Second Treatise of Government | Study Guide

John Locke

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Second Treatise of Government | Summary



Locke maintains in his Second Treatise of Government that in the state of nature all men are born free and equal. It is fallacious to try to justify absolute monarchies in the manner of English political theorist Sir Robert Filmer (c. 1588–1653). He used appeals to the biblical story of Adam or to paternal authority.

As time gradually progresses in the state of nature, men acquire property and attach value to money (such as precious metals like gold and silver). A transition then takes shape. As people grow concerned about their safety and security, they voluntarily join together to form a commonwealth.

In order to form a commonwealth (civitas in Latin), people surrender some of their liberty. The sole purpose of a commonwealth is to safeguard the interests of citizens. The commonwealth places citizens on a more secure footing than they would be when in the state of nature. The only lawful basis for government is the consent of the people. Even though they surrender some of their freedom by consent, the people do not surrender their sovereignty. Any action of the commonwealth opposed to the people's interests disqualifies it as a government, and the people may dissolve and replace it.

A commonwealth typically has three separate powers, of which the supreme power is the legislative. Commonwealths also have an executive power, charged with enforcing the law, and a federated power, tasked with handling external relations.

Note that the executive power, for Locke, is subordinate to the legislative power. When this is interpreted in terms of English history in the late 17th century, the monarch (executive) is thereby subordinated to Parliament (legislative). Thus, Locke's theory of government harmonizes with the English Bill of Rights of 1689. It also aligns with the deposition of King James II in the Glorious Revolution of the previous year.

In the beginning chapters, Locke explicates why and how commonwealths come into being. In the later chapters, he discusses how they may be overcome by conquest, perverted by usurpation or tyranny, or dismantled and replaced by dissolution.

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