John Locke on Monarchs (Or Presidents) Who Destroy a Constitution

Link to the Wikipedia article on “Louis XIV of France.”    Among other actions during his reign, Louis XIV presided over ethnic cleansing of the    Huguenots    (the Protestants in his realm) and centralized power in his own hands.

Link to the Wikipedia article on “Louis XIV of France.” Among other actions during his reign, Louis XIV presided over ethnic cleansing of the Huguenots (the Protestants in his realm) and centralized power in his own hands.

John Locke, in Chapter XIX of his 2d Treatise on Government: Of Civil Government, “Of the Dissolution of Government,” lists four ways in which a monarch can subvert the constitution of a nation in a way that effectively undoes the government and so eliminates any obligation to obey the unconstitutional pretense of a government that replaces the legitimate government:

  • Ruling by decree instead of duly enacted legislation

  • Preventing the legislature from meeting or constraining free speech and free deliberation within the legislature

  • Stealing or fixing elections

  • Giving people to a foreign power

By “monarch” I am referring to the “single hereditary person” in John Locke’s description of a should-be-constitutional monarchy:

§. 213. This being usually brought about by such in the commonwealth who misuse the power they have; it is hard to consider it aright, and know at whose door to lay it, without knowing the form of government in which it happens. Let us suppose then the legislative placed in the concurrence of three distinct-persons.  

  1. A single hereditary person, having the constant, supreme, executive power, and with it the power of convoking and dissolving the other two within certain periods of time.  

  2. An assembly of hereditary nobility.  

  3. An assembly of representatives chosen, pro tempore, by the people. Such a form of government supposed, it is evident,  

However, the same principles apply to a president or any other top ruler in a nation.

Here are John Locke’s four no-nos for a monarch, president or other top ruler that are serious enough to dissolve any obligation of obedience to the remaining pretense of a government.

Ruling by decree instead of by duly enacted legislation.

§. 214. First, That when such a single person, or prince, sets up his own arbitrary will in place of the laws, which are the will of the society, declared by the legislative, then the legislative is changed: for that being in effect the legislative, whose rules and laws are put in execution, and required to be obeyed; when other laws are set up, and other rules pretended, and inforced, than what the legislative constituted by the society have enacted, it is plain that the legislative is changed. Whoever introduces new laws, not being thereunto authorized by the fundamental appointment of the society, or subverts the old, disowns and overturns the power by which they were made, and so sets up a new legislative.  

Preventing the legislature from meeting or constraining free speech and free deliberation within the legislature.

§. 215. Secondly, When the prince hinders the legislative from assembling in its due time, or from acting freely, pursuant to those ends for which it was constituted, the legislative is altered: for it is not a certain number of men, no, nor their meeting, unless they have also freedom of debating, and leisure of perfecting, what is for the good of the society, wherein the legislative consists: when these are taken away or altered, so as to deprive the society of the due exercise of their power, the legislative is truly altered; for it is not names that constitute governments, but the use and exercise of those powers that were intended to accompany them; so that he, who takes away the freedom, or hinders the acting of the legislative in its due seasons, in effect takes away the legislative, and puts an end to the government.  

Stealing or fixing elections.

§. 216. Thirdly, When, by the arbitrary power of the prince, the electors, or ways of election are altered, without the consent, and contrary to the common interest of the people, there also the legislative is altered: for, if others than those whom the society hath authorized thereunto, do chuse, or in another way than what the society hath prescribed, those chosen are not the legislative appointed by the people.

Giving people to a foreign power.  

§. 217. Fourthly, The delivery also of the people into subjection of a foreign power, either by the prince, or by the legislative, is certainly a change of the legislative, and so a dissolution of the government: for the end why people entered into society being to be preserved one entire, free, independent society, to be governed by its own laws; this is lost, whenever they are given up into the power of another.  

John Locke then explains why the monarch or top ruler is usually to blame when these things happen, although the monarch or top ruler usually has accomplices (sometimes within the legislature):

§. 218. Why, in such a constitution as this, the dissolution of the government in these cases is to be imputed to the prince, is evident; because he having the force, treasure and offices of the state to employ, and often persuading himself, or being flattered by others, that as supreme magistrate he is uncapable of controul; he alone is in a condition to make great advances toward such changes, under pretence of lawful authority, and has it in his hands to terrify or suppress opposers, as factious, seditious, and enemies to the government: whereas no other part of the legislative, or people, is capable by themselves to attempt any alteration of the legislative, without open and visible rebellion, apt enough to be taken notice of, which, when it prevails, produces effects very little different from foreign conquest. Besides, the prince in such a form of government, having the power of dissolving the other parts of the legislative, and thereby rendering them private persons, they can never in opposition to him, or without his concurrence, alter the legislative by a law, his consent being necessary to give any of their decrees that sanction. But yet, so far as the other parts of the legislative any way contribute to any attempt upon the government, and do either promote, or not, what lies in them, hinder such designs, they are guilty, and partake in this, which is certainly the greatest crime men can be guilty of one towards another.

For links to other John Locke posts, see these John Locke aggregator posts: