Locke’s real purpose in overturning Filmer is erecting an unassailable new political order not subject to rebellions and revolution from below.

Nicknamed the “Father of Liberalism,” Locke’s theories have formed the foundation of many important works, including the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution. His theories of social contract, the mind, and property are perhaps the most widely known.

Editor’s Note

Anthony Comegna, PhD

Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

As we near the end of Locke’s first treatise, fittingly enough, our author prepares his concluding shots at Sir Robert Filmer’s version of absolutism and patriarchal governance. Locke’s purpose throughout has been to undermine Filmer’s arguments by showing their logical inconsistencies, their uses and misuses of translated ancient languages, and the glaring contradictions between Filmer’s ideal system and the very murky, downright muddy and nasty reality of the world. Locke, of course, does not dispute the skeleton of Filmer’s biblical account of political power. For both men, it is right and true that God himself establishes all things, including the proper sources for human powers over one another. The task for political philosophers, then, was to delineate exactly who God had invested with power over whom.

In our current selection, Locke continues the debate over whether Adam and his heirs were in fact chosen to rule over the earth, or if God had instituted some other regime in Adam’s place. Our author finds that Filmer’s biblical argument was really nothing more than a convenient excuse to absolve all current monarchs of their evildoing and their tyranny. But this was not all—nor even was it the worst possible outcome of Filmerism for Locke. In fact, for our author the worst of all possible political outcomes was absolutism of the mob.

And funny Locke should say that!—he worried that Filmer’s claim that kings are the heirs to Adam could quite literally apply just as well to all other human beings on earth. After all, we are direct heirs to Adam, and there is no clear biblical evidence that particular people existing today maintain any better, clearer claims to that authority than anyone else. Under Filmerism, then, the floodgates were open!—there might be a series of civil wars every generation, to every age its own Cromwell, to all peoples there own Massaniellos, Rainsboroughs, Winstanleys, and Nathaniel Bacons. Under the absolutist doctrine, based on the immeasurable power and authority of God himself, every man might be a king in his own household and government might no longer exist. Delightful as this might sound to many of us, it was more than Locke could stomach. His job, then, was to sort out Filmer’s mistakes and reset the foundations for government. Locke, as it turns out, was not some sort of early libertarian who was always wanting to maximize human freedom—he was the philosopher of self‐​made statism, the champion of chains we supposedly fasten on ourselves. For the remainder of the first treatise, Locke concludes the case against Filmer by determining that there is no way to sort out the heirs of Adam, nor did God delegate absolute worldly authority to anyone in the way that Filmer describes. In our commentary, then, we will turn to the relative powers of each philosophy in the swirling currents of the still relatively new Atlantic world.

By John Locke
Thomas Hollis Edition. (London: A. Millar et. al.) 1764.

Two Treatises of Civil Government

Book I: Of Government

Chapter 10: Of the Heir to Adam’s Monarchical Power.

…Either governments in the world are not to be claimed, and held by this title of Adam’s heir; and then the starting of it is to no purpose, the being or not being Adam’s heir signifies nothing as to the title of dominion: or if it really be, as our author says, the true title to government and sovereignty, the first thing to be done, is to find out this true heir of Adam, seat him in his throne, and then all the kings and princes of the world ought to come and resign up their crowns and scepters to him, as things that belong no more to them, than to any of their subjects.

…If kings, who are not heirs to Adam, have no right to sovereignty, we are all free, till our author, or any body for him, will shew us Adam’s right heir. If there be but one heir of Adam, there can be but one lawful king in the world, and no body in conscience can be obliged to obedience till it be resolved who that is; for it may be any one, who is not known to be of a younger house, and all others have equal titles. If there be more than one heir of Adam, every one is his heir, and so every one has regal power: for if two sons can be heirs together, then all the sons are equally heirs, and so all are heirs, being all sons, or sons sons of Adam. Betwixt these two the right of heir cannot stand; for by it either but one only man, or all men are kings. Take which you please, it dissolves the bonds of government and obedience; since, if all men are heirs, they can owe obedience to no body; if only one, no body can be obliged to pay obedience to him, till he be known, and his title made out.

Chapter 11: Who HEIR?

THE great question which in all ages has disturbed mankind, and brought on them the greatest part of those mischiefs which have ruined cities, depopulated countries, and disordered the peace of the world, has been, not whether there be power in the world, nor whence it came, but who should have it. The settling of this point being of no smaller moment than the security of princes, and the peace and welfare of their estates and kingdoms, a reformer of politics, one would think, should lay this sure, and be very clear in it: for if this remain disputable, all the rest will be to very little purpose; and the skill used in dressing up power with all the splendor and temptation absoluteness can add to it, without shewing who has a right to have it, will serve only to give a greater edge to man’s natural ambition, which of its self is but too keen. What can this do but set men on the more eagerly to scramble, and so lay a sure and lasting foundation of endless contention and disorder, instead of that peace and tranquillity, which is the business of government, and the end of human society?

This designation of the person our author is more than ordinary obliged to take care of, because he, affirming that the assignment of civil power is by divine institution, hath made the conveyance as well as the power itself sacred: so that no consideration, no act or art of man, can divert it from that person, to whom, by this divine right, it is assigned; no necessity or contrivance can substitute another person in his room: for if the assignment of civil power be by divine institution, and Adam’s heir be he to whom it is thus assigned, as in the foregoing chapter our author tells us, it would be as much sacrilege for any one to be king, who was not Adam’s heir, as it would have been amongst the Jews, for any one to have been priest, who had not been of Aaron’s posterity…

Let us see then what care our author has taken, to make us know who is this heir, who by divine institution has a right to be king over all men. The first account of him we meet with is in these words: This subjection of children, being the fountain of all regal authority, by the ordination of God himself; it follows, that civil power, not only in general, is by divine institution, but even the assignment of it, specifically to the eldest parents. Matters of such consequence as this is, should be in plain words, as little liable, as might be, to doubt or equivocation; and I think, if language be capable of expressing any thing distinctly and clearly, that of kindred, and the several degrees of nearness of blood, is one. It were therefore to be wished, that our author had used a little more intelligible expressions here, that we might have better known, who it is, to whom the assignment of civil power is made by divine institution; or at least would have told us what he meant by eldest parents: for I believe, if land had been assigned or granted to him, and the eldest parents of his family, he would have thought it had needed an interpreter; and it would scarce have been known to whom next it belonged.

In propriety of speech, (and certainly propriety of speech is necessary in a discourse of this nature) eldest parents signifies either the eldest men and women that have had children, or those who have longest had issue; and then our author’s assertion will be, that those fathers and mothers, who have been longest in the world, or longest fruitful, have by divine institution a right to civil power. If there be any absurdity in this, our author must answer for it: and if his meaning be different from my explication, he is to be blamed, that he would not speak it plainly. This I am sure, parents cannot signify heirs male, nor eldest parents an infant child: who yet may sometimes be the true heir, if there can be but one. And we are hereby still as much at a loss, who civil power belongs to, notwithstanding this assignment by divine institution, as if there had been no such assignment at all, or our author had said nothing of it….

This obscurity cannot be imputed to want of language in so great a master of style as Sir Robert is, when he is resolved with himself what he would say: and therefore, I fear, finding how hard it would be to settle rules of descent by divine institution, and how little it would be to his purpose, or conduce to the clearing and establishing the titles of princes, if such rules of descent were settled, he chose rather to content himself with doubtful and general terms, which might make no ill found in mens ears, who were willing to be pleased with them, rather than offer any clear rules of descent of this fatherhood of Adam, by which men’s consciences might be satisfied to whom it descended, and know the persons who had a right to regal power, and with it to their obedience.

How else is it possible, that laying so much stress, as he does, upon descent, and Adam’s heir, next heir, true heir, he should never tell us what heir means, nor the way to know who the next or true heir is? This, I do not remember, he does any where expresly handle; but, where it comes in his way, very warily and doubtfully touches; though it be so necessary, that without it all discourses of government and obedience upon his principles would be to no purpose, and fatherly power, never so well made out, will be of no use to any body. Hence he tells us, That not only the constitution of power in general, but the limitation of it to one kind, (i.e.) monarchy, and the determination of it to the individual person and line of Adam, are all three ordinances of God; neither Eve nor her children could either limit Adam’s power, or join others with him; and what was given unto Adam was given in his person to his posterity. Here again our author informs us, that the divine ordinance hath limited the descent of Adam’s monarchical power. To whom? To Adam’s line and posterity, says our author. A notable limitation,limitation to all mankind: for if our author can find any one amongst mankind, that is not of the line and posterity of Adam, he may perhaps tell him, who this next heir of Adam is: but for us, I despair how this limitation of Adam’s empire to his line and posterity will help us to find out one heir. This limitation indeed of our author will save those the labour, who would look for him amongst the race of brutes, if any such there were; but will very little contribute to the discovery of one next heir amongst men, though it make a short and easy determination of the question about the descent of Adam’s regal power, by telling us, that the line and posterity of Adam is to have it, that is, in plain English, any one may have it, since there is no person living that hath not the title of being of the line and posterity of Adam; and while it keeps there, it keeps within our author’s limitation by God’s ordinance….That primogeniture cannot give any title to paternal power, we have already shewed. That a father may have a natural right to some kind of power over his children, is easily granted; but that an elder brother has so over his brethren, remains to be proved: God or nature has not any where, that I know, placed such jurisdiction in the first‐​born; nor can reason find any such natural superiority amongst brethren. The law of Moses gave a double portion of the goods and possessions to the eldest; but we find not any where that naturally, or by God’s institution, superiority or dominion belonged to him, and the instances there brought by our author are but slender proofs of a right to civil power and dominion in the first‐​born, and do rather shew the contrary.

His words are in the fore‐​cited place: And therefore we find God told Cain of his brother Abel; his desire shall be subject unto thee, and thou shalt rule over him. To which I answer,

  1. These words of God to Cain, are by many interpreters, with great reason, understood in a quite different sense than what our author uses them in.
  2. Whatever was meant by them, it could not be, that Cain, as elder, had a natural dominion over Abel; for the words are conditional, If thou dost well; and so personal to Cain: and whatever was signified by them, did depend on his carriage, and not follow his birth‐​right….
  3. If this were intended by God as the charter of primogeniture, and the grant of dominion to elder brothers in general as such, by right of inheritance, we might expect it should have included all his brethren: for we may well suppose, Adam, from whom the world was to be peopled, had by this time, that these were grown up to be men, more sons than these two: whereas Abel himself is not so much as named; and the words in the original can scarce, with any good construction, be applied to him.
  4. It is too much to build a doctrine of so mighty consequence upon so doubtful and obscure a place of scripture, which may be well, nay better, understood in a quite different sense, and so can be but an ill proof, being as doubtful as the thing to be proved by it; especially when there is nothing else in scripture or reason to be found, that favours or supports it….

And thus we have our author’s two great and only arguments to prove, that heirs are lords over their brethren.

  1. Because God tells Cain, that however sin might set upon him, he ought or might be master of it: for the most learned interpreters understood the words of sin, and not of Abel, and give so strong reasons for it, that nothing can convincingly be inferred, from so doubtful a text, to our author’s purpose.
  2. Because in this Isaac foretels that the Israelites, the posterity of Jacob, should have dominion over the Edomites, the posterity of Esau; therefore says our author, heirs are lords of their brethren: I leave any one to judge of the conclusion.

And now we see how our author has provided for the descending, and conveyance down of Adam’s monarchical power, or paternal dominion to posterity, by the inheritance of his heir, succeeding to all his father’s authority, and becoming upon his death as much lord as his father was, not only over his own children, but over his brethren, and all descended from his father, and so in infinitum. But yet who this heir is, he does not once tell us….But taking it to be his meaning, that the eldest son is heir, (for if the eldest be not, there will be no pretence why the sons should not be all heirs alike) and so by right of primogeniture has dominion over his brethren; this is but one step towards the settlement of succession, and the difficulties remain still as much as ever, till he can shew us who is meant by right heir, in all those cases which may happen where the present possessor hath no son. This he silently passes over, and perhaps wisely too: for what can be wiser, after one has affirmed, that the person having that power, as well as the power and form of government, is the ordinance of God, and by divine institution, than to be careful, not to start any question concerning the person, the resolution whereof will certainly lead him into a confession, that God and nature hath determined nothing about him? And if our author cannot shew who by right of nature, or a clear positive law of God, has the next right to inherit the dominion of this natural monarch he has been at such pains about, when he died without a son, he might have spared his pains in all the rest….it being to no purpose for me to know there is such a paternal power, which I ought, and am disposed to obey, unless, where there are many pretenders, I also know the person that is rightfully invested and endowed with it.

For the main matter in question being concerning the duty of my obedience, and the obligation of conscience I am under to pay it to him that is of right my lord and ruler, I must know the person that this right of paternal power resides in, and so impowers him to claim obedience from me: for let it be true what he says, That civil power not only in general is by divine institution, but even the assignment of it specially to the eldest parents; and That not only the power or right of government, but the form of the power of governing, and the person having that power, are all the ordinance of God; yet unless he shew us in all cases who is this person, ordained by God, who is this eldest parent; all his abstract notions of monarchical power will signify just nothing, when they are to be reduced to practice, and men are conscientiously to pay their obedience….

And hence not being able to make out any prince’s title to government, as heir to Adam, which therefore is of no use, and had been better let alone, he is fain to resolve all into present possession, and makes civil obedience as due to an usurper, as to a lawful king; and thereby the usurper’s title as good. His words are, and they deserve to be remembered: If an usurper dispossess the true heir, the subjects obedience to the fatherly power must go along, and wait upon God’s providence. But I shall leave his title of usurpers to be examined in its due place, and desire my sober reader to consider what thanks princes owe such politics as this, which can suppose paternal power (i. e.) a right to government in the hands of a Cade, or a Cromwell; and so all obedience being due to paternal power, the obedience of subjects will be due to them, by the same right, and upon as good grounds, as it is to lawful princes; and yet this, as dangerous a doctrine as it is, must necessarily follow from making all political power to be nothing else, but Adam’s paternal power by right and divine institution, descending from him without being able to shew to whom it descended, or who is heir to it.

To settle government in the world, and to lay obligations to obedience on any man’s conscience, it is as necessary (supposing with our author that all power be nothing but the being possessed of Adam’s fatherhood) to satisfy him, who has a right to this power, this fatherhood, when the possessor dies without sons to succeed immediately to it, as it was to tell him, that upon the death of the father, the eldest son had a right to it: for it is still to be remembered, that the great question is, (and that which our author would be thought to contend for, if he did not sometimes forget it) what persons have a right to be obeyed, and not whether there be a power in the world, which is to be called paternal, without knowing in whom it resides: for so it be a power, i. e. right to govern, it matters not, whether it be termed paternal or regal, natural or acquired; whether you call it supreme fatherhood, or supreme brotherhood, will be all one, provided we know who has it.

I go on then to ask, whether in the inheriting of this paternal power, this supreme fatherhood, the grandson by a daughter hath a right before a nephew by a brother? Whether the grandson by the eldest son, being an infant, before the younger son, a man and able? Whether the daughter before the uncle? or any other man, descended by a male line? Whether a grandson by a younger daughter, before a grand‐​daughter by an elder daughter? Whether the elder son by a concubine, before a younger son by a wife? From whence also will arise many questions of legitimation, and what in nature is the difference betwixt a wife and a concubine? for as to the municipal or positive laws of men, they can signify nothing here. It may farther be asked, Whether the eldest son, being a fool, shall inherit this paternal power, before the younger, a wise man? and what degree of folly it must be that shall exclude him? and who shall be judge of it? Whether the son of a fool, excluded for his folly, before the son of his wise brother who reigned? Who has the paternal power whilst the widow‐​queen is with child by the deceased king, and no body knows whether it will be a son or a daughter? Which shall be heir of the two male‐​twins, who by the dissection of the mother were laid open to the world? Whether a sister by the half blood, before a brother’s daughter by the whole blood?

These, and many more such doubts, might be proposed about the titles of succession, and the right of inheritance; and that not as idle speculations, but such as in history we shall find have concerned the inheritance of crowns and kingdoms; and if our’s want them, we need not go farther for famous examples of it, than the other kingdom in this very island, which having been fully related by the ingenious and learned author of Patriarcha non Monarcha, I need say no more of. Till our author hath resolved all the doubts that may arise about the next heir, and shewed that they are plainly determined by the law of nature, or the revealed law of God, all his suppositions of a monarchical, absolute, supreme, paternal power in Adam, and the descent of that power to his heirs, would not be of the least use to establish the authority, or make out the title, of any one prince now on earth; but would rather unsettle and bring all into question: for let our author tell us as long as he pleases, and let all men believe it too, that Adam had a paternal, and thereby a monarchical power; that this (the only power in the world) descended to his heirs; and that there is no other power in the world but this: let this be all as clear demonstration, as it is manifest error, yet if it be not past doubt, to whom this paternal power descends, and whose now it is, no body can be under any obligation of obedience, unless any one will say, that I am bound to pay obedience to paternal power in a man who has no more paternal power than I myself; which is all one as to say, I obey a man, because he has a right to govern; and if I be asked, how I know he has a right to govern, I should answer, it cannot be known, that he has any at all: for that cannot be the reason of my obedience, which I know not to be so; much less can that be a reason of my obedience, which no body at all can know to be so.

And therefore all this ado about Adam’s fatherhood, the greatness of its power, and the necessity of its supposal, helps nothing to establish the power of those that govern, or to determine the obedience of subjects who are to obey, if they cannot tell whom they are to obey, or it cannot be known who are to govern, and who to obey. In the state the world is now, it is irrecoverably ignorant, who is Adam’s heir….

It is true, the civil lawyers have pretended to determine some of these cases concerning the succession of princes; but by our author’s principles, they have meddled in a matter that belongs not to them: for if all political power be derived only from Adam, and be to descend only to his successive heirs, by the ordinance of God and divine institution, this is a right antecedent and paramount to all government; and therefore the positive laws of men cannot determine that, which is itself the foundation of all law and government, and is to receive its rule only from the law of God and nature. And that being silent in the case, I am apt to think there is no such right to be conveyed this way: I am sure it would be to no purpose if there were, and men would be more at a loss concerning government, and obedience to governors, than if there were no such right; since by positive laws and compact, which divine institution (if there be any) shuts out, all these endless inextricable doubts can be safely provided against: but it can never be understood, how a divine natural right, and that of such moment as is all order and peace in the world, should be conveyed down to posterity, without any plain natural or divine rule concerning it. And there would be an end of all civil government, if the assignment of civil power were by divine institution to the heir, and yet by that divine institution the person of the heir could not be known. This paternal regal power being by divine right only his, it leaves no room for human prudence, or consent, to place it any where else; for if only one man hath a divine right to the obedience of mankind, no body can claim that obedience, but he that can shew that right; nor can men’s consciences by any other pretence be obliged to it. And thus this doctrine cuts up all government by the roots….