Second Treatise of Government

Second Treatise of Government Summary and Analysis of Chapter X: Of the Forms of a Commonwealth, and Chapter XI: Of the Extent of Legislative Power


In chapter X, Locke details the different forms a commonwealth may take. If the power is placed in the hands of a majority and the officers of the law are appointed, then it is a democracy. If the power is placed in the hands of a few men, it is an oligarchy. If the power is placed in the hands of one, it is a monarchy; if the monarch’s heirs succeed him it is a hereditary monarchy, and if a single successor is chosen to succeed then it is an elective monarchy. A new government, and even a new form of government, can be instituted if the community dissolves the previous one.

Locke defines a commonwealth for his readers in this chapter, despite having used the word multiple times in previous chapters. It is not a specific form of government but an independent community, or society of men. It is preferable to the term “city.”

In chapter XI, Locke takes up the subject of the legislature, its establishment being the first and most important step a commonwealth takes once it is organized. The legislature is the supreme power of the government and it cannot be altered or abolished. Its members are appointed and their edicts have the force of law. The authority of the legislature comes from the consent of the governed; the obedience given to it cannot be discharged by any foreign power or domestic subordinate power.

There are certain rules that govern any legislature, no matter how many members it contains or how often it is in session. The first is that the legislature’s power cannot be arbitrary. When men give up their power from the state of nature to a person or assembly, they do so with the understanding that their lives and property will be protected. A man cannot give another man more power than he has in himself, and the legislature must understand that the power given to it is only for the preservation of mankind and the public good. This power does not extend to enslavement, destruction, or impoverishment of the citizens of a commonwealth. The law of nature still exists in a commonwealth and the legislature cannot violate it.

The second is that the legislature must have laws that are firmly established and permanent, and all citizens must be aware of them. In a state of nature where there are no standing laws, it is not easy to hold men accountable for their misinterpretation, misapplication, or outright refusal to obey the laws of nature. In a commonwealth, however, the law is clear and recognized and disputes can be easily remedied. Since men consented to give up their natural power to a civil society, they can expect to have obvious standing laws to govern them.

These first two points are important, because if power is arbitrary or a commonwealth lacks standing laws, then men are in a state no better than that of nature. If their lives, liberty, and property are not protected and are exposed to the predation of others, then they are probably in a worse state than that of nature. Locke writes that it is preferable to be in a similar condition to 100,000 other men than for 100,000 men to be at the whim of one man who governs only by impulse and caprice and is prone is exorbitance and harshness.

The third limitation on the legislature’s power is that the supreme power cannot take a man’s property without his consent. The preservation of property is government’s most important function and the reason why men consented to be governed in the first place. A man cannot be assumed to have any property at all when it can be taken from him so arbitrarily. At this point, Locke distinguishes between a democracy and an absolute monarchy. He writes that a government composed of a legislature that is made up of multiple men who are subject to the laws of their country is less likely to take a man’s property at will. In a government comprised of one man, it is far more common that this man, who has no checks on his power and little in common with the interests of his people, may seize a citizen’s property and do with it what he pleases without fear of repercussions. There is a distinction, however, between absolute and arbitrary power. In some cases, absolute power is required and even necessary; the example used here is of the military, which requires absolute obedience. However, the leaders of the military cannot use this power in an arbitrary fashion by, say, placing a soldier in front of a cannon.

One final point regarding man’s property is taxes. Locke acknowledges that some portion of a man’s property can be taken from him in the form of taxes. This can only be done, however, through consent of the majority. If the majority agrees to let the legislature tax the citizens of a commonwealth, then no natural law has been violated.

The fourth limitation on the legislature’s power is that it cannot transfer power to anyone else or any other body. The people consented to form the legislature and appointed its delegates. They also agreed to obey the standing laws the legislature established. Since this government exists only with the consent of the people, it cannot transfer its power to any other body.

The summary of this chapter is that the limitations on the legislature are the following: laws must be established and unvaried for different citizens; the laws must only serve the public good; the people must consent to taxes; and it may not transfer power to any other body.


Chapter X, although brief, is important because it, for the first time in the text, uses the term democracy. Locke is often read by students of political science as advocating a democracy above all other types of governments, but a closer look at the Second Treatises and other writings does not support this assertion. Although Locke clearly does not approve of an absolute monarchy, he did not claim that a democracy was the only valid type of government. As long as not all power rests in one single individual without limitations on their power and the citizens consented to the government, it can be considered legitimate.

The reason why many think that Locke was an advocate of democracy is because of the influence of his work on the American and French revolutions, and the democratic government that the Americans set up after the revolution was over. The American Revolution began in 1775 with the battles of Lexington and Concord and officially ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1783. The Americans were unhappy with British restrictions of their liberty and the economic hegemony exercised over them.

While Locke’s ideas were not ubiquitous with the common people, the American intellectuals were very familiar with them. Thomas Jefferson was a fervent admirer of his work, even stating that Locke was one of the three greatest men who ever lived. In Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence from 1776, Lockean ideas of a social contract and natural laws are clearly expressed; a specific debt to Locke is Jefferson’s use of the phrase “long train of abuses” from the Second Treatise’s section 225.

Scholars dispute the amount of influence Locke actually had on the Declaration of Independence. While Carl Becker argued that he was the preeminent influence upon the Declaration, others like Ray Forrest Harvey saw the work of Swiss legal and political theorist Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui (The Principle of Natural and Politic Law from 1747/1751) as more influential for Jefferson. Burlamaqui was the first philosopher to articulate the quest for happiness as a natural human right, and the fact that Jefferson’s Declaration changed Locke’s “property” to “the pursuit of happiness” is telling. Other scholars focus on the Declaration as a legal document, not a document that was primarily concerned with natural rights. No matter the degree of influence scholars believe Locke had, it is hard not to see how meaningful and inspirational his work was upon America and France, two nations that sloughed off the tyrannical bonds of monarchies and fashioned for themselves a democratic government that would not permit the abuses of the past.

Concerning chapter XI’s legislative power and its limitations, there are a few important elements to consider. The first of these is the repeated emphasis on property. Property is continually upheld as the most important reason why men would consent to form a government. Whenever a government does not protect a man’s property (his life, liberty, and possessions) the government is invalid. Another important element of this chapter is idea of the social compact, whereby men agree to give up their natural liberty but gain many conveniences in turn. One of the things they give up in terms of property is taxes. Locke acknowledges that a government is able to require taxes from its citizens as long as the majority wills it so. He understands that the people must invest in their government, as the government must continually seek to serve the public good.