Second Treatise of Government

Second Treatise of Government Summary and Analysis of Chapter VIII: Of the Beginning of Political Societies


Political societies cannot exist without the consent of the governed. Only with consent can man give up his natural liberty and enter into a civil society with other men. No man who does not want to join can be compelled to do so. Once a civil society is formed the majority rules. Majority rule is necessary because it would be impossible for every single man to consent to a law. When men enter into the compact they must agree to this majority rule because if they believe that they do not have to submit to it and can continue to make their own decisions, then they might as well remain in a state of nature since the compact would be invalid. Majority rule is the most logical way to rule a commonwealth since some men may be unable to participate due to health or business, and others may hold opinions that are contrary to those of most other men.

Locke writes that the only lawful government in the world is one where men agree to form a political society and give up their natural liberty found in the state of nature. He acknowledges that there may be two objections to his statement: one, that there has never been an instance in history where men came together like this to form a government, and two, that men are usually born under a government and submit to that one rather than begin a new one. To the first objection Locke responds by conceding that, yes, history does have few examples of men residing in a state of nature, especially as the state of nature usually leads to the formation of a government sooner rather than later. However, historical records antedate government and there may simply be no written evidence of the government’s formation. Rome and Venice serve as two examples where free and independent men united to form a political society. Additionally, in America, Native Americans were born under their father’s control, but they retained their freedom and the ability to consent to a political society. Supporters of patriarchal governments are probably uninterested in looking into the origins of natural civil societies, and Locke counsels them to avoid this anyway, as they may discover that their paternal government actually began through consent.

Locke does understand that history reveals that most commonwealths were under the control of one man. This usually happened because, as chapter VI discussed, a family subsisted apart from others and invested the father with lawmaking and governing because he was trustworthy, esteemed, and wise. However, once the father died many of these families did not choose a son of the father as the next heir; rather, they chose the ablest and worthiest man to rule. This can be seen in America, particularly Peru and Mexico. Conclusively, while history reveals that many political societies had one man as a ruler, it did not mean that those who were governed did not consent. Men easily assume that by nature government is monarchical, but monarchies have nothing to do with paternal authority and most monarchies had been elective at one point or another in their pasts.

Locke continues to discuss why men might believe a monarchy is the natural state of government. Since men spend their formative years raised by a father, they are used to this type of rule. If men never experience any other type of government or encounter absolute power in a wholly negative way, they cannot be depended on to want to place power in several hands. In addition, the main reason for initially acceding to the control of an absolute monarch being defense from foreign enemies, it is understandable that men are content to place their faith in one powerful, brave ruler. Indeed, in a place like America where the only problem of note is protection from one’s enemies, the absolute ruler is only absolute in areas of war but not in areas of peace. Locke also gives several biblical examples of rulers who exercised absolute military power only; kingly authority was found in being a military general.

Thus, many governments were formed that placed power in the hands of one man who had no limitations on his rule. However, this was done, as discussed, to preserve the public good and safety. A young society would have collapsed without a ruler. Locke deems this a “golden age,” an age that existed before rulers’ ambition and luxury compelled them to diverge from the public good and develop interests different from those of their subjects. At this point men find it necessary to look into the nature and formation of governments and find a way to prevent the abuses of absolute power. These men never dreamed of monarchy existed because of the divine right of kings; this theory is a product of the modern age and not a historical absolute. In reality, Locke shows how these monarchies were rooted in consent of the governed.

Locke now turns to the second objection regarding men’s birth under one government and the impossibility of them forming another. His first point is that there are many monarchies in the world, not just one lawful one. Secondly, he does not believe all men are born into subjection and submission to their ruler. History reveals a plethora of examples of men leaving governments and kingdoms and joining or forming new ones, demonstrating that paternal authority is not what legitimates government. Thirdly, a man can make promises and engagements, but his children are not subject to them. What confuses most adherents to this view that Locke is refuting is that sons often inherit their father’s estate and are thus subject to the laws of the kingdom. This, however, is a choice, and even though sons rarely decide against inheriting the land it does not mean that all men born into a kingdom are naturally its subjects.

Governments do understand this fact, that a child is not born a subject of any country or government. His parents raise him until he reaches maturity and he can choose to be a citizen of whatever country or government he chooses.

Locke moves on to the idea of consent and attempts to explain what can be considered a sufficient declaration of consent and how far it binds. Consent includes owning property in a political society, of course, but even extends to those who would lodge in a political society or travel upon its roads. When a man consents to a political society he must understand that all of his possessions are now under the law of that society; it is illogical to assume his possessions exist outside the bounds of the society. Both a man’s life and property are now under the government’s dominion as long as it exists, and he must accede to the government’s laws and conditions.

When a man decides, however, to give up his land or other possessions he is free to move to another commonwealth if he desires, or agree with others to create a new one. Some commonwealth or another will always govern any man who consents to be governed, unless the government he submits to is dissolved by some means.

One final note is on foreigners. Locke writes that merely submitting to the laws of a commonwealth and living under its protection does not mean a man is a member of that society. A foreigner may reside in a commonwealth as he resides in another’s family. Their conscience dictates that they submit to its rules but they are not its subjects until they officially declare their consent by entering into a compact.


Before moving into a more thorough analysis of this significant chapter, it is interesting to note that Locke uses the word “leviathan” in this chapter and this chapter only. Many people believe that Locke was specifically directing his Second Treatise at Hobbes, but besides this subtle usage of the title of Hobbes’s most important book, there is no real evidence that explicitly critiquing Hobbes was Locke’s intention. Most scholars believe, in fact, that it is still directed more towards Filmer than anyone else.

In this chapter, Locke develops further some of the ideas that he set forth in the previous chapter. The first of these is consent; Locke reiterates that a political society can only come into existence when men consent to give up their natural liberty and accept majority rule. Consent is referred to as “tacit consent,” whereby owning property under a government clearly requires submission to its laws, but even lodging or traversing its roads necessitates obedience. Foreigners, then, do not have to offer up their life or poverty but must consent to obey the laws of the political society in which they reside.

Interestingly enough, while a civil society and an absolute monarchy are completely opposed, an absolute monarchy may have technically began with the subjects’ consent. Locke understands that not all monarchies were created by one man ruthlessly seizing power. Some of them came into existence when a group of individuals willingly ceded their freedom to one man, mostly to protect the community from foreign threats. Indeed, Locke points out that many monarchs may not want to look too closely at the origins of their government.

Some scholars object to Locke’s discussion of tacit consent. They agree that owning property in a civil society necessitates obedience, but should walking the roads or taking up lodging really do so as well? John Simmons in particular does not believe that men can consent to being governed if they do not know that they are consenting in the first place. They did not consent through their actions, merely through their physical presence in the boundaries of a government; this does not seem like a strong enough impetus to obey a government’s laws. Simmons believes that Locke is in essence advocating a “philosophical anarchism,” where an individual does not have a moral obligation to obey their government.

Another scholar, Hannah Pitken, disputes Simmons’s perspective and says that tacit consent is sufficient when the government is based on natural law. Walking the roads and taking up lodging in a tyrannical government does not require one to obey that government’s laws, but if a man is within the boundaries of a natural civil society tacit consent is satisfactory. Finally, John Dunn believes that modern readers of Locke understand the word “consent” differently: in Locke’s day it merely meant to not be unwilling. Dunn believes other examples in the Two Treatises support this claim.