Second Treatise of Government

Second Treatise of Government Summary and Analysis of Chapter VIII: Of Tyranny


Usurpation is exercising the power that belongs to someone else, and tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right. It is the usage of power in selfish ways to satisfy one’s own desires, passions, and whims. It is the use of will, not law, to carry out commands and actions.

Locke uses multiple quotes from King James I to elucidate his point. The first is from a speech given to Parliament in 1603, which says that the difference between a tyrant and a rightful king is that a tyrant believes the kingdom and the people only exist for his benefit and ends, and a rightful king knows he is the ruler because the people have invested him with that power. In 1609, he said a king was bound to observe the fundamental laws of the kingdom and to protect the kingdom; any time a king leaves the law behind, he becomes a tyrant. In a later speech, he reiterated the fact that a king must bind himself to the laws or risk becoming noxious to his kingdom. The simple difference between a tyrant and a lawful king is that the former makes everything give way before his will and the latter seeks the good of the public through the following of the law.

Not only monarchies can be tyrannical; democracies and oligarchies are similarly susceptible to this threat. No matter how many men constitute the authority, if they use the power that the people consented to give them to impoverish or harass the people, they are being tyrannical. Whenever an authority goes beyond the scope of the law, he can no longer be considered a magistrate and is in actuality no better than any man that uses force to oppress another. Men who already possess more in terms of wealth, power, and education than other men should be aware of these advantages and know better than to steal from their brethren.

Locke poses the question- what if men erroneously and constantly believe themselves aggrieved and the state of the commonwealth is in unremitting chaos? First, opposition of force can only be done against unlawful and unjust force on the part of the government. In some countries, the absolute ruler cannot ever be liable to judgment, censure, or force on the part of his citizens. However, his inferior officers are liable to opposition. When the ruler is sacred, it is unlikely that he will subvert the laws and initiate oppression in a frequent and conspicuous manner because the peace of the public and security are important to his commonwealth. In addition, the limitations of the law may preclude a king from acting against the law. The law is what gives him his power in the first place so he is not likely to go beyond it or instruct another to go beyond it.

Force should only be used when a man has no appeal to his government. When force is used against someone, then they are able to lawfully resist him. Locke uses the example of a man robbed on the highway; he can lawfully kill the person who threatened his life because there would be no time to appeal to the law. Another reason why it is unlikely the entire commonwealth would be convulsed in chaos if men resisted the ruler’s unlawful actions toward them is that the majority of the citizens of the commonwealth would be completely unconcerned about one or a few men who had a grievance. It takes more than a few raving men or troublemakers to overturn an entire established commonwealth.

Of course, there may come a time when the majority of citizens are justly aggrieved, or they observe the misfortunes that have befallen a few men and begin to fear that their lives, liberty, and possessions are also in danger; in this situation, a governor must be wary of his people for they are now dangerous. It is unnecessary to pity a ruler in this state because he most likely could have avoided it; a ruler who really has the public good in mind and respects the limitations of the law will be recognized by his people in the same way that children recognize when their father loves and cares for them.

It is impossible that citizens cannot tell when their ruler eludes the law, uses the power of prerogative in an inappropriate fashion, appoints or demotes inferior magistrates based upon their complicity with his schemes, threatens their religion, and generally acts arbitrarily. It is unlikely that these citizens would not notice that their liberty is threatened, just as passengers on a ship would readily observe how their captain continually steered them in a direction they did not want to go.


Locke has used many biblical, literary, and historical examples to elucidate his points throughout the Second Treatise. His quoting of James I is one of the only times in the text that he refers to a specific and contemporary figure. James I became the King of Scots as an infant upon the death of his mother, Mary Queen of Scots. In 1603, he succeeded the last Tudor monarch, Elizabeth I, to become king of England, Ireland, and Scotland. He died in 1625 and was succeeded by his second son, Charles I. James I was a strong advocate of the divine right of kings, even writing a book in 1597-98 entitled The True Law of Free Monarchies. This book identified a theological basis for the rule of kings and although it promulgated absolutist rule, it counseled kings to heed God and tradition and to not act rashly.

There were several plots and conspiracies during James I’s rule, but the most infamous of these was the Gunpowder Plot. A group of English Catholics, including the soldier Guy Fawkes, intended to blow up the Houses of Parliament on November 5, 1605, the day after the state opening of the second session of James I’s first Parliament. The conspirators were generally motivated by the lack of tolerance for Catholics in England, but they were also angered by the plan to install James I’s daughter Elizabeth as the Catholic head of state. The plot was uncovered in time and the nation erupted into ebullience and relief. James I’s relationship with Parliament following the Gunpowder Plot was tempestuous; at two points in time, he even dismissed Parliament and ruled without it. His rule was characterized by financial woes, some due to the heavy spending of his court.

Although James I died seven years before John Locke was born, he is a good example of an absolute monarch. While the quotes Locke uses in the text suggest that James I was a reasonable and intelligent ruler who observed the fundamental laws of the kingdom and avoided breaching the trust that existed between himself and his people, clearly the historical evidence does not let him off so easily. He certainly was not beset by the same problems as his successor was (Charles I was executed in 1649 and a monarch-less commonwealth existed until 1660’s restoration of the monarchy). However, the fact that he tussled with Parliament over mounting financial concerns partially attributable to his court’s lavish spending and eventually dismissed it suggests that his use of power was actually illegitimate.

Indeed, this chapter, coupled with the subsequent chapter, is a summation of the differences between legitimate and illegitimate power. A ruler who exercises legitimate power observes the fundamental laws of the commonwealth and understands that the people gave them the power they possess. This ruler seeks to preserve the public good, honor the bond of trust between himself and his people, and protect his people’s property. A ruler who exercises illegitimate power may be safely labeled a tyrant; he breaks the bonds of trust and acts outside the law. His use of prerogative may be out of bounds and he uses his will to enforce the law, not the consent of the people. These differences are not difficult to espy. Locke is keen to answer critics’ claims that the ability to oppose a tyrannical ruler will lead to frequent and unfounded rebellions. He does not think this is likely because the people are assumed to have a level of intelligence and rationality that gives them the ability to ascertain when their ruler is no longer acting as he should. Locke’s general optimism regarding human beings is again apparent in this chapter.

The next chapter, "Of Dissolution of Government," more thoroughly takes up the right of the people to dissolved their government if their ruler transgresses the bounds of the law and acts in an arbitrary fashion. This chapter, however, is an important precursor to that discussion because it lays out the various ways in which tyranny can manifest itself. Locke also clarifies that tyranny does not necessarily exist only in absolute monarchies but can also exist in democracies and oligarchies. "Of Tyranny" paves the way for Locke’s culminating chapter and perhaps his most eloquent and urgent plea for governments to be established according to the law of nature and the consent of the governed.