4. The English Context

4.2 Locke, Second Treatise of Government

About this Text

John Locke wrote nearly 50 years after Hobbes at the time time of the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688.  His Two Treatises of Government offered a vision of properly limited government that worked to protect individual liberty.  In making this argument, Locke drew on a vision of the state of nature that, far from the violent state of war imagined by Hobbes, was generally peaceful.  The absence of government being “inconvenient,” though, Locke argued that people would move into civil society, but only if they retained their rights and governmental power was strictly limited.  This doesn’t mean that Locke was in favor of ‘democracy.’  In fact, he supported the rise of William and Mary as the new British monarchs.  Unlike Hobbes, though, Locke insists in the passage below that in all “well-framed governments” the “Legislative and Executive Power are in distinct hands.”  Locke, that is, imagined a version of the separation of powers in a limited monarchy.


Excerpts from Second Treatise of Government (source)

143. The Legislative Power is that which has a right to direct how the Force of the Commonwealth shall be imploy’d for preserving the Community and the Members of it. But because those Laws which are constantly to be Executed, and whose force is always to continue, may be made in a little time; therefore there is no need, that the Legislative should be always in being, not having always business to do. And because it may be too great a temptation to humane frailty apt to grasp at Power, for the same Persons who have the Power of making Laws, to have also in their hands the power to execute them, whereby they may exempt “it may be too great a temptation to humane frailty apt to grasp at Power, for the same Persons who have the Power of making Laws, to have also in their hands the power to execute them”themselves from Obedience to the Laws they make, and suit the Law, both in its making and execution, to their own private advantage, and thereby come to have a distinct interest from the rest of the Community, contrary to the end of Society and Government: Therefore in well order’d Commonwealths, where the good of the whole is so considered, as it ought, the Legislative Power is put into the hands of divers Persons who duly Assembled, have by themselves, or jointly with others, a Power to make Laws, which when they have done, being separated again, they are themselves subject to the Laws, they have made; which is a new and near tie upon them, to take care, that they make them for the publick good.

144. But because the Laws, that are at once, and in a short time made, have a constant and lasting force, and need a perpetual Execution, or an attendance thereunto: Therefore ’tis necessary there should be a Power always in being, which should see to the Execution of the Laws that are made, and remain in force. And thus the Legislative and Executive Power come often to be separated.

150. In all Cases, whilst the Government subsists, the Legislative is the Supream Power. For what can give Laws to another, must needs be superiour to him: and since the Legislative is no otherwise Legislative of the Society, but by the right it has to make Laws for all the parts and for every Member of the Society, prescribing Rules to their actions, and giving power of Execution, where they are transgressed, the Legislative must needs be the Supream, and all other Powers in any Members or parts of the Society, derived from and subordinate to it.

Stop & Think

What does Locke mean by “the Legislative of the Society?”  Why does he think it “must needs be the Supream” power?

159. Where the Legislative and Executive Power are in distinct hands, (as they are in all moderated Monarchies, and well-framed Governments) there the good of the Society requires, that several things should be left to the discretion of him, that has the Executive Power. For the Legislators not being able to foresee, and provide, by Laws, for all, that may be useful to the Community, the Executor of the Laws, having the power in his hands, has by the common Law of Nature, a right to make use of it, for the good of the Society, in many Cases, where the municipal Law has given no direction, till the Legislative can conveniently be Assembled to provide for it. Many things there are, which the Law can by no means provide for, and those must necessarily be left to the discretion of him, that has the Executive Power in his hands, to be ordered by him, as the publick good and advantage shall require: nay, ’tis fit that the Laws themselves should in some Cases give way to the Executive Power, or rather to this Fundamental Law of Nature and Government, viz. That as much as may be, all the Members of the Society are to be preserved.

Stop & Think

What is Locke’s basic argument for separation of powers?  


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