Second Treatise of Government

Second Treatise of Government Summary and Analysis of Chapter XIX: Of the Dissolution of Government


Locke takes up the subject of the dissolution of government, first distinguishing between the dissolution of society and the dissolution of government. Society is destroyed by foreign conquest; the union that brought men from the state of nature into a commonwealth is now dissolved and they are returned to the previous state. The societies are scattered and subdued. When a society is destroyed, its government is destroyed as well; it would make no sense for government to persist without its foundation of society.

Locke now discusses the ways in which government can be dissolved. The first is when the legislature is altered, for it is the will of society and the body in which all members are combined into one. The constitution’s creation of the legislature was the commonwealth’s first and most important act, and the people authorized it. Whenever a legislature makes laws without authority, the people do not need to obey and can take it upon themselves to form a new legislature.

A commonwealth’s legislative power is one of three styles: the first is a single hereditary person with absolute power; the second is an assembly of hereditary nobility; and the third is an assembly of elected representatives chosen by the people. In the first, the legislative is changed when the absolute monarch goes outside the bounds of the law and either makes new laws or subverts old laws. It is also changed when the prince prohibits the legislature from meeting and debating, alters the election rules without the consent and against the common interest of the people, or delivers the people to a foreign power. It is clearly the prince’s fault that the legislature is changed and the government dissolved, because only he has the power and pretense of authority to make these sorts of changes.

A government can also be dissolved when its executive power neglects its job and does not execute or enforce the law. The commonwealth devolves into anarchy. Clearly when there is no administration of justice and the laws cannot be carried out for the public good, government no longer exists. When the executive uses force or bribery to corrupt the representatives or uses threats and promises to get them to accede to his wishes, he is ruining the legislature and destroying the government. This is a breach of trust with the people.

Some may fear that when the people set up a new legislative power because the old one has violated the compact between government and the governed that this new government will also fall into ruin, and rather quickly at that. Locke counsels these critics to remember that the people are not easily swayed from their old forms and traditions and the things they are accustomed to; they rarely want to do away with their old constitutions and rarely choose a new form of government that is vastly different from the previous.

Locke takes up the question of whether or not this ability to form a new legislature when the old one is no longer valid will result in frequent rebellions and revolution. He does not believe so for multiple reasons. One of these is that such revolutions do not occur every single time one mistake or inconvenience or instance of human weakness occurs. It is natural for a government to err occasionally. However, when a long series of wrongs all tending toward the violation of the people’s liberty occur, then they have the right to rise up and replace the old government with a new government whose purpose is the fundamental goal of all government, to preserve the public good. A poor ruler is worse than the state of nature or even anarchy. Another reason is that the new legislature is the best way to prevent a rebellion in the first place. Rebellion is not opposition to the person but to the authority, which is founded by the constitution and laws of the government. Those who transgress the laws or refuse to heed them are the true rebels. The best way to prevent the authority from abusing power is to show them the danger and injustice in doing so.

Thus, when the legislative power is changed or the legislators act contrary to their established role, then they are guilty of rebellion. In fact, when they take away the power that the people invested in the legislature, or introduce a power that was not given, these guilty parties are also guilty of introducing the people to a state of war. It would be absurd to believe that a people would simply allow their government to invade their property or liberty. It is just as absurd to allow a thief to rob one’s house without resisting in some fashion. A literary example that also elucidates Locke’s point is that of Ulysses and Polyphemus; Ulysses and his companions were passively obedient and submissive but were devoured by the giant for their patient sufferance.

If the point of government is to preserve mankind, it is natural that the people should oppose rulers who do not keep this end in focus. Locke alludes to a point he made in the previous chapter regarding a few dissatisfied or suffering men and the unlikelihood that these men would be able to stir the entire commonwealth into rebellion against their ruler. If the majority, however, find themselves aggrieved, then they have the right to rebel. Locke states that he believes anyone who causes the destruction of a government with all of its violence and desolation, whether it be the authority figure(s) or private subjects, is guilty of the highest crime. It is illogical to claim that private subjects and foreigners can be punished for using force on another man’s property but magistrates cannot. Greater privileges and advantages do not allow the breaking of the law.

Locke now uses the writings of William Barclay, a 17th century Scottish jurist, to discuss his views on the power of kings and the dissolution of government. Passages from Barclay’s book, De Regno et Regali potestate (1600), which was dedicated to Henry VI and is a treatise upholding the divine right of kings, are quoted in Latin at length by Locke and then translated into English. In the first quote Locke uses, Barclay concedes that the people should not be expected to let a king ravage their lands and harm their families. Self-defense is part of the law of nature, and if a king tyrannizes his people, they have the right to rebel. They should not, however, attack their prince- resistance is only to the present offense and should not be used to revenge past wrongs. Resisting the monarchy is permissible, but Barclay does note that it must be done with reverence and cannot be comprised of retribution or punishment. Locke finds it absurd, however, that the people are to resist without sword in hand, for how will their assault succeed? He does not agree with Barclay that the resistance should be characterized by reverence because it would never come to fruition. Locke also disputes Barclay's assertion that an inferior can never punish a superior by noting that once a tyrant has used force against his people, he is in a state of war with them and all notion of inferior vs. superior is irrelevant now.

Locke then quotes and translates Barclay on two ways in which a king can cease to be king. The first is if he completely lays waste to and ruins the kingdom, such as the Roman emperors Nero and Caligula. The second is if he makes himself dependent on another and places his people under the dominion of a foreign nation. He has given up any right to the people's obedience and they are now free. Locke sees these two cases as similar to the situations he detailed earlier in the chapter, but explains that the main disparity between the two is that Barclay does not identify the same underlying problem with the king's actions: that he violated the trust of his people. Locke mentions several other names of men whose writings espouse similar principles; these men include Bilson, Bracton, Fortescue, and the author of the Mirrour.

Locke once again turns to the assumption that ill-affected and contentious men will spread dissension throughout the commonwealth. He believes that the people as a whole will prevent this from occurring because their welfare is concerned. In terms of who shall judge whether a magistrate or legislature has tended toward tyranny, the people should indeed be the judge. However, the ultimate judge is God and he will determine whether the people were right to rebel against their sovereign. Locke believes that the people should be the judge at first because they were the ones who initially placed their trust in their ruler. If the ruler refuses judgment and a state of war persists between himself and his people, then God will be the only judge left.

Conclusively, the power men retained in the state of nature was relinquished once they consented to join a commonwealth. The power that they placed within the legislature can never be theirs again. However, if this power was to be only temporary, or the ruler(s) transgressed the laws of the commonwealth and violated the people's trust, then the people's obedience is forfeited and they have the right to take over the legislature, create a new one, or place the power in new hands.


In this final chapter, Locke eloquently sums up his beliefs regarding the origins, ends, and legitimacy of government. He discusses the differences between the destruction of society and the destruction of government, the ways in which a legislative and/or executive power can bring about this destruction of government, and the right of the people to dissolve the government and create a new one. Importantly, unlike Karl Marx and Friedrich Engel’s Communist Manifesto, this is not a call for a violent revolution. It was not an emphatic call to arms but merely a way to legitimate a people’s resistance of tyranny when a “long train of abuses” necessitated it. Locke wrote nearly a century before the Americans and French rebelled against their sovereigns and the Russians rid of their tsar in favor of the Bolsheviks.

The period in which Locke was writing did not lack its political convulsions. Charles I was the king of England when Locke was born in 1632. He was perhaps the quintessential absolute monarch; he interfered with religion, levied taxes without the consent of Parliament, ruled without Parliament for eleven years, and did little to ameliorate the economic problems that beset the country. He believed he was divinely appointed and that his power of prerogative should be vast and unchecked. Although the story is much longer and more detailed than this, Charles I was eventually tried for his crimes against the kingdom and beheaded in 1649. Following his execution, the Commonwealth of England declared its power. Eventually Oliver Cromwell became the Lord Protector of England, Scotland, and Ireland and was essentially a monarch all but in name. After his death, his son briefly became Lord Protector, but the monarchy was restored in 1660 and Charles II took the throne.

During Charles II’s reign, Locke became close friends with the first Earl of Shaftesbury, an extremely shrewd and intelligent politician who was active both in regional politics and in the major affairs of the King, Parliament, then the Cromwellian Commonwealth, then the restoration. Locke had saved the earl’s life using his medical training he gained at Oxford (and a little ingenuity) and impressed him with his intellect. This friendship was crucial to the development of Locke’s political mind. Peter Laslett wrote, “We owe Two Treatises to the wonderful knowledge of state affairs which Locke acquired from frequent discourse with the first earl of Shaftesbury; indeed the evidence suggests…that he actually wrote the book for Shaftesbury’s purposes…without Shaftesbury, Locke would not have been Locke at all.”

Charles II ruled until his death in 1685, upon which his brother James, the Duke of York took the throne. James II ruled until the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, when William III of Orange led an invading army from Normandy to protest the king’s Catholic sympathies. James II fled and thus abdicated, and William III ruled jointly with his wife Mary II.

More historical information regarding the history of 17th century English politics, Locke’s relationship with Shaftesbury, and the ambiguity surrounding the date of Locke’s writing of the Two Treatises and whether he was intending to comment upon the Glorious Revolution can be found in other sections of this study guide. However, for now, it is important to observe that Locke had firsthand experience with the tyranny of an absolute ruler and the steps taken by the people and just conquerors to dissolve the government and replace it with one that ultimately kept the preservation of the people in focus. Other major components and themes of Locke’s text can be seen in these 17th century England political events: the state of war; tyranny and usurpation; the arbitrary taking of the citizen’s property; the destruction of the legislative power and the willful and arbitrary ruler of an executive; and the breach of trust between a ruler and his people.

This last chapter contains most of the political thought for which Locke is truly known and revered. He lucidly and urgently explains the purpose of a commonwealth, and what the people, in relinquishing their perfect natural freedom in the state of nature, are owed by their ruler. He plainly details the ways in which a commonwealth’s government can be destroyed by foreign conquerors or the legislative and executive powers. He explains the severity of a government’s violation of the people’s trust and their right to rebel against it. He squashes any erroneous hypotheses that the people would be prone to frequent and illegitimate rebellions, placing faith in their powers of observation and intelligence. Without using the famous phrase “social contract,” Locke ends his Treatise and leaves to posterity a work of political philosophy that would profoundly influence politicians and intellectuals in their creation of fledgling democracies founded on the consent of the governed and the respect of basic, fundamental rights bestowed upon men by nature and God.