Second Treatise of Government | Study Guide

John Locke

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Second Treatise of Government | Context


England's Glorious Revolution of 1688

During the 17th century English political history concerned the assertion of the divine right of kings, the debates over this doctrine, and its eventual disavowal. The century witnessed the turmoil of bitter civil wars and the execution of a monarch (Charles I, in 1649). The wars were followed by a harsh interval under the tyrannical Oliver Cromwell. Then Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660. Finally, James II, Charles's Roman Catholic brother, was deposed in 1688. This latter event, which marked England's "Glorious" (because bloodless) Revolution, was the immediate context of Locke's Second Treatise of Government.

The Stuart monarchs had provided a lesson in what civil government should have as its goals and what shape it ought to take. Within a century, English political thought moved from assent to absolute monarchy and the divine right of kings to adoption of a Parliamentary commonwealth. It may even have evolved to a full-fledged republican democracy. This movement was to have momentous consequences late in the following century. That is when the ideas of John Locke and his successors would help fashion the American and French Revolutions.

Religious strife was prominent in England during the 17th century, and it played an important role in the Glorious Revolution. The established Church of England was at odds with Roman Catholicism, which had been officially rejected by King Henry VIII (reigned 1509–47) during the 16th-century English Reformation. The established church was flanked also by the dissenting movement known as Puritanism. It was inspired by such theologians as John Calvin and John Knox. Religious conflict was closely intertwined with political conflict for the better part of a century.

Religious tensions reached a critical point in the reign of King James II (reigned 1685–88). James II was the younger son of King Charles I and the brother of Charles II. His open sympathy with Roman Catholicism aroused deep apprehension in his subjects. They suspected that he aspired to absolute monarchy. Then he produced a male heir. The established nobility appealed to his eldest daughter, Mary II, and her husband Prince William of Orange in the Netherlands to take the English throne. Both of them were Protestants. William's invading forces caused James to flee, and he was thus held to have abdicated.

In 1689 Parliament formally enacted a Bill of Rights. This legislation limited the powers of the monarch and proclaimed regular meetings and freedom of speech in Parliament. It forbade suspension of the laws by royal authority without Parliament's consent. The English Bill of Rights was an important milestone marking England's transition to government as a constitutional monarchy.

Locke's Place in Political Philosophy

Many of John Locke's political theories underlie the Declaration of Independence (1776), the U.S. Constitution (1788), and the U.S. Bill of Rights (1791), and it is impossible to overstate Locke's influence on these American foundational documents. Many concepts have their roots in Locke's political philosophy. These include the consent of the governed, popular sovereignty, the social compact, and majority rule. The ideas of separation of powers, and the people's right to dissolve a government that acts against their interests also originated with Locke.

American politician Thomas Jefferson, the main author of the Declaration of Independence, admired John Locke as one of the three greatest men who ever lived. The other two were the philosopher and scientist Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626) and the scientist Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727).

Locke is often compared and contrasted with his most notable predecessor in 17th-century English philosophy, Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679). Both of these political philosophers wrote of the state of nature and the social contract. However, their interpretations of human motivation were quite different. Hobbes believed that individuals were subject to a single, consuming passion: the pursuit of power. Locke had a more social view of humanity. He argued that men, rather than seeking to tyrannize each other, were naturally inspired to join together in communities and commonwealths. For Hobbes, absolutist monarchies possessed sovereignty. For Locke, on the other hand, the people retained sovereignty, even when they voluntarily surrendered some of their freedoms in order to form a commonwealth. Locke viewed dissolution of an injurious government as rightful. For Hobbes, such dissolution was inconceivable.

Rationalism and the Enlightenment

Toward the end of the 17th century, the intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment became predominant in England and in Europe, especially France. The Enlightenment placed a premium on rationalism, moderation, order, decorum, and the diffusion of knowledge. Scientific research displaced superstition and, to some degree, religious beliefs. The philosophers of the Enlightenment stressed exploration and experience as touchstones for the acquisition and evaluation of knowledge.

For John Locke in the Second Treatise of Government, reason undergirds both the state of nature and the state of civil society or government. Locke's treatise unfolds in an orderly, tightly argued manner: certain axioms or premises lead logically to certain results or consequences. Locke's prose style is simple, direct, and persuasive. His work remains a touchstone of Enlightenment ideals.

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