Timothy N. Baldwin, JD.
October 21, 2011
The People’s Right of Revolution
Before getting into the meat of the subject, we must understand the terms. “Revolution” is not “rebellion.” Revolution can be either peaceful or violent. Algernon Sidney discusses this in detail in his Discourses Concerning Government—a favorite of the founding fathers.
A rebellion is where a people were once conquered by a foreign nation’s conquest against them; and then afterwards, the people rise up against the conquering nation. In short, Sidney describes it as renewed war.
Where a people revolt against or separate from their own government, the term to describe their action is not rebellion or war, but revolution. And revolution, in whatever manner, is a natural right of all people, as advocated by the Enlightenment philosophers.
Upon the concept that sovereignty rests in the people (see, part 5), Enlightenment philosophers recognized not only the people’s right of revolution, but also the duty. This right and duty related not only to the dismantling of or secession from government, but also society. Put differently, the people have a natural right to dissolve a government to which they were subject and also disassociate themselves from other societies to which they were once joined. Since the Declaration of Independence mirrored Locke’s and Sidney’s thesis on the subject, consider their positions.
“[I]f a long train of abuses, prevarications, and artifices, all tending to the same way, make the design [of tyranny] visible to the people, and they cannot but feel what they lie under, and see whither they are going,” Locke says, “it is not to be wondered that they should rouse themselves, and endeavor to…secure to them the ends for which government was at first erected” (John Locke, Concerning Civil Government, Ch. XIX, Sec. 225). Sound familiar? It should.
Locke explains how this right and duty must also be exercised timely before irrevocable harm is caused. Locke says, “the state of mankind is not so miserable that they are not capable of using this remedy till it be too late to look for any. To tell people they may provide for themselves…when, by oppression, artifice, or being delivered over to a foreign power, their old one is gone, is only to tell them they may expect relief when it is too late, and the evil is past cure” (Locke, Concerning Civil Government, Sec. 220).
Even in the case of a conquered people, Algernon Sidney recognized the people’s right to overthrow the foreign rule, reverting back to the right of the people to choose their association of society and subjection to government. Sidney recognizes that “superiority is not infinite; the peace may be broken upon just grounds” (Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government, Ch. 3, Sec. 36). Sidney also observes that “title can [never] be grounded upon beneficence” (Ibid.). In other words, the argument by the government that it confers benefits to you never legitimately serves to subject to the people against their will.
To Sidney, the people’s right of rebellion or revolution is naturally limitless, observing that the “people [may] vindicat[e] their own laws and liberties against a prince who violates them” (Ibid.). “They [the people] cannot be accountable to any but themselves”, Sidney concludes (Ibid.). Thus, when the people exercise a right of revolution against or secede from their government, the judge of their actions is not government, but God.
Hegel, on the other hand, scoffs at the notions of “the people’s right,” as already discussed in parts 1-5. While Hegel does not delve specifically into the issue of revolution, his work reveals that he viewed all revolutions and wars only as a matter of history, not truth, reason, or justice. In other words, revolution was simply a sign of a development of an idea, manifested in synthetic form getting government to the “Ideal of the State.”
In sharp contrast to the United States’ founders “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the World for the rectitude of [their] intentions,” Hegel appeals to “the highest right of all”— the “history of the world” (Hegel, Philosophy of Right, Sec. 340).
Certainly, the followers of Hegel did not understand him to mean that the people could not revolt, for it was Hegel’s work that caused world-wide revolutions in the 1800 and 1900s, which lead to Marxism, Communism, and Fascism, and continue to destroy Enlightenment-based governments and societies.
Exercising the People’s Right of Revolution
One of the most difficult questions to answer regarding the people’s right to revolution is, how do the people effectuate meaningful revolution?
It is easy to say, “where we choose to revolt against government, we can do it.” It is entirely different to effectuate a revolution. Why is that?—to name a few, because (1) government naturally grows in power and control; (2) government holds the power of the military and the judicial and executive power; (3) constitutions which give government its power are largely designed to last perpetually until ended by the people; (4) constitutions give power to government to preserve itself; and (5) those who believe revolution is necessary are most always a minority of the population.
Any efforts of a people to rid themselves of unwanted government are ironically met with government reprisal. The impossibility of revolution becomes even more remote where the scope of society becomes large, complex, and diverse. The likelihood of those millions of people agreeing on the need for revolution is less than getting struck by lightning twice on the same day except under the most draconian circumstances—by then, irreparable harm has already been caused.
If human nature teaches that people are apt to “suffer evil while evils are sufferable,” then it also teaches that the people should be proactive, not just reactive. However, human history teaches that people rarely, if ever, act timely—thus creating a seemingly impossible situation.
Dissolution of Political Associations
So, what is the most effective method of revolution when normal constitutional methods have been exhausted and are fruitless? The American colonies in 1776 offer an example. Their revolution was not rebellion. It was secession—the will and act to disunite. The people of each colony simply removed themselves from existing political and societal associations. We see their expressions of dissolution in the last paragraph of the Declaration. The colonies declared,
“We…by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do” (emphasis added).
Allow me to diverge a moment. Despite the argument by some that the Declaration of Independence was not an act of secession by pointing to the language, “That these united Colonies are…Free and Independence States…,” the position is not accurate.
The colonies recognized their political allegiance, loyalty, and constitutional obligation to Great Britain just before they seceded. The premier argument against their political dissolution was that they were constitutionally bound to Great Britain—highlighted in the events surrounding Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry. This article’s purpose does not warrant a detailed exposition of this proof. History books record it in plain sight: each colony never considered itself free and independent (see, Emer de Vattel, The Law of Nations).
To say they were free and independent before this declaration, and thus, they did not secede, ignores the language which follows: “that all political connection between them [the colonies] and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved” and that “they have full Power…to do all other Acts and Things which States may of right do” (emphasis added).
First, the colonies had to sever (i.e. dissolve, secede) an existing political and constitutional relationship so they could do what the following sentence provided; that is, having the “power to do all other Acts and Things which States may of right do.”
Second, if one uses the present tense verb “are” to “prove” that they were already free and independent states, then one would have to reconcile that verb use with the present tense verb of “have full power…,” when it is undeniable that the colonies never before did all those “Acts and Things which States may of right do”. They could only act free and independent states after they seceded from the political connection which prevented their freedom and independence. Thus, the use of present tense verbs signifies that secession/dissolution was the act which empowered them to act as free and independent states. (see, John Taylor, New Views of the Constitution of the United States of America).
Third, “dissolution” was by definition an act of secession.
The colonies’ act of secession/dissolution was a natural right act of revolution.
Application to the United States of America Today
While I have been accused of being a “secessionist” (as if to accuse me as un-American, etc.), I have to respond by saying, I am too well-studied to understand the advantages and disadvantages of both sides of this issue. I have written extensively on secession and believe informed, public debate should ensue on the matter. “The truth shall set you free” (John 8:32 kjv), not ignorance and closed mindedness. A structural engineer may be asked whether it is better that an old building be repaired or demolished, and the engineer have an explanation as to both choices. However, as to the question, does the right exist? Our Enlightenment and American forefathers believed it does. I agree with them.
What circumstances would warrant revolution of secession? Let the most astute students of political and social science make their arguments. Not everyone will agree: that’s for certain. I concur with Algernon Sidney who said,
“the wisdom of man is imperfect, and unable to foresee the effects that may proceed from an infinite variety of accidents, which according to emergencies, necessarily require new constitutions, to prevent or cure the mischiefs arising from them, or to advance a good that at the first was not thought on…Changes are therefore unavoidable, and the wit of man can go no farther than to institute such, as in relation to the forces, manners, nature, religion or interests of a people and their neighbors, are suitable and adequate to what is seen, or apprehended to be seen” (Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government, Ch., Sec. 17).
This topic reminds me of the comment made by Glenn Beck last year when discussing the issue of secession. Beck said, I like the United States Constitution and do not think we should abandon it (I’m paraphrasing), as if liberty would be lost. I say with respect, Glenn Beck either misses the point or is misleading his audience for reasons unknown to me.
Secession is not about abandoning a constitution. Secession is about preserving liberty’s principles where its government has for too long abandoned them. It is about exercising the people’s right of revolution and change of government—especially where the majority is part of the problem.
Similar to America’s history, where the States seceded from their government under the Articles of Confederation, they formed a new constitution in substantial similarity to their previous federal form of government. Likewise, when the southern states seceded from the federal government in the 1860s, they formed a new federal constitution that virtually mirrored the constitution of the United States of America. They were not trying to get rid of the constitution. They were trying to enforce sound, free principles and believed they could do that best by separation.
While arguments may be made as to the practicalities of secession, I favor the people’s right to revolution. (See, President Woodrow Wilson’s comments on the same subject.) I also prefer the most peaceful and humane method of revolution possible. Undeniably, secession is one of the most peaceful methods available. It is the minority’s tool to exercise their right. It always has been and will always be.
On that note, I end the discussion by quoting Reverend Chris Wyvill’s Secession From Parliament Vindicated as he describes secession upon the heels of the American Declaration of Independence. Wyvill says,
“But that the exercise of this discretionary power of Secession may be justifiable, there must be an emergency of great Public Danger; there must be a moral certainty, from the continued obstinacy of Parliament in adhering to measures of a pernicious tendency, that farther Debate will be altogether useless; that a timely change of counsels is not to be hoped from the unassisted wisdom of Parliament; and consequently, that a National Deliverance can only be effected by a just and constitutional interference of the People.
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“Under these circumstances there is an actual necessity for their interposition; which will, and which alone can justify an Appeal to the People by Secession. When the necessary means of safety have not been spontaneously, and in time applied by Parliament, what the reason and eloquence of the minority have in vain recommended, may be obtained by the decisive authority of Public Opinion. On a timely declaration of that opinion may hang the last hope of salvation; and Secession, with a view to procure it, may thus become a necessary Act of Duty.” (Rev. Chris Wyvill, The Secession From Parliament Vindicated, 2nd Ed. (York, L.Lund, 1799), 11-12 (emphasis added; Old English spelling converted to modern English for reader convenience).
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The following subjects will be further developed.
Individual Freedom and State Supremacy (Part 2)
B. Formation and Purpose of the State (Part 3)
C. Interpreting and Applying the Constitution (Part 4)
D. Republicanism and Democracy (Part 5)
E. The People’s Right of Revolution (Part 6)
F. Religion/Church (Part 7)
G. War (Part 8)
Subscribe to Tim Baldwin’s articles by going towww.libertydefenseleague.com and enter your email address in the appropriate box.
See, Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government, Ch. 3, Sec. 36.
2. See, John Locke, Concerning Civil Government, Chapt. XIX, Of the Dissolution of Government.
3. It is not without strategy that the federal government has conditioned the States to expect and get used to the “benefits” of tax dollars, etc. it is the same argument used by Great Britain to keep the American colonies subject.
4. “They acted in the face of the sun for the good of the public; and such acts having always produced effects suitable to the rectitude of their intentions, they consequently deserve praise” (Ibid., Sec. 17) (emphasis added).
5. Note: these factors actually make the success of a revolution more likely because the government is not able to contain the people’s efforts. The problem is the perception of the people to succeed and the unity of the people to execute a successful revolution.
6. The 1766 definition of “dissolve” was, “1. To destroy the form of any thing by disuniting the parts. 2. To break; to disunite in any manner. 3. To loose; to break the ties of any thing. 4. To separate persons united. 5. To breakup assemblies.” (Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language, Vol. 1, 3rd Ed., (London, 1766)). Synonymously, “secede” meant, “to withdraw from fellowship in any manner”. (Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language, Vol. 2, (London, 1756)). To “dissolve” literally meant to secede (i.e. to withdraw from fellowship), to disunite, to break away from, to break the ties of, etc.
7. See, “the wound thereby given to the natural or original rights of those nations cannot be cured, unless they resume the liberties, of which they have been deprived.” Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government, CH. 1, Sec. 16.
8. See, “Those who worked the theory [of secession] out to its logical consequence described the sovereignty of the federal government as merely an emanation from the sovereignty of the States. Even those public men who loved the Union most, yielded theoretical assent to the opinion that a State might legally withdraw from the government at her option, and had only practical and patriotic objections to urge.” Woodrow Wilson, Disunion and Reunion, 1829-1909, Ed. Albert Hart, (Longman’s, Green and Co., (Chicago, IL, 1918), 45-46 (emphasis added).
© 2011 Timothy N. Baldwin, JD - All Rights Reserved
Timothy Baldwin is an attorney licensed to practice law in Montana (and Florida) and focuses on constitutional issues. Baldwin graduated from the University of West Florida in 2001 with a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree in English and Political Science. In 2004, Baldwin graduated from Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham, AL with a Juris Doctorate (JD) degree. From there, Baldwin became an Assistant State Attorney in Florida. For 2 1/2 years, Baldwin prosecuted criminal actions and tried nearly 60 jury trials. In 2006, Baldwin started his private law practice and has maintained it since.
Baldwin is a published author, public speaker and student of political philosophy. Baldwin is the author of Freedom For A Change, Romans 13-The True Meaning of Submission, and Political Discussions for People of States–all of which are available for purchase through Liberty Defense League. Baldwin has also authored hundreds of political science articles relative to liberty in the United States of America. Baldwin has been the guest of scores of radio shows and public events and continues to exposit principles which the people in America will need to determine its direction for the future.
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