Locke cautions that the problem with Filmer’s absolutism is that it allows wild‐​eyed, levelling revolutionaries an in‐​road to reform.

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

For those of you who—like me—are not exactly convinced by Biblical arguments, the content of Locke’s First Treatise are now about to heat up. Now, we have reached the point where Robert Filmer is running low on additional arguments to throw at our author, and Locke is rounding on him, ready to deliver final strikes and erect his own system on the ruins of Sir Robert’s proud absolutism. To start this brief section, Locke grants Filmer’s claim that Adam was indeed appointed by God to be “lord and sole proprietor of the whole earth” and “absolute ruler over his children with an unlimited supremacy.” Well, what then? That is, what about after Adam died? Surely his two types of “dominion,” (natural and private) either passed on to his direct heir or dissipated with his earthly life. Surely, Adam could have only passed on one form of dominion, that of his private property; but natural dominion was something a father could only obtain either directly from God or by the explicit act of begetting children. On down the line of generations, it is impossible for brothers to rule over one another because they cannot possess the rights of natural dominion over each other—they did not beget one another! Yes, the eldest might inherit the father’s private estate, his private rights of dominion over private property, but this in no way implied natural dominion over relatives extending beyond one’s own immediate children (and even then, as our last section showed, fathers cannot be said to have absolute rights over their children, either).

But here is the real key to this duo of chapters: Locke worries that Filmer’s shaky grounds for admitting a king’s legitimacy opens the way to far too many governors without talent or virtue. Because essentially any strongman capable of amassing and wielding great power is justified in doing so under Filmer’s system, Oliver Cromwells and Massaniellos would surely abound. There was nothing really keeping them from claiming some sort of inheritance of power directly from Adam, evidenced by their abilities to overthrow kings and aristocrats, install their own bodies, raise their own armies and taxes, and exercise the very absolute dominion Filmer is so eager to grant away. Cromwell, of course, at least claimed to believe that everything he did was moved by the hand of God himself, so who is Robert Filmer to tell him otherwise? Especially if he throws the New Model Army in Filmer’s face? And Massaniello (a revolutionary fisherman in seventeenth‐​century Naples who led a proletarian, levelling rebellion against the city’s Spanish Habsburg rulers in 1647) was universally feared by thinkers from Filmer all the way to Locke. All aristocrats and their partners in the upper classes feared Massaniello and his example. The uprising took place nearly coincident with England’s own Putney Debates and helped inform the public debate over how to structure the Parliamentary government. All the way across the ocean, in Virginia, Bacon’s Rebellion (1676) included dozens and hundreds of potential Massaniellos in its Indian wars and its contest for control of the colony against Governor Berkeley. Berkeley worried that, once unleashed, the working classes’ revolutionary energies would be exceptionally difficult to contain again. So, in comes John Locke—with very serious personal interests in the colonial project—to justify proper government and protect people like himself and Filmer from possible tyrants of all sorts, whether knightly, noble, or fishmongering. The catch here, of course, is that someone has to rule the government, and so long as you buy into Locke’s reasoning you can rest easy that the state is legitimate. Well, Mr. Locke, we shall see.

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

Two Treatises of Civil Government

Book I: Of Government

Chapter 7: Of Fatherhood and Property considered together as Fountains of Sovereignty

[I] shall come now to consider, how these two originals of government, Adam’s natural and private dominion, will consist, and serve to make out and establish the titles of succeeding monarchs, who, as our author obliges them, must all derive their power from these fountains. Let us then suppose Adam made, by God’s donation, lord and sole proprietor of the whole earth, in as large and ample a manner as Sir Robert could wish; let us suppose him also, by right of fatherhood, absolute ruler over his children with an unlimited supremacy; I ask then, upon Adam’s death what becomes of both his natural and private dominion? and I doubt not it will be answered, that they descended to his next heir, as our author tells us in several places. But this way, it is plain, cannot possibly convey both his natural and private dominion to the same person: for should we allow, that all the property, all the estate of the father, ought to descend to the eldest son, (which will need some proof to establish it) and so he has by that title all the private dominion of the father, yet the father’s natural dominion, the paternal power cannot descend to him by inheritance: for it being a right that accrues to a man only by begetting, no man can have this natural dominion over any one he does not beget; unless it can be supposed, that a man can have a right to any thing, without doing that upon which that right is solely founded: for if a father by begetting, and no other title, has natural dominion over his children, he that does not beget them cannot have this natural dominion over them; and therefore be it true or false, that our author says, That every man that is born, by his very birth becomes a subject to him that begets him, this necessarily follows, viz. That a man by his birth cannot become a subject to his brother, who did not beget him; unless it can be supposed that a man by the very same title can come to be under the natural and absolute dominion of two different men at once; or it be sense to say, that a man by birth is under the natural dominion of his father, only because he begat him, and a man by birth also is under the natural dominion of his eldest brother, though he did not beget him.

If then the private dominion of Adam, i.e. his property in the creatures, descended at his death all entirely to his eldest son, his heir; (for, if it did not, there is presently an end of all Sir Robert’s monarchy) and his natural dominion, the dominion a father has over his children by begetting them, belonged immediately, upon Adam’s decease, equally to all his sons who had children, by the same title their father had it, the sovereignty founded upon property, and the sovereignty founded upon fatherhood, come to be divided; since Cain, as heir, had that of property alone; Seth, and the other sons, that of fatherhood equally with him. This is the best can be made of our author’s doctrine, and of the two titles of sovereignty he sets up in Adam: one of them will either signify nothing; or, if they both must stand, they can serve only to confound the rights of princes, and disorder government in his posterity: for by building upon two titles to dominion, which cannot descend together, and which he allows may be separated, (for he yields that Adam’s children had their distinct territories by right of private dominion, he makes it perpetually a doubt upon his principles where the sovereignty is, or to whom we owe our obedience, since fatherhood and property are distinct titles, and began presently upon Adam’s death to be in distinct persons. And which then was to give way to the other?…

The same inconvenience he runs into about the three sons of Noah, who, as he says, had the whole world divided amongst them by their father. I ask then, in which of the three shall we find the establishment of regal power after Noah’s death? If in all three, as our author there seems to say; then it will follow, that regal power is founded in property of land, and follows private dominion, and not in paternal power, or natural dominion; and so there is an end of paternal power as the fountain of regal authority, and the so‐​much‐​magnified fatherhood quite vanishes. If the regal power descended to Shem as eldest, and heir to his father, then Noah’s division of the world by lot to his sons, or his ten years sailing about the Mediterranean to appoint each son his part, which our author tells of was labour lost; his division of the world to them, was to ill, or to no purpose…This is his own arguing against two distinct independent powers…and when he has answered what he himself has urged here against two distinct powers, we shall be better able to see how, with any tolerable sense, he can derive all regal authority from the natural and private dominion of Adam, from fatherhood and property together, which are distinct titles, that do not always meet in the same person; and it is plain, by his own confession, presently separated as soon both as Adam’s and Noah’s death made way for succession: though our author frequently in his writings jumbles them together, and omits not to make use of either, where he thinks it will sound best to his purpose. But the absurdities of this will more fully appear in the next chapter, where we shall examine the ways of conveyance of the sovereignty of Adam, to princes that were to reign after him.

Chapter 8: Of the Conveyance of Adam’s sovereign Monarchical Power

SIR Robert, having not been very happy in any proof he brings for the sovereignty of Adam, is not much more fortunate in conveying it to future princes, who, if his politics be true, must all derive their titles from that first monarch. The ways he has assigned, as they lie scattered up and down in his writings, I will set down in his own words: in his preface he tells us, That Adam being monarch of the whole world, none of his posterity had any right to possess any thing, but by his grant or permission, or by succession from him. Here he makes two ways of conveyance of any thing Adam stood possessed of; and those are grants or succession. Again he says, All kings either are, or are to be reputed, the next heirs to those first progenitors, who were at first the natural parents of the whole people. There cannot be any multitude of men whatsoever, but that in it, considered by itself, there is one man amongst them, that in nature hath a right to be the king of all the rest, as being the next heir to Adam. Here in these places inheritance is the only way he allows of conveying monarchical power to princes. In other places he tells us, All power on earth is either derived or usurped from the fatherly power. All kings that now are, or ever were, are or were either fathers of their people, or heirs of such fathers, or usurpers of the right of such fathers. And here he makes inheritance or usurpation the only ways whereby kings come by this original power: but yet he tells us, This fatherly empire, as it was of itself hereditary, so it was alienable by patent, and seizable by an usurper. So then here inheritance, grant, or usurpation, will convey it. And last of all, which is most admirable, he tells us, It skills not which way kings come by their power, whether by election, donation, succession, or by any other means; for it is still the manner of the government by supreme power, that makes them properly kings, and not the means of obtaining their crowns. Which I think is a full answer to all his whole hypothesis and discourse about Adam’s royal authority, as the fountain from which all princes were to derive theirs: and he might have spared the trouble of speaking so much as he does, up and down, of heirs and inheritance, if to make any one properly a king, needs no more but governing by supreme power, and it matters not by what means he came by it.

By this notable way, our author may make Oliver as properly king, as any one else he could think of: and had he had the happiness to live under Massanello’s government, he could not by this his own rule have forborn to have done homage to him, with O king live for ever, since the manner of his government by supreme power, made him properly king, who was but the day before properly a fisherman. And if Don Quixote had taught his squire to govern with supreme authority, our author no doubt could have made a most loyal subject in Sancho Pancha’s island; and he must needs have deserved some preferment in such governments, since I think he is the first politician, who, pretending to settle government upon its true basis, and to establish the thrones of lawful princes, ever told the world, That he was properly a king, whose manner of government was by supreme power, by what means soever he obtained it; which in plain English is to say, that regal and supreme power is properly and truly his, who can by any means seize upon it; and if this be to be properly a king, I wonder how he came to think of, or where he will find, an usurper.

This is so strange a doctrine, that the surprise of it hath made me pass by, without their due reflection, the contradictions he runs into, by making sometimes inheritance alone, sometimes only grant or inheritance, sometimes only inheritance or usurpation, sometimes all these three, and at last election, or any other means, added to them, the ways whereby Adam’s royal authority, that is, his right to supreme rule, could be conveyed down to future kings and governors, so as to give them a title to the obedience and subjection of the people. But these contradictions lie so open, that the very reading of our author’s own words will discover them to any ordinary understanding; and though what I have quoted out of him (with abundance more of the same strain and coherence, which might be found in him) might well excuse me from any farther trouble in this argument, yet having proposed to myself, to examine the main parts of his doctrine, I shall a little more particularly consider how inheritance, grant, usurpation or election, can any way make out government in the world upon his principles; or derive to any one a right of empire, from this regal authority of Adam, had it been never so well proved, that he had been absolute monarch, and lord of the whole world.