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The Founders Club

Tracing the Philosophical Roots of the U.S. Constitution

John Locke's Second Treatise | Civil Society

You are in a state of nature but people keep killing your friends and family, stealing your freedoms, and stealing your property. They keep bringing a destructive state of war into your perfect state of nature! So how do we solve this problem? Today, we will see how Locke addresses this issue in his second treatise of government.

In our first article/video in this series, Locke knocked down the foundation for absolute monarchy which was the divine right of Kings. In our second article/video, Locke built a new foundation for government which was his idea of natural rights in a “State of Nature.” Remember, the State of Nature is “The state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions.” The problem is the State of Nature is unstable and it always leads to a State of War for one reason or another. Men always turn a “state of peace, good will, mutual assistance and preservation” into a “state of enmity, malice, violence and mutual destruction.” So how do we break this vicious cycle?

[Beginning Civil Society]

Locke’s answer in his second treatise of government is the concept of “Civil Society.” “GOD having made man such a creature, that in his own judgment, it was not good for him to be alone, put him under strong obligations of necessity, convenience, and inclination to drive him into society, as well as fitted him with understanding and language to continue and enjoy it.”

For Locke, the state of war is the opposite of God’s will for us, and so men voluntarily come together to create a social contract so as to obey God, protect their natural rights, and enact God’s plan to solve the problem of the state of war. This provides for us a legitimate form of government according to Locke. By forming this social contract, we leave the State of Nature, give up some of our natural rights to a representative authority for “new” Civil Rights, and thereby enter into a Civil Society. We are not giving up some of our natural rights for nothing. Civil Society provides 3 main benefits over the State of Nature. Civil Society provides 1. "An established, settled, known law" 2. "A known and indifferent judge" and 3. "Power to back and support a sentence." The basis of our Civil Society provides for judgment, whereby we exercise the authority normally reserved to God, but in the pious effort to fulfill His will for humanity.

For Locke, “Those who are united into one body, and have a common established law and judicature to appeal to, with authority to decide controversies between them, and punish offenders, are in civil society one with another.”

[Workings of Civil Society]

Now the people who are entering into Civil Society get to choose their form of government, so long as it fulfills those laws that God has provided. It is up to the majority to decide because this is just practical. They may choose a democracy, an oligarchy, or a monarchy. The majority always has the power to change the type of government in the Civil Society, in keeping with the providential order.

The power that the government exercises is political power. For Locke, Political power is the “RIGHT of making laws with penalties of death, and consequently all less penalties, for the regulating and preserving of property, and of employing the force of the community, in the execution of such laws, and in the defence of the commonwealth from foreign injury; and all this only for the public good.”

There are three kinds of political power that Locke focuses on in his second treatise. The legislative, executive, and the federative. The Legislative Power is “the power to make, alter, or repeal laws.” The form of government, whether a monarchy, an oligarchy, or a democracy, is always dependent on where the legislative power is placed. It can be in the hands of the many, the few, or an individual. This is the most important power for Locke. It must be dedicated to the preservation of society. Everyone must obey the laws created by the legislative power but there are strings attached. The legislative power must apply the laws equally to everyone, must be created for the good of the people, and they cannot levy taxes on property of the people without their consent.

Now the Executive Power is “Charged with the detail of carrying the laws into effect and securing their due observance.” This power enforces the laws domestically created by the legislative power but it may take certain actions that are not in the published law. This isn’t breaking them though. It’s just taking actions that are not explicitly prescribed by the law. The executive power has to have room to interpret the present circumstances.

Finally, there is the Federative Power which “deals with the community as a whole, in relation to beings outside the community.” It is “the power of war and peace, leagues and alliances, and all the transactions, with all persons and communities without the commonwealth” This power is essentially the power over foreign policy, and also perhaps immigration. Locke states that this power is typically found in the executive power but he makes it separate. This is so that the good of the society doesn’t get stuck in debate among the domestic powers and in a grid lock. One cannot hold the good of the commonwealth hostage to the interest of the other powers.

Locke doesn’t have a distinct judicial power in his government to weigh these laws or to reign in the power of government. He takes it for granted that judging is to be done in keeping with the law God has provided for human peace and prosperity, for the increase of the Kingdom of God, so to speak.

Even though these powers are delegated to the government, the supreme power over it all still rests with the people, at least in determining whether the social contract is being kept. The Civil State exists only to protect and preserve the welfare of the people. But what if the Civil State fails to do that?

[Ending Civil Society]

A Civil State may fail to do these things for a variety of reasons. When this happens, the state has created a state of war against its own people. This is Tyranny. Locke states that Tyranny is "The exercise of power to which nobody can have a right. That is what happens when someone employs the power he has in his hands, not for the good of those who are under it but for his own private individual advantage." When someone does this he “stops being an officer of the law; and because he acts without authority he may ·rightly· be opposed”

When a government becomes tyrannical and creates a state of war against its own people, the people are given the right to remove that government and establish a new one. For Locke however, “It is wrong to use force against anything except unjust and unlawful force; whoever opposes a government for any other reason draws on himself a just condemnation from both God and man.” It also should be noted that the posterity of the creators of a civil society does not get to throw off the bonds of government arbitrarily and create a new one. They are actually accepting the social contract by accepting the benefits of this Civil Society created by their ancestors. Once again there must be tyranny or unjust and unlawful force to justify revolution. Locke says that the people must make "that ultimate determination to themselves which belongs to all mankind . . . whether they have just cause to make their appeal to heaven."

Locke’s ideas changed the world. A government is now legitimate when it serves the good of its people, and judges rightly when it fulfills the order God provided. The government's role is to protect your rights and end the state of war, and when it fails to do this, it is no longer legitimate. Thomas Jefferson wrote that the King of England had come into a state of war with the people of the American colonies, who, as a result, were no longer His subjects. The Declaration may appeal to other nations, but it is also an appeal to heaven, or at least “nature and nature’s God.” These “bonds of affection” had to be dissolved because of the King’s tyrannical rule. But what do you guys think of Locke’s ideas? Do you think that Jefferson and the colonists rightly applied them? Let us know in the comments below.



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Locke, John. The & Second Treatise of Government: CreateSpace Independent Publishing

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“Patria Potestas | Roman Law.” n.d. Encyclopedia Britannica.

Uzgalis, William. John Locke: Metaphyis Research Lab, Stanford University, 2020.

Woolhouse, Roger. Locke: A Biography: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

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