but telling comparison of someone forced to make a promise under unlawful force. Is such a promise binding? Not at all, Locke declares.

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