Second Treatise of Government | Study Guide

John Locke

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Second Treatise of Government | Chapter 19 : Of the Dissolution of Government | Summary



Locke opens the final chapter in his treatise by drawing a distinction between the dissolution of government and the dissolution of society. He remarks that dissolution of a community almost always occurs through foreign invasion and force from without. When a society is dissolved, evidently, its government cannot survive.

But foreign pressure is not the only way that governments can come to an end. They may also collapse from within. Such a breakup can happen in two ways.

The first cause for internal dissolution is the alteration of the legislature, which lies at the heart of a commonwealth. There are four ways, according to Locke, in which this can occur:

  1. A single person, or king, obstructs the legislature by opposing his own arbitrary will to the laws.
  2. The king prevents the legislature from meeting.
  3. Without the consent of the people, the king arbitrarily interferes in the voting procedures by which members of the legislature are elected or make laws.
  4. The people are subjected to the authority of a foreign power, whether by the king or by the legislature.

In addition, the king may abdicate from or abandon his proper function so that laws in a commonwealth cannot be enforced.

Next, Locke reviews ways in which dissolution of government may occur if the king or the legislature acts contrary to the trust of the people. He considers the objection that the people are ignorant and always dissatisfied, and that therefore reliance on their judgment is imprudent. Locke responds that people, on the contrary, are creatures of habit, and, therefore, reluctant to relinquish their usual form of government. One objection is that the people may be tempted to fall into a mode of frequent rebellion. Locke answers this objection by pointing out that confidence in the people's judgment is an efficient barrier to rebellion.

The question arises of who should decide whether or not the monarch or the legislature has acted contrary to the people's trust. Locke firmly responds that the people should decide as the correct umpire.

In conclusion, Locke asserts that the power that all individuals assign to society must always remain in the commonwealth.


Locke's final chapter is especially significant for its stress on the people's role as umpire and agent in dissolving government. His sketch of the ways in which a commonwealth may come to an end is highly structured. Conquest from without and dissolution from within are considered in turn. Locke consistently upholds the interests and consent of the people as paramount.

Previously, Locke had disputed Sir Robert Filmer's theories of government at the beginning of the Second Treatise. Now Locke takes issue in this final chapter with the advocacy of absolutist monarchy by the Scottish writer John Barclay (1582–1621). Barclay's most important work was a long poem in Latin verse entitled Argenis (first published in 1621, and translated into English in 1625). This work blended romance, satire, adventure, and political theory. It was set in France and strongly supported a royalist perspective.

Locke provides evident approval for the dissolution of government in certain circumstances. He also gives his foundational assertions about the people's rights and their consent in forming a civil government. These points should be considered in the light of the words of the Declaration of Independence (1776):

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness ...
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