Second Treatise of Government (1690) Informative Summary

Overview:

John Locke’s “Second Treatise of Government” is a cornerstone of political philosophy, arguing against the divine right of kings and advocating for a government based on the consent of the governed. Locke posits that individuals possess natural rights to life, liberty, and property, and that the purpose of government is to protect these rights. He argues that individuals are equal and free in a “state of nature” but agree to enter into civil society to secure their rights and preserve order.

Locke emphasizes that government derives its legitimacy from the consent of the governed and that the people have the right to resist tyranny and overthrow oppressive rulers. He criticizes absolute monarchy, arguing that it undermines individual freedom and violates natural rights. His ideas on natural rights, limited government, and the right of revolution have profoundly influenced political thought throughout history, shaping the American Declaration of Independence and other democratic revolutions.

Key Findings:

  • Natural Rights: Individuals possess inherent rights to life, liberty, and property, which precede government.
  • State of Nature: Prior to government, individuals are equal and free, governed only by the law of nature, which dictates reason and mutual preservation.
  • Social Contract: Individuals consent to enter into civil society to secure their rights and preserve order, creating a government with limited power.
  • Consent of the Governed: The legitimacy of government rests upon the consent of the governed, who have the right to establish and alter their government.
  • Limited Government: Government should be limited in scope and designed to protect individual rights.
  • Right of Revolution: The people have the right to resist tyranny and overthrow oppressive rulers, restoring their natural rights and establishing a new government based on their consent.

Facts:

  • Adam’s Dominion: Locke argues that Adam had no inherent right to rule over his children or the world.
  • Equality of Men: All men are born equal in terms of natural rights, regardless of their social standing or birth.
  • Law of Nature: The law of nature governs the state of nature, dictating that individuals should not harm each other’s life, liberty, or property.
  • Right to Punish: In the state of nature, each individual has the right to punish those who violate the law of nature.
  • State of War: A state of war exists when individuals use force or threaten to use force against each other without the authority of a common judge.
  • Right to Kill a Thief: Locke argues that it is lawful to kill a thief who threatens to take one’s property by force, as this act constitutes a state of war.
  • Property and Labor: Property is acquired through labor, mixing one’s labor with common resources to establish ownership.
  • Limitations on Property: Locke argues that individuals can only acquire as much property as they can use before it spoils, preventing the accumulation of resources at the expense of others.
  • Parental Power: Parental power is limited and temporary, focused on the education and well-being of children during their minority.
  • Honoring Parents: Children have a lifelong obligation to honor their parents, but this does not equate to absolute obedience.
  • Political Society: A political society is formed when individuals agree to relinquish certain rights and powers to a common government for the purpose of securing their property and maintaining order.
  • Forms of Government: Locke recognizes various forms of government, including democracy, oligarchy, and monarchy.
  • Supreme Power: The legislative power is the supreme power in a commonwealth, making laws and determining how the commonwealth’s force will be used.
  • Limitations on Legislative Power: The legislative power is limited by the law of nature, must govern by established laws, and cannot take away property without consent.
  • Executive Power: The executive power carries out the laws enacted by the legislative.
  • Federative Power: The federative power handles matters related to foreign affairs, war, and peace.
  • Subordination of Powers: All powers within a commonwealth are subordinate to the legislative power, which represents the will of the people.
  • Right to Resist Tyranny: The people retain a supreme power to remove or alter the legislative if it acts contrary to their trust or invades their rights.
  • Despotic Power: Despotic power is absolute and arbitrary, typically gained through conquest or forfeiture.
  • Usurpation: Usurpation occurs when an individual seizes power that rightfully belongs to another.
  • Tyranny: Tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, for the ruler’s private gain and not for the benefit of the people.
  • Dissolution of Government: Governments can be dissolved through foreign conquest, alteration of the legislative, or the violation of the trust that the people placed in the government.

Statistics:

  • Nine-Tenths of Value: Locke estimates that nine-tenths of the value of goods comes from labor, not raw materials.
  • One Hundred to One: Locke claims that cultivated land produces one hundred times more than uncultivated land.
  • Five Pounds vs. One Penny: Locke contrasts the value of an acre of wheat in England with an acre of the same land in America, illustrating the economic benefits of labor and society.

Terms:

  • State of Nature: A hypothetical condition of humanity before the formation of governments, where individuals are free and equal, governed by the law of nature.
  • Law of Nature: Universal principles of reason and morality that dictate how individuals should behave, even without the existence of government.
  • Property: Locke uses this term broadly to encompass not only physical possessions but also individual rights to life, liberty, and estate.
  • Social Contract: An agreement, either explicit or implicit, by which individuals consent to be governed in exchange for the protection of their rights and the preservation of order.
  • Legislative Power: The authority within a commonwealth to make laws, which is considered the supreme power.
  • Executive Power: The authority within a commonwealth to enforce the laws, which is typically subordinate to the legislative power.
  • Federative Power: The authority within a commonwealth to manage foreign affairs, including war, peace, and alliances.
  • Prerogative: The discretionary power of the executive to act for the public good, even without specific legal authorization.
  • Usurpation: The illegal seizure of power that rightfully belongs to another.
  • Tyranny: The oppressive and unjust rule of a government, where the ruler acts for their own benefit rather than the good of the people.

Examples:

  • The Indians in America: Locke uses the example of Native Americans to illustrate the state of nature, where individuals are equal and free but without the security of a government.
  • Adam and Eve: Locke uses the creation story to argue that Adam did not have dominion over his descendants by divine right.
  • Jephtha and the Ammonites: This biblical story illustrates the state of war when there is no common judge to settle disputes, forcing individuals to appeal to God.
  • The Island with 100 Families: Locke uses this fictional scenario to explain the role of money in facilitating the expansion of property and possessions.
  • The Thirty Tyrants of Athens: This historical example demonstrates that tyranny can exist in different forms of government, not just absolute monarchy.
  • Polyphemus’s Cave: Locke uses this Homeric story to illustrate the danger of absolute power and the importance of the rule of law.
  • The Norman Conquest: Locke argues that the Norman conquest did not give the English monarchs absolute power, as it only applied to the Saxon and British inhabitants, not the Norman conquerors themselves.
  • The American Colonies: Locke cites the colonies in America as an example of people who, having escaped the oppressive rule of European governments, were able to establish new governments based on the consent of the governed.
  • The Assyrians and Hezekiah: This biblical story illustrates the right of a people to rebel against a government imposed by force.
  • King James I’s Speeches: Locke quotes King James I to demonstrate that even a monarch recognizes the difference between a rightful king and a tyrant, highlighting the importance of following the law for the benefit of the people.

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