John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government – A Summary

In 1689, John Locke, an English philosopher, wrote and published two Treatises of Government. The First Treatise was a rebuttal and response to Robert Filmer’s “Patriarcha”, while the Second Treatise outlines his views and plans or ideas for a better society. Both these works had and continue to have a massive influence on the political outlooks of people and parties even today.


The preface of the Second Treatise is in the form of a small essay which, aligning with Jocke’s own views, tries to justify, support and help establish the rule of the newly crowned King William. He goes on to criticize Robert Filmer and his writings, he questions the shortcomings present both from an intellectual perspective and a moral perspective and questions the statements put forward by him.

He ends by stating that should they have any questions or are able to point out any mistakes in what he has said, he would rectify them based on suitable evidence or work on dispelling their doubts.

Chapter I – An Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent and End of Civil Government

Locke begins by refuting Robert Filmer’s arguments about the divine right to rule, he disagreed with Filmer that God did not give Adam and his descendants complete authority over the world.  So, any of his heirs would also not have any authority or right to rule the world; moreover, it is impossible to determine Adam’s lineage in this day and age as there are no accurate historical records available.

He proceeds to differentiate between political power and the power dynamics present in other relationships like family and professional hierarchy; and even if one can exercise political and other powers, they have separate roles. Political power, in this aspect, is backed by the need to serve the greater good for the public and not for personal gain, it includes taking legislative actions on topics of criminal law, national and international policies, property rights, etc., and ensuring their execution.

Chapter II – Of the State of Nature

John Locke explains that freedom and equality are the states of man, with the idea of ‘all men are born equal and only God can affect this. He positions equality as the centre of any civil society, where one should understand and respect others around him equally and aim to value human life. He says that in the state of nature ‘every man may implement punishment’ as there is no government but it needs to be proportionate to the crime committed. The man is considered a danger to others and so must face the consequences of his actions to deter others from following him. He gives the example of murder in which every man can try to kill the murderer as there cannot be reparations possible, and then how minor offences can be judged and condemned to deter further transgressions from people

He concludes by saying that unless men enter some form of political society or a social contract, they exist in the state of nature.

Chapter III – Of the State of War

In a state of war, which is not an abrupt conflict but a planned set of actions where one tries to subjugate another and exercise power over them, Locke says one should have the right to destroy what threatens them as preservation of life is of utmost importance. If not, everyone can be saved then one needs to aim to harm innocents, and this state should be treated as the action of a violent beast, their aim is to make one commit actions they would otherwise object to if they were free.

He uses the term ‘war’ for conflict situations such as a case of thievery where the guilty party can be assumed to want to take even the life of the victim.

A state of nature is the non-existence of human authority. If any harmful actions are taken against any other and no law is present, the situation can escalate and become a state of war. This can only be changed if the aggressive party is either eliminated or has a change of mind and is willing to repent.

In a political society, the state of war can exist due to abuse of authority and misapplication of the law, then the only thing that can be done is to appeal to God as the absolute authority like in the case of Jephthah and the Ammonites in the Bible.

Chapter IV – Of Slavery

Locke says that the ‘natural liberty of man is to only be under the law of nature and no other larger authority or power. He should only be under the authority of the law if consent is freely given and does not restrict his freedom and abuse the trust placed in government.

Filmer defined freedom as complete independence to be able to act upon actions they wished to without being subjugated to any law; Locke says that freedom is rather held up by men having the autonomy to act upon their desires as long as it falls under the purview of the common law set by the government, which in turn cannot be “inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another man”.

If a man is not free from a superior arbitrary power, then his life is not his own and is under threat. Having no power over his own life, he cannot give another power over his life or enter any contract placing him under another’s control. If he has committed a crime which sentences him to death, his life is then in the hands of the victim of his criminal deeds; who can not immediately take his life and instead choose to have the person serve him, given the job/punishment is not harmful to him. Should the criminal find this more taxing than living, he can choose to commit suicide and break the compact.

Jocke understands slavery as a state of war – or conflict- between someone with dictatorial power and his unwilling subjects.

He gives the example of Jews who sold their bodies for work, but it was not complete slavery but rather a drudgery where the ‘owner’ could not hurt them in any form and they were free to leave as they wished.

Chapter V – Of Property

The chapter begins with the declaration that God gave the Earth as a common property for mankind to use and that Locke endeavours to explain how individual property then came to be.

He begins with the idea of labour and how if he extends efforts in such a manner to acquire something, it becomes his- using the example of picking fruits or foraging, each person can by use of their own labour earn the right to own things.

However, he adds a boundary or limitation to such acquisition, that if one possesses in excess through labour and then lets those resources go to waste (given with the example of picking apples and then letting them rot) then they have overextended themself. He applies to labour as the first line of land ownership, by conducting labour on the land based on the need of the person for it, the land can be said to be their property. Labour becomes the most valuable commodity needed to own anything.

Locke proceeds with the idea of need and excess, which expands on the birth of the barter system – if two men have an excess of one thing each, they can exchange goods of similar value to sustain both of them. If only labour was what gave possessive rights, then man would only take as much as needed and not in excess and then conflicts would not occur. Unfortunately, through the invention of money, it became possible to hoard and have in excess and cause inequality in owning property, because money was something that could not spoil or go to waste in the traditional sense.

Chapter VI – Of Parental Power

Locke begins by penning the phrase ‘parental power’ as the authority parents hold over their offspring and why they receive this right to make decisions for their children. It is because when humans first come to Earth, they are infants unable to meet their own needs and are provided for by their parents, as such until it is deemed that they have reached an age of maturity where they can be held responsible for their own wellbeing, actions and decisions – the parents hold the authority as well as duty to teach their child.

He differentiates between political power and parental power by saying that one is not completely under the control of the latter and is free to make their choices once they are deemed capable/free, it is temporary. For the former, the structure is entirely different and overlap can only be considered in case the father of the child holds political power as well and has the right to exercise it as a sovereign, not just a parent. Locke also takes care to mention that should the father not be involved in the upbringing of the child then he loses the right to hold parental power, rather the mother is then held in higher regard.

Chapter VII – Of Political or Civil Society

From the beginning, Locke says that humans have been social creatures and not existed alone, having different forms of relations with one another that serve different purposes, evident first by the presence of both Adam and Eve together.

Matrimony does not only serve for procreation but also for the upbringing of children, and the power of the husband over the wife is not absolute and in civil society, a dispute would be handled by the government. In a household even with master-slave/servant relationship, as explained under Ch. IV, the power of the master is not absolute or permanent, as again, men are born free and do not have any hold over another.

Locke mentions the commonwealth and that the government is liable to provide for legislation for acceptable behaviour that works in favour of the public. By the formation of a government, the people give up their right to judge or execute any form of revenge without the consent of the former.

He describes how an absolute monarchy goes against this kind of civil society, as the monarch has the authority to answer to and controls the rights of all his subjects without any repercussions and can easily abuse this power and is above the law applicable to the public. He says that only a governing body, not exempt from the laws, can form a civil society.

Chapter VIII – Of the Beginning of Political Societies

Locke says that societies exist with the consent of their members, and as it is impossible to cater to each individual’s wish, they function on the principle of majority.

He addresses two possible objections to this – that there is no historical precedence of this and that one is usually born into society rather than forming a new one. He contests the former by saying that even though historically, absolute power has existed, it is also formed on the basis of the people’s consent to be governed. He continues to say that it is the willing submission to a central authority figure, even in family groups, and this ensures the formation of civil society. For the second he says that while one is born under some government, they still have the power to change that government and that one’s children cannot be forcefully bound to the same government and are free to choose.

Chapter IX – Of the Ends of Political Society and Government

Locke begins by utilising many of his prior mentioned ideals to question why man would enter a society and not remain in a state of nature where he has complete freedom. He outlines how dangerous it can be and that there are no set rules that protect people and their assets. The presence of a society provides – an established common law, an indifferent judge, and a guarantee of execution of punishment.

In the state of nature, a man holds the power to do as he wishes and to carry out punishment against any who have wronged him, by entering a society they partially give up the first and completely give up the second.

Even though certain powers are given up for safety and security, the sanction of the government exists to protect the peace and for the good of the people, it cannot cross its authority.

Chapter X – Of the Forms of a Commonwealth

Locke talks about the power of a community, and their ability to formulate laws and assign officials to execute them as well. He mentions different forms of power structures- democracy, oligarchy, monarchy, hereditary monarchy, elective monarchy and if possible, a new form of governance as well.

He defines a commonwealth as an independent community and society of men, not a city or form of government and the closest word to what he means to address but agrees that if one can produce a more accurate word for it, then they may use that.

Chapter XI – Of the Extent of Legislative Power

Locke identifies the legislature as the most important part of the government whose primary aim is the continued progress of society. It receives its power from the consent of the majority and is the sole body responsible for passing laws and can largely not be challenged. There are certain criteria it must follow – they must govern using established laws, the laws must be aimed at the public good, they cannot raise taxes without the people’s consent, and their power cannot be transferred to another body. He focuses on property and how it is the duty of the government to make sure it is not abused, for this the legislature needs to be not above the laws itself, and moreover, it needs to be more than one person so that power is not consolidated like in a monarchy.

Chapter XII – Of the Legislative, Executive, and Federative Power of the Commonwealth

The legislature that makes the laws does not need to always be in session, but it does need to be subject to the laws. To ensure that the implementation of these laws happens regardless of the legislative, it is best that a separate executive body is present all the time.

He also posits a federal power that deals with relations of the government with other outer powers, which is usually seen together with the executive itself due to their similarities and the fact that federal power deals with the variable of foreigners.

Chapter XIII – Of the Subordination of the Powers of the Commonwealth

Talking about the legislative, Locke reinstates that it works on the principle of selection by the people, true power resides in the public. Even in a monarchy, the executive may be one but it is not possible for him to have full control over the government. The executive does not have power over the legislature but only over executing the laws set by it and taking action as required in its absence, he oversees and takes action in case of a major change or conflict within the legislative itself arises. This happens due to the former not being capable of either making the decisions themselves or being in need of re-election.

Chapter XIV – Of Prerogative

Seeing that the executive is present all the time, it is often given the power to act according to the circumstances, in the favour of the public when the law is not clear. This is the exercising of prerogative, it comes in useful when the legislature is not in session or time-limiting emergencies arrive – the executive can then act outside the law but only for the greater good. Usually, prerogative is not questioned as it is used in favour of the public but should a succeeding governor use it to turn against the public then it is an abuse of the trust placed in him.

Another view offered by Locke is that it lets the rulers practice things that are outside the law as long as it serves the public good, many times, as historically seen he says, a wise ruler would exercise prerogative without breaking any laws. It is a relationship that depends on equal balance. When the ruler oversteps this, no one is left to be a judge and the people are left to appeal to Heaven and take action against him.

Chapter XV – Of Parental, Political, and Despotical Power, Considered Together

Locke sums up the different kinds of powers he has addressed so far – parental, political and despotical.

Parental power is what parents exercise over their children, it is temporary and lasts until the child reaches maturity. This does not include the right to their property and while children are expected to honour their parents, they are not under any compulsory obligation to do so.

Political power works on the principle of consent that one gives the government to rule over him, the person exits their state of nature and is now under a common set of laws that preserve his property and punishment on transgression of the law.

Despotical power is unwilling in nature, it is the absolute power exercised by a person over another against their will and does not allow them to own property in the first place.

Nature gives parents parental power, political power is given by consent and despotical power is forced.

Chapter XVI – Of Conquest

Locke states that a conqueror cannot truly rule over the people till he receives their consent and has no right to it either. He talks then of lawful conquest and makes some important points – first, those who helped the conqueror do not fall under his rule and often rewards for their contributions are pre-discussed. Second, if governors are involved in the conquest then the people are only guilty if they gave them permission or aided them, otherwise, they are innocent. Third, the conqueror has the right over the lives of the conquered but not their property as others, like the family of the person conquered, would have prior rights to it. The last one, under the despotic power of the conqueror, can be challenged but he is at least expected to leave enough of the conquered estate so that his family may survive.

Chapter XVII – Of Usurpation

Addressing the topic of usurpation, he says that it cannot have a ‘right side and is the change of persons in charge and not a change of policies and way of governance as the latter would be tyranny.

In a lawful government, the representatives or rulers are decided by proper channels of establishing them, in commonwealths, this is done by the people for whom this is their right. Anyone who gains power through other means and not the consent of the people shall not be obeyed or recognized as a legitimate ruler as he violates the law of nature.

Chapter XVIII – Of Tyranny

Following usurpation, tyranny is the “exercise of power beyond right”, it is when the ruler starts using the power assigned to them for selfish reasons. Locke quotes King James I to speak of the risks of becoming a tyrant;  he then says that not just a monarchy but other forms of governance can also fall into tyranny – if the body stops addressing the greater good of the people and rather decides to serve itself.

Certain factors that stop the public from going against the government when this happens include the sanctity of the executive, trust in the laws, and fear that the opposition may not be successful. If force was used by everyone all the time at any inconvenience then society would be in complete chaos.

Chapter XIX – Of the Dissolution of Government

In the last chapter Locke talks about the formation of a new government should the need arise. This can be done if the legislature ignores its duties and abuses its power, when it is usurped or when it and the executive have a breach of trust.

The idea that the legislature can be re-made does not cause unnecessary unrest as people are used to a certain way of working, rebellions can happen under any system but revolutions primarily are born due to flagrant abuse of power by authority. The system protects people in this way as it gives the option of a peaceful change of authority rather than one that requires force. Locke notes that revolution is not something to be afraid of as it is a rebellion against unjust practices fuelled by righteousness.

Using the words of William Barclay, Locke describes the circumstances where people may overthrow the ruler – his point is to establish that even a royal defender agrees that should a king use his power against the public or not for its good, then the people hold the right to overthrow him.

Locke asserts that the people have the right to judge whether a rule is guilty as such or not. He says that the power that the people put in the government and legislature cannot go back to the public as it could destroy society, this means that the options left are to either elect new leaders for the government or create a new form of governance.


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Hello! It’s Alex, I am a student at Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts, pursuing English, Sociology and Film Studies. I currently head the college’s poetry club as well as a volunteer at the NGO Yasham which provides educational and vocational services to underprivileged children and mothers. For me, it is interesting to explore the formation of gender identities in different cultures through out history and the queer culture that has survived. In general I like to discover differences and communalities in cultures as well as how they come to be. I enjoy a variety of films and film analysis as well as fictional books, especially queer ones with diverse representation, and run a bookstagram, @booksandmorewithraj, come and say hi!