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Two Treatises of Government: Demoting Adam

To begin our series on the book that practically made modern political philosophy, we join Locke in demoting Adam from global dictator to mere father.

Editor’s Note

Here begins a new series on a very old and well-studied subject. Book after book after book has been written about John Locke’s Two Treatises on Civil Government—in many ways, the defining work of modern political philosophy. Scholars and activists have poured out small lakes-worth of ink on small forests of paper trying to interpret, explain, and communicate Locke’s ideas and then put them into practice. Whole nations have built themselves in the image of John Locke, and whole portions of history have been consigned to his domain. As in the physical sciences Newton stands like a giant among giants, perhaps one of the greatest men ever to live, John Locke—with his fictive social contract, his state of nature, his labor theory of value, his republicanism, his propertarianism, his individualism, and on and on—stands in the realm of politics. Locke sculpted modern political life more than any other single individual. His is the sort of story that cannot be confined to his own life and times; his influence is too great to be confined even to his own era. Still, even in our postmodern age when Locke’s rationalism and naturalism have fallen out of favor, new intellectual movements have tended to build themselves in direct opposition to the strictures set forth in the Two Treatises. Throughout this series, we will but briefly examine Locke himself (plenty of people like our own George H. Smith have already done this, with far more insight than I may have to offer). Rather, we will introduce a cast of characters extending over the ages—characters like Sir Robert Filmer, Locke’s primary target in the First Treatise (itself so often overlooked in comparison to the Second); Louis Hartz, the twentieth-century American historian and socialist who argued that all of American history has been footnotes to John Locke…and that is why socialism has been so unpopular here; and George Fitzhugh, the nineteenth century slavocrat who argued that slavery was the real state of Nature for all people of inferior strength and talents—the thinker who was so radically anti-Lockean that Hartz said he stands as the exception which proves the rule. All told, the Hartzian “Consensus School” historians said, American history itself is contained within the pages of Locke’s Two Treatises. As we will see, if you are of a certain mind—if you adopt a particular set of historical methods—this book may be read as an allegory for all of American political life, for Atlantic history more broadly, for the development of the modern world and the modern political mind, and a manual of how to create a society from nothing.

We begin with Locke’s vicious and thorough attack on Sir Robert Filmer (ca. 1588-1653) and a variety of absolutisms resurgent in the Restoration decades. Following the English Civil War, the collapse of Cromwell’s Commonwealth, and the reign of Charles II, English liberals were somewhat desperate to chart a middle course between King and Parliament. The Crown was captured by crypto-Catholics and absolutists who hoped to remake England into a royal dictatorship on the French model. The Royalists would, if they could, turn back the political clock at least two centuries. Then there was the Parliament, humbled by Cromwell’s fall and itself full of restored members the fanatic Puritans purged in the 1650s. The Parliament may have been temporarily stymied, but they were unwilling to entirely give up the new position of power acquired during the wars. Both sides knew that another contest was coming soon, another grand clash between royal and representative power. Liberal members of the growing middle and upper-middle classes (like John Locke) cast about for a way to avoid the disastrous and bloody examples of both the Charleses and Cromwells of the world. In 1680, publishers distributed a posthumous title from Robert Filmer, Patriarcha, which set off a flurry of liberal replies. Taken together, these new critics of absolutism were the first Whigs and the inventors of modern political thought. In our first item, Locke attacks Filmer as a faddish flatterer of royals—a dangerous sort of innovator using flimsy readings of the Bible to fundamentally change the natural state of English politics. On top of the spontaneously-developed history of English common law, village life, popular use of the commons, and representative politics, Filmer hoped to erect a continental absolute monarchy. To roll back such a dangerous movement, Locke attacked it at its base: bit by bit, he dismantles the concept of “patriarchy”—in this context, the idea that all worldly authority was invested by God in Adam, and through succession from Adam, to a small handful of particular men. Admit Filmer’s patriarchy, and you at once enslave all mankind to the whims of a few (usually particularly perverse and cruel) individuals.

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

For the full, original text (including citations), see the original edition at the Online Library of Liberty.


Two Treatises of Civil Government

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

Chapter 1

Slavery is so vile and miserable an estate of man, and so directly opposite to the generous temper and courage of our nation; that it is hardly to be conceived, that an Englishman, much less a gentleman, should plead for it. And truly I should have taken Sir Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha, as any other treatise, which would persuade all men, that they are slaves, and ought to be so, for such another exercise of wit, as was his who writ the encomium of Nero; rather than for a serious discourse meant in earnest, had not the gravity of the title and epistle, the picture in the front of the book, and the applause that followed it, required me to believe, that the author and publisher were both in earnest. I therefore took it into my hands with all the expectation, and read it through with all the attention due to a treatise that made such a noise at its coming abroad, and cannot but confess my self mightily surprised, that in a book, which was to provide chains for all mankind, I should find nothing but a rope of sand, useful perhaps to such, whose skill and business it is to raise a dust, and would blind the people, the better to mislead them; but in truth not of any force to draw those into bondage, who have their eyes open, and so much sense about them, as to consider, that chains are but an ill wearing, how much care soever hath been taken to file and polish them.

If any one think I take too much liberty in speaking so freely of a man, who is the great champion of absolute power, and the idol of those who worship it; I beseech him to make this small allowance for once, to one, who, even after the reading of Sir Robert’s book, cannot but think himself, as the laws allow him, a freeman: and I know no fault it is to do so, unless any one better skilled in the fate of it, than I, should have it revealed to him, that this treatise, which has lain dormant so long, was, when it appeared in the world, to carry, by strength of its arguments, all liberty out of it; and that from thenceforth our author’s short model was to be the pattern in the mount, and the perfect standard of politics for the future. His system lies in a little compass, it is no more but this,

  • That all government is absolute monarchy.

And the ground he builds on, is this,

  • That no man is born free.

In this last age a generation of men has sprung up amongst us, that would flatter princes with an opinion, that they have a divine right to absolute power, let the laws by which they are constituted, and are to govern, and the conditions under which they enter upon their authority, be what they will, and their engagements to observe them never so well ratified by solemn oaths and promises. To make way for this doctrine, they have denied mankind a right to natural freedom; whereby they have not only, as much as in them lies, exposed all subjects to the utmost misery of tyranny and oppression, but have also unsettled the titles, and shaken the thrones of princes: (for they too, by these mens system, except only one, are all born slaves, and by divine right are subjects to Adam’s right heir;) as if they had designed to make war upon all government, and subvert the very foundations of human society, to serve their present turn.

However we must believe them upon their own bare words, when they tell us, we are all born slaves, and we must continue so, there is no remedy for it; life and thraldom we enter’d into together, and can never be quit of the one, till we part with the other. Scripture or reason I am sure do not any where say so, notwithstanding the noise of divine right, as if divine authority hath subjected us to the unlimited will of another. An admirable state of mankind, and that which they have not had wit enough to find out till this latter age. For, however Sir Robert Filmer seems to condemn the novelty of the contrary opinion, yet I believe it will be hard for him to find any other age, or country of the world, but this, which has asserted monarchy to be jure divino. And he confesses, that Heyward, Blackwood, Barclay, and others, that have bravely vindicated the right of kings in most points, never thought of this, but with one consent admitted the natural liberty and equality of mankind.

By whom this doctrine came at first to be broached, and brought in fashion amongst us, and what sad effects it gave rise to, I leave to historians to relate, or to the memory of those, who were contemporaries with Sibthorp and Manwering [sic], to recollect. My business at present is only to consider what Sir Robert Filmer, who is allowed to have carried this argument farthest, and is supposed to have brought it to perfection, has said in it; for from him every one, who would be as fashionable as French was at court, has learned, and runs away with this short system of politics, viz. Men are not born free, and therefore could never have the liberty to choose either governors, or forms of government. Princes have their power absolute, and by divine right; for slaves could never have a right to compact or consent. Adam was an absolute monarch, and so are all princes ever since.

Chapter 2: Of Paternal and Regal Power

SIR Robert Filmer’s great position is, that men are not naturally free. This is the foundation on which his absolute monarchy stands, and from which it erects itself to an height, that its power is above every power, caput inter nubila, so high above all earthly and human things, that thought can scarce reach it; that promises and oaths, which tye the infinite Deity, cannot confine it. But if this foundation fails, all his fabric falls with it, and governments must be left again to the old way of being made by contrivance, and the consent of men making use of their reason to unite together into society. To prove this grand position of his, he tells us, Men are born in subjection to their parents, and therefore cannot be free. And this authority of parents, he calls royal authorityFatherly authority, right of fatherhood. One would have thought he would, in the beginning of such a work as this, on which was to depend the authority of princes, and the obedience of subjects, have told us expresly, what that fatherly authority is, have defined it, though not limited it, because in some other treatises of his he tells us, it is unlimited, and* unlimitable; he should at least have given us such an account of it, that we might have had an entire notion of this fatherhood, or fatherly authority, whenever it came in our way in his writings: this I expected to have found in the first chapter of his Patriarcha. But instead thereof, having, 1. en passant, made his obeysance to the arcana imperii, 2. made his compliment to the rights and liberties of this, or any other nation, which he is going presently to null and destroy; and, 3. made his leg to those learned men, who did not see so far into the matter as himself, he comes to fall on Bellarmine, and, by a victory over him, establishes his fatherly authority beyond any question. Bellarmine being routed by his own confession, the day is clear got, and there is no more need of any forces: for having done that, I observe not that he states the question, or rallies up any arguments to make good his opinion, but rather tells us the story, as he thinks fit, of this strange kind of domineering phantom, called the fatherhood, which whoever could catch, presently got empire, and unlimited absolute power. He assures us how this fatherhood began in Adam, continued its course, and kept the world in order all the time of the patriarchs till the flood, got out of the ark with Noah and his sons, made and supported all the kings of the earth till the captivity of the Israelites in Egypt, and then the poor fatherhood was under hatches, till God, by giving the Israelites kings, re-established the ancient and prime right of the lineal succession in paternal government….And then obviating an objection, and clearing a difficulty or two with one half reason, to confirm the natural right of regal power, he ends the first chapter. I hope it is no injury to call an half quotation an half reason; for God says, Honour thy father and mother; but our author contents himself with half, leaves out thy mother quite, as little serviceable to his purpose. But of that more in another place.

I do not think our author so little skilled in the way of writing discourses of this nature, nor so careless of the point in hand, that he by over-sight commits the fault, that he himself, in his Anarchy of a mixed Monarchy, objects to Mr. Hunton in these words: Where first I charge the author, that he hath not given us any definition, or description of monarchy in general; for by the rules of method he should have first defined. And by the like rule of method Sir Robert should have told us, what his fatherhood or fatherly authority is, before he had told us, in whom it was to be found, and talked so much of it. But perhaps Sir Robert found, that this fatherly authority, this power of fathers, and of kings, for he makes them both the same, would make a very odd and frightful figure, and very disagreeing with what either children imagine of their parents, or subjects of their kings, if he should have given us the whole draught together in that gigantic form, he had painted it in his own fancy; and therefore, like a wary physician, when he would have his patient swallow some harsh or corrosive liquor, he mingles it with a large quantity of that which may dilute it; that the scattered parts may go down with less feeling, and cause less aversion.

Let us then endeavour to find what account he gives us of this fatherly authority, as it lies scattered in the several parts of his writings. And first, as it was vested in Adam, he says, Not only Adam, but the succeeding patriarchs, had, by right of fatherhood, royal authority over their children. This lordship which Adam by command had over the whole world, and by right descending from him the patriarchs did enjoy, was as large and ample as the absolute dominion of any monarch, which hath been since the creation. Dominion of life and death, making war, and concluding peace. Adam and the patriarchs had absolute power of life and death. Kings, in the right of parents, succeed to the exercise of supreme jurisdiction. As kingly power is by the law of God, so it hath no inferior law to limit it; Adam was lord of all. The father of a family governs by no other law, than by his own will. The superiority of princes is above laws. The unlimited jurisdiction of kings is so amply described by Samuel. Kings are above the laws. And to this purpose see a great deal more which our author delivers in Bodin’s words: It is certain, that all laws, privileges, and grants of princes, have no force, but during their life; if they be not ratified by the express consent, or by sufferance of the prince following, especially privileges. The reason why laws have been also made by kings, was this; when kings were either busied with wars, or distracted with public cares, so that every private man could not have access to their persons, to learn their wills and pleasure, then were laws of necessity invented, that so every particular subject might find his prince’s pleasure decyphered unto him in the tables of his laws. In a monarchy, the king must by necessity be above the laws. A perfect kingdom is that, wherein the king rules all things according to his own will. Neither common nor statute laws are, or can be, any diminution of that general power, which kings have over their people by right of fatherhood. Adam was the father, king, and lord over his family; a son, a subject, and a servant or slave, were one and the same thing at first. The father had power to dispose or sell his children or servants; whence we find, that the first reckoning up of goods in scripture, the man-servant and the maid-servant, are numbred among the possessions and substance of the owner, as other goods were. God also hath given to the father a right or liberty, to alien his power over his children to any other; whence we find the sale and gift of children to have much been in use in the beginning of the world, when men had their servants for a possession and an inheritance, as well as other goods; whereupon we find the power of castrating and making eunuchs much in use in old times. Law is nothing else but the will of him that hath the power of the supreme father. It was God’s ordinance that the supremacy should be unlimited in Adam, and as large as all the acts of his will; and as in him so in all others that have supreme power.

I have been fain to trouble my reader with these several quotations in our author’s own words, that in them might be seen his own description of his fatherly authority, as it lies scattered up and down in his writings, which he supposes was first vested in Adam, and by right belongs to all princes ever since. This fatherly authority then, or right of fatherhood, in our author’s sense, is a divine unalterable right of sovereignty, whereby a father or a prince hath an absolute, arbitrary, unlimited, and unlimitable power over the lives, liberties, and estates of his children and subjects; so that he may take or alienate their estates, sell, castrate, or use their persons as he pleases, they being all his slaves, and he lord or proprietor of every thing, and his unbounded will their law.

Our author having placed such a mighty power in Adam, and upon that supposition sounded all government, and all power of princes, it is reasonable to expect, that he should have proved this with arguments clear and evident, suitable to the weightiness of the cause; that since men had nothing else left them, they might in slavery have such undeniable proofs of its necessity, that their consciences might be convinced, and oblige them to submit peaceably to that absolute dominion, which their governors had a right to exercise over them. Without this, what good could our author do, or pretend to do, by erecting such an unlimited power, but flatter the natural vanity and ambition of men, too apt of itself to grow and encrease with the possession of any power? and by persuading those, who, by the consent of their fellowmen, are advanced to great, but limited, degrees of it, that by that part which is given them, they have a right to all, that was not so; and therefore may do what they please, because they have authority to do more than others, and so tempt them to do what is neither for their own, nor the good of those under their care; whereby great mischiefs cannot but follow.

The sovereignty of Adam, being that on which, as a sure basis, our author builds his mighty absolute monarchy, I expected, that in his Patriarcha, this his main supposition would have been proved, and established with all that evidence of arguments, that such a fundamental tenet required; and that this, on which the great stress of the business depends, would have been made out with reasons sufficient to justify the confidence with which it was assumed. But in all that treatise, I could find very little tending that way; the thing is there so taken for granted, without proof, that I could scarce believe myself, when, upon attentive reading that treatise, I found there so mighty a structure raised upon the bare supposition of this foundation: for it is scarce credible, that in a discourse, where he pretends to confute the erroneous principle of man’s natural freedom, he should do it by a bare supposition of Adam’s authority, without offering any proof for that authority. Indeed he confidently says, that Adam had royal authorityAbsolute lordship and dominion of life and deathAn universal monarchyAbsolute power of life and death. He is very frequent in such assertions; but, what is strange, in all his whole Patriarcha I find not one pretence of a reason to establish this his great foundation of government; not any thing that looks like an argument, but these words: To confirm this natural right of regal power, we find in the Decalogue, that the law which enjoyns obedience to kings, is delivered in the terms, Honour thy father, as if all power were originally in the father. And why may I not add as well, that in the Decalogue, the law that enjoyns obedience to queens, is delivered in the terms of Honour thy mother, as if all power were originally in the mother? The argument, as Sir Robert puts it, will hold as well for one as the other: but of this, more in its due place.

All that I take notice of here, is, that this is all our author says in this first, or any of the following chapters, to prove the absolute power of Adam, which is his great principle: and yet, as if he had there settled it upon sure demonstration, he begins his second chapter with these words, By conferring these proofs and reasons, drawn from the authority of the scripture. Where those proofs and reasons for Adam’s sovereignty are, bating that of Honour thy father, above mentioned, I confess, I cannot find; unless what he says, In these words we have an evident confession, viz. of Bellarmine, that creation made man prince of his posterity, must be taken for proofs and reasons drawn from scripture, or for any sort of proof at all: though from thence by a new way of inference, in the words immediately following, he concludes, the royal authority of Adam sufficiently settled in him.

If he has in that chapter, or any where in the whole treatise, given any other proofs of Adam’s royal authority, other than by often repeating it, which, among some men, goes for argument, I desire any body for him to shew me the place and page, that I may be convinced of my mistake, and acknowledge my oversight. If no such arguments are to be found, I beseech those men, who have so much cried up this book, to consider, whether they do not give the world cause to suspect, that it is not the force of reason and argument, that makes them for absolute monarchy, but some other by interest, and therefore are resolved to applaud any author, that writes in favour of this doctrine, whether he support it with reason or no. But I hope they do not expect, that rational and indifferent men should be brought over to their opinion, because this their great doctor of it, in a discourse made on purpose, to set up the absolute monarchical power of Adam, in opposition to the natural freedom of mankind, has said so little to prove it, from whence it is rather naturally to be concluded, that there is little to be said.

But that I might omit no care to inform myself in our author’s full sense, I consulted his Observations on Aristotle, Hobbes, &c. to see whether in disputing with others he made use of any arguments for this his darling tenet of Adam’s sovereignty; since in his treatise of the Natural Power of Kings, he hath been so sparing of them. In his Observations on Mr. Hobbes’s Leviathan, I think he has put, in short, all those arguments for it together, which in his writings I find him any where to make use of: his words are these: If God created only Adam, and of a piece of him made the woman, and if by generation from them two, as parts of them, all mankind be propagated: if also God gave to Adam not only the dominion over the woman and the children that should issue from them, but also over all the earth to subdue it, and over all the creatures on it, so that as long as Adam lived, no man could claim or enjoy any thing but by donation, assignation or permission from him, I wonder, &c. Here we have the sum of all his arguments, for Adam’s sovereignty and against natural freedom, which I find up and down in his other treatises: and they are these following; God’s creation of Adam, the dominion he gave him over Eve, and the dominion he had as father over his children: all which I shall particularly consider.

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