Second Treatise of Government

Second Treatise of Government Quotes and Analysis

The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions: for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker

Second Treatise, §6

In the state of nature, all men are equal to one another because they were created as such by God. They are to seek the preservation of mankind and refrain from interfering with other men’s life, liberty, and possessions. Reason is what guides men in this state of nature, for if they comprehend that preserving other men will lead to their own preservation, then the state of nature is ideal. If any violation of this natural law occurs, all men are able to punish the offender because that man is disrupting this state of perfect freedom and is thus violating the rights of all men.

So that God, by commanding to subdue, gave authority so far to appropriate: and the condition of human life, which requires labour and materials to work on, necessarily introduces private possessions.

Second Treatise, §35

Property consists of a man's life as well as his possessions (material goods and land). God commanded Adam and his posterity to work on the land; this labor is what gives the land value and what then constitutes a man's possessions. In a state of nature, men are to respect other men's property, but this is not always the reality. Government is thus created to protect and preserve men's property; this is considered its most significant purpose and the most common reason why the people in a state of nature consent to be governed.

Those who are united into one body, and have a common established law and judicature to appeal to, with authority to decide controversies between them, and punish offenders, are in civil society one with another: but those who have no such common appeal, I mean on earth, are still in the state of nature, each being, where there is no other, judge for himself, and executioner: which is, as I have before showed it, the perfect state of nature.

Second Treatise, §87

The state of nature and civil society are mutually opposed. In a state of nature men are their own lawmakers and their own judges; they decide the conflicts between themselves and do not look to any other earthly authority. In a civil society, men constitute one body with an agreed-upon authority that is given the responsibility of making laws and executing them. This civil government is only formed by the consent of those who decide to leave the state of nature. It cannot be brought about by force.

Hence it is evident, that absolute monarchy, which by some men is counted the only government in the world, is indeed inconsistent with civil society, and so can be no form of civil-government at all…

Second Treatise, §90

Locke did not believe a democracy was the only valid system of government. He did not have a problem with a monarchy as long as its power was not absolute. Absolute power is completely at odds with a civil society because the people consented to be governed and it is illogical that they would choose a government that was worse than the state of nature. It is also illogical that they would consent to have every man be obedient and submissive save one. An absolute ruler tends to use their power arbitrarily, capriciously, and erratically. The people's natural liberty and property are not protected. Locke advocated majority rule and an authority who always acted with the public good in mind.

The only way whereby anyone divests himself of his natural liberty, and puts on the bonds of civil society, is by agreeing with other men to join and unite into a community, for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living one amongst another, in a secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security against any that are not of it.

Second Treatise, §95

The consent of the governed is one of the major themes of Locke's Second Treatise. No one can force men to form a government; they have to agree to create a social contract. The perfect freedom that they enjoyed in the state of nature must be set aside and the power to legislate and punish must be placed in an authority. The loss of the state of natural liberty is countered by the gain of many conveniences of a government. The social contract forms the basis of the government's legitimacy, and the legislative and executive authorities should take care not to deviate from the powers invested in them by the people. If they do not heed the people's power then they risk the dissolution of the government.

…for no man, or society of men, having a power to deliver up their preservation, or consequently the means of it, to the absolute will and arbitrary dominion of another; whenever any one shall go about to bring them into such a slavish condition, they will always have a right to preserve what they have not a power to part with; and to rid themselves of those who invade this fundamental, sacred, and unalterable law of self-preservation, for which they entered into society. And thus the community may be said in this respect to be always the supreme power…

Second Treatise, §149

When the ruler(s) of a commonwealth violates the law of nature and no longer seeks to preserve the public good, then the people have the right to rise up against him. A ruler should always be aware of the power of the people because they were the ones that formed the government and they have the power to dissolve it. A good ruler can easily distinguish between actions that promote the public good and those that destroy it. Any lawful rebellion on the part of the people can alter or abolish the legislative or executive power. This is one of the key components of Locke's political theory and can be observed in the events of the 17th century.

Nature gives the first of these, viz. paternal power, to parents for the benefit of their children during their minority, to supply their want of ability and understanding how to manage their property…voluntary agreement gives the second, viz. political power to governors for the benefit of their subjects, to secure them in the possession and use of their property. And forfeiture gives the third despotical power to lords, for their own benefit, over those who are stripped of all property.

Second Treatise, §173

Locke's First and Second Treatise refute Sir Robert Filmer's claim that paternal power legitimates political power. He clearly distinguishes between the three types of power. Paternal power comes from nature and is limited to parents' nourishment and education of their children while they are too young to exercise their own reason and free will. Political power is bestowed on a government by the people to protect their property, and despotical power is only just when a man forfeits his life because he rebelled. Despotical power is unnatural in any other case.

For no government can have a right to obedience from a people who have not freely consented to it; which they can never be supposed to do, till either they are put in a full state of liberty to choose their government and governors, or at least till they have such standing laws, to which they have by themselves or their representatives given their free consent; and also till they are allowed their due property, which is so to be proprietors of what they have, that nobody can take away any part of it without their own consent, without which, men under any government are not in the state of freemen, but are direct slaves under the force of war.

Second Treatise, §192

Locke distinguishes between just and unjust conquerors and explains some of the limitations on a conqueror's rule. A conqueror cannot expect to have the submission or obedience of those who conquered with him, nor can he expect fealty from those who did not rebel against him. The women and children of men who used force against the conqueror should be left unmolested, as should their property. Conquerors cannot force the people of the commonwealth who did not rebel to be part of the new government unless they consent to do so. Even though conquerors throughout history have often forced fealty using the power of their swords, the people may remain neutral in secret and retain the right to rebel against him.

…tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which nobody can have a right to. And this is making use of the power any one has in his hands, not for the good of those who are under it, but for his own private, separate advantage. –When the governor, however entitled, makes not the law, but his will, the rule; and his commands and actions are not directed to the preservation of the properties of his people, but the satisfaction of his own ambition, revenge, covetousness, or any other irregular passion.

Second Treatise, §199

Any government, whether democracy or absolute monarchy, can devolve into tyranny if the ruler does not observe the fundamental laws of the commonwealth and no longer considers the end of government to be the preservation of the public good. A ruler who uses his own will to enforce the law and seeks to indulge his own whims, passions, and desires is violating the trust of his people. Trust is essential because a ruler should only exercise the power that the people gave him when the government was established. The people have the right to resist a tyrannical ruler.

But if a long train of abuses, prevarications, and artifices, all tending the same way, make the design visible to the people, and they cannot but feel what they lie under, and see whither they are going; it is not to be wondered, that they should then rise themselves, and endeavor to put the rule into such hands which may secure to them the ends for government was at first erected…

Second Treatise, §225

The phrase "long train of abuses" is famous not just for Locke's usage but because it made its way into Thomas Jefferson's "Declaration of Independence" from 1776. In this quote Locke was addressing the claims of critics that said the people's right to rebel against a wayward sovereign would lead to frequent and invalidated rebellions. He believed that the people knew better than to follow a discontented few or to put their safety and comfort aside to pursue a rebellion without legitimacy. He had confidence in their ability to observe when their ruler was no longer adhering to the bonds of the social contract formed between the people and the government. Any such rebellion would occur after a long series of problems and would only seek to reinstate the government that the people initially created. In most historical cases, the people did not try to erect a government that was vastly different from the previous one.