The Second Treatise of Government was published amidst the turmoil and upheaval of late-17th century English politics. In 1690 when it anonymously entered the canon of great works of political theory, the absolute monarch King James II had been deposed two years previous and William and Mary were now jointly ruling the kingdom. This “Glorious Revolution” was the culmination of decades of strife and power struggles between Catholics and Protestants, kings and Parliament, and the government and the people.
Many scholars initially believed that Locke composed the Two Treatises of Government in 1688 while he was in exile in Holland. This seems convincing; it contains a statement that dates itself to that year, and the themes of the work seem to justify the political events. However, serious scholarly work has since shown that the work cannot have been completed in 1688 even though certain small portions were added during that period. The bulk of the text was comprised nearly a decade earlier and was a call for a revolution to take place, not a rationalization for one that had just occurred.
It appears that most of the work was written in 1679-1681 in the wake of the Exclusion crisis, in which Protestant nobles attempted to pass a bill in Parliament that would exclude then-king Charles II’s brother, James, duke of York, from ascending the throne. Locke’s friend and patron the earl of Shaftesbury was the leader of this plan and was very influential in shaping Locke’s thoughts about politics.
In the last few decades, Locke’s work has been read as supportive of the idea of bourgeois individualism (and garnered the ire of socialist and communist thinkers). However, as stated by Locke scholar Peter Laslett in his introduction to an edition of the Treatises, it “also [provides] the intellectual resources and ideological ballast for a radical critique of capitalism and a democratic assault on the liberal constitutionalism.” It has been printed well over one hundred times since its initial publication and has been translated into at least eleven languages.
The Second Treatise is one of the most significant and influential works of political theory ever published. It has been heralded as an intellectual influence on the American and French revolutions and its ideas form the core of the subsequent centuries’ political dialogue about the nature, ends, and limitations of civil government. What is most striking about this is that Locke never acknowledged it as his work during his lifetime (only in his will). During his lifetime he was known primarily as the author of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding; this work secured his intellectual fame and the prominence of his later published work. Presumably, he did not want to acknowledge authorship in the event that James II returned from exile and reclaimed the throne, but the reasons will never be clear. Regardless of why he kept it anonymous, the Two Treatises, particularly the Second, is a monumental achievement, and Locke would no doubt be surprised and pleased with the attention it has garnered over the centuries.