Locke Two Treatises of Government



Locke Publishes Two Treatises of Government. By: Diana, M. Casey, Salem Press Encyclopedia, 2017

Research Starters

Locke Publishes Two Treatises of Government

Declaration of Rights

Descartes Publishes Discourse on Method

Glorious Revolution

Hobbes Publishes Leviathan

Press Censorship in England

Toleration Act

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Locale England

Date 1690

Locke’s Two Treatises of Government argued against the divine right of kings, promoted individual rights, argued that sovereignty lay ultimately with the people, and created a body of political theory that would strongly influence the framers of the United States Constitution and all other Western theorists of democracy.

Key Figures

John Locke (1632-1704), political theorist, philosopher, and founder of British empiricism

First Earl of Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley Cooper; 1621-1683), Parliamentary opposition leader and founder of the Whigs

Mary II (1662-1694), queen of England, r. 1689-1694

William III (1650-1702), stadtholder of the Netherlands, r. 1672-1702, and king of England, r. 1689-1702

James II (1633-1701), king of England, r. 1685-1688

Summary of Event

From an early age, John Locke acquired a firsthand, practical knowledge of politics that was to influence the writing of his Two Treatises of Government (1690). For much of Locke’s life, England was involved in political and religious strife and reform. The country was torn between those who wanted to strengthen the power of Parliament and limit the power of monarchs and those who sought to uphold royal prerogatives as a matter of divine right.

In 1667, shortly after Locke received a master of arts degree from Christ Church College, Oxford University, his medical license afforded him the opportunity of becoming the personal secretary, physician, and friend of Anthony Ashley Cooper, later lord chancellor of England and the first earl of Shaftesbury. Shaftesbury—the satirical object of John Dryden’s poem Absalom and Achitophel, Part I (1681)—was influential in court circles. He led the opposition to King Charles II in Parliament, and he is credited with founding what came to be known as the Whig faction. Shaftesbury led the attempt to exclude the king’s Roman Catholic brother, the duke of York and Albany (later James II ), from the succession to the English throne.

As a result of his association with Shaftesbury, Locke became personally involved in politics,



John Locke. (Library of Congress)

obtained minor government posts, and was fortunate enough to make many influential contacts. In 1669, at Shaftesbury’s request, he wrote a constitution for the American colony of Carolina (later separated into North and South Carolina). Locke observed the political machinations that forced his mentor Shaftesbury to flee England for Holland, seeking political asylum after being charged with high treason. In 1675, Locke himself was suspected of disloyalty and fled to France, where he studied the doctrines of the philosopher René Descartes , who had held views similar to those featured by Locke in his classic An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690).

While in France, Locke also played a vital role in the plans to depose the Catholic James II and crown the Protestant William III of Orange and Princess Mary IIII23IIII in his stead. Indeed, scholars argue that Locke’s teachings provided justification for the overthrow of the monarchy. He returned to England in 1688, the year of the Glorious Revolution, escorting the future Queen Mary II of England.

Locke’s observation of and his involvement in the politics of England had far-reaching effects. In continental Europe at this time, divine right—the idea that kings and queens were the natural-born rulers of society, reigning in God’s name and with his absolute authority—still held sway. England, however, was moving toward a constitutional monarchy , in which the people retained rights with which the monarchy could not interfere, including the right to be represented by a legislative body that was equal in power to the throne. The institutionalization of constitutional monarchy had taken most of the seventeenth century to accomplish, but it was finally cemented by the Glorious Revolution and the measures passed by Parliament in the wake of that revolution.

Locke’s Second Treatise, the more popular of the Two Treatises of Government, was written in defense of the Glorious Revolution. A foundational work in modern theories of democracy, the treatise advocates religious tolerance and rights to personal property. In chapter 2, Locke declares that human beings are all born into a natural state of perfect freedom and goodness—free “to order [their] actions,” in any way they see fit. Locke calls this state the law of nature. He believes that according to natural law, individuals should not have to ask anyone, for example, to be able to dispose of their own possessions. People are part of a “great and natural community,” he writes, whose common interests are established by natural law. Every individual has the right to enforce the law of nature and to assist others to enforce it in the



best interests of preserving humankind. People are free and equal in the state of nature and possess natural rights. Entrance into civil society, for Locke, entails ceding a small portion of one’s natural rights (primarily the right to judge and punish others), but the rights of individuals in the state of nature remain the benchmark by which civil rights are to be judged.

Individuals, Locke states, should live under natural law—the law enacted by God, “a wise Maker”—which guarantees the right to life, liberty, and property. It is each individual’s responsibility, “which obliges everyone,” to enact the law of nature, which requires that they preserve peace and not harm one another. According to Locke, the law of nature ordains that individuals should respect and love God, obey their superiors, keep their promises, tell the truth, be mild and pure in character, maintain a friendly disposition, and love their neighbors. Acts such as murder, theft, and rape are “altogether forbidden” by this natural law. Rulers are necessary to rule justly. All this, he believes, is for the “public good.”

Locke declares that rulers secure power from the consent of the people. In his seventh essay on natural law, Locke explains the obligations of rulers. The government should be a contract, or a “compact,” as Locke calls it, between rulers and subjects. On one hand, sovereigns must rule justly and fulfill the purpose for which they were created—to preserve property—or lose their power. In other words, if the ruler violates the rights of the people or aspires to absolute power, then it becomes the responsibility of the representatives of the people to dismiss the ruler in question and find a replacement. On the other hand, people must sacrifice certain rights in return for just rule—they must obey the government in order for civil society to function.

Locke maintains that, although individuals may not deliberately enter consensual “compacts” with the government, their behavior nevertheless suggests that they “tacitly” consent to existing governmental laws: Anyone “that hath any possession or enjoyment of any part of the dominions of any government doth thereby give his tacit consent, and is as far forth obliged to obedience to the laws of that government.” To clarify, if people take advantage of governmental services, by calling for assistance from the fire department, asking for police protection, or even using the highways, they are consenting to a contract with the government and are therefore obliged to obey the law.


The Two Treatises of Government had a tremendous effect on the history of Western political philosophy. Locke was, after all, a radical and revolutionary thinker. Many considered his argument against the divine right of kings and his sanctioning of rebellion to be a call to revolution, or even to



anarchy. In the American colonies during the eighteenth century, Locke’s writings were to influence such patriots as Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. Jefferson mirrored Locke’s political doctrine in the Declaration of Independence (1776), when he wrote that government rests on popular consent and people should rebel when their rights are threatened.

The roots of American democracy are to be found in Locke’s concept of natural laws, which Jefferson too expounded: “the will of the majority, the Natural law of every society, is the only sure guardian of the rights of man.” Indeed, Locke’s rights to “Life, Liberty and Property” foreshadow the rights to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. Locke’s idea of the equality of people was also the inspiration of the popular aphorism “All men are created equal.” In addition, radical writer Thomas Paine culled Locke’s philosophy for inspiration in his popular pamphlet Common Sense (1776). In France, Locke’s work in combination with Jean- Jacques Rousseau’s Du contrat social: Ou, Principes du droit politique (1762; Treatise on the Social Contract: Or, The Principles of Politic Law, 1764) played a vital role in launching the French Revolution in 1789 and inspired many of the guarantees included in the French Constitution established in 1871.

During his lifetime, Locke published his political works anonymously in an effort to keep them apart from his classic An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, the bedrock of empiricism, in which he sought to examine the nature of knowledge free from any political considerations. Locke retired to Essex in 1691, where, as one of the seventeenth century’s most influential men, he continued to exercise great political sway. His philosophical and political theories had influenced the work of such later philosophers as George Berkeley, David Hume, John Stuart Mill, and Bertrand Russell. Nobel Prize-winner Russell described Locke as “the most fortunate of philosophers, because his philosophical and political views were widely understood.”


Ashcraft, Richard, ed. Locke’s “Two Treatises of Government.” London: Allen & Unwin, 1987. Seven essays provide a strong critical analysis of Lockean scholarship and a comprehensive evaluation of these secondary works.

Colman, John. John Locke’s Moral Philosophy. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1983. Scholarly examination of the philosophy behind Locke’s political theories.

Cranston, Maurice. John Locke: A Biography. 1957. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. Comprehensive biography of Locke that includes insights into the British political workings



leading up to the publication of Two Treatises of Government.

Dunn, John. Political Thought of John Locke. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. Extensive analysis and interpretation of the thought behind Two Treatises of Government.

Harpham, Edward. John Locke’s “Two Treatises of Government”: New Interpretations. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992. Scholarly but approachable account of how the interpretation of John Locke’s political doctrine has changed over time. Includes a strong analysis of the religious and economic backgrounds of the time and a comprehensive bibliography.

Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. Edited by P. Laslett. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1960. John Locke’s original classic. Like most works from this era, general readers will find this challenging to digest, but it is quite lucid in sections, and certainly worth the effort.

Locke, John. “Two Treatises of Government” and “A Letter Concerning Toleration.” Edited by Ian Shapiro. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003. Reprints two works in which Locke expresses his political theories. Also includes essays by historians Shapiro, John Dunn, and Ruth Grant that place these works in their historical, biographical, and intellectual contexts, describe the democratic elements of Locke’s political theory, and explain Locke’s views on women and the family.

Copyright of Salem Press Encyclopedia is the property of Salem Press. The copyright in an individual article may be maintained by the author in certain cases. Content may not be copied or emailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder’s express written permission. However, users may print, download, or email articles for individual use. Source: Salem Press Encyclopedia, 2017, 3p Item: 89139779

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