Second Treatise of Government

Second Treatise of Government Themes

The protection of property

Locke writes that the “the preservation of property [is] the end of government, and that for which men enter into society” (§138). His theory of property is one of the most significant components of the Treatise and frequently crops up in the text. In chapter V, he explains that property consists of a man’s life and his possessions. In a state of nature, a man has the right to maintain and order his property as he sees fit. Unfortunately, he also has to contend with the presence of other men and the lack of any standing laws to protect himself and his possessions. Even though he has the natural right to defend himself and punish aggressors, a state of nature is oftentimes inconvenient. Thus, men agree to form a government that will protect their property. Laws are written and then enforced that protect the citizens.

Any time a man’s property cannot be said to be protected, he is in a state no better than that of nature. If the rulers of the commonwealth are the ones who are threatening men’s property, then they have created a state of war between themselves and their subjects.

The problems with absolute monarchies

Locke believes an absolute monarchy to be incompatible with civil society. His own experiences living in 17th century England gave him rich and incontrovertible evidence of that claim. When a people consent to be governed, it is illogical that they would place themselves under the control of established, standing laws, but then allow one man to remain outside of such laws. If the intention of forming a government is to protect property, it is counterintuitive to allow the absolute monarch to do as he desires with men’s lives and possessions.

An absolute monarch tends to rule subjectively, capriciously, and unpredictably. Since there are no limitations on his rule and no one to pass judgment against him, his people have no earthly appeal. He has no love or affection for his people, and the only reason he does not destroy them is that they bring him profit through their industry.

Locke disputed the rationalization for an absolute monarchy- the divine right of kings. He did not believe God legitimated the rule of this one man and his posterity because such a rule violated the laws of nature. Other 17th century political theorists and theologians, such as Richard Filmer and William Barclay, saw a monarch’s rule descending from that of Adam. Locke overturns such claims by noting that there is no way to trace Adam’s lineage and that the only valid form of government is one that the people create.

The state of nature

The state of nature is what men reside in before they consent to form a government. Locke refers to this constantly throughout the text of the Second Treatise in order to demonstrate the natural, God-given state men are born into, and to contrast it with civil society. In a state of nature, men are governed by reason. They seek to preserve humankind and respect other men’s lives, liberty, and possessions. They can amass the amount of property they desire, although reason dictates that they do not take more than they can cultivate for risk of being wasteful. If any man uses force against another, they have placed themselves in a state of war with that man. All men in the society have the ability to punish the transgressor because that man has violated the law of nature and sown discontent into the society.

While Locke does not have the same negative opinion of mankind as his contemporary Thomas Hobbes did, he acknowledged that men need to form a civil society in order to preclude the difficulties that arise from men violating the laws of nature and threatening the lives and possessions of other men.


Locke believes that God creates all men equal. When they are born into this world, they have the same privileges and advantages as all other men and should seek to preserve the lives of others if they want their own preserved. God is the only one that may bestow some differences upon men: “Age or virtue may give men a just precedency: excellency of parts and merit may place others above the common level: birth may subject some, and alliance or benefits others” (§54). However, all men still have their “natural freedom, without being subjected to the will or authority of any other man” (§54). Even when men elect to place power in the hands of one or multiple authorities, there is still a degree of equality because reason dictates that the authorities should not exercise arbitrary and absolute power over them.

Equality as a theme also runs through the chapters that discuss parental and conjugal relationships. While Locke was no feminist, he did proffer several important and forward-thinking ideas regarding men and women. He did not believe that the father’s power was absolute; a mother has just as much control and influence over her children. Parents rule together jointly, and they are both due honor and respect from their offspring. Nowhere in the Scriptures does it proclaim children should only honor their father, or that husbands have absolute dominion over their wives. In marriages, a man may need to make final decisions for the couple but this is the extent of his power. In fact, since the point of marriage is to beget and raise children, once a couple’s children are grown the wife actually has the right to divorce her husband if she sees fit.

Limitations on power

The Second Treatise is rife with examples of how power should be limited. Locke clearly disapproved of absolute monarchies, but commonwealths governed by authorities that are not absolute are still subject to such limitations. However, before discussing limitations of power in a commonwealth, it is important to remember how even in a state of nature characterized by perfect freedom restraint was crucial. When men punished a transgressor of the law, they are to only “retribute to him, so far as calm reason and conscience dictate, what is proportionate to his transgression” (§8). Reparations and punishment should not be more than what the nature of the crime justified.

In a commonwealth, legislative power is limited. The laws must be standing and clearly known to the citizens. The power cannot be arbitrarily used nor can the people be placed under the control of another body, such as a foreign government. If the legislature is made up of individual representatives, elections must be held at the prescribed time. The executive power can use prerogative, the ability to use discretion to make decisions for the public good even if the laws must be circumvented or ignored, but this power can only be used in a way that benefits the citizens of the commonwealth. Prerogative is not unlimited, even though a ruler can exercise a great deal of it.

These limitations on power are in place to protect the citizens. If the legislative or executive power violates the bond of trust between governor and governed, the people have the right to dissolve the government. This is the ultimate limitation on power.

God and His purposes

The Second Treatise is not a religious text, but references to God and his purpose and intent for humanity are scattered throughout. Locke writes that God creates all men equal in a state of nature- that “men [are] all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business; they are his property” (§6). Being the property of God necessitates respect for all other men, as they are also His. The laws of nature are God’s laws. Life, liberty, and possessions must be safeguarded and the preservation of mankind, God’s creation, is paramount.

In terms of property, God “hath given the world to men in common, [and He] hath also given them reason to make use of it to the best advantage of life, and convenience” (§26). The fruits of the earth and the beasts that roam upon it are for men’s sustenance. God also commanded man to labor and subdue the earth, but did not want them to be wasteful or lazy when it came to laboring upon the land. God wanted men to have property but did not intend for them to be frivolous or greedy with it.

God is also the ultimate Judge and last appeal men have when they are wronged. In a commonwealth where the ruler transgresses the law and violates a man’s life or property, his people can dispose of him. In this case, God will judge whether the people were right to rebel or not. When there is no earthly authority, God is the last respite.

Thus, God created men equally, intended for them to live amongst each other in harmony and respect, allowed that they may amass property but commanded them not to be rapacious or extravagant, and acts as the ultimate authority when there is none left on earth.