Two Treatises on Government: A Translation into Modern English

An ISR Business & the political-legal environment study

John Locke’s 1690 book is one of the most important and influential works on government ever published. The first part demolishes the main authoritarian/totalitarian ideology of its day: the doctrine of the divine right of kings to absolute arbitrary power over their subjects. The second sets out the real social origins, functions, and limits of government. Locke demonstrates that far from God and natural law ordaining all-powerful hereditary dictatorship, the only legitimate form of government is one established by the consent of the people and committed to upholding their fundamental human rights to life, liberty, and property.

The book justified the Glorious Revolution establishing parliamentary government in England and was an inspiration behind the American Declaration of Independence a century later. Around the world, it continues to have a profound influence on the theory and practice of limited representative government and the protection of basic rights and freedoms under the rule of law.

However, the book is now well over 300 years old and present-day readers find its language difficult to follow and understand in places. This version translates the work into current English and seeks to make its substantive content clearer. Literalness and original word order and grammar are retained as far as possible. Nonetheless, the primary objective has been to improve the readability of the text in order to better convey its meaning. The considerable distance in time between the two documents has inevitably meant a considerable difference in conventional writing styles. In addition, much of Locke’s analysis is intrinsically highly complex and subtle. Thus, this new version diverges significantly from the original throughout.



Treatise 1

“The Divine Right of Kings”: A Refutation of the Doctrine of Sir Robert Filmer and His Followers

1. Introduction

2. Paternal and Regal Power

3. “Adam’s Title to Sovereignty by Creation”

4. “Adam’s Title to Sovereignty by Donation”

5. “Adam’s Title to Sovereignty by the Subjection of Eve”

6. “Adam’s Title to Sovereignty by Fatherhood”

7. The Notion of Fatherhood and Property as Joint Foundations of Sovereignty

8. The Notion of Conveying Adam’s Sovereign Monarchical Power

9. The Notion of Monarchy by Inheritance from Adam

10. The Notion of an Heir to Adam’s Monarchical Power

11. Who is the Heir?

Treatise 2

The Real Origins, Functions, and Limits of Government

1. Political Power

2. The State of Nature

3. The State of War

4. Slavery

5. Property

6. Paternal Power

7. Political or Civil Society

8. The Beginning of Political Societies

9. The Ends of Political Society and Government

10. Forms of Commonwealth

11. The Limits of Legislative Power

12. The Legislative, Executive, and Federative Powers of the Commonwealth

13. The Subordination of Powers of the Commonwealth

14. Prerogative

15. Paternal, Political, and Despotic Powers: a Comparison

16. Conquest

17. Usurpation

18. Tyranny

19. The Dissolution of Government


Slavery is a vile and miserable human condition. It is so directly opposite to the spirit of our nation that it seems incredible that an Englishman should advocate it.

At first glance, one might take Sir Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha to be a work of political satire or wit (like the Encomium of Nero). However, it soon becomes apparent that this treatise arguing that everybody is and ought to be a slave is a completely serious discourse. The gravity of the title and epistle, the picture at the front of the book, and the endorsements given it convinced me that the author and publisher were entirely in earnest. I read it with all the expectation and attention due a treatise creating such a commotion on its publication. However, I was surprised to find that – far from providing chains for all humankind – the book contains nothing but a rope of sand. The book might be useful to those in the business of throwing up political dust and trying to blind and mislead the people. However, it has no power to draw into bondage persons who have their eyes open and the sense to realize that chains are bad to wear no matter how much care the provider takes in filing and polishing them…. (page 1)

Sir Robert Filmer’s main hypothesis is that men are not naturally free.His model of absolute monarchy stands on this foundation. From it, the king comes to tower over all other powers – his head in the clouds, scarcely comprehensible, and incapable of being confined even by those promises and oaths that tie the infinite Deity. However, if the foundation fails the entire building will fall down with it. It will become perfectly apparent once again that governments are human contrivances made by freely consenting people who make use of their reason to unite into society…. (page 3)

We showed in the first treatise that:

1. Adam did not have the authority over his children or the dominion over the world that Sir Robert Filmer pretended – whether by natural right of fatherhood or by positive donation from God;

2. even if he had such a power, his heirs had no right to it;

3. should they have had such a right, there was no law of nature or God determining who was the right heir in all cases that might arise – and therefore, the right of succession and exercise of power could not have been determined with certainty; and

4. even if the true heir might once have been determined, any information as to which is the eldest line of Adam’s posterity is long since utterly lost. Thus, no present-day family can have the slightest claim to be the eldest house and have the right of inheritance.

It would be impossible for any contemporary political ruler to legitimately claim authority from Sir Robert Filmer’s so-called fountain of all power – Adam’s private dominion and paternal jurisdiction.

However, this does not mean that all governments are the unlawful products of force and violence – or that people must live together by the rules of beasts, with the strongest taking everything under conditions of permanent disorder, mischief, tumult, sedition, and rebellion.In the following pages, I shall set out a very different analysis of the origins, functions, and limits of government from that presented by Sir Robert…. (page 69)

To properly understand political power and trace its origins, we must consider the state that all people are in naturally.

That is a state of perfect freedom of acting and disposing of their own possessions and persons as they think fit within the bounds of the law of nature. People in this state do not have to ask permission to act or depend on the will of others to arrange matters on their behalf.The natural state is also one of equality in which all power and jurisdiction is reciprocal and no one has more than another. It is evident that all human beings – as creatures belonging to the same species and rank and born indiscriminately with all the same natural advantages and faculties – are equal amongst themselves. They have no relationship of subordination or subjection unless God (the lord and master of them all) had clearly set one person above another and conferred on him an undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty…. (page 70)

Natural reason tells us that having been born, human beings have a right to their preservation – and consequently to food, drink, and the other things that nature affords for their subsistence. The Bible gives us an account of the grants of the world that God made to Adam and to Noah and his sons. From what King David says in Psalm 115:16, it is clear that God gave the Earth to all humankind and their children or posterity in common.

In the light of this, some people have difficulty understanding how any one person can have an exclusive property in anything. They ask: How is it possible to legitimately establish private property if God gave the world to Adam and his posterity in common?

We saw in the first treatise that it is certainly impossible for property to legitimately fall into the exclusive possession of one monarch. Sir Robert Filmer’s supposition that God gave the world to Adam and his political heirs in succession exclusive of all the rest of his posterity is plain wrong. However, as I shall now endeavour to show, people may legitimately acquire private property in various parts of the thing that God gave to humankind in common – and may do so without the express agreement of all the other common holders…. (page 77)

As said, in the state of nature human beings are born with a title to perfect freedom and an uncontrolled enjoyment of all the rights and privileges of the law of nature – equally with all other people. People not only have a power by nature to preserve their own lives, liberties, and properties against the assaults of others but also a power to judge and punish breaches of the natural law in others – and even to impose the death penalty if they reason the crime is so heinous as to deserve it.

However, in political societies, governments have exclusive powers in themselves to preserve the properties and punish the criminal offences of the members. A political society emerges when all the members surrender their natural power up into its hands and appeal to the law established by it for their protection. In excluding private justice, the society becomes the umpire and operates by settled standing rules that are indifferent and the same to all parties. Persons with authority from the society execute the rules, decide disputes between the members on matters of right, and punish offences against the society with the penalties established by law.

To provide a simple definition of who are in political society together and who are not: People are in political or civil society together when they form one body with common established laws and a judiciary to appeal to that has authority to decide controversies between them and punish offenders. By contrast, people are in the state of nature when they have no such common appeal (on Earth) and are their own judges and executioners… (page 97)

Since all people are by nature free, equal, and independent, nobody can put them out of this state and subject them to the political power of others without their consent.

There is only one way whereby persons divest themselves of their natural liberty and put on the bonds of civil society. That is by agreeing with other people to join and unite into a society for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living together; for the secure enjoyment of their rights; and for greater protection against outsiders. Any number of people may agree to do this. Their agreement does not injure the freedom of the rest of the population who simply remain as they were – in the liberty of the state of nature. When any number of people consents to make one society or government, they thereby incorporate and make one body politic in whom the majority has a right to act and conclude for the rest…. (page 101)

If people in the state of nature are so free – the absolute lords of their own persons and possessions, equal to the greatest, and subject to nobody – why would they part with their freedom? Why would they give up this empire and subject themselves to the dominion and control of any other power? The answer is that although people in the state of nature do have enormous rights, their enjoyment of them tends to be very uncertain and precarious. Others constantly threaten their invasion. Should other people – who are also equal sovereign monarchs – fail to strictly observe equity and justice, then the actual exercise of their rights to life, liberty, and property in this state will be highly unsafe. This insecurity makes people willing to quit those natural conditions that – whilst free – are also full of fear and constant danger.

Thus, there are good reasons for people to enter into society with like-minded individuals for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties, and properties…. (page 110)

When people enter into society, they surrender the equality, liberty, and executive power they had in the state of nature into the hands of the society in general and the government in particular to be disposed of for the public good.However, this is only with the intention of better preserving themselves and their liberties and properties. Rational creatures cannot be supposed to change their situations with the intention of being worse off. Accordingly, the power of the society (or government) constituted by them cannot be supposed to extend any farther than the common good.

The commonwealth is obliged to secure everyone’s rights by providing against all the above-mentioned major defects that made the state of nature so unsafe and uneasy to occupy.In particular, those with supreme legislative and executive governing power in the society are required to:

1. govern by established standing laws, promulgated and known to the people – not by extemporary decrees;

2. employ impartial and upright judges to decide disputes and settle conflicts in accordance with those laws;

3. employ the force of the society both in the execution of domestic laws and to prevent or redress foreign injuries and secure the nation from inroads and invasion from abroad; and

4. in exercising their authority, never have any objective but the peace, safety, and public good of the people. … (pages 111-112)

In all commonwealths and constituted forms of government, the trust or mandate that society and the law and God and nature give to legislative authorities sets limits to their powers. There are four main restrictions or limitations on the powers of legislative authorities.

Firstly, they are required to govern by promulgated established laws that do not vary from case to case – depending on the wealth, political affiliation, geographical location, or professional-occupational status (etc.) of persons.

Secondly, they must design laws for no other ultimate end but the good of the people.

Thirdly, they ought not to raise taxes on the properties of the people without their consent given either directly or via chosen deputies. (This danger is unlikely to occur when the legislature is a regularly re-elected body.)

Fourthly, the legislature cannot lawfully transfer the power of making laws to any outside body or place its authority somewhere other than where the people have placed it…. (page 117)

Who is to judge whether the government is acting contrary to its trust?

Ill-affected and factious individuals pretending to be concerned about the public good sometimes pose this question when political rulers are only using their due prerogative or rightful powers. The answer is: the people shall be the judge.

The proper judges of whether trustees or deputies are acting well and according to the trust reposed in them are the persons who depute them and have the power to dismiss them if they fail in their trust. If this is reasonable in the case of private persons and contracts, it is certainly no less reasonable in the case of public persons and contracts. Political contracts are of the greatest importance. Government affects the welfare of millions – and thus the strongest and most effective mechanisms possible should be in place to prevent evil and secure redress where government is concerned…. (page 153)

The power that individuals gave the society when they entered into it can never revert to individuals again as long as the society lasts. It must remain in the society because without that there can be no society or commonwealth – something that would be contrary to the original agreement.

Likewise, once the society has placed legislative power in an assembly – to continue as an institution, with direction and authority for providing successor members – that lawmaking power cannot revert to the people whilst the government lasts. Having provided a legislative assembly with power to continue forever, the people have permanently given up their political power to that body and cannot resume it. However, they may set limits to the duration of the legislature and so make the supreme power of the persons exercising it only temporary. In addition, abuses of power or other wrongdoings by those in supreme political authority may result in their forfeiting power.

Upon forfeiture or at the set time for dissolving the assembly, the supreme power reverts to the society. The people have the right to act as supreme and continue the legislative power in themselves, to establish a new lawmaking institution, or to delegate legislative power to new individuals within the old institution – as they think good. (page 154)


Print book

First published 2009

ISBN 9780906321478

154 2-column pages


Price £74.95 including free postal delivery


E-book price £14.95 (British pounds 14.95)

E-book ISBN 9780906321690

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