Locke’s Two Treatises of Government



This is a course on John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, published anonymously following the Glorious Revolution in 1689. The theory of legitimacy the Second Treatise contains is similar enough to the principles upon which the United States was founded that Louis Hartz could claim in 1955 that America simply was a Lockean nation; it is different enough that contemporary thinkers such as Robert Nozick and A. John Simmons retell essentially Lockean stories in order to shear away what they find inconvenient or disquieting. Locke justifies something very much, but not quite, like the American regime.

Locke’s impact on the history of ideas is easy to trace. His Essay on Human Understanding provided the standard view of human psychology until the twentieth century; its assertion that our minds are tabulae rasae was essential to near-infinite malleability of human “nature” that lies at the root of historicism. Some Thoughts Concerning Education became the Bible of English pedagogy. Epistola de Tolerantia represents the first call for the separation of church and state in which many pious Christians did not immediately detect the aroma of atheism. The theological reforms attempted in The Reasonableness of Christianity have met with an astounding success. The Two Treatises was immediately plagiarized and epitomized in a variety of tracts to form the basis of the emerging Whig ideology.

It is against Locke that much modern thought is directed, either directly or implicitly. Contemporary cognitive science takes aim at Locke’s view of human nature, or the view of human nature that came to be associated with him; witness Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, among others. Socialists and social democrats assail his arguments for a natural property right. The reaction against the bourgeois is essentially a revulsion at the sort of life Locke would have human beings lead; the more radical assaults on Kant and Hegel—the beneficiaries of that anti-Locke animus—derive from an intuition that their systems are not sufficiently divorced from Locke’s longing for material well-being at the expense of spiritual fulfillment. The return to ancient philosophy or the sense that we suffer in a postmodern predicament arises from the unsatisfactory character of Lockean political philosophy and from the even more unsatisfactory character of attempts to correct it.

In order to better facilitate class discussion, I will post my lecture notes online after I have given them. You are thereby encouraged to ask questions, rather than practice your shorthand. Submit all written work via Blackboard.



10%    Weekly Papers, no more than 300 words in length, due by the beginning of each class on topics assigned. There will be no paper due in weeks where you hand in an essay. The lowest paper will be dropped (i.e., ten papers, nine of which count).

10%    Attendance and Participation.

15%    Class Presentation. Beginning September 24, each class will begin with a student presentation that introduces us to the most important aspects of the sections we have read for that week. Students should be prepared to speak for half an hour and to be interrupted with questions from other students. Once the discussion is satisfactorily concluded, class will continue as normal.

20%    First Essay, due October 2 by 5:00pm. Essays should not exceed 3500 words.

35%    Second Essay, due November 6 by 5:00pm. Essays should not exceed 4500 words.

10%    Take-home Final Exam, distributed via Blackboard 48 hours before the exam date/time.


Required Readings

  • John Locke. Two Treatises of Government. Ed. Peter Laslett. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988 [1960].
  • Thomas Pangle. The Spirit of Modern Republicanism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.
  • Leo Strauss. Natural Right and History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953.
  • Michael Zuckert. Natural Rights and the New Republicanism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Recommended Readings

  • Ross Corbett. The Lockean Commonwealth. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009.
  • Robert Goldwin. “John Locke.” In History of Political Philosophy, edited by Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, 476–512. Third Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
  • Peter Josephson. The Great Art of Government. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002.
  • Leo Strauss. “Locke’s Doctrine of Natural Law.” In What is Political Philosophy?, 197–220. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. First published by the Free Press, 1959.
  • Michael Zuckert. Launching Liberalism. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2002.

Literature Often Cited

  • Richard Ashcraft. Revolutionary Politics and Locke’s “Two Treatises of Government.” Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986.
  • Richard Ashcraft. Locke’s “Two Treatises of Government.” London: Allen & Unwin, 1987.
  • Patrick Coby. “The Law of Nature in Locke’s Second Treatise.” Review of Politics 49, no. 1 (Winter 1987): 3–28.
  • Richard Cox. Locke on War and Peace. Oxford: Clarendon Pres, 1960.
  • John Dunn. The Political Thought of John Locke. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969.
  • Robert Faulkner. “The First Liberal Democrat: Locke’s Popular Government.” Review of Politics 63, no. 1 (Winter 2001): 5–39.
  • Steven Forde. “Natural Law, Theology, and Morality in Locke.” American Journal of Political Science 45, no. 2 (April 2001): 396–409.
  • J. W. Gough. John Locke’s Political Philosophy. Revised Edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956.
  • Ruth Grant. John Locke’s Liberalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
  • Wilmoore Kendall. John Locke and the Doctrine of Majority Rule. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965. First published 1941.
  • Robert Kraynak. “John Locke: From Absolutism to Toleration.” American Political Science Review 74, no. 1 (March 1980): 53–69.
  • Peter Laslett. Introduction to Two Treatises of Government, by John Locke. Edited by Peter Laslett. Student edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. First published 1960.
  • Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr. Taming the Prince. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993. First published 1989 by The Free Press.
  • Kirstie McClure. Judging Rights: Lockean Politics and the Limits of Consent. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996.
  • Martin Seliger. The Liberal Politics of John Locke. New York: Praeger, 1969.
  • A. John Simmons. The Lockean Theory of Rights. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.
  • A. John Simmons. On the Edge of Anarchy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.
  • Nathan Tarcov. “Locke’s Second Treatise and ‘The Best Fence Against Rebellion’.” Review of Politics 43, no. 2 (April 1981): 198–217.
  • Nathan Tarcov. Locke’s Education for Liberty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
  • Alex Tuckness. Locke and the Legislative Point of View. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.
  • Jeremy Waldron. God, Locke, and Equality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  • George Windstrup. “Locke on Suicide.” Political Theory 8, no. 2 (May 1980): 169–82.
  • John Yolton. “Locke on the Law of Nature.” Philosophical Review 67, no. 4 (October 1958): 477–98.

Course Expectations and Policies

CANCELLATIONS: I have a cell phone, and will call to cancel class if necessary.

LATE ESSAYS: No weekly papers will be accepted if submitted late. Late essays will be penalized 5% per day (including holidays and weekends). The last day to turn in the final essay is three days before grades are due, unless you have been granted an incomplete for the course.

INCOMPLETES: Incompletes will only be given in rare circumstances, such as illness, death in the immediate family, or other unusual and unforeseeable circumstances. Incompletes are given at my discretion and only when it is possible that the completion of the remaining work could result in a grade of A or B. An incomplete must be resolved within the appropriate time limit or it will automatically be changed to an F. You are responsible for seeing that incompletes are made up before the expiration date.

ACADEMIC DISHONESTY: All work must be the product of the student’s own original effort. It is the student’s responsibility to familiarize him- or herself with university policy regarding plagiarism and academic dishonesty. Students should take the university’s Academic Integrity tutorial (http://www.ai.niu.edu/ai/). Those uncertain how to avoid plagiarism should consult the resources that the Political Science Department has made available on its website (http://polisci.niu.edu/polisci/audience/plagiarism.shtml). All transgressors will be treated like a wild beast, or noxious brute, with whom mankind can have neither society nor security.

DISABILITIES: Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, NIU is committed to making reasonable accommodations for persons with documented disabilities. Students who believe that their disability may have some impact on their coursework and for which they may require accommodations should notify the Center for Access-Ability Resources (CAAR) on the fourth floor of the Health Services Building. CAAR will assist students in making appropriate accommodations with course instructors. It is important that CAAR and the instructor be informed of any disability-related needs during the first two weeks of the semester.


Tentative Class Schedule

08/27    Fly-leaf, Preface, First Treatise, chapters 1–4 (sec. 1–43)
09/03    [American Political Science Association Conference]
09/10    First Treatise, chapters 5–7 (sec. 44–77)
09/17    First Treatise, chapters 8–10 (sec. 78–105)
09/24    First Treatise, chapter 11 (sec. 106–136)
10/01    First Treatise, chapter 11 (sec. 137–167); First Essay Due Tomorrow
10/08    Second Treatise, chapters 1–4 (sec. 1–24)
10/15    Second Treatise, chapter 5 (sec. 25–51)
10/22    Second Treatise, chapter 6 (sec. 52–76)
10/29    Second Treatise, chapters 7–8 (sec. 77–122)
11/05    Second Treatise, chapters 9–13 (sec. 123–158); Second Essay Due Tomorrow
11/12    Second Treatise, chapters 14–16 (sec. 159–196)
11/19    Second Treatise, chapters 17–19 (sec. 197–222)
11/26    [Thanksgiving Break]
12/03    Second Treatise, chapter 19 (sec. 223–243)

Comments are closed.