PHL302 Background

Ports of Call


Locke 2

Locke and Civil Government

First Sightings

Readings for this part of your journey

The Second Treatise of Civil Government edited by Macpherson

The Second Treatise of Civil Government

In this section of the course we are going to explore Locke's Second Treatise of Civil Government. Locke is a political philosopher of the first importance, but he was not an arm-chair theorist. Locke, as you shall see, was involved in the historical events of the last three and a half decades of the seventeenth century which led to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in which James II was forced to flee to France being replaced on the throne of England by William of Orange and his wife Mary (daughter of James II). This relatively peaceful revolution was of enormous importance in English history as it represents the point at which power shifts finally from the King to Parliament.

In the Second Treatise Locke is asking questions which were of fundamental importance in making the Whig case that the house of Stuart was abusing its powers. Machaivelli had asked questions like: "How should a prince rule so as to stay in power?" Locke is asking another question. Locke wants to know what the difference is between a legitimate and an illegitimate civil government. If someone were to ask you this question right now -- would you have a good answer? Try it. Here is a form. Please use it to try to explain what the difference is between a legitimate civil government which is properly doing its job, and a government which is not, one against which its citizens could legitimately rebel.

If you found that exercise difficult, you will find that by the end of this section of the course you will have a clear view of at least one answer to this question -- the one supplied by Locke's Second Treatise of Civil Government.


John Locke

John Locke
You have already been introduced to John Locke (1632-1704), the author of the Second Treatise of Civil Government in the preceding unit of this course. Locke's father fought on the puritan and Parliamentary side in the early part of the English Civil War. Locke was an Oxford scholar and doctor who became involved with the great political conflicts in England after the Restoration of Charles II. Locke is famous for writing An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which deals with the extent and limits of human understanding. Locke is also famous for writing the Two Treatises of Civil Government and the Letters Concerning Toleration which deal with conflicts in English politics and religion. Locke's views have had an enormous impact on our thinking in various ways. The Letters Concerning Toleration, for example, argue for a distinction between Church and State which was influential among the founding fathers of the United States. Locke's prestige as a philosopher gave weight to his arguments. Similarly, the Second Treatise along with his other works, very much impressed Thomas Jefferson. So, Locke's ideas very likely played a role in the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. Scholars have debated the extant of Locke's influence in the colonies, on Jefferson and the Declaration as well as on those who wrote the Federalist papers and the Consititution. The current state of scholarship would say that Locke did have some considerable influence.

The Earl of Shaftsbury

The First
Earl of Shaftsbury

Anthony Ashley Cooper was a very rich commoner, who became involved in government under the Commonwealth. When that government began to collapse after the death of Oliver Cromwell, Shaftsbury became involved in the consultations and negotiations which led to the restoration of Charles II. After the Restoration in 1660 Anthony Ashley Cooper played a major role in the English government and politics. He was a hard working government official.

Locke met Anthony Ashley Cooper in 1666 and moved to London the next year to become his personal physician, secretary researcher, political operative and friend. Living with him Locke found himself at the very heart of the storm in English politics in the 1670s and 1680s. In 1668 Locke oversaw an operation in which a suppurating cyst was removed from his patron's liver. (Locke's recorded observations are sufficiently good that modern doctors have no trouble determining what Lord Ashley's ailment was). Miraculously Cooper survived the operation. (Remember this was a time before the theory of germs!) The family gave Locke all the credit for the success of the operation.

Lord Ashley eventually became Lord Chancellor of England and at that point was made the First Earl of Shaftsbury. Shaftsbury eventually had a falling out with the King (who probably never trusted him since he had been part of the Commonwealth government). He was dismissed as Lord Chancellor in 1672 and became the leader of the opposition to the government. He was the leader of the Country Party (which shortly became the Whig party) in opposition to the Court party (which became the Tories).


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