Front Page Titles (by Subject) Locke\'s Two Treatises & Revolution - Literature of Liberty, Autumn 1981, vol. 4, No. 3
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Locke's “Two Treatises” & Revolution - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Autumn 1981, vol. 4, No. 3 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Locke's “Two Treatises” & Revolution
“The Exclusion Controversy, Pamphleteering, and Locke's Two Treatises.” The Historical Journal 24, no. 1(1981): 49–68.
It has been more than twenty years since Peter Laslett argued that the Exclusion controversy (aimed at keeping the Catholic James, Duke of York from the throne) and not the Revolution of 1688 was the occasion for the writing of John Locke's Two Treatises. Nonetheless, scholars still resist viewing the Two Treatises as predominantly activist tracts and persist in characterizing them as something loftier-— “political philosophy,” “systematic moral apologia,” and the like. In his article, Prof. Tarlton analyzes both the Whig pamphlets of the late seventeenth century and Locke's Two Treatises as writings intended to effect the monarchy's return to constitutional principles. Tarlton concludes that Locke can indeed be read as part of the pamphlet literature of 1669–83 without treating his Two Treatises as somehow unworthy of serious study.
The Restoration of Charles II (1660) ended a long period of Civil War troubles and was greeted by Englishmen, including Whigs, with jubilation. By the middle 1670s, however, buoyancy had turned to bitter disappointment. Andrew Marvell (1621–1678) concisely and dramatically expressed basic Whig complaints against Charles' rule. “There has now for divers years a design been carried on to change the lawful Government of England into an absolute tyranny and to convert the established Protestant Religion into downright Popery: than both which nothing can be more destructive or contrary to the interest and happiness, to the constitution and being of the king and kingdom.”
In the light of such criticisms, Whig pamphleteers launched a broadside attack against “divine right” (jure divino) theories of the monarchy and episcopacy. Divine right was viewed as a justification for tyranny barely disguised by theology. Whig propagandists repeatedly stressed that all tyrannies rested upon illusory foundations. Such warnings were often accompanied by thinly veiled threats that oppression would likely provoke armed resistance among the people. Lastly, almost as a bribe, the writers combined professions of fidelity to the king with appeals to him to halt a dangerous aggrandizement of power.
During the short period between 1675 and 1680, efforts to exclude the Roman Catholic James, Duke of York, from succession to the throne became symbolic of attempts to impose limits on the monarchy. Eliminating the king's own brother from contention would educate the monarch to the inevitable limits of power and, only then, to the subsequent possibilities of his position.
The textual supports for interpreting Locke's Two Treatises as Whig Exlusionist tracts are, in Prof. Tarlton's view, quite strong. First of all, his critique of Filmer, of divine right, and paternalism in the First Treatise is accompanied, as in many Whig pamphlets, by the condemnation of a supposedly conspiratorial faction which could be blamed for the king's novel ideas of absolute authority.
Like the Whig writings, the Two Treatises stress the dependent and precarious position of governors. Their fragile hold on power, Locke asserts, can only be strengthened by their acceptance of consensually-based rule. When subjects consent to a monarch's power, he receives their willing obedience rather than a grudging acquiesence to compulsion.
Locke's discussion of royal prerogative carries this lesson even further. For Locke, a prince who exercises his power visibly in the public interest “cannot have too much Prerogative.” However, it is equally clear that the prince who abuses prerogative forces the people to reexamine and to restrict it if necessary.
Ultimately, Locke warns, a dispute over prerogative may have to be resolved by “an appeal to heaven” (his code word for revolution). Locke's theory of revolution appears strategically, as it does in the Whig pamphlets, as an educational tool intended to control and caution rulers.
Finally, Prof. Tarlton concurs with Laslett in finding Locke's chapter “On Conquest” a veiled reference to the Exclusionist controversy. Whig authors saw conquest by French armies as the only expedient left to Roman Catholics should the English exclude James as successor. Such a war of conquest, they warned. would be met with English resistance. Though set in a discussion of the moral consequences of the Norman Conquest, Locke's approval of rebellion against rule by an unwanted conqueror had a much more pressing relevance for readers in the late seventeenth century. Consistent with overall Whig strategy, his justification of rebellion becomes a warning to the king that a tyranny established by force of arms can never be secure.