Second Treatise of Government | Study Guide

John Locke

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Second Treatise of Government | Chapter 17 : Of Usurpation | Summary

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Summary

In this brief chapter, Locke defines "usurpation" as the illegitimate seizure of power. He comments that usurpation may often lead to tyranny, which he will consider at length in the following chapter. For Locke, evidently, usurpation resembles unlawful robbery or theft.

Locke compares usurpation to both foreign and domestic conquest. The common factor is acquiring possession of something to which someone else had the rights. If a usurper extends his power even further, he becomes a tyrant, Locke declares.

Analysis

When Locke looked back on English history, he could find numerous examples of usurpation. However, many of them had, in the course of time, become ambiguous or debated. For example, William the Conqueror, in his invasion of Britain from Normandy in 1066 CE, had perhaps usurped the rule of the Saxon King Harold. William had defeated Harold at the Battle of Hastings. Conflicts between the noble houses of England in the 15th and 16th centuries produced a number of monarchs who were accused of usurpation. These include Richard III and Henry VII. Finally, usurpation is a leading theme in some of William Shakespeare's most notable plays such as Macbeth and Hamlet.

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