Two Treatises of Government: Making a Modern State
Locke shows his true purposes—On the ruins of Robert Filmer, he intends to erect his own justification for the modern state.
In our last number, we saw Locke take his first departures from pure criticism to construct something new—a new rationalist system in defense of civil government. And for the anarchists among us, this is a problem. He could have rested with dismantling absolutism, destroying Filmer’s Biblical arguments with informed logic. Locke could have embraced a sort of spontaneous social self-ordering process in which people discover for themselves—through daily practice and self-interested action—the best way(s) to govern themselves. Such things were certainly underway in his own homeland in Digger communes (before the nobility destroyed them), in Quaker meetinghouses, on the tall sailing ships, in North American runaway communities, and innumerable other settings. But such spontaneous self-government was a bit too messy and complicated for a systematic and modern thinker like Locke. He was much more interested in observing nature, divining her laws scientifically and logically, and then providing societies with the proper and true rules of orderly behavior. It was then up to civil institutions to put his perfect, natural system into practice—that is, to force the rest of us into Lockean society. Instead of dismantling absolutism and leaving well enough alone (leaving people alone to actually govern themselves), Locke begins to fasten his own perfectly enlightened, perfectly justified and logical chains on humanity.
The problem here (as we shall see in the Second Treatise) is that Locke was a modernist. He was a rationalist and a capital-“E” Empiricist philosopher of the early Enlightenment—rationalist in the sense that he thought one must have reasons to justify one’s beliefs, and Empiricist in that he thought all knowledge was ultimately rooted in sense-perception, i.e. in the repeated observation of phenomena. He believed that nature’s laws could be observed, measured, and clearly communicated between individuals. For Locke, the politics of nature were there in North America, and he was a key participant in those new societies and governments steadily gelling into their own new civilization. He studied the continent’s Native societies, their political organizations, their social customs and religious beliefs; he crafted his theories about the state of nature and the development of social and legal rules based in large part on his studies, and he put the ideas into practice when writing the Carolina charter. Sure, it was tragic that English settlers were depending more and more on African slave labor; but we are about to learn that slavery was a justified extension of the state of war. Sure, it was a shame that Europeans were extinguishing Native Americans whenever possible; but at least they were also properly mixing their labor with the land. Sure, it was lamentable that the settlers and the royals did not create perfect colonial governments with perfect constitutional regimes; but fortunately charters could change and new colonies were always a new settlement away. In any case, Locke believed that this was simply how the world worked. He had studied it, worked out the logic of it all, observed government literally built out of the state of nature in North America, and all that accumulated factual knowledge was quite enough for him to begin a section like our next with what you and I may take as a bold and extraordinarily problematic claim: “Though it be never so plain, that there ought to be government in the world.” And this is his purpose in countering Robert Filmer—Locke wants to justify government because this would improve its functions. Without a cogent, logical, empirical and modern defense of the state, “Men too might as often and as innocently change their governors, as they do their physicians.”
And oh my!—wouldn’t that be terrible! In our own era of postmodern distrust for all authority—even John Locke—we know that all interpretations of history are really just that: one person’s construction of an incredibly complex and incomplete jigsaw puzzle. When Locke thought he was telling his readers the actual, real laws of nature, he was in fact describing the nebulous mental decisions of historical individuals, including himself. It was his own desires to justify and continue the practice of statecraft that motivated him to write these treatises, not some True and Accurate description of Reality. Let us not, then, as so many generations have, read Locke as the revealed Word of Nature—rather, let us be frank about what he was up to, as frank as he was: “To settle therefore men’s consciences, under an obligation to obedience, it is necessary that they know not only, that there is a power somewhere in the world, but the person who by right is vested with this power over them.”
Two Treatises of Civil Government
By John Locke
Thomas Hollis Edition. (London: A. Millar et. al.) 1764.
Book I: Of Government
Chapter 9: Of Monarchy, by Inheritance from Adam
Though it be never so plain, that there ought to be government in the world, nay, should all men be of our author’s mind, that divine appointment had ordained it to be monarchical; yet, since men cannot obey any thing, that cannot command; and ideas of government in the fancy, though never so perfect, though never so right, cannot give laws, nor prescribe rules to the actions of men; it would be of no behoof for the settling of order, and establishment of government in its exercise and use amongst men, unless there were a way also taught how to know the person, to whom it belonged to have this power, and exercise this dominion over others. It is in vain then to talk of subjection and obedience without telling us whom we are to obey: for were I never so fully persuaded that there ought to be magistracy and rule in the world; yet I am never the less at liberty still, till it appears who is the person that hath right to my obedience; since, if there be no marks to know him by, and distinguish him that hath right to rule from other men, it may be myself, as well as any other. And therefore, though submission to government be every one’s duty, yet since that signifies nothing but submitting to the direction and laws of such men as have authority to command, it is not enough to make a man a subject, to convince him that there is regal power in the world; but there must be ways of designing, and knowing the person to whom this regal power of right belongs: and a man can never be obliged in conscience to submit to any power, unless he can be satisfied who is the person who has a right to exercise that power over him. If this were not so, there would be no distinction between pirates and lawful princes; he that has force is without any more ado to be obeyed, and crowns and scepters would become the inheritance only of violence and rapine. Men too might as often and as innocently change their governors, as they do their physicians, if the person cannot be known who has a right to direct me, and whose prescriptions I am bound to follow. To settle therefore men’s consciences, under an obligation to obedience, it is necessary that they know not only, that there is a power somewhere in the world, but the person who by right is vested with this power over them.
How successful our author has been in his attempts, to set up a monarchical absolute power in Adam, the reader may judge by what has been already said; but were that absolute monarchy as clear as our author would desire it, as I presume it is the contrary, yet it could be of no use to the government of mankind now in the world, unless he also make out these two things.
First, That this power of Adam was not to end with him, but was upon his decease conveyed [entirely] to some other person, and so on to posterity.
Secondly, That the princes and rulers now on earth are possessed of this power of Adam, by a right way of conveyance derived to them.
If the first of these fail, the power of Adam, were it never so great, never so certain, will signify nothing to the present government and societies in the world; but we must seek out some other original of power for the government of polities than this of Adam, or else there will be none at all in the world. If the latter fail, it will destroy the authority of the present governors, and absolve the people from subjection to them, since they, having no better a claim than others to that power, which is alone the fountain of all authority, can have no title to rule over them.
Our author, having fancied an absolute sovereignty in Adam, mentions several ways of its conveyance to princes, that were to be his successors; but that which he chiefly insists on, is that of inheritance, which occurs so often in his several discourses; and I having in the foregoing chapter quoted several of these passages, I shall not need here again to repeat them. This sovereignty he erects, as has been said, upon a double foundation, viz. that of property, and that of fatherhood….
In both these rights, there being supposed an exclusion of all other men, it must be upon some reason peculiar to Adam, that they must both be founded.
That of his property our author supposes to arise from God’s immediate donation, and that of fatherhood from the act of begetting: now in all inheritance, if the heir succeed not to the reason upon which his father’s right was founded, he cannot succeed to the right which followeth from it. For example, Adam had a right of property in the creatures upon the donation and grant of God almighty, who was lord and proprietor of them all: let this be so as our author tells us, yet upon his death his heir can have no title to them, no such right of property in them, unless the same reason, viz. God’s donation, vested a right in the heir too….
But not to follow our author too far out of the way, the plain of the case is this. God having made man, and planted in him, as in all other animals, a strong desire of self-preservation; and…that pursuing that natural inclination he had to preserve his being, he followed the will of his maker, and therefore had a right to make use of those creatures, which by his reason or senses he could discover would be serviceable thereunto. And thus man’s property in the creatures was founded upon the right he had to make use of those things that were necessary or useful to his being.
This being the reason and foundation of Adam’s property, gave the same title, on the same ground, to all his children, not only after his death, but in his life-time: so that here was no privilege of his heir above his other children, which could exclude them from an equal right to the use of the inferior creatures, for the comfortable preservation of their beings, which is all the property man hath in them; and so Adam’s sovereignty built on property, or, as our author calls it, private dominion, comes to nothing. Every man had a right to the creatures, by the same title Adam had, viz. by the right every one had to take care of, and provide for their subsistence: and thus men had a right in common, Adam’s children in common with him. But if any one had began, and made himself a property in any particular thing, (which how he, or any one else, could do, shall be shewn in another place) that thing, that possession, if he disposed not otherwise of it by his positive grant, descended naturally to his children, and they had a right to succeed to it, and possess it.
It might reasonably be asked here, how come children by this right of possessing, before any other, the properties of their parents upon their decease? for it being personally the parents, when they die, without actually transferring their right to another, why does it not return again to the common stock of mankind? It will perhaps be answered, that common consent hath disposed of it to their children. Common practice, we see indeed, does so dispose of it; but we cannot say, that it is the common consent of mankind; for that hath never been asked, nor actually given; and if common tacit consent hath established it, it would make but a positive, and not a natural right of children to inherit the goods of their parents: but where the practice is universal, it is reasonable to think the cause is natural. The ground then I think to be this. The first and strongest desire God planted in men, and wrought into the very principles of their nature, being that of self-preservation, that is the foundation of a right to the creatures for the particular support and use of each individual person himself. But, next to this, God planted in men a strong desire also of propagating their kind, and continuing themselves in their posterity; and this gives children a title to share in the property of their parents, and a right to inherit their possessions. Men are not proprietors of what they have, merely for themselves; their children have a title to part of it, and have their kind of right joined with their parents, in the possession which comes to be wholly their’s, when death, having put an end to their parents use of it, hath taken them from their possessions; and this we call inheritance: men being by a like obligation bound to preserve what they have begotten, as to preserve themselves, their issue come to have a right in the goods they are possessed of. That children have such a right, is plain from the laws of God; and that men are convinced that children have such a right, is evident from the law of the land; both which laws require parents to provide for their children.
For children being by the course of nature, born weak, and unable to provide for themselves, they have by the appointment of God himself, who hath thus ordered the course of nature, a right to be nourished and maintained by their parents; nay, a right not only to a bare subsistence, but to the conveniencies and comforts of life, as far as the conditions of their parents can afford it. Hence it comes, that when their parents leave the world, and so the care due to their children ceases, the effects of it are to extend as far as possibly they can, and the provisions they have made in their life-time, are understood to be intended, as nature requires they should, for their children, whom, after themselves, they are bound to provide for: though the dying parents, by express words, declare nothing about them, nature appoints the descent of their property to their children, who thus come to have a title, and natural right of inheritance to their fathers goods, which the rest of mankind cannot pretend to.
Were it not for this right of being nourished and maintained by their parents, which God and nature has given to children, and obliged parents to as a duty, it would be reasonable, that the father should inherit the estate of his son, and be preferred in the inheritance before his grand-child: for to the grand-father there is due a long score of care and expences laid out upon the breeding and education of his son, which one would think in justice ought to be paid. But that having been done in obedience to the same law, whereby he received nourishment and education from his own parents; this score of education, received from a man’s father, is paid by taking care, and providing for his own children; is paid, I say, as much as is required of payment by alteration of property, unless present necessity of the parents require a return of goods for their necessary support and subsistence: for we are not now speaking of that reverence, acknowledgment, respect and honour, that is always due from children to their parents; but of possessions and commodities of life valuable by money. But though it be incumbent on parents to bring up and provide for their children, yet this debt to their children does not quite cancel the score due to their parents; but only is made by nature preferable to it: for the debt a man owes his father takes place, and gives the father a right to inherit the son’s goods, where, for want of issue, the right of children doth not exclude that title. And therefore a man having a right to be maintained by his children, where he needs it; and to enjoy also the comforts of life from them, when the necessary provision due to them and their children will afford it; if his son die without issue, the father has a right in nature to possess his goods, and inherit his estate, (whatever the municipal laws of some countries may absurdly direct otherwise)….
I have been the larger, in shewing upon what ground children have a right to succeed to the possession of their fathers properties, not only because by it, it will appear, that if Adam had a property (a titular, insignificant, useless property; for it could be no better, for he was bound to nourish and maintain his children and posterity out of it) in the whole earth and its product, yet all his children coming to have, by the law of nature, and right of inheritance, a joint title, and right of property in it after his death, it could convey no right of sovereignty to any one of his posterity over the rest: since every one having a right of inheritance to his portion, they might enjoy their inheritance, or any part of it in common, or share it, or some parts of it, by division, as it best liked them. But no one could pretend to the whole inheritance, or any sovereignty supposed to accompany it; since a right of inheritance gave every one of the rest, as well as any one, a title to share in the goods of his father….
Property, whose original is from the right a man has to use any of the inferior creatures, for the subsistence and comfort of his life, is for the benefit and sole advantage of the proprietor, so that he may even destroy the thing, that he has property in by his use of it, where need requires: but government being for the preservation of every man’s right and property, by preserving him from the violence or injury of others, is for the good of the governed: for the magistrate’s sword being for a terror to evil doers, and by that terror to enforce men to observe the positive laws of the society, made conformable to the laws of nature, for the public good, i.e. the good of every particular member of that society, as far as by common rules it can be provided for; the sword is not given the magistrate for his own good alone.
Children therefore, as has been shewed, by the dependence they have on their parents for subsistence, have a right of inheritance to their fathers property, as that which belongs to them for their proper good and behoof, and therefore are fitly termed goods, wherein the first-born has not a sole or peculiar right by any law of God and nature, the younger children having an equal title with him, founded on that right they all have to maintenance, support, and comfort from their parents, and on nothing else. But government being for the benefit of the governed, and not the sole advantage of the governors, (but only for theirs with the rest, as they make a part of that politic body, each of whose parts and members are taken care of, and directed in its peculiar functions for the good of the whole, by the laws of society) cannot be inherited by the same title, that children have to the goods of their father. The right a son has to be maintained and provided with the necessaries and conveniences of life out of his father’s stock, gives him a right to succeed to his father’s property for his own good; but this can give him no right to succeed also to the rule, which his father had over other men. All that a child has right to claim from his father is nourishment and education, and the things nature furnishes for the support of life: but he has no right to demand rule or dominion from him: he can subsist and receive from him the portion of good things, and advantages of education naturally due to him, without empire and dominion. That (if his father hath any) was vested in him, for the good and behoof of others: and therefore the son cannot claim or inherit it by a title, which is founded wholly on his own private good and advantage.
We must know how the first ruler, from whom any one claims, came by his authority, upon what ground any one has empire, what his title is to it, before we can know who has a right to succeed him in it, and inherit it from him: if the agreement and consent of men first gave a scepter into any one’s hand, or put a crown on his head, that also must direct its descent and conveyance; for the same authority, that made the first a lawful ruler, must make the second too, and so give right of succession: in this case inheritance, or primogeniture, can in its self have no right, no pretence to it, any farther than that consent, which established the form of the government, hath so settled the succession. And thus we see, the succession of crowns, in several countries, places it on different heads, and he comes by right of succession to be a prince in one place, who would be a subject in another.
If God, by his positive grant and revealed declaration, first gave rule and dominion to any man, he that will claim by that title, must have the same positive grant of God for his succession: for if that has not directed the course of its descent and conveyance down to others, no body can succeed to this title of the first ruler. Children have no right of inheritance to this; and primogeniture can lay no claim to it, unless God, the author of this constitution, hath so ordained it….
If paternal right, the act of begetting, give a man rule and dominion, inheritance or primogeniture can give no title: for he that cannot succeed to his father’s title, which was begetting, cannot succeed to that power over his brethren, which his father had by paternal right over them. But of this I shall have occasion to say more in another place. This is plain in the mean time, that any government, whether supposed to be at first founded in paternal right, consent of the people, or the positive appointment of God himself, which can supersede either of the other, and so begin a new government upon a new foundation; I say, any government began upon either of these, can by right of succession come to those only, who have the title of him they succeed to: power founded on contract can descend only to him, who has right by that contract: power founded on begetting, he only can have that begets; and power founded on the positive grant or donation of God, he only can have by right of succession, to whom that grant directs it.
From what I have said, I think this is clear, that a right to the use of the creatures, being founded originally in the right a man has to subsist and enjoy the conveniencies of life; and the natural right children have to inherit the goods of their parents, being founded in the right they have to the same subsistence and commodities of life, out of the stock of their parents, who are therefore taught by natural love and tenderness to provide for them, as a part of themselves; and all this being only for the good of the proprietor, or heir; it can be no reason for children’s inheriting of rule and dominion, which has another original and a different end. Nor can primogeniture have any pretence to a right of solely inheriting either property or power, as we shall, in its due place, see more fully. It is enough to have shewed here, that Adam’s property, or private dominion, could not convey any sovereignty or rule to his heir, who not having a right to inherit all his father’s possessions, could not thereby come to have any sovereignty over his brethren: and therefore, if any sovereignty on account of his property had been vested in Adam, which in truth there was not, yet it would have died with him.
As Adam’s sovereignty, if, by virtue of being proprietor of the world, he had any authority over men, could not have been inherited by any of his children over the rest, because they had the same title to divide the inheritance, and every one had a right to a portion of his father’s possessions; so neither could Adam’s sovereignty by right of fatherhood, if any such he had, descend to any one of his children: for it being, in our author’s account, a right acquired by begetting to rule over those he had begotten, it was not a power possible to be inherited, because the right being consequent to, and built on, an act perfectly personal, made that power so too, and impossible to be inherited: for paternal power, being a natural right rising only from the relation of father and son, is as impossible to be inherited as the relation itself; and a man may pretend as well to inherit the conjugal power the husband, whose heir he is, had over his wife, as he can to inherit the paternal power of a father over his children: for the power of the husband being founded on contract, and the power of the father on begetting, he may as well inherit the power obtained by the conjugal contract, which was only personal, as he may the power obtained by begetting, which could reach no farther than the person of the begetter, unless begetting can be a title to power in him that does not beget.
Which makes it a reasonable question to ask, whether Adam, dying before Eve, his heir, (suppose Cain or Seth) should have by right of inheriting Adam’s fatherhood, sovereign power over Eve his mother: for Adam’s fatherhood being nothing but a right he had to govern his children, because he begot them, he that inherits Adam’s fatherhood, inherits nothing, even in our author’s sense, but the right Adam had to govern his children, because he begot them: so that the monarchy of the heir would not have taken in Eve; or if it did, it being nothing but the fatherhood of Adam descended by inheritance, the heir must have right to govern Eve, because Adam begot her; for fatherhood is nothing else.
Perhaps it will be said with our author, that a man can alien his power over his child; and what may be transferred by compact, may be possessed by inheritance. I answer, a father cannot alien the power he has over his child: he may perhaps to some degrees forfeit it, but cannot transfer it; and if any other man acquire it, it is not by the father’s grant, but by some act of his own. For example, a father, unnaturally careless of his child, sells or gives him to another man; and he again exposes him; a third man finding him, breeds up, cherishes, and provides for him as his own: I think in this case, no body will doubt, but that the greatest part of filial duty and subjection was here owing, and to be paid to this foster-father; and if any thing could be demanded from the child, by either of the other, it could be only due to his natural father, who perhaps might have forfeited his right to much of that duty comprehended in the command, Honour your parents, but could transfer none of it to another. He that purchased, and neglected the child, got by his purchase and grant of the father, no title to duty or honour from the child; but only he acquired it, who by his own authority, performing the office and care of a father, to the forlorn and perishing infant, made himself, by paternal care, a title to proportionable degrees of paternal power. This will be more easily admitted upon consideration of the nature of paternal power, for which I refer my reader to the second book.
To return to the argument in hand; this is evident, That paternal power arising only from begetting, for in that our author places it alone, can neither be transferred nor inherited: and he that does not beget, can no more have paternal power, which arises from thence, than he can have a right to any thing, who performs not the condition, to which only it is annexed. If one should ask, by what law has a father power over his children? it will be answered, no doubt, by the law of nature, which gives such a power over them, to him that begets them. If one should ask likewise, by what law does our author’s heir come by a right to inherit? I think it would be answered, by the law of nature too: for I find not that our author brings one word of scripture to prove the right of such an heir he speaks of. Why then the law of nature gives fathers paternal power over their children, because they did beget them; and the same law of nature gives the same paternal power to the heir over his brethren, who did not beget them: whence it follows, that either the father has not his paternal power by begetting, or else that the heir has it not at all; for it is hard to understand how the law of nature, which is the law of reason, can give the paternal power to the father over his children, for the only reason of begetting; and to the first-born over his brethren without this only reason, i.e. for no reason at all: and if the eldest, by the law of nature, can inherit this paternal power, without the only reason that gives a title to it, so may the youngest as well as he, and a stranger as well as either; for where there is no reason for any one, as there is not, but for him that begets, all have an equal title. I am sure our author offers no reason; and when any body does, we shall see whether it will hold or no.
In the mean time it is as good sense to say, that by the law of nature a man has right to inherit the property of another, because he is of kin to him, and is known to be of his blood; and therefore, by the same law of nature, an utter stranger to his blood has right to inherit his estate; as to say that, by the law of nature, he that begets them has paternal power over his children, and therefore, by the law of nature, the heir that begets them not, has this paternal power over them; or supposing the law of the land gave absolute power over their children, to such only who nursed them, and fed their children themselves, could any body pretend, that this law gave any one, who did no such thing, absolute power over those, who were not his children?…