Second Treatise of Government

Second Treatise of Government Summary and Analysis of Chapter XVI: Of Conquest, and Chapter XVII: Of Usurpation


The history of mankind is filled with wars and conquest. While some may have mistaken conquest for the consent of the people, it is not actually the same thing as setting up a government. Even if a conqueror does destroy one commonwealth’s government, he cannot set up a new one until the people consent. An unjust conqueror will never have the right to the people he exercised force over. For example, just because a man is robbed and the deeds to his house are stolen does not mean the thief has a lawful right to such deeds. There are earthly remedies to seek in this case, but if those are denied to the man who was robbed, he must have patience and appeal to heaven. Similarly, the conquered people have no earthly adjudicator and must look to heaven. Unjust conquerors are never entitled to the obedience and allegiance of those they conquered.

Locke now turns to lawful conquests and discusses several important points. The first is that the conqueror does not have any power over those who did the conquering with him. Anyone on the same side is equal and most of the time the terms were set out regarding spoils before the conquest began. The example of William the Conqueror is used; the Saxons and Britons in England became his lawful subjects but those Normans who did the conquering with him were assuredly not under his dominion. If for some reason a new government is never formed, the conqueror only has the submission of those who forfeited their lives by fighting against him, but not their property or the lives of those who did not engage in the war.

The second point is that when a people’s governor makes an unjust war, they are not held responsible for his actions because they never gave him power to do unjust things. They are only guilty if they give him permission or they aided and abetted him in his conquest; if they did neither they are completely innocent.

The third point concerns the just conqueror’s right to the conquered. He has an absolute power over their lives because they made war against him and thus forfeited those lives. However, he does not have a right to their possessions. Locke concedes that this may sound strange because in most countries in the world, it is assumed that the conquerors have the right to the land and possessions of those they conquered. He attempts to explain his point further. It is only the use of force that puts a man into the state of war with another; this man is no better than the beasts of the earth because he has relinquished reason and forfeited his life. Importantly, a father’s transgressions and violence do not extend to his innocent children. They are not held accountable for his actions. Thus, when a conqueror subdues a man he has no right to his property or that of his wife and children because the use of force is what allowed him to forfeit his life. A man’s estate can only be touched in order to make reparations or pay for the cost of the war.

Locke reiterates that the innocent wife and children of a man who forfeited his life in a state of war are to be left alone. Their lives are their own. However, what should be done if a child has title to his father’s estate but the conqueror desires that estate as a form of reparation? The conqueror should leave enough for the family to survive because it would violate the fundamental law of nature that mankind should be preserved. A conqueror should never harm future generations by destroying their land for more than two seasons’ worth. Money is not sufficient for damages because it is not of nature; it is completely arbitrary and may differ from kingdom to kingdom.

Any of the men who assisted the conqueror in his war and any of the conquered citizens who did not engage in the conflict are free from obedience to the conqueror, and may, if they choose, form a new government. It has been observed, however, that the conqueror often forces these individuals at the point of a sword to join his government, but this violates natural law and they are not bound to this tyrant.

Another situation Locke considers is when all members of the body politic engaged in the war against the conquering forces. Their children’s lives are still free from the conqueror’s dominion unless they consent to be governed by him. All men are born with the double right of freedom to his person and the right to inherit his father’s goods. By the right to freedom of his person, a man is not subject to the government of a place just because he was born under its jurisdiction. He can decide to leave and join a different government if he desires. By the right to inherit his father’s property, a child is still the inheritor of the land that belonged to his subdued father. Locke uses the example of the Grecian Christians who were descendants of the ancient possessors of their country but who were now oppressed by Turkish conquerors. These Christians had a right to their property and did not owe the Turks their allegiance. Men never owe a government allegiance unless they consent to it, and they cannot consent to it unless they are in a complete state of freedom to do so. Established laws must then protect them and their property, and if this is not the case then they can still be said to reside in a state of war. If a conqueror grants tracts of land to own permanently or to rent to his subjects, he does not have the right to take this land away from them.

Above all, a prince must obey the eternal and fundamental laws of nature and God. If he conquers a kingdom, he has a right to the lives of those that made war against him, but does not gain these men’s possessions or the possessions and lives of their wives and children. Locke concludes with historical and biblical examples of just and unjust conquerors.

In chapter XVII, Locke turns briefly to the subject of usurpation. He writes that usurpation can never said to be just or right. The usurper adds tyranny to his usurpation because he is not changing the type of government, merely extending his power beyond the lawful boundaries that the legitimate rulers established. The people of that commonwealth chose the person or persons in whom they wanted to instill power; this was one of their fundamental rights in forming a government. For anyone to usurp the power that is lawfully bestowed is to violate the law of nature. He will never be a legitimate ruler until the people consent and confirm his power.


In chapter XVI, Locke undertakes the subject of conquest. Here is an instance of force that does not necessarily violate the laws of nature. A just conqueror can make war on a commonwealth and gain the lives of those who fought against him without violating their natural rights. He is not entitled to their land and possessions except for the amount that constitute reparations and cover the cost of war. While Locke does not explicitly say how long those who forfeited their lives by making war against the victorious conqueror, it can be inferred that it is for the duration of the losers’ lives.

The unjustly defeated do not have many options. They are not required to submit or offer up their obedience to the unjust conqueror, but sometimes the conqueror attains this tacit allegiance through threats and violence. In this case, the only recourse these men have is to remain patient and appeal to God for justice. However, as one scholar wrote, “The defeated are entitled to survive – outward obedience to the regime may certainly be coupled with an inward conscientious disobedience. Anything extorted or taken from an individual by force, including promises and consent to obey, do not mean anything.” If these defeated men were to rebel against their new absolute ruler, it would be fully within their natural rights.

Locke’s historical and biblical examples are helpful in fleshing out his theory of conquest. The first example he uses of a conqueror is William I (or William the Conqueror) of Normandy. The Normans invaded England in 1066 and established their rule over the land. Locke explains that none of the Normans who helped William secure the island was susceptible to his absolute rule over them. Anyone descended from those Norman conquerors could claim freedom as derived from them, and “it will be very hard to prove the contrary” (§180).

In section 196, Locke uses more historical examples. Hinga and Hubba may be names unknown to most contemporary readers of Locke. They were Danes who sought to avenge their father Lodbrog; they first laid siege to York and then moved to capture the whole country. This tale has some element of legend intermixed with the historical details, but the Danes did capture England and their conquest was considered unjust. The English were not their lawful subjects.

The last case in point is from 2 Kings and concerns Hezekiah’s lawful and just rebellion against the Assyrians, who had conquered his father Ahaz’s empire of Judah. Hezekiah initially paid tribute to the conquerors but then rebelled and threw off the yoke of Assyrian rule. Locke uses this to demonstrate how it is not wrong for the conquered people to rebel against the conquerors if the conquest was unjust. It is even permissible if the conquered were paying tribute or had sworn allegiance, because the subdued “retain a right to the possessions of their ancestors, thought they consent not freely to the government, whose hard conditions were by force imposed upon the possessors of that country” (§192). As in other chapters, Locke’s historical and biblical examples are extremely useful in illustrating his sometimes complicated theories.