Do we have the right to overthrow our government?
The Declaration of Independence says that we not only have the right but we also have the duty to alter or abolish any government that does not secure our unalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Given that the U.S. was formed by settlers who threw off British government rule, there is also an historic precedent for overthrowing the government.
The right to revolt
The idea that people have the right to overthrow their government has a long and complex history, stretching back at least to the ancient Greeks and Romans. In the modern era, the idea has been most closely associated with the philosophy of classical liberalism, which emphasizes individual rights and limited government.
The idea of the right to revolt was famously articulated in the Declaration of Independence, which declared that “whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends [life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness], it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government.” The Declaration went on to argue that “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.”
It is worth noting that the right to revolution is not an unlimited right. The Declaration of Independence makes it clear that it should only be exercised in extreme circumstances, when a government has become “destructive” and has engaged in a “long train of abuses and usurpations.” Moreover, even when a revolution is justified, it is not necessarily desirable. As the Declaration itself notes, “prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.”
Nonetheless, the right to overthrow a government remains an important principle to uphold, as it serves as a check on government power. It is a reminder that governments exist to serve the people, not the other way around. The possibility of revolution also serves as a deterrent against abuses of power and as a last resort when all other avenues have failed.
In Episode 5 of the six part series on America’s founding below, Rochester Institute of Technology Professor Sarah Burns explains that the message of the Declaration of Independence is that we – as a free people – have the right to stand up to an oppressive government.
This was – and in many cases still is – a radical idea. But it is based on the philosophy that people have rights that no government can grant or deny.
According to John Locke, the fountainhead of this philosophy: There is no difference between an unjust government and a thief. Just like we are right to fight off a thief, we are right to fight off an oppressive government.
What do you think about this argument? Leave your comments below.
Further reading on American history
For further reading on American history and classical liberalism, be sure to check out some of the following content:
The role of government: schools of thought in classical liberalism
280 years later, here’s how Thomas Jefferson is still shaping our society
John Locke’s top 5 radical political ideas
The Gadsden flag: a historic symbol rooted in classical liberalism
7 lesser-known classical liberal thinkers for your World Philosophy Day
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This article was originally published in July 2016.
This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions.