America’s Founding Philosophers On When To Abolish Governments

Posted: Mar 11, 2019 9:53 AM
America’s Founding Philosophers On When To Abolish Governments

Source: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Enlightenment philosopher John Locke’s reference to natural rights precluded government having sovereignty over man’s rights.   According to Locke, these rights came exclusively from God.  Locke’s statement was the disposition which underscored the significance of the Declaration of Independence.  Locke affirmed that “we must consider what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions and dispose of their possessions, and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature; without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man,” and this was, in fact, because “for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker.”[1]

In Chapters VIII, IX, and XI of his Second Treatise of Government Locke establishes the principles of government being only at the consent of the governed.  Government only has a limited role, and that role is protecting our natural rights.   In Locke’s wisdom, government, by design, can only be limited and established only under the authority of the governed.  Furthermore, Dr. Donald Lutz (whom extensively studies the influences of the Founding era) explains that “Locke is profound when it comes to the bases for establishing a government and for opposing tyranny…Therefore his influence most properly lies in justifying the revolution and the right of Americans to write their own constitutions rather than in the design of any constitution, state or national.”[2]

Because the government only governs under the consent of the governed, the governed can eliminate the government anytime it chooses when the government is not satisfactorily executing its specified and limited role.  Locke also understood this to be Divine providence; under the laws of nature as to not be abridged by whims and desire of power of man governing over man.  Locke explains:

[W]henever the legislators endeavor to take away and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power, they put themselves into a state of war with the people, who are thereupon absolved from any further obedience, and are left to the common refuge, which God hath provided for all men, against force and violence.  Whensoever therefore the legislative shall transgress this fundamental rule of society; and either by ambition, fear, folly or corruption, endeavor to grasp themselves, or put into hands of any other, an absolute power over the lives, liberties, and estates of the people; by this breach of trust they forfeit the power the people had put into their hands for quite contrary ends, and it devolves to the people, who have the right to resume their original liberty, and, by the establishment of a new legislative, (such as they shall think fit) provide for their own safety and security, which is the end for which they are in society.[3]

James Madison addressed this point in further detail in Federalist 62.  Madison wrote that the citizenry must reject laws, even when passed following proper procedure, which are “voluminous” and “incoherent,” which malignantly has become the standard of modern legislature.  But we are obligated to refuse it.  Madison writes, “if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is to-day, can guess what it will be to-morrow.”[4]  In fact Montesquieu foresaw the same concern writing, “There are laws so little understood by the legislator as to be contrary to the very end he proposed.”[5] Essentially, if a law doesn’t make sense, it should be rewritten or prevented from passing and causing confusion later down the road.

As individuals with divine sovereign rights given by, and under the authority of, God; we make the self-determined decision to grant, only at our pleasure, the authority to be governed by those we choose through a combination of democratic and constitutional processes.  Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.  We, as sovereign individuals, can secede from the compact; upon a violation of the compact by those chosen by us to the positions of governance.  It is not a process function, nor a decision by the government; but an individual rights function and decision.  Montesquieu wrote “When a government has arrived at that degree of corruption as to be incapable of reforming itself, it would not lose much by being newly moulded;” and even reaches further concluding that “abuses [are] grown into laws.”[6]

In writing and passing the Declaration of Independence, the 2nd Continental Congress included language twice in the compact which directly declared the Fundamental Right of a people to eliminate any government which does not uphold their liberty.  But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.   Again, the Fundamental Right is called upon as well the obligation to eliminate such abusive government.  The government has no say in the matter, it is solely up to the people.

[1] John Locke, 1982, ed. Richard Cox (originally published in 1690), Second Treatise of Government, “Book II:  Of the State of Nature, Sec. 4 and Sec. 6,” (Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson, Inc.), p. 3 and p. 4.

[2] Donald S. Lutz, March 1984, “The Relative Influence of European Writers on Late Eighteenth Century American Political Thought,” American Political Science Review, Vol. 78, pp. 191-192.

[3] John Locke, 1982, ed. Richard Cox (originally published in 1690), Second Treatise of Government, “Book XIX:  Of the Dissolution of Government, Sec. 222,” (Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson, Inc.), p. 135.

[4] James Madison, February 27, 1788, Federalist Paper No. 62.   Taken from James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, The Federalist Papers: The Classic Original Edition, (SoHo Books), p. 180.

[5] Charles de Montesquieu, 2010 (originally published in 1748), The Spirit of the Laws, “Book XXIX: Of the Manner of Composing Laws,” ( Book), p 448.

[6] Charles de Montesquieu, 2010 (originally published in 1748), The Spirit of the Laws, “Book X: Of Laws in the Relationship They Bear to Offensive Force,” ( Book), p 127.