Two Treatises was first published, anonymously, in December of 1689 (following printing conventions of the time, its title page was marked 1690). Locke was unhappy with this edition, complaining to the publisher about its many errors. For the rest of his life, he was intent on republishing the Two Treatises in a form that better reflected his meaning, although he never publicly acknowledged his authorship. Peter Laslett, one of the foremost Locke scholars, has suggested that Locke held the printers to a higher "standard of perfection" than the technology of the time would permit. Be that as it may, the first edition was indeed replete with errors. The second edition was even worse, and finally printed on cheap paper and sold to the poor. The third edition was much improved, but Locke was still not satisfied. He made corrections to the third edition by hand and entrusted the publication of the fourth to his friends, as he died before it could be brought out.
The Two Treatises begin with a Preface announcing what Locke hopes to achieve, but he also mentions that more than half of his original draft, occupying a space between the First and Second Treatises, has been irretrievably lost. Peter Laslett maintains that, while Locke may have added or altered some portions in 1689, he did not make any revisions to accommodate for the missing section; he argues, for example, that the end of the First Treatise breaks off in mid-sentence.
In 1691 Two Treatises was translated into French by David Mazzel, a French Huguenot living in the Netherlands. This translation left out Locke's "Preface," all of the First Treatise, and the first chapter of the Second Treatise. It was in this form that Locke's work was reprinted during the eighteenth century in France and in this form that Montesquieu, Voltaire and Rousseau were exposed to it. The only American edition from the eighteenth century was printed in 1773 in Boston; it, too, left out all of these sections. There were no other American editions until the twentieth century.
The Second Treatise outlines a theory of civil society. Locke begins by describing the state of nature, a picture much more stable than Thomas Hobbes' state of "war of every man against every man," and argues that all men are created equal in the state of nature by God. From this, he goes on to explain the hypothetical rise of property and civilization, in the process explaining that the only legitimate governments are those which have the consent of the people. Thus, any government that rules without the consent of the people can, in theory, be overthrown.
The First Treatise is an extended attack on Sir Robert Filmer's Patriarcha. Locke's argument proceeds along two lines: first, he undercuts the Scriptural support that Filmer had offered for his thesis, and second he argues that the acceptance of Filmer's thesis can lead only to absurdity. Locke chose Filmer as his target, he says, because of his reputation and because he "carried this Argument [jure divino] farthest, and is supposed to have brought it to perfection" (1st Tr., §5).
Filmer's text presented an argument for a divinely-ordained, hereditary, absolute monarchy. According to Filmer, the Biblical Adam in his role as father possessed unlimited power over his children and this authority passed down through the generations. Locke attacks this on several grounds. Accepting that fatherhood grants authority, he argues, it would do so only by the act of begetting, and so cannot be transmitted to one's children because only God can create life. Nor is the power of a father over his children absolute, as Filmer would have it; Locke points to the joint power parents share over their children outlined in the Bible. In the Second Treatise Locke returns to a discussion of parental power. (Both of these discussions have drawn the interest of modern feminists such as Carole Pateman.)
Filmer also suggested that Adam's absolute authority came from his ownership over all the world. To this, Locke rebuts that the world was originally held in common (a theme that will return in the Second Treatise). But, even if it were not, he argues, God's grant to Adam covered only the land and brute animals, not human beings. Nor could Adam, or his heir, leverage this grant to enslave mankind, for the law of nature forbids reducing one's fellows to a state of desperation, if one possesses a sufficient surplus to maintain oneself securely. And even if this charity were not commanded by reason, Locke continues, such a strategy for gaining dominion would prove only that the foundation of government lies in consent.
Locke intimates in the First Treatise that the doctrine of divine right of kings (jure divino) will eventually be the downfall of all governments. In his final chapter Locke asks, "Who heir?" If Filmer is correct, there should be only one rightful king in all the world—the heir of Adam. But since it is impossible to discover the true heir of Adam, no government, under Filmer's principles, can require that its members obey its rulers. Filmer must therefore say that men are duty-bound to obey their present rulers. Locke writes:
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. (1st Tr., §79)
Locke ends the First Treatise by examining the history told in the Bible and the history of the world since then; he concludes that there is no evidence to support Filmer's hypothesis. According to Locke, no king has ever claimed that his authority rested upon his being the heir of Adam. It is Filmer, Locke alleges, that is the innovator in politics, not those who assert the natural equality and freedom of man.
While no individual in this state may tell another what to do or authoritatively pronounce justice in a given case, men are not free to do whatever they please. "The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it" (2nd Tr., §6). The specifics of this law are unwritten, however, and so each is likely to misapply it in his own case. Lacking any commonly recognized, impartial judge, there is no way to correct these misapplications. Even were such a judge available, the just are vastly outnumbered by the unjust and indifferent, so his pronouncements would lack effect. This section, S6, also presumes theism. In other words, rather than arguing for the presence of men by natural ideas, Locke assumes that all men are born by God.
The law of nature is therefore ill enforced in the state of nature.
IF man in the state of nature be so free, as has been said; if he be absolute lord of his own person and possessions, equal to the greatest, and subject to no body, why will he part with his freedom? Why will he give up this empire, and subject himself to the dominion and control of any other power? To which it is obvious to answer, that though in the state of nature he hath such a right, yet the enjoyment of it is very uncertain, and constantly exposed to the invasion of others: for all being kings as much as he, every man his equal, and the greater part no strict observers of equity and justice, the enjoyment of the property he has in this state is very unsafe, very unsecure. This makes him willing to quit a condition, which, however free, is full of fears and continual dangers: and it is not without reason, that he seeks out, and is willing to join in society with others, who are already united, or have a mind to unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name, property. (2nd Tr., §123)What should be a state of peace very quickly begins to look like the state of war that Hobbes described (though the ill enforcement of the law of nature does not release individuals from their obligation to it, as it does in Hobbes).
It is to avoid the state of war that often occurs in the state of nature and to protect their private property that men enter into civil or political society, ie. state of society. It is also the state to which men return upon the dissolution of government, i.e., under tyranny.
Most Locke scholars roundly reject this reading, as it is directly at odds with the text. The extent of Locke's involvement in drafting the Fundamental Constitutions is a matter of some debate, but even attributing full culpability for its contents and for his having profited from the Atlantic slave trade, the majority of experts will concede that Locke may have been a hypocrite in this matter, but are adamant that no part of the Two Treatises can be used to provide theoretical support for slavery by bare right of conquest.
In the rhetoric of seventeenth-century England, those who opposed the increasing power of the kings claimed that the country was headed for a condition of slavery. Locke therefore asks, facetiously, under what conditions such slavery might be justified. He notes that slavery cannot come about as a matter of contract (which will be the basis of Locke's political system). To be a slave is to be subject to the absolute, arbitrary power of another; as men do not have this power even over themselves, they cannot sell or otherwise grant it to another. One that is deserving of death, i.e., who has violated the law of nature, may be enslaved. This is, however, "but the state of war continued" (2nd Tr., §24), and even one justly a slave therefore has no obligation to obedience.
In providing a justification for slavery, he has rendered all forms of slavery as it actually exists invalid. Moreover, as one may not submit to slavery, there is a moral injunction to attempt to throw off and escape it whenever it looms. Most scholars take this to be Locke's point regarding slavery: submission to absolute monarchy is a violation of the law of nature, for one does not have the right to enslave oneself.
The legitimacy of an English king depended on (somehow) demonstrating descent from William the Conqueror: the right of conquest was therefore a topic rife with constitutional connotations. Locke does not say that all subsequent English monarchs have been illegitimate, but he does make their rightful authority dependent solely upon their having acquired the people's approbation.
Locke first argues that, clearly, aggressors in an unjust war can claim no right of conquest: everything they despoil may be retaken as soon as the dispossessed have the strength to do so. Their children retain this right, so an ancient usurpation does not become lawful with time. The rest of the chapter then considers what rights a just conqueror might have.
The argument proceeds negatively: Locke proposes one power a conqueror could gain, and then demonstrates how in point of fact that power cannot be claimed. He gains no authority over those that conquered with him, for they did not wage war unjustly: thus, whatever other right William may have had in England, he could not claim kingship over his fellow Normans by right of conquest. The subdued are under the conqueror's despotical authority, but only those who actually took part in the fighting. Those who were governed by the defeated aggressor do not become subject to the authority of the victorious aggressor. They lacked the power to do an unjust thing, and so could not have granted that power to their governors: the aggressor therefore was not acting as their representative, and they cannot be punished for his actions. And while the conqueror may seize the person of the vanquished aggressor in an unjust war, he cannot seize the latter's property: he may not drive the innocent wife and children of a villain into poverty for another's unjust acts. While the property is technically that of the defeated, his innocent dependents have a claim to it to which the just conqueror must yield. He cannot seize more than the vanquished could forfeit, and the latter had no right to ruin his dependents. (He may, however, demand and take reparations for the damages suffered in the war, so long as these leave enough in the possession of the aggressor's dependants for their survival).
In so arguing, Locke accomplishes two objectives. First, he neutralizes the claims of those who see all authority flowing from William I by the latter's right of conquest. In the absence of any other claims to authority (e.g., Filmer's primogeniture from Adam, divine anointment, etc.), all kings would have to found their authority on the consent of the governed. Second, he removes much of the incentive for conquest in the first place, for even in a just war the spoils are limited to the persons of the defeated and reparations sufficient only to cover the costs of the war, and even then only when the aggressor's territory can easily sustain such costs (i.e., it can never be a profitable endeavor). Needless to say, the bare claim that one's spoils are the just compensation for a just war does not suffice to make it so, in Locke's view.
In the Second Treatise, Locke claims that civil society was created for the protection of property. In saying this, he relies on the etymological root of "property," Latin proprius, or that which is one's own, including oneself (cf. French propre). Thus, by "property" he means "life, liberty, and estate." By saying that political society was established for the better protection of property, he claims that it serves the private (and non-political) interests of its constituent members: it does not promote some good which can be realized only in community with others (e.g., virtue).
For this account to work, individuals must possess some property outside of society, i.e., in the state of nature: the state cannot be the sole origin of property, declaring what belongs to whom. If the purpose of government is the protection of property, the latter must exist independently of the former. Filmer had said that, if there even were a state of nature (which he denied), everything would be held in common: there could be no private property, and hence no justice or injustice (injustice being understood as treating someone else's goods, liberty, or life as if it were one's own). Thomas Hobbes had argued the same thing. Locke therefore provides an account of how material property could arise in the absence of government.
He begins by asserting that each individual, at a minimum, "owns" himself; this is a corollary of each individual's being free and equal in the state of nature. As a result, each must also own his own labor: to deny him his labor would be to make him a slave. One can therefore take items from the common store of goods by mixing one's labor with them: an apple on the tree is of no use to anyone — it must be picked to be eaten — and the picking of that apple makes it one's own. In an alternate argument, Locke claims that we must allow it to become private property lest all mankind have starved, despite the bounty of the world. A man must be allowed to eat, and thus have what he has eaten be his own (such that he could deny others a right to use it). The apple is surely his when he swallows it, when he chews it, when he bites into it, when he brings it to his mouth, etc.: it became his as soon as he mixed his labor with it (by picking it from the tree).
This does not yet say why an individual is allowed to take from the common store of nature. There is a necessity to do so in order to eat, but this does not yet establish why others must respect one's property, especially as they labor under the like necessity. Locke assures his readers that the state of nature is a state of plenty: one may take from communal store if one leaves a) as much and b) as good for others, and since nature is bountiful, one can take all that one can use without taking anything from someone else. Moreover, one can take only so much as one can use before it spoils. There are then two provisos regarding what one can take, the "as much and as good" condition and "spoilage."
Gold does not rot. Neither does silver, or any other precious metal or gem. They are, moreover, useless, their aesthetic value not entering into the equation. One can heap up as much of them as one wishes, or take them in trade for food. By the tacit consent of mankind, they become a form of money (one accepts gold in exchange for apples with the understanding that someone else will accept that gold in exchange for wheat). One can therefore avoid the spoilage limitation by selling all that one has amassed before it rots; the limits on acquisition thus disappear.
In this way, Locke argues that a full economic system could, in principle, exist within the state of nature. Property could therefore predate the existence of government, and thus society can be dedicated to the protection of property.
In the Twentieth Century, Marxist scholars viewed Locke as the founder of bourgeois capitalism. Those who were opposed to communism accepted this reading of Locke, and celebrated him for it. He has therefore become associated with capitalism.
While the Two Treatises did not become popular until the 1760s, ideas from them did start to become important earlier in the century. According to Goldie, "the crucial moment was 1701" and "the occasion was the Kentish petition." The pamphlet war that ensued was one of the first times Locke's ideas were invoked in a public debate, most notably by Daniel Defoe. Locke's ideas did not go unchallenged and the periodical The Rehearsal, for example, launched a "sustained and sophisticated assault” against the Two Treatises and endorsed the ideology of patriarchalism. Not only did patriarchalism continue to be a legitimate political theory in the eighteenth century, but as J. G. A. Pocock and others have gone to great lengths to demonstrate, so was civic humanism and classical republicanism. Pocock has argued that Locke's Two Treatises had very little effect on British political theory; he maintains that there was no contractarian revolution. Rather, he sees these other long-standing traditions as far more important for eighteenth-century British politics.
In the middle of the eighteenth century, Locke's position as a political philosopher suddenly rose in prominence. For example, he was invoked by those arguing on behalf of the American colonies during the Stamp Act debates of 1765-6. Marginalized groups such as women, Dissenters and those campaigning to abolish the slave trade all invoked Lockean ideals. But at the same time, as Goldie describes it, "a wind of doubt about Locke’s credentials gathered into a storm. The sense that Locke’s philosophy had been misappropriated increasingly turned to a conviction that it was erroneous.” By the 1790s Locke was associated with Rousseau and Voltaire and being blamed for the American and French Revolutions as well as for the perceived secularization of society. By 1815, Locke's portrait was taken down from Christ Church, his alma mater. (It was later restored to a position of prominence, and currently hangs in the dining hall of the college.)
This view was challenged by Bernard Bailyn and Gordon S. Wood, who argued that the revolution was not a struggle over property, taxation, and rights, but rather "a Machiavellian effort to preserve the young republic’s 'virtue' from the corrupt and corrupting forces of English politics. Garry Wills, on the other hand, maintains that it was neither the Lockean tradition nor the classical republican tradition that drove the revolution, but instead Scottish moral philosophy, a political philosophy that based its conception of society on friendship, sensibility and the controlled passions. Thomas Pangle and Michael Zuckert have countered, demonstrating numerous elements in the thought of more influential founders that have a Lockean pedigree.
Leo Strauss in his Natural Right and History contentiously argues that Locke is more or less Hobbesian in his conception of politics. Strauss claims that the supposed egoism of Hobbes' natural law and the ostensible altruism of Locke's can be reduced to an identical moral framework, one in which people are to treat others as others treat them, to be selfless when others are selfless, selfish when others are selfish. Strauss argued that Locke only distanced himself from Hobbes rhetorically, in order to make his system more publicly acceptable. In this way, Locke corrects Hobbes on Hobbesian principles, and so should not be read as breaking from him philosophically.
At about the same time, C. B. Macpherson argued in his Political Theory of Possessive Individualism that Hobbes and Locke stood together in laying the groundwork for proto-capitalism. He saw them both as instigators of the liberal tendency to view the subject as a possessive entity in an economic sense, and argued that Locke's striking account of property rights in the state of nature should be read primarily as a justification for market economic relationships.
The Cambridge School of political thought, led principally by Quentin Skinner, John Pocock, Richard Ashcraft, and others, developed in opposition to interpretations such as Strauss's and, to a lesser extent, Macpherson's. It focuses on placing much of Locke's political philosophy within its historical context, following the trail laid by Peter Laslett in the Introduction to his edition of the Two Treatises. Laslett argued that, contrary to the traditional view that Locke had composed the Two Treatises in order to legitimize the 1688 Glorious Revolution, they were actually written surrounding the Exclusion Crisis a decade earlier. Laslett declined to establish a firm relationship between Locke's thought and that of Hobbes, but did note some similar themes.
Richard Ashcraft argued in Revolutionary Politics and Locke's "Two Treatises of Government" that Locke instead wrote the Two Treatises later, and that he should therefore be associated with the Radical Whigs and the intrigues surrounding the Rye House Plot and the Monmouth Rebellion. These associations, and the economic system prevalent in England at the time, Ashcraft argued, render Macpherson's interpretation historically implausible. He also asserted that the absence of any reference to Hobbes, the questionable utility of refuting Hobbes when he was a non-issue in the most immediate debates, and the fact that Locke claims to have never read Hobbes or Spinoza, "those justly-decried names," harms any interpretation that interprets Locke as in any way responding to Hobbes. This last point is leveled most vociferously against Strauss's interpretation.
Regarding the relation between Locke's thought and that of Hobbes, the core of the dispute centers on the literary character of the Two Treatises. Those who support a connection of any sort treat the work as having been intended, at least in part, as a philosophic tract, and therefore as potentially speaking beyond the immediate political context. Those who deny such a connection insist that the Two Treatises are nothing more than a particularly popular remnant of an ideologically driven political contest, and were not meant to address any broader questions.