The arrogant assumption of the English Government of a right to govern them as denizens of conquered countries by the arbitrary laws of conquest, left them no choice but to become the slaves of arbitrary power or to exercise the great right of rebellion against tyranny which is so emphatically recognized in "Magna Charta."
We've all heard it, "No taxation without representation!" Here we have a concise explanation of exactly why the colonists believed that they had the right to resist the will of the English Parliament when the bill for the French and Indian War (Seven Years' War) came due in 1763. The British Government had borrowed heavily to finance the war, and as a consequence the national debt almost doubled. British officials set their sights on the colonies to pay their "fair share" of empire, and expected obedience from deferential subjects. Why did things go so wrong?
Taken from: Johnson, S.M., "Free government in England and America" (New York: Carleton, 1864). Edited by Gary M. Bohannon.
It remains that we should indicate the status of the colonies in respect of England, which will perhaps be best done if we state at once the opposite constitutional positions assumed by England and the colonies respectively in the controversy which resulted in the Revolution. This was a new question in England, in regard to which there was much confusion of ideas. The general scope, however, of the several arguments was this: On the part of England it was claimed that her American possessions were acquired in part by conquest and in part by cession from the natives; that these possessions were therefore held by right of conquest; that colonists and settlers in a conquered country are, in common with the natives of the country, to be governed by such laws as it may please the conqueror to impose, and to enjoy only such rights as he may please to recognize; that the colonies were in no sense parts of England, but separate and subordinate dominions; that they were mere dependencies, not on the crown, but on the realm of England and hence that the realm, as represented by the Parliament of England, including king, lords, and commons, was entitled by the right of conquest to impose such laws and taxes on them as its sole will should direct.
In answer to this reasoning the colonies maintained that they themselves, whether by conquest or by cession, were the true acquirers of their several territories, which, till settled by them, had belonged to England only by the vague right of discovery, that it was only through them that England had actually become possessed of these dominions, and that it was absurd that they should be subjected to a right of conquest they had themselves acquired. Reverting to the circumstances under which the colonies were planted, they observed that the original colonists were free born Englishmen; that they had settled in country which had as yet been neither conquered nor acquired by cession; and in which no law nor government existed; that therefore by the law of nations they were, from the moment of their landing, governed by the laws of England, as those laws existed at that time and so far as they were applicable to the condition of a colony; and hence that they were from the first fully invested with the rights, as well as obligated by the duties, of natural born English subjects.
The colonists conceded that the colonies were not parts of the realm of England, but separate and distinct dominions, nor did they deny that to a limited extent they were dependent on England. Some of them admitted further that they were dependent, not upon the crown, but on the realm of England. But they declared that this dependence must be so interpreted as not to override the constitutional rights of the colonists as English subjects under the laws of England, as they stood at the time of the plantation of their several colonies. Referring to the Great Charter of King John, the most important of those laws, and the scarcely less important statute "De tallagio non concedendo" of Edward I, they showed that the consent of the subject given through his representatives in Parliament was necessary to the legal levying of taxes.
Hence they argued that, according to the letter not less than the spirit of the English Constitution, taxes on the colonists could only be assessed by their consent so given, and since the colonies, being separate dominions from the realm of England, were incapable of being represented in the Parliament of England, the conclusion was inevitable that their own colonial legislatures in which only they were represented could alone give constitutional sanction to the imposition of taxes in the colonies.
Concerning the claim of Parliament to exercise the rights of paramount sovereignty, they said that the dependence of the colonists, not being such as to vitiate the rights or liberties of their inhabitants, the sovereignty of Parliament, could in reason be no greater in the colonies than the king's sovereignty in England, and hence that, as the sovereign in England could make no laws and impose no taxes but through Parliament, so in the colonies the Parliament of England could have no sovereign right of legislation or taxation, but through the colonial legislatures.
Every position thus assumed by the Americans in their controversy with Great Britain, has since that time been completely vindicated by the verdict of the English Parliament itself. The whole colonial system has been constituted on the principles enunciated in America a century ago; and the concessions which would have kept the colonies of North America devoted subjects of the British crown, are now the common axioms of its colonial jurisprudence. A more complete justification there could hardly be of the position of colonial America; but we may well wonder that a legislative body like the Parliament of England, which had battled so determinedly against the usurpations of a monarchy, and by the Bill of Rights and Act of Settlement had so completely limited the crown as to ensure the freedom of the subject, should itself have seized so empty a pretext to set up a despotic parliamentary authority over its dependencies.
And when we find that one whose mind was so clear, large, and liberal as Blackstone's, could (surely through oversight) accept the empty and self-contradictory reasoning which aimed to prove that the colonial dependencies were to be governed by the right of conquest as subjugated provinces, it would be difficult to give a better exposition of the strange anomaly than is enunciated in the aphorism, that despotism, when possible, is always certain. The saying is as true of parliaments as of princes, and as true of majorities as of parliaments. Wherever power is lodged, there is a certainty that, if not checked by a restraining influence, it will be used to its full limit, if indeed all limitations be not broken down.
The cases of King John, the Puritan majority of eleven in the Long Parliament, and the present instance of parliamentary usurpation in the matter of the colonies, will illustrate our meaning. Cases nearer home, however obvious, we cannot here discuss. We now approach the grand event of the last century, the reestablishment on a new continent, with all the aids of a mature and still advancing civilization, of the ancient principle which lay at the foundation of the Anglo-Saxon polity. Already we have seen the colonies, established like the Saxon tribes, in perfect independence of each other, growing up in the enjoyment of the rights and liberties, which centuries of bloodshed had at length wrung from the Norman monarchs and their various successors. We have seen them educated, by the exercise of local sovereignty as dependencies of a great kingdom, for still more complete self-government.
The arrogant assumption of the English Government of a right to govern them as denizens of conquered countries by the arbitrary laws of conquest, left them no choice but to become the slaves of arbitrary power or to exercise the great right of rebellion against tyranny which is so emphatically recognized in Magna Charta. Individually they were too weak to rebel successfully, and hence a confederation became necessary to ensure success. Their first confederation showed them the advantages of union, and revealed defects in its extemporary articles; and thus through error and defect they were led to the incomparable form of government provided by the present Constitution, which is a complete revival of the Anglo-Saxon polity. Securing and maintaining the complete right of self-government to every sovereign State, and legislating for them only in matters as to which their interests are identical, the Union, brought into existence by the States under the Constitution, is a full revival of the system of the Anglo-Saxon Empire, differing from it only by the various improvements which the progress of civilization have suggested.
The story of the Revolutionary War lies beyond our province, but before we enter on the constitutional detail reserved to us, we venture to premise a few words on the right of revolution. The right of revolution is simply a particular application of the general right of self-defense. In the state of nature every individual person has the right to defend by violence his life, liberty, and property, against assaults by whomsoever made. The purpose of political organizations is to substitute the whole power of a community for that of individuals in the protecting of their persons and their properties, by means of laws for the restraint and punishment of wrong-doers within, and military combinations to resist foreign aggressions from without. It is on this ground that the doctrine of consent rests. For in any government it is necessary that a portion of the freedom of the individual should be surrendered that the rest may be preserved. He resigns his right of individual self-defense and submits to the restraints of law in order that he may enjoy more perfect security. But if a government be set over him without his consent, this is itself an invasion of his liberty which the law of nature authorizes him to resist.
Hence arbitrary governments, whose subjects have neither expressly nor tacitly consented to their institution, and governments whose title to exist is founded on the so-called right of conquest, are in a perpetual state of war with nature, and their subjects have a perpetual and indefeasible right of rebellion against them. No prescription holds against the laws of nature; and such governments, being governments of force and contrary to nature, hold their power subject to the people's right to reassert the law of nature by resisting, and, if possible, destroying their usurped power. There are, however, few civilized governments to which the subjects have not yielded an express or tacit consent; and lawful governments can only be lawfully resisted when they are perverted from their lawful purposes.
Man is a social being, naturally living in societies; to the existence of society, government is necessary; hence anarchy is repugnant to nature; and therefore the wanton subversion of governments, lawfully instituted by consent of their subjects, being an act which tends to anarchy, is a crime against the law of nature. But when lawful governments, instead of protecting life, liberty, and property, become or threaten to become destructive of these or prejudicial to them, they proclaim war against the law of nature, and their subjects have the right to overthrow them. In this case it is the government that is truly rebellious, and the people who are truly obedient to the law of nature.
To this view there are some who object on Scriptural grounds. "All power is of God;" "the powers that be are ordained of God;" the magistrate is "the minister of God;" "let every soul be subject to the higher powers." These are the sayings of St. Paul. We have only, however, to carry his injunctions far enough in order to show that they must be received with considerable limitations.
If the magistrate is the minister of God who acquires his authority over a kingdom through an armed force of one hundred thousand men, it is difficult to say why a marauding chief who occupies a district at the head of a band of brigands is not equally the minister of God. And if every soul is to be subject to the edicts of the one, it would be hard to find a reason why the same rule should not hold good of the demands of his less mighty but not less righteous imitator. Scripture itself gives warrant for rebellion against arbitrary and unjust power. The exodus of Israel from Egypt was rebellion against a government to which they had consented by their voluntary settlement under it, but from which they were released because it had become oppressive. And in the instance of Hezekiah, so aptly quoted by Locke, we have a case in which the indefeasible right of rebellion against a subjugating power, even after submission and enforced consent, is perfectly sustained.
Hezekiah and his country had been conquered by Assyria, to the king of which he had submitted. On condition of consenting to the supremacy of Assyria, he had been suffered to retain his throne. But "the Lord was with Hezekiah and he prospered; wherefore he went forth, and he rebelled against the king of Assyria and served him not." (2 Kings xviii. 7.) This is spoken of "the good king Hezekiah and spoken certainly not in reprehension. The sacred penman represents his godly king's rebellion as the consequence of the divine presence and blessing. Unquestionably lawful magistrates are ministers of God for good to men, but when their lawful powers are prostituted to subserve the devil's purposes, whose ministers do they become? The devil himself is styled in Holy Writ the "prince of this world," and, to judge from what we see around us in this nineteenth century, he is one of the mightiest of the "powers that be;" but here at least resistance to the tyrant is obedience to God.
The truth is, the religion of the Holy Scriptures is a religion of common sense, and a religion of righteousness. It does not declare a wrong to be right because it is sustained by force, or because it has the trappings of legitimate authority to cover an unlawful usurpation. Lawful magistrates and lawful governments it is the Christian's duty to obey as ministers of God. Resistance to usurped power — that is, to a robbery of man's most precious heritage — is not contrary either to the letter or the spirit of the Scriptures.
A Christian, then, may lawfully rebel against the government of which he is a subject; but only when it is a lawless government; that is, when its authority is based, not on the law of nature, but of force, or when its power, though lawfully acquired, is not so exercised as to protect the subject in his rights of property and person, which is the object of all government. Against such a government or one which threatens to become such, but against such only, may a Christian lawfully rebel or aid a revolution.
Politically, however, revolution must be justified by quite a different argument — success. International law takes little cognizance of the original right by which power is acquired. The fact of its existence is the only reason for its recognition. Till the revolution is successful by the overthrow of the government whose destruction is attempted, it is in the eye of international law rebellion. Once successful, the authority it sets up becomes legitimate. Politically speaking, the wrongs which may have caused it, or the rights it was intended to secure, are nothing. Revolution is politically justified by nothing but success. And, prudentially, a revolution must be justified, both by success and by a capacity to organize a better government than that which it subverts. It is not enough that tho original government may have been bad or badly administered, for unless it be successful, and unless the new form of administration or the new rules be better than the old, the uncertainties and strife of revolution have been incurred in vain.
The French Revolution, though productive in the end of good results, was not, prudentially, a justifiable revolution. Its success was merely temporary, and the government it organized instead of that of the beheaded Louis was in all respects worse than that they cast down. It was wrong prudentially, first, because it failed of permanent success, and second, because, while its power continued, it did not improve the government, but rather made it worse.
The revolution of the colonies was right religiously, politically, and prudentially. It was right religiously, for it was a revolution against a tyranny, that is, against a government which assumed, in the language of King James, to "exercise power beyond right." It was justified politically, by complete and permanent success. It was justified prudentially, by its creation of a government whose constitution is the admiration of the world. If the virtue of the people rise again to an equality with the incomparable wisdom of the Constitution, then the lover of free institutions may cry, "Esto perpetua" [let it be perpetual]; and the prophet may respond, "Erit perpetoa" [it will be forever]. If other—