Locke wanted to prove that the world is not a mere amalgam of violence and arbitrary authority and that there is something that separates a legitimate from an illegitimate government.

An Introduction to Locke's Two Treatises
Paul Meany
Intellectual History Editor

Paul Meany is the Editor for Intellectual History at Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org, a project of the Cato Institute. Most of his work focuses on examining thinkers who predate classical liberalism but still articulate broadly liberal attitudes and principles. He is the host of Portraits of Liberty, a podcast about uncovering and exploring underrated figures throughout history who have argued for a freer world. His writing covers a broad range of topics, including proto‐​feminist writers, Classical Greece and Rome’s influence on the American Founding, ancient Chinese Philosophy, tyrannicide, and the first argument for basic income.

It is impossible to write a history of political thought without dedicating a chapter to John Locke. Today, Locke is often referred to as one of the founding figures of modern liberalism. His most famous political work, Two Treatises on Government, is the most prominent work on natural law theory in the Western world.


Locke was born in England in 1632 in Wrington, Somerset and was later raised in a small village called Pensford. His father was a legal clerk for a landed gentleman named Alexander Popham who would later fund Locke’s studies in college. Locke was by no means a gentleman or aristocrat from birth; his relatives were tanners and brewers. Thanks to his father’s aforementioned connections to Popham, Locke was able to attend one of England’s finest schools, Westminster. The curriculum was a balance between ancient pagan writings, religious scripture, and the writings of the church fathers. He would continue his studies at Oxford where he was not particularly enamoured with the medieval scholastic curriculum. But his readings of Rene Descartes inspired him to delve into natural philosophy, or what we today would call science.

Locke lived in an era of great upheaval and change. As a boy, Locke witnessed two civil wars and the execution of a monarch. During his adulthood, he would yet again see another monarch deposed. The intellectual life of England was also in tumult; Locke was exposed to the burgeoning revolution in the sciences as well as the establishment of colonies in America, which provided a blank canvas for political theorists.


During the 17th‐​century, European monarchies were centralizing power and justifying doing so by espousing a new ideology of absolutism. While there is a great deal of variety among absolutist thinkers, many focused upon two principles: firstly, that the monarch is divinely ordained and granted supreme authority and power by God, and, secondly, that the monarch cannot be legitimately deposed or resisted by his subjects. Kings were appointed by God, their power was not up for either dispute or debate, the only political responsibility of a citizen or more aptly, a subject, was to hold their silence and obey whatever commands the king issued from his lofty throne.

Absolutists may sound like cartoon villains to modern readers, but they were far from a joke in their own time. In England, King James wrote a treatise for his son on how to justly rule as a monarch in which he wrote that the king is “the absolute master of the lives and possessions of his subjects; his acts are not open to inquiry or dispute, and no misdeeds can ever justify resistance.” Across the channel, Louis XIV of France ‚who reigned for 72 years and famously dubbed himself the Sun King, was a die‐​hard adherent to the divine right of kings.

There is a great deal of scholarly debate over why Locke wrote the Two Treatises, but many of these ambiguities arise from us now knowing exactly when he had completed his work. In the most general sense, it is likely Locke’s primary aim was to debunk the divine right of kings and the doctrine of unlimited subjection, a belief he had previously held before but had since rebuked. Famously Locke would then go on in his second treatise to replace the absolutist account of the origins of the state with a new idea legitimating political authority based upon natural law and the consent of the governed.

The most comprehensive theorist of absolutism was the English Royalist, Sir Robert Filmer, who wrote Patriarcha and which was posthumously published in 1680. As the most complete expression of absolutism, Filmer provided the perfect target for Locke, who dedicated his first treatise to tearing down Filmer’s argument and the second to make a positive case for his own theory of politics.

First Treatise

Generally, people tend to focus on Locke’s second treatise more than the first due to the obscure arguments and antiquated nature of Filmer’s writings. However, it is never harmful to see an authoritarian debunked so comprehensively, so even today there is still value in discussing Locke’s arguments against Filmer.

In Filmer’s eyes, all authority between people is grounded in patriarchy, i.e. bears the resemblance of the authority of a father over his family. According to Filmer, the whole earth was given to Adam, the first man. All political authority and ownership is a consequence of God bequeathing the earth to Adam. Adam subdivided his authority among his descendants resulting in a multiplicity of kingdoms, all of which are an expression of God’s will. If you are one of the chosen few, the descendants of Adam, then you have absolute power over your subjects, whose only job is to passively obey. God the Father, reigning in heaven, mirrored the paternalistic authority exercised by earthly kings and princes over their flock of subjects. Since all authority is derived from God, any sort of rebellion against royal authority is an attack upon God’s will. Thus, revolution or rebellion is never justified in Filmer’s theory.

Locke points out that the book of Genesis never actually states that God gave the world to Adam and furthermore he is never referred to as a king. Even worse for Filmer, Genesis never mentions any kingly authority derived from the lineage of Adam. Locke charitably argues that even if Adam was a king and his sons inherited his kingly authority, what does that have to do with kings in the contemporary world? The genealogical line of Adam is hopelessly lost to history and, to update Locke’s argument, ‘23 and Me’ didn’t exist in the 17th century to rectify the conundrum. Locke concludes that even being charitable to Filmer, the genealogical ties of Adam are not an effective method of establishing political authority.

State of Nature

After soundly refuting Filmer’s arguments, Locke begins to provide his own account of the origin of government. Locke believed that this was essential because men like Filmer promote the “dangerous belief that all government in the world is merely the product of force and violence.” Locke wanted to prove that the world is not a mere amalgam of violence and arbitrary authority and that there is something that separates a legitimate from an illegitimate government. To uncover this, Locke theorized how society would have looked before any political authority was established, when it existed in a state of nature. By analyzing how a political society first came into being, Locke believed that he could uncover how the state was founded and determine the functions of a legitimate state.

Locke was not original in this regard as previous thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes had also used the state of nature as a conceptual device. But Hobbes’ and Locke’s conclusions were radically different. Hobbes believed that without some form of sovereign authority, men in the state of nature would constant fear the schemes of others resulting in their lives being “nasty, brutish, and short.” Without that authority, mankind would degenerate into “the war of all against all.” Put simply, without the state there was little to no hope for a dignified life.

Locke firmly rejected this idea of perpetual war. Even if we lacked a framework of institutions to direct political power, Locke firmly believes that we would still be able to live in harmony due to principles of natural law which were bestowed upon us all by God. For Locke, the state of nature “though this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of licence.” All people are “all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker” who has bestowed every person with similar faculties. Because of this equality “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.” In other words, our lives cannot be dictated by the whim of another; and no one is born to a status above or below the rest. This natural law is innate to the minds and hearts of all people and it 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.”

The state of nature is by no means perfect; people will transgress upon one another’s rights, resulting in conflict. In the state of nature, if one’s rights are violated it is perfectly permissible to use violence in self‐​defence, as Locke states (in quotation of the Christian Bible), “Who so sheddeth Mans Blood, by Man shall his Blood be shed.” In the state of nature, we are all our own judge, jury, and executioner; we all have the right to enact the law of nature by punishing others when they infringe upon our rights. But by and large, Locke believed that the inhabitants of the state of nature would be mostly peaceful and cooperative as they followed the guide of natural law, which “willeth the Peace and Preservation of all Mankind.” Furthermore, Locke believed that in the state of nature we would even respect each other’s private property.


How did Locke believe private property existed before a state existed that could enforce property rights? This had been a problem that political thinkers had wrestled with for quite some time. Absolutists like Filmer argued that property could only ever exist under a state, therefore the monarch or sovereign could do as they pleased with the property of others as it only existed thanks to their grace.

Unlike Filmer, Locke believed that God had given the earth to all of humanity. This leads to a paradoxical question: if everyone owns everything how does anyone own anything? Locke wanted to stress that people could own things privately without the universal consent of everyone. Instead, he believed “every Man has a Property in his own Person” which “no Body has any Right to but himself.” Every person owns their own body and therefore every person owns their own labour, which is the natural result of using your body productively. When a person mixes their labour with the land by tilling, fencing off ploughing or by generally improving the land, they appropriate what was once the common stock of nature for themselves. Locke believed that without labour most of the products of human life would not exist “for ‘tis Labour indeed that puts the difference of value on every thing.” Looking towards America and the native tribes, Locke argued that the day‐​labourer in England is better off than a native tribe leader because of private property and the exponential value labour adds to nature’s bounty. But Locke puts some limits on the appropriation of property since we must leave enough for others to appropriate in the future and we should avoid hoarding goods that will spoil. These natural limitations on property ownership are sidestepped by the invention of money.


But by Locke’s day, most land had been claimed and there was no limitation on how much land a person could own. Gentlemanly lords owned vast estates and were supported by small armies of landless tenants. How could Locke possibly justify the current state of affairs considering it violates both of Locke’s own limitations upon property ownership? For Locke the answer is money. The two limitations on property are that there is enough for others to appropriate, at a later time, and that what you take does not spoil due to hoarding. These are both avoided when people collectively use money and decide that shiny metals will be a form of exchange. Locke argues that people have tacitly consented to the use of money and could hypothetically stop at any time but that they will not because it benefits them greatly. By using money, “men have agreed to disproportionate and unequal Possession of the Earth.”

Locke’s theory of property is a mixture of different ways of thinking about property combined into one, making it hard to fully define Locke. In some regards, Locke’s theories are custodial and environmentally oriented, while on the other they have utilitarian and capitalistic tendencies with all being pinned to a doctrine of natural law.

Legitimate Authority

The state of nature sounds pretty great, for guided by natural law we would all live in relative harmony. Then why even create a state? Firstly, we are naturally biased towards ourselves and our own affairs. And although in the state of nature each person has the right to punish those who infringe upon their rights or property, some might vigorously punish people for minor transgressions and, without any standing rule, punishments would greatly range in severity. As commerce and property ownership expanded with the introduction of money, disputes began to intensify. What was once a simple society of farmers and hunters, had now become a complex web of economic relations filled with conflicts that need to be settled. Thus, we needed the state as a third party to help us adjudicate our conflicts and standardise laws. Secondly, without the state to protect our property, we would be “uncertain, and constantly exposed to the Invasion of others.” By establishing a state we can better protect our property because for Locke, “The great and chief end therefore, of Mens uniting into Commonwealths, and putting themselves under Government, is the Preservation of their Property.” 

Because of these issues, people in the state of nature would come together and, through consent, would first form a political society. After this proto‐​political society is established, the body politic would then deliberate and erect a particular kind of government, whether that be a republic, monarchy, or democracy. Consent forms the basis of all legitimate government because, for Locke, men in the state of nature are “all free, equal and independent” and no one can be “subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent.”

Legitimate Ends of Government

Thinkers such as Hobbes believed that when men entered civil society they relinquished their natural rights entirely and instead relied upon the positively enacted human law of their new sovereign. Locke, on the other hand, believed that only one right was relinquished, the right to enact the law of nature which was now replaced with a system of law.

The Lockean account of human nature depicts humans as natural bargainers who are always attempting to maximize their own situation. By this logic, no one would ever voluntarily enter civil society if it did not benefit them. Therefore “for no rational creature can be supposed to change his condition with an intention to be worse.” Natural law provides the yardstick with which we measure the effectiveness of government; if our life, liberty, and property remain unmolested, then the state is pursuing its legitimate ends. The law is not in conflict with freedom because, in fact, Locke believed that the “end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom.”

Essential for Locke is that whatever government the people may choose to establish, all people are bound by the laws it promulgates; whether you are a peasant, a noble, or a king, the law binds all equally. If people in power exempt themselves from obeying laws, they will begin to act only for their own private advantage as opposed to acting for the common good, which is the only legitimate goal of political authority. Universality is always to be upheld, and particularity always to be shunned. For Locke, “Wherever Law ends, Tyranny begins.” Locke is a strict constitutionalist in this regard, expecting well‐​established rules to govern the governors as well as the governed.

Right to Revolution

If a person in power acts by his own private will he ought to be demoted to a private person whom no one has any obligation to obey. Locke saw government as fundamentally a relationship between people and the trust they share with one another. All people are born equal and no one is innately fit to rule over another. Legitimate power can only be established by consent as trust is placed in those in positions of authority to use their power to pursue the common good. Tyranny is a complete subversion of this trust.

Locke identifies two marks of tyranny. Firstly, it is when rulers substitute the law with their own personal advancement and betray the trust of the commonwealth. In Locke’s eyes a public person “has no will, no power, but that of the law” and they cannot utilize the laws to achieve their own ambitions, ends, and schemes, nor do so without surrendering the political authority vested in them for the common good. Locke’s second version of tyranny consists of rulers exercising what he calls “Power beyond Right” or “the use of force without Authority.” God created all people as owners of their own person, therefore there are always limits on what can be done to other people who have not violated the laws of nature.

In these two scenarios, tyrants exercise their political power against the wishes of the people who gave it to them in the first place. Tyrants break the bonds of trust that underlie a political community. Locke argues that anyone who betrays the trust of the people violates natural law and brings themselves into a state of war with the people. The rulers are the ones guilty of rebellion, not the people, as the rulers are the ones who have reneged on their end of the deal. Remember that upon entering civil society people relinquish their right to enact the law of nature; but when civil society breaks down, due to tyranny, the people regain this right and are justified in overthrowing their rulers, either replacing them or establishing a wholly new state which they believe will better secure their rights.

Locke does not believe that just any minor infraction can justify revolution. He argues that revolution is an arduous affair that requires a degree of sacrifice and dedication. This means that “such revolutions happen not upon every little mismanagement in public affairs” but when people observe “a long train of abuses, prevarications and artifices, all tending the same way.”

The Way Locke Thinks

Locke’s Two Treatises On Government articulate three principles of how we should think about the state. Firstly, we should not be overly grateful for the state. Locke shows us that we can live without a state. It may be at times an inconvenient life, but it is nonetheless one in which our rights are broadly respected. The state of nature is not to be simply replaced with a state, but only by one which is legitimated through consent and limited government. If given the choice between brutal authoritarianism and the state of nature, Locke urges us to pick the latter. Secondly, states are artificial, by which he means that they are invented by people; and like all things that are invented, they can be tinkered with, changed, or even scrapped altogether if the situation demands it. Finally, there is always a standard against which to measure the state’s performance. If we enjoy our natural rights more securely in the state of nature than in the state we live under, then we know something must change.

His Influence

Locke was by no means perfect as either a philosopher or a person. His philosophy has many unresolved tensions and issues. For example, the 20th‐​century philosopher has Robert Nozick challenged Locke’s theory of property with this thought experiment: would pouring a can of tomato juice into the ocean make the sea a person’s private property? Of course not, but under Locke’s conception of property it would. As a person, Locke invested in and benefitted from slavery, despite writing about the abhorrence of slavery in his own writings. It is important not to idealize Locke as a messiah of liberalism when he personally benefited from very illiberal practices. Regardless of these tensions, Locke’s writings are fundamental to the development of liberalism, so much so that Locke is commonly referred to as the Father of Liberalism.

In Locke’s own time, Two Treatises was not a widely debated and discussed text. However, by the 18th century, Locke’s political philosophy was brought to bear on wide variety of debates such as the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, and, most prominently, in the revolutions in both America and France. America’s imagination was especially captivated by Locke’s political thinking. Famously Thomas Jefferson referred to Locke’s work as part of “the elementary books of public right.” Locke’s right of revolution became a cornerstone of American Revolutionary thought. Revolutionaries such as Samuel Adams, James Otis and Jefferson liberally quoted Locke, who they believed to be a genius of political philosophy. A 1773 advertisement in the Boston Gazette for the first American edition of Locke’s Two Treatises encapsulates the enthusiasm Americans had for Locke’s political thought. The advertisement ends with the following quotation: “This essay alone, well studied and attended to, will give every intelligent Reader a better View of the Rights of Men.”

Locke’s project remains incomplete and his writings are still hotly debated and appropriated by thinkers across the political spectrum. The famous analytic liberal and libertarian philosophers John Rawls and Robert Nozick both acknowledge a debt to Locke’s work, Rawls admiring his theory of the social contract and Nozick using his framework of natural rights.

From a historical point of view, Locke represents a massive shift in how politics was conceptualized. While he was by no means the first to articulate the role of consent in establishing political authority, the legitimate ends of the state and the right to revolution. However, he was by far one of the most cited thinkers in the American Revolution; he was also often cited by the French revolutionaries. John Locke’s theory of natural rights is a founding document for natural rights‐​based libertarianism. For both libertarians and non‐​libertarians Locke is still to this day a worthy read.