Locke explores the nature of sovereignty as part of his attack on Filmer.

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

In the century after Locke published his Two Treatises, Filmerism lost the vast bulk of its appeal from all quarters. Yes, Cromwell’s Commonwealth was in most eyes a colossal and horrifying failure—but so was the monarchy. Yes, the Parliament humbled itself to the point of inviting a monarch back on the throne to reign over them once again—but especially after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, there was no question that Parliament actually ruled. And yes, 18th-century Britons kept their monarchy and no doubt many people genuinely loved their kings—but fewer and fewer of them actually believed royals were appointed by God or possessed with superior talents. From at least 1688 on, Britons the world over were keenly aware that they were now the ones who appointed their king, and the real contests for power were between the people and the Parliament, the tenants and the landlords, servants and their masters, freethinkers, dissenters, and the clerisy, etc., etc.

During the course of his second treatise, Locke will take his stand in each contest, trying to stake out a position that will dash the rights of monarchs while preserving the interests of landowners. He will side with rebels sometimes—under very limited circumstances—while he charts the way for popular participation and state protection for the powerless. He maintains the supreme political authority of God, but devolves that power down to the institutions we have supposedly made for ourselves, the states we have apparently erected out of Nature of our own volition. And Locke will side with the freethinking and dissenting minorities in the interest of de‐​politicizing the single issue which had brought England not merely to civil war, but the brink of national insanity. Never again, he might have said. As time went on, a growing number of propertied and politically interested Britons agreed with him.

In America, the shift from Filmer to Locke was even more severe, much faster, and touching down to the core of their souls. As we will see in the second treatise, Locke’s ideas themselves came out of America, and it was there they reached their highest degree of significance and impact. We will see that Locke bases his own theories of political authority on the emergence of societies in America. There, the people were given a chance to create government for themselves, village by village, literally plowing it out of the dirt as they farmed.

For Locke and practically every generation of Americans after him, the colonists were entirely side‐​stepping the feudal trap that had mired Europeans in the Dark Ages until his own modern day: Land was abundant and landlords very few, the gradations between classes practically faded away to nothingness on the vast frontier. But as many readers are no doubt thinking to themselves at this very moment, Locke’s vision of colonial politics in almost no way resembled the truth. Yes, his view has become perhaps the greatest of all American historical myths and we are still busy convincing our schoolchildren that the United States was somehow “conceived in liberty;” but we know better. As we will see, the early colonies were much closer to open‐​air prisons than proper societies. And once the wardens were armed with Locke’s logic and mythos for a few hundred years, they managed finally to convince the bulk of the public that they actually did agree to some kind of social contract. In mass, during the years between the Revolution and the Civil War, Americans accepted the tenets of Lockean political philosophy so thoroughly that our truly non‐​Lockean philosophers have stood out like the sorest of thumbs.

Yet the Americas were a haven for outcasts of all sorts, even displaced or out‐​of‐​time royalists whose preferred version of Early Modernity was periodically ripped from them during contests with the Parliament. England had her holdout Filmerites (most notably Thomas Carlyle), but in America—where Locke triumphed so fully—Filmer also found his greatest, most zealous, and self‐​described progressive allies.

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

Two Treatises of Civil Government

Book I: Of Government

Chapter 11: Who HEIR?

Our author, to make good the title of his book, begins his history of the descent of Adam’s regal power in these words: This lordship which Adam by command had over the whole world, and by right descending from him, the patriarchs did enjoy, was a large, &c. How does he prove that the patriarchs by descent did enjoy it? for dominion of life and death, says he, we find Judah the father pronounced sentence of death against Thamar his daughter in law for playing the harlot. How does this prove that Judah had absolute and sovereign authority? he pronounced sentence of death. The pronouncing of sentence of death is not a certain mark of sovereignty, but usually the office of inferior magistrates. The power of making laws of life and death is indeed a mark of sovereignty, but pronouncing the sentence according to those laws may be done by others, and therefore this will but ill prove that he had sovereign authority: as if one should say, Judge Jefferies pronounced sentence of death in the late times, therefore Judge Jefferies had sovereign authority. But it will be said, Judah did it not by commission from another, and therefore did it in his own right. Who knows whether he had any right at all? Heat of passion might carry him to do that which he had no authority to do. Judah had dominion of life and death: how does that appear? He exercised it, he pronounced sentence of death against Thamar: our author thinks it is very good proof, that because he did it, therefore he had a right to do it: he lay with her also: by the same way of proof, he had a right to do that too. If the consequence be good from doing to a right of doing, Absalom too may be reckoned amongst our author’s sovereigns, for he pronounced such a sentence of death against his brother Amnon, and much upon a like occasion, and had it executed too, if that be sufficient to prove a dominion of life and death.

But allowing this all to be clear demonstration of sovereign power, who was it that had this lordship by right descending to him from Adam, as large and ample as the absolutest dominion of any monarch? Judah, says our author, Judah a younger son of Jacob, his father and elder brethren living; so that if our author’s own proof be to be taken, a younger brother may, in the life of his father and elder brothers, by right of descent, enjoy Adam’s monarchical power; and if one so qualified may be monarch by descent, why may not every man? if Judah, his father and elder brother living, were one of Adam’s heirs, I know not who can be excluded from this inheritance; all men by inheritance may be monarchs as well as Judah.

Touching war, we see that Abraham commanded an army of 318 soldiers of his own family, and Esau met his brother Jacob with 400 men at arms: for matter of peace, Abraham made a league with Abimelech, &c. Is it not possible for a man to have 318 men in his family, without being heir to Adam? A planter in the West Indies has more, and might, if he pleased, (who doubts?) muster them up and lead them out against the Indians, to seek reparation upon any injury received from them; and all this without the absolute dominion of a monarch, descending to him from Adam. Would it not be an admirable argument to prove, that all power by God’s institution descended from Adam by inheritance, and that the very person and power of this planter were the ordinance of God, because he had power in his family over servants, born in his house, and bought with his money? For this was just Abraham’s case; those who were rich in the patriarch’s days, as in the West Indies now, bought men and maid servants, and by their increase, as well as purchasing of new, came to have large and numerous families, which though they made use of in war or peace, can it be thought the power they had over them was an inheritance descended from Adam, when it was the purchase of their money? A man’s riding in an expedition against an enemy, his horse bought in a fair would be as good a proof that the owner enjoyed the lordship which Adam by command had over the whole world, by right descending to him, as Abraham’s leading out the servants of his family is, that the patriarchs enjoyed this lordship by descent from Adam: since the title to the power, the master had in both cases, whether over slaves or horses, was only from his purchase; and the getting a dominion over any thing by bargain and money, is a new way of proving one had it by descent and inheritance.

But making war and peace are marks of sovereignty. Let it be so in politic societies: may not therefore a man in the West Indies, who hath with him sons of his own, friends, or companions, soldiers under pay, or slaves bought with money, or perhaps a band made up of all these, make war and peace, if there should be occasion, and ratify the articles too with an oath, without being a sovereign, an absolute king over those who went with him? He that says he cannot, must then allow many masters of ships, many private planters, to be absolute monarchs, for as much as this they have done. War and peace cannot be made for politic societies, but by the supreme power of such societies; because war and peace, giving a different motion to the force of such a politic body, none can make war or peace, but that which has the direction of the force of the whole body, and that in politic societies is only the supreme power. In voluntary societies for the time, he that has such a power by consent, may make war and peace, and so may a single man for himself, the state of war not consisting in the number of partisans, but the enmity of the parties, where they have no superior to appeal to.

The actual making of war or peace is no proof of any other power, but only of disposing those to exercise or cease acts of enmity for whom he makes it; and this power in many cases any one may have without any politic supremacy: and therefore the making of war or peace will not prove that every one that does so is a politic ruler, much less a king; for then common‐​wealths must be kings too, for they do as certainly make war and peace as monarchical government.

But granting this a mark of sovereignty in Abraham, is it a proof of the descent to him of Adam’s sovereignty over the whole world? If it be, it will surely be as good a proof of the descent of Adam’s lordship to others too. And then common‐​wealths, as well as Abraham, will be heirs of Adam, for they make war and peace, as well as he. If you say, that the lordship of Adam doth not by right descend to common‐​wealths, though they make war and peace, the same say I of Abraham, and then there is an end of your argument: if you stand to your argument, and say those that do make war and peace, as common‐​wealths do without doubt, do inherit Adam’s lordship, there is an end of your monarchy, unless you will say, that commonwealths by descent enjoying Adam’s lordship are monarchies; and that indeed would be a new way of making all the governments in the world monarchical.

To give our author the honour of this new invention, for I confess it is not I have first found it out by tracing his principles, and so charged it on him, it is fit my readers know that (as absurd as it may seem) he teaches it himself….The governments of the world are as they should be, there is nothing but monarchy in it. This, without doubt, was the surest way our author could have found, to turn all other governments, but monarchical, out of the world.

But all this scarce proves Abraham to have been a king as heir to Adam. If by inheritance he had been king, Lot, who was of the same family, must needs have been his subject, by that title, before the servants in his family; but we see they lived as friends and equals, and when their herdsmen could not agree, there was no pretence of jurisdiction or superiority between them, but they parted by consent, hence he is called both by Abraham, and by the text, Abraham’s brother, the name of friendship and equality, and not of jurisdiction and authority, though he were really but his nephew….

In the next section, he tells us, This patriarchal power continued not only till the flood, but after it, as the name patriarch doth in part prove. The word patriarch doth more than in part prove, that patriarchal power continued in the world as long as there were patriarchs, for it is necessary that patriarchal power should be whilst there are patriarchs; as it is necessary there should be paternal or conjugal power whilst there are fathers or husbands; but this is but playing with names. That which he would fallaciously insinuate is the thing in question to be proved, viz. that the lordship which Adam had over the world, the supposed absolute universal dominion of Adam by right descending from him, the patriarchs did enjoy. If he affirms such an absolute monarchy continued to the flood, in the world, I would be glad to know what records he has it from; for I confess I cannot find a word of it in my Bible: if by patriarchal power he means any thing else, it is nothing to the matter in hand. And how the name patriarch in some part proves, that those, who are called by that name, had absolute monarchical power, I confess, I do not see, and therefore I think needs no answer till the argument from it be made out a little clearer.

The three sons of Noah had the world, says our author, divided amongst them by their father, for of them was the whole world overspread. The world might be overspread by the offspring of Noah’s sons, though he never divided the world amongst them; for the earth might be replenished without being divided: so that all our author’s argument here proves no such division. However, I allow it to him, and then ask, the world being divided amongst them, which of the three was Adam’s heir? If Adam’s lordship, Adam’s monarchy, by right descended only to the eldest, then the other two could be but his subjects, his slaves: if by right it descended to all three brothers, by the same right, it will descend to all mankind; and then it will be impossible what he says, that heirs are lords of their brethren, should be true; but all brothers, and consequently all men, will be equal and independent, all heirs to Adam’s monarchy, and consequently all monarchs too, one as much as another. But it will be said, Noah their father divided the world amongst them; so that our author will allow more to Noah, than he will to God almighty, for he thought it hard, that God himself should give the world to Noah and his sons, to the prejudice of Noah’s birth‐​right: his words are, Noah was left sole heir to the world: why should it be thought that God would disinherit him of his birth‐​right, and make him, of all men in the world, the only tenant in common with his children? and yet here he thinks it fit that Noah should disinherit Shem of his birth‐​right, and divide the world betwixt him and his brethren; so that this birth‐​right, when our author pleases, must, and when he pleases must not, be sacred and inviolable.

If Noah did divide the world between his sons, and his assignment of dominions to them were good, there is an end of divine institution; all our author’s discourse of Adam’s heir, with whatsoever he builds on it, is quite out of doors; the natural power of kings falls to the ground; and then the form of the power governing, and the person having that power, will not be (as he says they are) the ordinance of God, but they will be ordinances of man: for if the right of the heir be the ordinance of God, a divine right, no man, father or not father, can alter it: if it be not a divine right, it is only human, depending on the will of man: and so where human institution gives it not, the first‐​born has no right at all above his brethren; and men may put government into what hands, and under what form, they please.

He goes on, Most of the civilest nations of the earth labour to fetch their original from some of the sons, or nephews of Noah. How many do most of the civilest nations amount to? and who are they? I fear the Chineses, a very great and civil people, as well as several other people of the East, West, North and South, trouble not themselves much about this matter. All that believe the Bible, which I believe are our author’s most of the civilest nations, must necessarily derive themselves from Noah; but for the rest of the world, they think little of his sons or nephews. But if the heralds and antiquaries of all nations, for it is these men generally that labour to find out the originals of nations, or all the nations themselves, should labour to fetch their original from some of the sons or nephews of Noah, what would this be to prove, that the lordship which Adam had over the whole world, by right descended to the patriarchs? Whoever, nations, or races of men, labour to fetch their original from, may be concluded to be thought by them, men of renown, famous to posterity, for the greatness of their virtues and actions; but beyond these they look not, nor consider who they were heirs to, but look on them as such as raised themselves, by their own virtue, to a degree that would give a lustre to those who in future ages could pretend to derive themselves from them. But if it were Ogyges, Hercules, Brama, Tamberlain, Pharamond; nay, if Jupiter and Saturn were the names, from whence divers races of men, both ancient and modern, have laboured to derive their original; will that prove, that those men enjoyed the lordship of Adam, by right descending to them? If not, this is but a flourish of our author’s to mislead his reader, that in itself signifies nothing.

To as much purpose is what he tells us concerning this division of the world, That some say it was by Lot, and others that Noah sailed round the Mediterreanean in ten years, and divided the world into Asia, Afric and Europe, portions for his three sons. America then, it seems, was left to be his that could catch it. Why our author takes such pains to prove the division of the world by Noah to his sons, and will not leave out an imagination, though no better than a dream, that he can find any where to favour it, is hard to guess, since such a division, if it prove any thing, must necessarily take away the title of Adam’s heir; unless three brothers can all together be heirs of Adam; and therefore the following words, Howsoever the manner of this division be uncertain, yet it is most certain the division itself was by families from Noah and his children, over which the parents were heads and princes, if allowed him to be true, and of any source to prove, that all the power in the world is nothing but the lordship of Adam’s descending by right, they will only prove, that the fathers of the children are all heirs to this lordship of Adam: for if in those days Cham and Japhet, and other parents, besides the eldest son, were heads and princes over their families, and had a right to divide the earth by families, what hinders younger brothers, being fathers of families, from having the same right? If Cham and Japhet were princes by right descending to them, notwithstanding any title of heir in their eldest brother, younger brothers by the same right descending to them are princes now; and so all our author’s natural power of kings will reach no farther than their own children, and no kingdom, by this natural right, can be bigger than a family: for either this lordship of Adam over the whole world, by right descends only to the eldest son, and then there can be but one heir, as our author says, or else, it by right descends to all the sons equally, and then every father of a family will have it, as well as the three sons of Noah: take which you will, it destroys the present governments and kingdoms, that are now in the world, since whoever has this natural power of a king, by right descending to him, must have it, either as our author tells us Cain had it, and be lord over his brethren, and so be alone king of the whole world; or else, as he tells us here, Shem, Cham and Japhet had it, three brothers, and so be only prince of his own family, and all families independent one of another: all the world must be only one empire by the right of the next heir, or else every family be a distinct government of itself, by the lordship of Adam’s descending to parents of families. And to this only tend all the proofs he here gives us of the descent of Adam’s lordship: for continuing his story of this descent, he says,

In the dispersion of Babel, we must certainly find the establishment of royal power, throughout the kingdoms of the world. If you must find it, pray do, and you will help us to a new piece of history: but you must shew it us before we shall be bound to believe, that regal power was established in the world upon your principles: for, that regal power was established in the kingdoms of the world, I think no body will dispute; but that there should be kingdoms in the world, whose several kings enjoyed their crowns, by right descending to them from Adam, that we think not only apocryphal, but also utterly impossible. If our author has no better foundation for his monarchy than a supposition of what was done at the dispersion of Babel, the monarchy he erects thereon, whose top is to reach to heaven to unite mankind, will serve only to divide and scatter them as that tower did; and, instead of establishing civil government and order in the world, will produce nothing but confusion.

For he tells us, the nations they were divided into, were distinct families, which had fathers for rulers over them; whereby it appears, that even in the confusion, God was careful to preserve the fatherly authority, by distributing the diversity of languages according to the diversity of families. It would have been a hard matter for any one but our author to have found out so plainly, in the text he here brings, that all the nations in that dispersion were governed by fathers, and that God was careful to preserve the fatherly authority. The words of the text are; These are the sons of Shem after their families, after their tongues in their lands, after their nations; and the same thing is said of Cham and Japhet, after an enumeration of their posterities; in all which there is not one word said of their governors, or forms of government; of fathers, or fatherly authority. But our author, who is very quick sighted to spy out fatherhood, where no body else could see any the least glimpses of it, tells us positively their rulers were fathers, and God was careful to preserve the fatherly authority; and why? Because those of the same family spoke the same language, and so of necessity in the division kept together. Just as if one should argue thus: Hanibal in his army, consisting of divers nations, kept those of the same language together; therefore fathers were captains of each band, and Hanibal was careful of the fatherly authority: or in peopling of Carolina, the English, French, Scotch and Welch that are there, plant themselves together, and by them the country is divided in their lands after their tongues, after their families, after their nations; therefore care was taken of the fatherly authority: or because, in many parts of America, every little tribe was a distinct people, with a different language, one should infer, that therefore God was careful to preserve the fatherly authority, or that therefore their rulers enjoyed Adam’s lordship by right descending to them, though we know not who were their governors, nor what their form of government, but only that they were divided into little independent societies, speaking different languages.