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Second Treatise on Government

Second Treatise On Government

John Locke, 1690

The Englishman JOHN LOCKE is regarded as one of the world's most important political philosophers, and his "Second Treatise on Government" has proved to be one of the seminal documents on the liberal political state. The U.S. system of government was built on Locke's ideas, including such core premises as the ultimate sovereignty of the people, the necessity of restraints on the exercise of arbitrary power by the executive or the legislature, and the revocability of the social contract by the people when power has been arbitrarily used against them. The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution are testaments to many of Locke's core ideas.

The "Second Treatise" (the second part of Two Treatises on Government) was written during the period preceding the abdication of King James II. Locke's work, which was published in 1690, became a justification for the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when government was reformed along the lines outlined by Locke in his Two Treatises. As a result of these reforms, England became a constitutional monarchy under Parliament's control. Greater measures of religious toleration and freedom of expression and thought were permitted, as set out in the English Bill of Rights.

In part, the Two Treatises were an attack upon political absolutism. The first treatise refuted the theory of the divine right of kings, which posited that monarchs derived their authority from God. The second treatise, however, has had the more lasting impact on the United States, for it sets out a theory of politics that found its way into U.S. law.

Locke maintained that people are naturally tolerant and reasonable, but that without a governing force, a certain amount of chaos and other inconveniences will occur. In his view all people are inherently equal and free to pursue "life, liberty, health, and property." To do this, they engage in a social contract in which they consent to give up a certain amount of power to a government dedicated to maintaining the well-being of the whole. At the same time, however, individuals' right to freedom of thought, speech, and worship must be preserved. In addition, the government must preserve citizens' private property.

Locke believed that the government is the trustee of the people's power and that it exercises power specifically for the purpose of serving the people. If the government abuses that trust, however, the people have a right to revoke the trust and assume the reins of government themselves or place them in new hands. This idea provided justification for the American Revolution in 1776.

Thomas Jefferson drew upon Locke's ideas of the law of nature, popular sovereignty, and the sanctity of the right of private property in writing the Declaration of Independence. The U.S. Constitution, with its separation of church and state and its guarantee of personal freedoms, reflects Locke's influence as well.

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