John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government

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This paper contains John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government summary and analysis. It explains the key concepts of the famous Locke’s essay on political society. The paper also includes a thorough discussion of the natural law and natural rights that Locke uses in his two treatises to distinguish between illegitimate and legitimate civil governments. There is also the argument for the legitimacy of rebellion against cruel governments.

Second Treatise of Civil Government Summary

The Second Treatise of Civil Government is an essay by John Locke that was anonymously published in 1689. In this text, the famous philosopher sets out his ideas about the nature of government, the citizens’ rights and duties, as well as the origins of political power. Locke argues that any government is established to protect the natural rights of people: the rights to life, liberty, and property. The key idea is the separation of powers, where government is limited in what it can do and the protection of the rights and property of citizens is its main goal.

Second Treatise of Civil Government Analysis & Discussion

Research reveals that two treaties were first published in the year 1689 by a unanimous person. This was later on known that John Locke was the author of this piece of work. The Two treaties consist of the first and the second treaty. The first treaty is highly focused on Sir Robert Filmer in which he asserts that the civil society was based on patriarchalism which is divinely sanctioned. Locke says that Filmers’ arguments are senseless and that no government is justified by the appeal to the divine right of kings.

In the second treaty, John Locke gives a theory about civil society. First of all, he describes nature’s state. This picture has more stability than Hobbes’ state of war of men against other men. John Locke argues that all men are created in God’s image and therefore they are equal. (Laslett, 1988).

He says that the governments that are governments that have the people’s consent are the only legitimate ones. He further goes on to explain that any government which continues to rule without the people’s consent, in theory, can be overthrown. In the second treaty, John Locke argues that individuals in a state are not under the obligation of obeying one another but they have the responsibility of judging what exactly the entire law of nature requires.

Natural law is also called the law of nature. In natural law, there is a clear view that law is set by nature and therefore applies everywhere. In most cases, natural law is referred to as the opposite of the law of a society, state, or nation. In most cases, natural law is used to criticize state law. John Locke is one of the philosophers that used natural law in his books. Natural law has been widely used throughout history. (Bulliet, 2005).

There are various theories of natural law. John Locke incorporated natural law in quite a number of his philosophy and theories. This is very evident in the two treatises of government. Locke argues that if a ruler goes against natural law and fails to protect property and life liberty then he should be overthrown. (Ashcraft, 1986).

He says that in this case if the people decide to overthrow the state and create a new one then it’s ok. Research on Lock’s content of natural law reveals that all that he argues is geared towards the overall protection of natural rights. This is language is preferred by liberal thinkers. Locke asserts that all men are created equal and therefore they are equally endowed by God with unalienable rights. These rights are the pursuit of happiness, life, and liberty. (Dunn, 1969).

Natural rights theory is the theory of universal rights that are viewed as inherent in people’s nature and not reliant on human beliefs or actions. According to Locke, a natural right exists when it is not enforced by society or the government as a whole. The whole idea of human rights emanated from natural rights. John Locke is one of the prominent philosophers that conceptualize rights as being inalienable and natural. He asserts that each person knows what they ought to do and also the reason behind an individual’s actions. To John Locke, natural rights are as follows:

  • Property
  • Liberty
  • Life

He argues that natural rights cannot in any way be granted through any charter because this would also imply that they can be revoked in some circumstances. Critics of this theory argue that natural rights do not exist in any case. To some critics, the issue of natural rights is just but a political tool. (Bulliet, 2005).

According to John Locke, legitimate civil governments are those that act according to natural law. Illegitimate civil governments are those that act against the natural law. Throughout history, tyranny has been part and parcel of very many governments. John Locke expresses his radical views that the government is supposed to serve people by protecting their property, life, and their liberty too. (Laslett, 1988).

Locke asserts that balance and checks have to be well put in place to limit the power within the government. Locke favors a representative government and the overall rule of law. John Locke is highly against tyrannical governments. According to John Locke, when such tyrannical governments violate human rights, then the citizens have the overall right to rebel. These views are very evident in John Locke’s two treatises of the civil government. Looking at his views on tyrannical governments, they are very radical. Locke’s works though radical, have inspired many people in Asia, America, Latin, and Europe. Locke’s thinking is thinking of liberty.

Many scholars say that Locke’s two treatises on government were just based on archaic notions about the state of nature. Though this is asserted, his principles have endured up to this twenty-first century. John Locke defended the natural law tradition so much. This lineage can be traced back to the Jews in the ancient days. They had the tradition that rulers should and cannot just do want they want because they have to adhere to the moral laws that apply to everyone.

Locke says that all human beings have been given the power to reason. To him, this is the law that teaches all human beings. This applies to those that consult it, that people are independent and at the same time equal. No one is more important than the other no matter his or her status in society. In his theories of natural rights and natural law, he says that no one has the overall right to harm another person’s possessions, health, liberty, and life.

Looking critically at John Locke’s two treatises of civil government, they have greatly influenced the way very many people and many nations conduct their activities. There are leaders in this twenty-first century that are very keen not to harm any other person’s property, life, health, or liberty. This has contributed a great deal to the peace that is witnessed in many nations. Despite the status of people in society they are respected and treated as equals. (Ashcraft, 1986).

Locke’s theories have not been embraced in every nation. This is because research carried in the year 2006 reveals that there are nations that inequality is still rampant. For instance, in the United States, discrimination based on race still exists, though on a low scale. The other nation is South Africa where there is still segregation between the black and the whites. (Strauss, 1953).

According to Locke, one has the liberty to follow his or her own will in everything that they do. In this case, the rule does not prescribe what one has to follow. This means that one doesn’t have to be subject to the unknown, uncertain, and inconstant will of another person no matter who he or she is in society.

Locke says that private property plays a big role in an individual’s liberty. In this case, each person has the property of his own that only he and he alone has the right to it but himself. This is because the work of his hand or his labor belongs to him and him alone. Locke says that people can turn common property into a privately owned property. He says that all people are sovereign and not just rulers in a state or a nation.

To Locke, the government can never have the power to take part or the whole of their subject’s property for themselves. This results in leaving no property for the subjects at all. This aspect has not been embraced in many governments in the twenty-first century. This is because many governments are using the citizens’ or subordinates’ property for their own (government’s) good. Locke says that rulers should not raise taxes on citizens without their consent. (Ashcraft, 1986).

This aspect is taking place in very many nations. This is very common in African countries. Governments are raising taxes day after the other without even consulting the people on the ground on whether this should happen or not. There are only a few people in the society that are consulted and they consist of the elite.


Analysis shows that Locke had the foresight that he saw beyond the struggles that existed during his lifetime. He said that tyranny is not just in monarchies but also other forms of government are always liable to it. He says that power can be misused by leaders such that it results in harassment, impoverishing the subjects. This can be evident through irregular commands of those that have the power. This according to John Locke can be termed as tyranny irrespective of whether it is an individual or whether it is a group of people.


Ashcraft, R. (1986): Revolutionary Politics and Locke’s -Two Treatises of Government- Princeton; Princeton University Press.

Bulliet et al, (2005) The Earth and Its Peoples a Global History Brief Third Edition.

Dunn, J. (1969): The Political Thought of John Locke; Cambridge; Cambridge University Press.

Laslett, P. (1988): Introduction- Two Treatises of Government; Cambridge; Cambridge University Press.

Strauss, L. (1953): Natural Right and History; Chicago; University of Chicago Press.

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