Right of Revolution



As is sufficiently illustrated by the documents assembled in chapters 2 and 17, propositions about rights form some of the basic premises of the Constitution. It is to secure these rights that governments are instituted among men. Just as an individual may take whatever actions he deems necessary to ward off his destruction or the perceived threat of his destruction, so too may a people act in their self-defense against a magistrate's lawlessness or viciousness: "Whatever is lawful against a thief, who submits to no law, is lawful against him" (Sidney, no. 1).

What others called the right of resistance or the right of revolution is at bottom the natural right of preservation. The supporting case was developed with bold thought and cautious speech by John Locke, whose Second Treatise (no. 2) rightly was regarded by many of the Founders as a fit and necessary text for a self-governing people. An executive's use of force without right left a suffering people with no choice: "cry up their Gouvernours, as much as you will for Sons of Jupiter . . .; give them out for whom or what you please, the same will happen. The People generally ill treated, and contrary to right, will be ready upon any occasion to ease themselves of a burden that sits heavy upon them." Far from instigating "Civil Wars, or Intestine Broils," his doctrine (Locke insisted) would have an opposite effect. The mischiefs concocted by "a busie head, or turbulent spirit" would not succeed in the absence of a general sense of being wronged. In fact the people were, if anything, too slow to resent transgressions. Moreover, a people well instructed in their rights would reduce the likelihood of civil commotions by disabusing would-be tyrants of their wicked fancies.

The American experience shows the colonials to have been quicker learners of Locke's lessons than the ministers of George III. The complex of grievances and restless stirrings that agitated the Americans in the 1760s and beyond had sent their ablest men to their libraries and their writing desks. But by the mid-seventies events had reached a point where entreaties were futile and researches "among old parchments, or musty records" superfluous. "When the first principles of civil society are violated, and the rights of a whole people are invaded, the common forms of municipal law are not to be regarded" (Hamilton, no. 5).

With a popular government of their own in place, recourse to extraordinary remedies up to and including revolution remained a right and a problem. Jefferson's liking "a little rebellion now and then" and likening it to an atmospheric storm (Letter to Abigail Adams, 22 Feb. 1787) was said in reference to a few thousand debt-ridden farmers in postwar western Massachusetts (see ch. 18, no. 21), not to tax evaders in war-pressed Virginia (no. 6) and certainly not in reference to the tumbrils of the Terror. Yet of course it hardly behooved proud revolutionaries (Wilson, no. 13) to deny that "weighty causes of discontent given by the government" might lead to consequences beyond prediction or control (Hamilton [see ch. 8, no. 22]). An "original right of self-defence" was assumed and might be relied on to resist the grosser forms of governmental usurpation (no. 9). The "right of the people to alter or abolish the established constitution whenever they find it inconsistent with their happiness" was fundamental to republican government, according to Hamilton; and because that right was fundamental, it was not to be regarded flippantly or exercised vicariously. Nothing less would do than a "solemn and authoritative" expression of the people themselves. In the absence of that, "even knowledge of their sentiments" could not authorize the people's representatives to change what the people had once solemnly determined (Hamilton [see ch. 2, no. 22]).

Yet the Philadelphia Convention itself, and the Continental Congress before it, and the various state constitutional conventions, had all acted as the hour required undeterred by any "little ill-timed scruples." In this the Convention, at least, displayed "a manly confidence" in the people, fortified by the knowledge that if the people approved their extraordinary actions "all antecedent errors and irregularities" would be blotted out. The "transcendent and precious right of the people to 'abolish or alter their governments'" first excused and then justified others in proposing how the people might best exercise that right (Madison [see ch. 6, no. 20]). But for Madison, no less than for Hamilton, the right called for more than popular self-expression. A people on the eve of revolution was surely a vexed people, but not every vexation was justification for revolt. Just as popular government sought to express "the cool and deliberate sense of the community" (see ch. 4, no. 27), so too ought popular resistance and revolution to express the settled desperation of people in extreme cases, not the pique of those who merely cannot have things their way (no. 14).

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 1, Chapter 3, Introduction
The University of Chicago Press

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