Eric Mack, An Introduction to the Political Thought of John Locke
An Introduction to the Political Thought of John Locke
By Eric Mack, Professor of Philosophy, Tulane University, New Orleans
This reading list is designed to introduce the reader to the many aspects of the political thought of the 17th century English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). After a few introductory comments, this list proceeds by focusing on the most important chapters of Locke’s Second Treatise of Government.
The Online Library of Liberty has a number of Locke’s works online and this reading list will be linking to these works, especially the Two Treatises of Government, ed. Thomas Hollis (London: A. Millar et al., 1764). There is now an Enhanced Edition of Locke’s Two Treatises which contains this edition and several essays about Locke’s ideas in various ebook formats.
John Locke is one of the names inscribed on the walls of the Goodrich Seminar Room at Wabash Collage. He was regarded by the founder of Liberty Fund as one of the key thinkers before the founding of the American Republic.
For additional information see:
- the collection of essays and guides about John Locke
- the timeline of Locke’s life and works.
- for a brief biography of Locke’s life, see the Introduction to the 1824 edition of his works.
- the engraving of John Locke made by the radical bookseller Thomas Hollis for his 1764 edition of The Two Treatises of Government.
- the bibliographical essay on John Locke’s Theory of Property by Karen Vaughn.
For additional information about individuals mentioned in this reading list see the following:
- John Locke (1632-1704
- Robert Filmer (1588-1653)
- Algernon Sidney (1622-1683)
- Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)
- Debate: The Divine Right of Kings
For works cited in this essay see:
- John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (1689)
- Robert Filmer, Patriacha, or the Natural Power of Kings (1680)
- Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651)
The whole text of the Two Treatises of Government
The First Treatise of Locke’s Two Treatises — of which only one third of the original survives — was written against the pro-royalist doctrines of Sir Robert Filmer. Filmer’s most notorious doctrine was that the absolute authority of Kings derives from the absolute paternal authority which Adam had over his descendants.
For additional reading see the timeline and the debate about individual rights vs. the divine right of kings.
Although Filmer wrote in the 1630s, 40s, and early 50s, many of his essays were republished in 1679 when once again there was in England major conflict between the friends and the enemies of unlimited monarchical power. Filmer’s most systematic work, Patriarcha, was first published in 1680. Filmer’s writings were sufficiently influential that Locke joined other liberal, anti-monarchical writers such as James Tyrrell and Algernon Sidney in composing critiques of Filmer’s works.
Locke’s Second Treatise is his own positive and systematic statement of a strongly individualistic political philosophy. While this portion of the Two Treatises also contains criticisms of Filmer, it includes as well powerful criticisms of the much more famous seventeenth century advocate of political authoritarianism, Thomas Hobbes. In the Second Treatise, Locke defends the crucial claims that:
- individuals possess natural rights to freedom;
- individuals can acquire property rights to the products of their labor;
- through the creation of money, mutually beneficial economic interaction among individuals greatly expands;
- but, with the complications of advanced commercial society, the inconveniences of the pre-political state of nature grow;
- hence, it becomes necessary for individuals to form political society and government so that their natural rights over themselves, their liberty, their labor, and their property will be better protected;
- political society and government derives its just authority from the consent of the governed;
- government forfeits its authority when it infringes upon the rights of its subjects or even when it fails to protect those rights;
- and, finally, in those circumstances of forfeiture, individuals and political society as a whole may resist unlawful government and replace it with a new and more suitable government.
Each of the next eleven entries comments on the themes and purposes of crucial chapters in the Second Treatise and provides passages from those chapters which nicely express those themes and purposes. The passages are marked by paragraph number.
Chapter I. (untitled)
This chapter is the bridge from the First Treatise to the Second Treatise. Locke reminds the reader of the main reasons for rejecting Filmer’s defense of monarchical authority and points out the need to find a new basis for governmental authority. He rejects the idea — which he associated with Thomas Hobbes - that governmental authority can be founded on mere force and violence.
§. 1. … it is impossible that the rulers now on earth should make any benefit, or derive any the least shadow of authority from that, which is held to be the fountain of all power, Adam’s private dominion and paternal jurisdiction; so that he that will not give just occasion to think that all government in the world is the product only of force and violence, and that men live together by no other rules but that of beasts, where the strongest carries it, and so lay a foundation for perpetual disorder and mischief, tumult, sedition and rebellion, (things that the followers of that hypothesis so loudly cry out against) must of necessity find out another rise of government, another original of political power, and another way of designing and knowing the persons that have it, than what Sir Robert Filmer hath taught us.
Chapter II, Of the State of Nature
In this very dense and important chapter, Locke explains what he means when he says that, by nature, all men are equal and free.
Since we are all beings of the same fundamental character, we are equal in our rights. And, for Locke, this means that no individual is naturally subordinate to any other individual. No man is by nature master or ruler; no man is by nature servant or subject. Locke concludes that this means that, by our natures, we are each free to order our actions and dispose of our persons and possessions as we respectively see fit. Each man’s freedom requires then that all other persons are obligated to allow that man to dispose of his person and possessions as he sees fit.
Locke provides a series of arguments for belief in a “law of nature” — at the core of which is this right to freedom. Several of these arguments are entangled in the passage below.
One argument in this passage is that an action in which one individual subordinates another to the first party’s purposes is unjustified (and, hence, a wrong) if the second party does not exist for the first party’s purposes. Since no man exists for the purposes of any other man, Locke concludes that all acts of subordination are unjustified (and wrong).
Locke also offers the strangely misdirected Workmanship of God argument. Since we are made by God, we are each the property of God. Hence, if any man destroys or enslaves another man, the first man trespasses upon God’s property. Hence, the killing or enslavement is wrongful. The problem here is that this argument does nothing to establish that men have the rights that Locke wants to say men have.
The third argument, which is in the last several lines of the passage below, seems to be that, since every person ought to pursue his own self-preservation and every one must somehow take account of this fact within his own conduct, each person should — in the course of pursuing his own self-preservation — not interfere with other persons pursuing their self-preservation. Each should abstain from invading others’ rights and doing them harm.
In this chapter, Locke also argues that men in the state of nature, i.e., in their natural condition, have rights to enforce the law of nature. These rights of enforcement include the right of self-defense, the right to extract reparations from violators of the law of nature, and the right to punish those who have infringed upon others’ rights.
§. 6. … 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; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business; they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another’s pleasure: and being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us, that may authorize us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another’s uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for our’s. Every one, as he is bound to preserve himself, and not to quit his station wilfully, so by the like reason, when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he, as much as he can, to preserve the rest of mankind, and may not, unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another.
CHAP. III. Of the State of War
Since men are capable, at least to some degree, of recognizing and respecting one another’s rights in the state of nature, that natural condition of mankind need not be a state of war of all upon all — as Hobbes thought it had to be.
In fact, Locke argues, just as we can have a state of peace within the state of nature, we can have a state of war when we are in a political state. We are in a political state (i.e., out of the state of nature) when there is some common power over us. But, if that common power treats its subjects unjustly — if it uses “force without right” — then that common power puts us into the state of war.
Thus, again contrary to Hobbes, fleeing from the state of nature does not at all guarantee escape from the state of war. Indeed, if we create a Hobbesian sovereign who may do to us anything he chooses, we are likely to be worse off than we would be in the state of nature.
Furthermore, and very characteristically, Locke insists that political rulers are always subject to the same fundamental norms as all other individuals. That is why when political rulers engage in force without right, they are simply engaged in larger scale criminality than normal, workaday criminals.
§. 19. And here we have the plain difference[ between the state of nature and the state of war, which however some men have confounded, are as far distant, as a state of peace, good will, mutual assistance and preservation, and a state of enmity, malice, violence and mutual destruction, are one from another. Men living together according to reason, without a common superior on earth, with authority to judge between them, is properly the state of nature. But force, or a declared design of force, upon the person of another, where there is no common superior on earth to appeal to for relief, is the state of war: and it is the want of such an appeal gives a man the right of war even against an aggressor, tho’ he be in society and a fellow subject.
§. 20. … for where-ever violence is used, and injury done, though by hands appointed to administer justice, it is still violence and injury, however coloured with the name, pretences, or forms of law
CHAP. V. Of PROPERTY
There are two chapters in the Second Treatise which stand out because of both the importance and the uniqueness of the arguments which they present. The first of these is chapter II which seeks to provide grounding arguments for a natural right to freedom (which, essentially, is a right of self-ownership).
The second is chapter V which seeks to provide grounding arguments for rights to external possessions (“estate”).
Against Filmer, Locke has insisted that God has given the earth to all mankind; for this blocks Filmer’s claim that God gave the earth to Adam. But Locke’s insistence creates a problem for him. If the earth belongs to all mankind, must not everyone’s permission be gotten before anything can be made into anyone’s private property? Yet Locke accepts Filmer’s argument that there never has been and never could be such a universal act of consent. So Locke must show how property in external possessions can arise without universal consent and in the face of the fact that in some sense God gave the earth to all mankind.
The doctrine which Locke develops in the face of these problems is ingenious and complex. Only a few of the highlights of that doctrine can be mentioned here. (And only a few key passages are cited below.)
Locke argues that we should not think that the initial common ownership of the earth requires individuals to get universal consent before using and appropriating. For, if we believed this, justice would require that people simply sit and starve — so as not to trespass on the common property of mankind at large. Rather, according to Locke, man’s initial common ownership of the earth is much more like the common ownership of two children whose father has put a piece of meat before them. Each can take some of the meat without asking the permission of the other.
Suppose one of the children cuts off a piece of the meat and, say, cuts it into bit-sized pieces. What makes those pieces the rightful possession, i.e., the property of that child? Again, Locke’s answer is not agreement (among the children). Rather the foundation of the child’s property in the pieces of meat is the child’s right over her own labor.
Everyone has a right over his (or her) own labor as part of everyone’s right over his (or her) own person. In a famous metaphor, Locke says that the appropriator mixes his labor with a bit of nature and that labor is embedded or invested in the resulting object. Since the labor remains his, the object cannot be taken from the laborer without violating the laborer’s rights. Hence, the person who has mixed and invested his labor has a right to the fruits of his labor… or to the pieces of meat she has cut.
Locke, however, says that there is some limits upon how much individuals may appropriate from nature. The key limit is that individuals must leave “enough and as good” for others. Locke then develops a complex argument for why this proviso is generally not violated within a private property regime. Locke’s crucial contention here is that this proviso is not even violated after the invention of money has lead to a complex commercial society in which there is a considerable degree of inequality in economic holdings. The crucial reason is that the development of commercial society, with its elaborate forms of private property and its far-reaching trade is beneficial to everyone.
§. 25. Whether we consider natural reason, which tells us, that men, being once born, have a right to their preservation, and consequently to meat and drink, and such other things as nature affords for their subsistence: or revelation, which gives us an account of those grants God made of the world to Adam, and to Noah, and his sons, it is very clear, that God, as king David says, Psal. CXV. 16. has given the earth to the children of men; given it to mankind in common. But this being supposed, it seems to some a very great difficulty, how any one should ever come to have a property in any thing: …But I shall endeavour to shew, how men might come to have a property in several parts of that which God gave to mankind in common, and that without any express compact of all the commoners.
§. 27. Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men: for this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.
§. 49. Thus in the beginning all the world was America, and more so than that is now; for no such thing as money was any where known. Find out something that hath the use and value of money amongst his neighbours, you shall see the same man will begin presently to enlarge his possessions.
§. 50. … it is plain, that men have agreed to a disproportionate and unequal possession of the earth, they having, by a tacit and voluntary consent, found out a way how a man may fairly possess more land than he himself can use the product of, by receiving in exchange for the overplus gold and silver, which may be hoarded up without injury to any one; these metals not spoiling or decaying in the hands of the possessor. This partage of things in an inequality of private possessions, men have made practicable out of the bounds of society, and without compact, only by putting a value on gold and silver, and tacitly agreeing in the use of money….
CHAP. VII. Of Political or Civil Society
In this chapter, Locke begins his account of the reasons for why men should and have exited the state of nature and formed political society. The key thesis is that difficulties are encountered in the state of nature because each individual has the right to exercise his private judgment about precisely what actions of others should be punished, precisely what the punishment should be for various infractions, and precisely who in particular deserves punishment. These difficulties will be overcome if individuals “resign up” this right of private judgment with respect to the enforcement of the law of nature.
Through this process, individuals create an “umpire” who will interpret and enforce the basic rules of the social game. But the umpire does not create those basic rules; those basic rules remain the primary laws of nature which protect individuals’ lives, liberties, and property.
It is especially important to realize that rational individuals in the state of nature would never set up anything like an absolute monarch to rule over them. For that would make each subject worse off than he was in the state of nature.
§. 93. … as if when men quitting the state of nature entered into society, they agreed that all of them but one, should be under the restraint of laws, but that he should still retain all the liberty of the state of nature, increased with power, and made licentious by impunity. This is to think, that men are so foolish, that they take care to avoid what mischiefs may be done them by pole-cats, or foxes; but are content, nay, think it safety, to be devoured by lions.
CHAP. VIII. Of the Beginning of Political Societies
In this chapter, Locke continues his discussion of the transition from the state of nature to the state of political society. Actually, “political society” is a rather odd entity which is formed when any number of men mutually agree to surrender their rights to act as executors of the law of nature. Political society in turn establishes a particular governmental structure. So there is both a contract among those who form a given political society and a contract between that political society and those they entrust with governmental functions.
Locke emphasizes that within political authority and within any legislature which is set up by political society the majority rules — absent express agreement upon a different arrangement. It is important, however, to recognize that the scope of legitmate majority decision is severely limited.
The crucial point here — and in later chapters — is that, in forming political society, individuals have not surrendered their fundamental rights to life, liberty, and estate. They have resigned up their rights to operate as executors of the law of nature solely so that their respective rights to life, liberty, and estate will be made more secure. Hence, majority decisions which are not congruent with this purpose are not legitimized by the resigning up of those executive rights.
In the latter part of this chapter, Locke attempts to explain in more detail exactly how people have consented to political society or to government. Locke’s account is far from persuasive. Hence, his conclusion that he has shown the legitimacy of at least a narrowly circumscribed government power is very much in doubt. Perhaps the weakest link in Locke’s unpersuasive discussion is his (rather desperate) appeal to tacit consent.
§. 119. The difficulty is, what ought to be looked upon as a tacit consent, and how far it binds, i. e. how far any one shall be looked on to have consented, and thereby submitted to any government, where he has made no expressions of it at all. And to this I say, that every man, that hath any possessions, or enjoyment, of any part of the dominions of any government, doth thereby give his tacit consent, and is as far forth obliged to obedience to the laws of that government, during such enjoyment, as any one under it; whether this his possession be of land, to him and his heirs for ever, or a lodging only for a week; or whether it be barely travelling freely on the highway; and in effect, it reaches as far as the very being of any one within the territories of that government.
CHAP. IX. Of the Ends of Political Society and Government
In this chapter, Locke describes in more detail the deficiencies of the state of nature. Locke emphasizes that the authority of political society and of the legislature which it, in turn, creates only extends to promoting the “common good” which, according to Locke, consists in “secur[ing] every one’s property, by providing against the three defects [see below] … that made the state of nature so unsafe and uneasy.”
§. 124. The great and chief end, therefore, of men’s uniting into common-wealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property. To which in the state of nature there are many things wanting.
First, There wants an established, settled, known law, received and allowed by common consent to be the standard of right and wrong, and the common measure to decide all controversies between them: for though the law of nature be plain and intelligible to all rational creatures; yet men being biassed by their interest, as well as ignorant for want of study of it, are not apt to allow of it as a law binding to them in the application of it to their particular cases.
§. 125. Secondly, In the state of nature there wants a known and indifferent judge, with authority to determine all differences according to the established law: for every one in that state being both judge and executioner of the law of nature, men being partial to themselves, passion and revenge is very apt to carry them too far, and with too much heat, in their own cases; as well as negligence, and unconcernedness, to make them too remiss in other men’s.
§. 126. Thirdly, In the state of nature there often wants power to back and support the sentence when right, and to give it due execution. They who by any injustice offended, will seldom fail, where they are able, by force to make good their injustice; such resistance many times makes the punishment dangerous, and frequently destructive, to those who attempt it.
CHAP. XI. Of the Extent of the Legislative Power
Having argued that political society and its legislative authority is justified on the basis of consent, Locke is still eager to insist on the highly limited purpose for which political society and government exist. Thus, he opens this chapter with the assertion that “the great end of men’s entering into society [is] the enjoyment of their properties in peace and safety.”
One reason that the state has no wider powers over its subjects than to power to protect their lives, liberties, and estates is that individuals cannot transfer to the government any more power than they have in the state of nature over themselves or over others; and in the state of nature, “no body has an absolute arbitrary power over himself, or over any other, to destroy his own life, or take away the life or property of another.”
Political society and government are created to better delineate and protect people’s fundamental natural rights. Thus, as Locke declares very forcefully in the passage below, those rights remain in exist and continue to serve as a standard for assessing the actions of all persons, including all legislators.
§. 135. Though the legislative, whether placed in one or more, whether it be always in being, or only by intervals, though it be the supreme power in every common-wealth; … It is not, nor can possibly be absolutely arbitrary over the lives and fortunes of the people: for it being but the joint power of every member of the society given up to that person, or assembly, which is legislator; it can be no more than those persons had in a state of nature before they entered into society, and gave up to the community:… The obligations of the law of nature cease not in society, but only in many cases are drawn closer, and have by human laws known penalties annexed to them, to inforce their observation. Thus the law of nature stands as an eternal rule to all men, legislators as well as others. The rules that they make for other men’s actions, must, as well as their own and other men’s actions, be conformable to the law of nature, i. e. to the will of God, of which that is a declaration, and the fundamental law of nature being the preservation of mankind, no human sanction can be good, or valid against it.
CHAP. XVI. Of CONQUEST
Locke has rejected two quite distinct arguments for authoritarian rule. The first was Filmer’s patriarchal argument that monarchal power is to be understood on the model of the unlimited and undivided fatherly authority which originally resided in Adam. The second was Hobbes’ argument that natural equal and free individuals in the state of nature would mutually surrender all of their rights in order to place themselves under the authority of a sovereign who retained all of his state of nature rights. In the chapter on conquest, Locke takes on another argument for authoritarian rule. This is the argument that legitimate authority is based on conquest.
For Locke, there are two significantly different cases; there is the case of unjust conquest and the case of just conquest. Locke argues that neither the unjust nor the just conquerer has the sort of authority which he has contended against.
In attacking the argument that legitimate authority can arise from unjust conquest, Locke is really attacking a second argument which Hobbes makes for his absolute sovereign. Hobbes argues that any conquerer has a right to kill those who he conquers. But the vanquished may get the conquerer to stay his hand by pledging their absolute obedience to the conquerer. Such a pledge, according to Hobbes, creates in the vanquished an obligation of absolute obedience. Locke argues against this by arguing that promises made under duress do not obligate the promise-maker. (see the first passage below)
Against the idea that just conquest gives the conquerer an absolute authority, Locke argues that just conquest only produces such authority over the particular aggressive individuals against whom the just conquerer has fought. According to Locke, “all the rest are innocent.” (see the second passage below)
Finally, Locke again insists on his general principle that the same fundamental moral rules apply to political rulers as to all individuals. The only difference is that great rulers commit great crimes which, sadly, they are more likely to get away with than petty criminals are. (see the third passage below)
§. 186. … It remains only to be considered, whether promises extorted by force, without right, can be thought consent, and how far they bind. To which I shall say, they bind not at all; because whatsoever another gets from me by force, I still retain the right of, and he is obliged presently to restore. He that forces my horse from me, ought presently to restore him, and I have still a right to retake him. By the same reason, he that forced a promise from me, ought presently to restore it, i. e. quit me of the obligation of it; or I may resume it myself, i. e. chuse whether I will perform it: for the law of nature laying an obligation on me only by the rules the prescribes, cannot oblige me by the violation of her rules: such is the extorting any thing from me by force. Nor does it at all alter the case to say, I gave my promise, no more than it excuses the force, and passes the right, when I put my hand in my pocket, and deliver my purse myself to a thief, who demands it with a pistol at my breast.
§. 179. … for the conquerors power over the lives of the conquered, being only because they have used force to do, or maintain an injustice, he can have that power only over those who have concurred in that force; all the rest are innocent; and he has no more title over the people of that country, who have done him no injury, and so have made no forfeiture of their lives, than he has over any other, who, without any injuries or provocations, have lived upon fair terms with him.
§. 176. … Should a robber break into my house, and with a dagger at my throat make me seal deeds to convey my estate to him, would this give him any title? Just such a title, by his sword, has an unjust conqueror, who forces me into submission. The injury and the crime is equal, whether committed by the wearer of a crown, or some petty villain. The title of the offender, and the number of his followers, make no difference in the offence, unless it be to aggravate it. The only difference is, great robbers punish little ones, to keep them in their obedience; but the great ones are rewarded with laurels and triumphs, because they are too big for the weak hands of justice in this world, and have the power in their own possession, which should punish offenders.
CHAP. XVIII. Of TYRANNY
Locke’ final two chapters (XVIII and XIX) deal explicitly with the conditions under which forcible resistance to existing political rule is justified. Chapter XVIII, “Of Tyranny,” deals primarily with resistance by particular individuals — in contrast to resistance by “political society.”
Locke’s basic position is that one has a right to engage in forcible resistance whenever one’s rights are invaded and one has no effective appeal to the public system of law. If a private bandit or a public official has unjust taken one’s property and one can effectively appeal to the public system of law for redress, one may not privately and forcibly seek redress. But if an official acts under the commission or order of the chief magistrate and, for that reason, one has no recourse to public law, one may forcibly resist. As one would expect of Locke, he emphasizes that the fact that the official’s unlawful act was commissioned or ordered by the “prince” does not validate it at all.
Locke is concerned in this chapter to show that this doctrine of rightful private resistance will not unhinge desirable social order. Locke rejects the imputation that he favors individuals resisting whether they feel aggrieved. He insists that resistance is justified only when one is correct in one’s judgment about official criminality. If one is wrong, one is unlikely to find support among one’s fellow citizens and, hence, one is unlikely to cause much of a stir. In addition, if one is wrong, God will not be very happy when one comes before Him. Indeed, even if one is correct in one’s judgment that governmental officials are violating one’s rights and that one will have no effective appeal within the system of public law, one will probably be imprudentin attempting to resist.
Still, resistance will be both justified and prudent when governmental violations extend to more and more individuals or even when more and more individuals perceive that their lives, liberties, and estates are in danger.
§. 202. Where-ever law ends, tyranny begins, if the law be transgressed to another’s harm; and whosoever in authority exceeds the power given him by the law, and makes use of the force he has under his command, to compass that upon the subject, which the law allows not, ceases in that to be a magistrate; and, acting without authority, may be opposed, as any other man, who by force invades the right of another….
§. 203. May the commands then of a prince be opposed? may he be resisted as often as any one shall find himself aggrieved, and but imagine he has not right done him? This will unhinge and overturn all polities, and, instead of government and order, leave nothing but anarchy and confusion.
§. 204. To this I answer, that force is to be opposed to nothing, but to unjust and unlawful force; whoever makes any opposition in any other case, draws on himself a just condemnation both from God and man; and so no such danger or confusion will follow, as is often suggested…
§. 210. But if all the world shall observe pretences of one kind, and actions of another; arts used to elude the law… if the people shall find the ministers and subordinate magistrates chosen suitable to such ends, and favoured, or laid by, proportionably as they promote or oppose them: if they see several experiments made of arbitrary power, and that religion underhand favoured, (tho’ publicly proclaimed against) which is readiest to introduce it; and the operators in it supported, as much as may be; and when that cannot be done, yet approved still, and liked the better: if a long train of actions shew the councils all tending that way; how can a man any more hinder himself from being persuaded in his own mind, which way things are going; or from casting about how to save himself….
CHAP. XIX. Of the Dissolution of Government
In this final chapter, Locke casts the right of resistance in terms of the rights of the political society which individuals formed when they mutually surrendered their rights to act as private enforcers of the laws of nature in order to overcome the inconveniences of the state of nature. It is political society which sets up the constitutional structure of government and which entrusts the individuals who occupy positions in that government with the task of protecting the rights of life, liberty, and estate of the members of political society.
Locke employs the common strategy of holding that justified resistance is not really rebellion — for the true rebels are those individuals who seek to undo the constitutional order which political society as created or who violate the trust that political society placed in them. Beyond attacking the established constitutional order, governmental officials — especially the king — can violate the trust put in them either by failing to protect the rights they are pledge to protect or by actually invading those rights. (Although Locke does not name names, many of the examples he gives of illicit tampering with the constitutional order — especially tampering with the independence and powers of Parliament — are actions actually conducted by Charles II or James II in the decade leading up the the Glorious Revolution of 1688.)
According to Locke, these acts by the true rebels cause a dissolution of government and, therefore, a complete nullification of any authority which the officials of the (former) government might be thought to have. Political society is back in a state of nature vis-a-vis these individuals. Indeed, it is in a state of war with these individuals; and since those individuals have initiated this state of war, political society may deal with them as any individual may deal with dangerous beasts.
Locke is eager to emphasize that the dissolution of government is not to be confused with the dissolution of political society. Political society remains in existence; its members do not return to a state of nature vis-a-vis one another. Locke wants to dissociate himself from the scary thought that his argument for resistance implies a return to a general state of nature — even if that return would be less scary than Hobbes thinks it would be.
Locke again forcibly rejects the idea that his doctrine is “destructive of the peace of the world.” It is force without right which is the ultimate cause of whatever disorder ensues. And it is the wielders of lawless force who are to be blamed for the resulting disorder or bloodshed.
§. 220. In these and the like cases, when the government is dissolved, the people are at liberty to provide for themselves, by erecting a new legislative, differing from the other, by the change of persons, or form, or both, as they shall find it most for their safety and good: for the society can never, by the fault of another, lose the native and original right it has to preserve itself, which can only be done by a settled legislative, and a fair and impartial execution of the laws made by it.
§. 225. … such revolutions happen not upon every little mismanagement in public affairs. Great mistakes in the ruling part, many wrong and inconvenient laws, and all the slips of human frailty, will be born by the people without mutiny or murmur. 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 rouze themselves, and endeavour to put the rule into such hands which may secure to them the ends for which government was at first erected…
§. 228. But if they, who say it lays a foundation for rebellion, mean that it may occasion civil wars, or intestine broils, to tell the people they are absolved from obedience when illegal attempts are made upon their liberties or properties, and may oppose the unlawful violence of those who were their magistrates, when they invade their properties contrary to the trust put in them; and that therefore this doctrine is not to be allowed, being so destructive to the peace of the world: they may as well say, upon the same ground, that honest men may not oppose robbers or pirates, because this may occasion disorder or bloodshed. If any mischief come in such cases, it is not to be charged upon him who defends his own right, but on him that invades his neighbours. If the innocent honest man must quietly quit all he has, for peace sake, to him who will lay violent hands upon it, I desire it may be considered, what a kind of peace there will be in the world, which consists only in violence and rapine; and which is to be maintained only for the benefit of robbers and oppressors. Who would not think it an admirable peace betwixt the mighty and the mean, when the lamb, without resistance, yielded his throat to be torn by the imperious wolf?
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- An Introduction to the Major Writings of Ludwig von Mises
- British and French Sources of American Constitutionalism
- Burlamaqui, Bayle: Freedom Tolerance, Natural Law
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- Cobden: Liberty and Peace
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- Gibbon and the Rise of Christianity and Islam
- Homer’s Iliad: Liberty and Responsibility
- Hume, Smith, and Ferguson: Wealth, Commerce, and Corruption
- Hume: History of England
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- Jefferson-Hamilton Debate
- Major Political Thinkers: Plato to Mill
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- Mill-Macaulay Debate on Government
- Milton: Liberty in his Prose and Poetry
- Old Testament and English Political Thought
- Political Sermons of the Founding Era
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- Sophocles and Aeschylus: Blood Justice and the Founding of Legal Order
- Tacitus: Liberty and Tyranny in the Annals
- Thomas Paine and American Liberty
- Thucydides: War, Empire, and Liberty