America's Founding, Ep.5: Is There A Right To Revolution?
“We as a free people, have the right to stand up to an oppressor.”
The colonists didn’t just declare war– they felt the need to justify themselves. Written in 1776, the Declaration of Independence asserted that as a free people they had the right to overthrow an unjust ruler– a shocking idea at the time. In making this claim, they were influenced by the writings of philosopher John Locke, who was the second major ideological influence on the American colonists (the first being radical Whig theory, discussed in episode 4.
Human Rights: Classical Liberalism Schools of Thought #5 Natural Rights (Learn Liberty Video): Nigel Ashford on Natural Rights, John Locke, and their influence into the modern Libertarian movement.
The Battle of Big Ideas, Part 1: Constrained vs. Unconstrained (Youtube video): Bill Whittle inspects Thomas Sowell’s book “A Conflict of Visions” by looking at the American and French revolution.
America’s Founding (upcoming On Demand program): Sarah Burns walks through the context and implications of the Revolutionary War.
>> We’re at a breaking point. It’s 1776 and the colonists have tried repeatedly to reconcile with England. They realized now they have to declare independence and start the uphill battle to fight for their freedom. Once they made that decision, they felt compelled to explain why it is that their relationship with England suffered from irreconcilable differences.
And that’s how we got the Declaration of Independence. This document was tricky to write for a couple of reasons. First, they had been claiming their rights as Englishman. Once you separate from England you can’t do that anymore. Second, this puts into writing that they’re rebelling against the king, and rebelling against the king is no joke.
If you lose, you hang. Don’t pass go, don’t collect $200, just straight to jail and then the hangman’s block. What’s their argument in the Declaration of Independence? They’re claiming that we, as a free people, have a right to stand up to an oppressor. Now, today, this seems perfectly understandable.
Only a government established by the people that protects the rights of the people deserves their support, right? Well at the time, this was a very radical idea. No one had tried to claim this as a reason to rebel. This concept was radical, new, and based in philosophy, specifically the philosophy of John Locke who created a theory about why people can declare independence from an oppressive government.
This is another important philosophical strain that underlies the revolution. It combines with radical Whig theory to create a good foundation for a new constitutional order. While Radical Whig Theory emphasizes civic virtue and a wariness of government power, Lockean Liberalism emphasizes rights protection and the responsibility of government. Locke develops his theory by looking at the origin of government.
According to him, human beings start out in a ahistorical state of nature. In that state they are all free and equal. There’s a problem though. We are all selfish and irrational. There is no objective party to mediate disputes. For him, therefore, it is necessary for us to come into society and create a government.
In order to do this, it has to be possible for a people to rebel if the government isn’t protecting their rights. So if the leader of a government doesn’t protect your rights, off with his head. Just kidding. But it is appropriate according to Lockean theory for a people to overthrow their government if they fail in this crucial respect.
Locke claims there’s no difference between an unjust king and a thief. Therefore, in the same way that we can stop a thief, we can overthrow a king. It’s through a Lockean understanding of government by consent that we can move from seeing ourselves as British citizens seeking the justice of the crown to human beings, born free and equal, confronting an oppressive ruler.
We see these ideas reflected in the Declaration of Independence. England had regularly violated their rights. To that end, in the Declaration, there’s 27 indictments against the king. This looks a lot like a list of indictments against a criminal. Let’s look at an example. He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.
He sounds like a mob boss. Because of his actions, we were free to dissolve our allegiance to him, and form a new society based on the consent of the governed, and we see this in the Declaration’s preamble. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by the creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just power from the consent of the governed. It’s important to see how radical this was for the time. Monarchs ran states of our size and a leader was considered sovereign. We completely flipped that around. We said that the people were the sovereign power, very shocking, and said that the government was answerable to the people, even more shocking.
Now you might be thinking that’s the end of the story. We’ve declared independence, and now we live happily ever after as a new country, right? Wrong. This is where the real work begins. Now we have to create new institutions based on radical philosophy. We have to get a diverse group of people to agree.
And then we have to get people to accept these new institutions. This is no easy task, as we’ll see in the concluding video. If you want to learn more about the American Revolution, click on the other videos from this series.