Books on British Constitutional History and Democracy: John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government

John Locke Government

This is one of the most fundamental texts for the development of modern, British constitutional government and democracy. In the first of the Two Treatises Locke attacked the traditional arguments for absolute monarchy advanced by the royalist Filmer in his Patriarchia. These stated that as the father was the head of the family, so the king had patriarchal power over the nation. Filmer used quotations from Scripture in an attempt to show that this patriarchal power had existed ever since the creation of the first human couple, Adam and Eve.

in the second Treatise Locke advanced his own theory of government. Like the other contract theorists, Locke believed that governments had been set up by the early human community in order to protect their natural rights to life, liberty and property. Locke was responsible for drafting the constitution of the new British colony of Carolina in 1669, and his belief that humans have the above fundamental rights influenced the American Founding Fathers and the declaration of the American Constitution that everyone has the right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’. Unlike Hobbes, he believed that power was still held by the human community, and there were natural limits to government that it could and should not exceed. The supreme power in the state was the legislature, which governed by the consent of the people. This could not transfer its powers to any other body, and can only govern through proper legislation and authorised judges. It cannot seize someone’s property without their consent, and taxes can only be raised with the consent of the people. Its fundamental duty is to govern for the people’s benefit. When it does not do so, the people have the right to dissolve it:

‘There remains still in the People a supreme power to remoave or alter the Legislative, when they find the Legislative act contrary to the Trust reposed in them’.

Locke wasn’t a democrat. His constitution for Carolina was still strongly hierarchical, with the largest landholdings reflecting the various grades of the British aristocracy, so that some of the largest were termed ‘baronies’, for example. In his discussion on the forms of government, he states that nations should be free to choose whether they are democracies, oligarchies, or elective monarchies, or mixtures of all three, as it suits them. In the case of Carolina, the franchise was still restricted to men of property, and the constitution permitted slavery. Nevertheless, Locke’s work is of vital importance for its statement that political power and authority still lies in the people, on whose behalf and by whose authority monarchs and parliaments govern, and that there must be and are constitutional limits to their power. In 1769 the constitutional theorist, Blackstone, developed this into the theory that parliament was the supreme power. His theory of the origin of political power are the basis of both American and British democracy, and the liberal view of political freedom. This is that freedom consists in the people’s right to govern themselves and make their own laws through their representatives. It is opposed to the ‘Conservative’ view of freedom, expressed by absolute monarchs like Charles I, that politics is the sole business of absolute monarchs, who should in practice interfere as little as possible in the lives of their subjects. Unfortunately, this idea of liberty is coming under increasing attack from an authoritarian Coalition, which is liberal in name only.

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