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Chapter Fourteen of John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government discusses the prerogative of the executive. Locke defines prerogative as the “power to act according to discretion, for the public good, without the prescription of the law, and sometimes even against it” (Locke §160). For Locke, all powers not specifically granted to the legislative are thus granted to the executive. According to Locke, the executive may exercise prerogative over issues such as pardons as well as time-sensitive decisions that are more easily accomplished by the executive than by a slow-moving large-bodied legislative; however, the prerogative actions carried out by the executive must be for the good of the public, which is the foundation of the executive’s prerogative power.
In Section 160 of Locke’s Second Treatise, he brings to light the issue of time-sensitivity and the legislative. Locke says, “since in some governments the law-making power is not always in being, and is usually too numerous, and so too slow, for the dispatch requisite to execution,” (Locke §160) meaning that sometimes governments with large legislative bodies can take longer to make decisions due to the fact that the larger the legislative body, the harder it is to come to an agreement. It is in situations such as these, when the legislative is unable to make a quick decision, that the executive has the right to exercise prerogative power. President Abraham Lincoln’s actions during the American Civil War are a great example of an executive’s use of prerogative power. Lincoln suspended the Writ of Habeas Corpus and jailed those who were suspected of disloyalty.
In addition to this, after the attack on Fort Sumter Lincoln raised and expanded the size of the army, ordered southern ports to be blockaded, and spent $2 million. All of this was done without congressional approval. Lincoln’s reason for doing this was the fact that the United States Congress was not in session and would therefore be unable to approve his actions in a timely fashion. It was Lincoln’s belief that it made no sense “to lose the nation and yet preserve the Constitution” (Lincoln 1864). He believed that his actions were justified because they fell under prerogative powers that were granted to him by the public. Lincoln’s actions during the American Civil War were done with the sole purpose of maintaining and preserving the Union and ensuring the good of the community, just as Locke says in Section 163: “For the end of the government being the good of the community, whatsoever alterations are made in it, tending to that end, cannot be an encroachment upon anybody” (Locke §163). If Lincoln’s actions had not been for the greater good of the public, they would not have been justified.
Locke says that the executive’s prerogative power is rooted in the people. In Section 164, Locke states “prerogative can be nothing, but the people’s permitting their rulers, to do several things of their own free choice, where the law is silent, and sometimes too against the direct letter of the law, for the public good” (Locke §164). This means that the executive only has as much prerogative power as the people invest in it. Therefore, prerogative power is a trust that the people place in the executive, who is then free to use it as long as it is used fairly and is for the benefit of the people. In electing Lincoln as President of the United States, the American people were placing in him their trust that he would only act in their best interests. So, Lincoln’s actions during the American Civil War were justified even though he did not have immediate congressional authorization. He was using the prerogative power that the people had vested in him, in order to preserve the union and the well-being of the people. It is in this way that President Lincoln is a proper example of what Locke meant by executive use of prerogative power.
Section 162 of Locke’s Two Treatises of Government concerns the origins of prerogative governing. Locke says that in the beginning of government, almost all governing was done in the method of prerogative government. “A few established laws served the turn, and the discretion and care of the ruler supplied the rest,” (Locke §162) Locke says. Therefore, it is only natural for the executive to exercise prerogative power. Locke then points out the flaw that lies in prerogative power. This flaw is executives using prerogative power for personal gain instead of for the good of the public. In order to prevent executives from using prerogative power for their own personal gain, the people resorted to putting limitations upon it. Although Locke points out this flaw in prerogative power, he points out that since the people placed limitations upon executive prerogative, it has kept executives from further abusing this power. Locke also says that those who believe the people are wrong to put limitations upon prerogative power are the ones who are actually in the wrong, since the people are the ones who provide the executive with prerogative power in the first place.
In Section 167, Locke discusses the relationship between the executive and the legislative. Locke says that the power to call the English Parliament into session along with its time, length, and location is a prerogative power of the king (Locke §167). The executive’s power to call the legislative into session is a prerogative power that is meant to be for the good of the people. It is the executive’s duty to call the legislative into session via prerogative power so that the legislative may carry out their responsibilities to the public. Thus the executive and the legislative work hand in hand to the “end of the government,” which is ultimately “the good of the community” (Locke §163).
Throughout Chapter 14 of his Two Treatises of Government, John Locke builds a strong defense of prerogative power of the executive. He highlights the necessity of the executive’s prerogative power in time-sensitive situations. Locke also points out the root of prerogative power, which lies in the people. In addition to this, Locke presents the origins of prerogative power, flaws within it, and measures taken to eliminate these flaws. He then discusses the relationship between the executive and the legislative. In doing this, Locke points out the necessity of prerogative power in order for the executive and ultimately the government to meet its end, which is the good of the community.
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