The Doctrine of Resistance Rightly Understood
Among the 1743 master’s level theses of Harvard graduates is a proposition, answered in the affirmative, by a certain Samuel Adams. The question presented: “Whether it be lawful to resist the Supreme Magistrate, if the Common Wealth cannot otherwise be preserved?” The same day of disputation, Adam’s classmate, Samuel Downe, affirmed that “Civil Government ariseth out of Contract.”
Here we find amongst the founding generation conventionally Protestant convictions that deserve further explication for our own times.
Colloquially, the doctrine of resistance is held in caricatured form. It is cast or employed by many right-leaning evangelicals today to constitute a duty to resist or disobey whatever strikes them as overbearing or distasteful governmental action. It’s often expressed as a cheap, bumper sticker, Don’t Tread on Me energy. That is, a conservative radical, individualist autonomy that whilst doubtless less destructive than the more programmatic, libertine, and sexualized progressivist version of the same, nevertheless remains undertheorized and ahistorical.
However justified their instincts might be toward, say, erratic and (ultimately) baseless Covid-19 restrictions, their understanding of the principle explicated by Adams is shallow and shortsighted. The rationale and purpose (and justification) of resistance is thereby made murky and elusive.
More importantly, the essence of a nation, of a commonwealth, of a political community is lost; its transcendent nature missed. Philip Mornay, the probable author of the Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, wrote that “the commonwealth never dies, although kings be taken out of this life one after another.” The point highlighted is the immortality of a commonwealth, which, by nature, is a covenanted community that precedes any specific covenant (or contract) with a ruler, with a particular form of government—the latter being a prudential accommodation to circumstance and not synonymous with or necessarily intricate to the commonwealth itself.
Rulers are, obviously, mortal and finite, whereas the commonwealth is immortal, infinite, and even eschatological, in a sense, as Johannes Althusius discerned in his Politica. This is because even as the commonwealth is temporal it transcends any particular generation of occupants, and because its formation is by covenant between the people and God even prior to the covenant between people and ruler. Even as a ruler binds himself to and personifies a commonwealth through covenant this is momentary. A ruler cannot precede the covenant formation and nor can he—nor should he—outlast it. His duty is to shepherd it—the commonwealth as a participant in, as David Henreckson puts it, “God’s providential rule over creation”— during his tenure according to contractual boundaries. Remember that the charge of Parliament against Charles I—hardly the first instances of tyrannicide—was that he had made war on his own people after exploiting them financially for his own interests. That is, he had threatened the commonwealth itself, not any one faction or person. It was not that his policies were a nuisance, it was that they introduced such disruption that the country threatened to break asunder. (The actual causes and justifications of the Civil War are not of interest here.)
(Nota bene, contractual obligations are not a pure manifestation of “consent” based governance. A ruler cannot agree to stipulations themselves detrimental to the commonwealth, nor to those that frustrate the nature of his own office and concomitant duties (e.g., to punish evil and reward good, to govern for the common good and not private interest, etc.) In other words, a libertarian fever dream is not in the cards.)
But, of course, the customary expectations of governance, even of governmental form and procedure, are not disconnected from this inquiry vis-a-vis the health and longevity of the commonwealth even if the contract productive of government form is preceded by the commonwealth-creating covenant.
In correspondence, Samuel Adams adopted Montesquieu’s definition of “liberty,” viz., social “Tranquility of Mind” arising from a sense of political “Safety.” This safety was dependent on the “System of Government” long established in the diverse colonies. For Adams, these systems included, perhaps especially, the settled relationship between the mother country and her American outposts. At bottom, no colonist could feel safe if the system of governance and colonial relations was in new and constant flux. A rudimentary contention, surely. As Aquinas held, all changes to law are necessarily disruptive, even violent. Change must, therefore, be incremental and calculated based on what a given populace can be expected to handle. More so when such changes exceed the merely statutory and encroach upon long standing expectations of governance qua governance. Arguably, the imposition of internal (domestic) taxation levied by parliament against the colonies rose to this level of disruption.
In a 1765 letter, Adams justified colonial outrage in two ways. First, the colonists were not disloyal to the king. Indeed, many of them remained staunch monarchists, at least in principle. Second, and more importantly, the New Englanders in particular possessed, Adams believed, a more fundamental constitutional claim to independence given the violations of their relative liberty in play. They had “transplanted themselves at their own very great Expence [sic] [i.e., not England’s expense], into the Wilds of America… Here they resolved to set up the Worship of God, according to their best Judgment… to maintain it among themselves, and transmit it to their Posterity.” This was their original privilege, seized without royal aid.
And yet, they agreed to expand the king’s dominion with the guarantee that their original privileges would be preserved. Their government, formed by compact, was an intricate part of said privileges. And they had earned the right of its continuance by comporting themselves well throughout the century, even in war, as they hewed British civilization out of raw wilderness matter. Colonial charter liberties had been enjoyed for over a century and the territory in which they were enjoyed defended by the colonists on behalf of England— “they have already born their full share in the Aids they afforded for the common Cause & even much beyond their Ability.”
The charter in question granted New England “exclusive Right to make Laws for our own internal Government & Taxation,” and this especially because of lack of Parliamentary representation. As a matter of fact, underrepresentation at Westminster supported Adams’ position. More practically, Adams noted that representation there was not really a solution given the great, oceanic distance between any would be representative and his constituency: “Americans are at a Thousand Leagues Distance, separated from Great Britain by the wide Atlantic; & their proportionate Ability with the Nation, which must be taken, from an exact knowledge of their internal Circumstances, ever varying in infant Countrys [sic], can no more be judged of by any Member of Parliament than if they lived in the Moon.” (The same argument was leveled by Anti-Federalists against a national legislature a little over a decade later.)
The internal tax, then, was “both burdensome & unconstitutional,” according to customary expectations rooted in practice and the text of the charters.
Another facet of the grievance was what we might call unjust enrichment. Colonists had done the building and the fighting in the latest annex to the British empire, but the latter was reaping all the rewards. Similarly, the young men of middle America today disproportionately fight in the forever wars; the coal miners of Appalachia and the union auto workers of the Rust Belt have built a prosperous nation; but the rich men north of Richmond garner all the wages.
An expectation of election integrity and transparency has been thwarted such that no future proceedings can be trusted. Foreign policy has long since exceeded controlling mechanisms tethered to the national interest. Prosecution of political foes has entered the arena. Long-standing political expectations have been discarded and any who cling to them are castigated as conspiratorial or worse. This all portends the slow but violent demise of the standing order. More violation of traditional expectations and precedent, as well as exploitation and corruption should be expected. At some point, assuming a continuance of the current trajectory, the commonwealth’s longevity will hang in the balance, at least in the sense that change will be necessary if any semblance of the commonwealth as originally constituted and covenanted will be threatened. And regime level change is not necessarily something to be orchestrated; it usually happens as a matter of course, almost as an undeniable force of nature.
The idea of anacyclosis (regime cycles) is nothing if not a recognition of this fact, one the founders like Washington (Farewell Address) and John Adams (Defense of the Constitution) acknowledged. Transitions between democracy, aristocracy, monarchy, and back again, are, if inevitable, lamentable for their disruptive effects. (Hysterical observers of the Caesarism discourse would do well to mind this fact.)
The cycle of regimes being an irrefutable matter of political science notwithstanding, the prospect of lawful resistance is not thereby precluded in the interim, nor indeed within the cyclical process.
To reiterate, resistance is justified when the regime threatens the longevity of the commonwealth itself, the customary expectations of the covenanted community. A hyperactive penchant for rebellion is to be shunned, as is mob violence and general unrest. But so too is complacency regarding the health of the commonwealth—a necessarily historically conditioned inquiry.
Resistance-worthy threats to the commonwealth must be prudentially discerned according to circumstance and under something of a just war standard wherein prospect of success, viability of alternatives, and collateral damage must be accounted for. So too must the prospect of success control for the likelihood of regime alternatives conducive to commonwealth preservation.
In general, we can use Adams’ grievances as a starting point: when the standing regime is guilty of unjust enrichment and directs its policies contrary to the interests of the majority populace, and, indeed, toward the long-term degradation of the commonwealth itself, there are grounds for resistance.
But the point is that resistance to standing regimes must be predicated not on private, individual annoyance, but on the welfare and life of the commonwealth—the covenanted community that precedes any governmental form and certainly any occupants of a particular form. Ultimately, all politics, all rule, must be predicated on the same purpose and aim. In this way, resistance to a regime on this basis is obviously disruptive but not itself ultimately destructive—indeed, it may mitigate destruction and even be life-giving—insofar as it seeks to preserve the commonwealth in the face of laws, policies, or rulers detrimental to the same. In a word, justified resistance must be tapped in, so to speak, to immortality; it must transcend the present by safeguarding the commonwealth, a manifestation of divine Providence.
As its guide, it must consult the current and likely future condition of the commonwealth according to the nature, character, and purpose for which it was constituted. Simultaneously, the basis of reigning authority must be investigated in light of the threefold source identified by James VI in True Law of Free Monarchies, viz., scripture, fundamental laws of the nation, and the law of nature. (Whatever one thinks of the Stuart dynasty, James was uncontroversial on this front. To boot, James’ theory of divine right can be rejected but the basic supposition that all governmental power is backed by divine right is entirely scriptural; the only question is the mechanism of distribution and the limits of exercise.)
Notice especially Adams’ reference to the religious nature and telos of New England as founded under its original charters. In later letters, Adams (as “A Puritan”) emphasized this even more.
“While it is grown fashionable, for men of ingenuity and public spirit, with a noble ardour [sic], to warn us against a tame submission to the iron rods; and LIBERTY, LIBERTY is the Cry: I confess I am surprised to find, that so little attention is given to the danger we are in of the utter loss of those religious Rights, the enjoyment of which our good forefathers had more especially in their intention, when the explored and settled the new world.”
(Recall that the “religious rights” here pertained to the right of New England congregationalist establishment.)
Here too is a source and grounds of the commonwealth. Sarah Mortimer, in her worthwhile and highly readable, Reformation, Resistance, and Reason of State, recounts contemporary defenses of the assassination of Henry III. Specifically, a pseudonymous tract from the Englishman, William Reynolds (a.k.a., “Rossaeus”), which upheld the inherently religious nature of all political communities: “priests and sacrifices were more necessary than laws or than magistrates [to ancient republics], because they affected the intrinsic nature of every republic so much that without them it was not even possible to conceive of a republic,” wrote Reynolds.
Society being a natural outgrowth of man’s inherent gregariousness, they must be directed by man’s equally inherent religious impulse, his eternal orientation. For early modern theorists like Reynolds, “every heretical king is a tyrant,” and, as Mortimer adds, “in a Christian land the community must take action to prevent such a calamity.” Reynolds was Catholic. He held out no toleration for Protestants, but the principle stands.
What we can say, even in our late stage, now disestablished republic, is that licentious, predatory, and sweeping laws detrimental to the moral welfare or the commonwealth—those laws that deny in profession and practice the authority of nature and nature’s God—are per se tyrannical and grounds for resistance. So too would laws tending toward persecution of true religion via ostracization of the church from public life and sanitization of its historical influence from the same. Whatever their ostensible basis (e.g., pluralism, equality, multiculturalism), such laws are tyrannical; they strike at the soul of the commonwealth as originally covenanted. They are laws antithetical to the community which transcends the momentary population both of ruler and ruled.
That is, if a commonwealth is a human one, made up of creatures of body and soul destined for life beyond material existence, and if the commonwealth is more than the sum of its parts. If these truths are not accepted then we deserve the tyrannical, trans-sexual, trans-human future now cresting over our horizon, and in which case resistance to the regime is entirely unjustified.
Image Credit: Vindiciae contra tyrannos. (2022, November 11). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vindiciae_contra_tyrannos