Essay 13 Part 2

Passive Obedience

What are the practical consequences, deduced by each party, with regard to obedience to sovereigns?

Justice is founded entirely on the interests of society, which require mutual abstinence from property, in order to preserve peace. Whenever law enforcement has very pernicious consequences during emergencies, justice must be suspended and give way to public utility.

The maxim ’let justice be performed, even if it destroys the universe’ is false. It sacrifices the end to the means and shews a preposterous idea of the subordination of duties.

A town governor will burn the suburbs to prevent them from being used by the enemy. A general does not abstain from plundering a neutral country when it is needed by his army.

The case is the same with the duty of allegiance. Common sense teaches us, that, as government binds us to obedience only because of public utility. In extraordinary cases when obedience will cause the public ruin, that duty must always yield.

The maxim ’the safety of the people is the supreme law’ is agreeable universally.

Even our high monarchical party is forced, in such cases, to judge, feel, and conform to the rest of mankind.

Resistance, therefore, is allowed in extraordinary emergencies. But what degree of necessity can justify resistance?

I side with those who have a bond of allegiance.

Civil war commonly follows an insurrection. If a disposition to rebellion appears among any people, it is one chief cause of tyranny in the rulers, and forces them into many violent measures which they never would have embraced, had every one been inclined to submission and obedience.

Thus, the tyrannicide or assassination, approved of by ancient maxims, instead of keeping tyrants and usurpers in awe, made them ten times more fierce and unrelenting;

and is now justly, upon that account, abolished by the laws of nations, and universally condemned as a base and treacherous method of bringing to justice these disturbers of society.3

Obedience is our duty in the common course of things. It should chiefly be inculcated.

; nor can any thing be more preposterous than an anxious care and solicitude in stating all the cases, in which resistance may be allowed.

Similarly, a philosopher can acknowledge that justice may be ignored in cases of urgent necessity. But we should not waste time on a preacher or casuist who chiefly finds out such cases, and enforce them with vehement arguments. It would be better for him to inculcate the general doctrine.

There are, however, two reasons, which may be pleaded in defence of that party among us, who have, with so much industry, propagated the maxims of resistance; maxims, which, it must be confessed, are, in general, so pernicious, and so destructive of civil society.

  1. Their antagonists carrying the doctrine of obedience to such an extravagant height, as not only never to mention the exceptions in extraordinary cases (which might, perhaps, be excusable) but even positively to exclude them; it became necessary to insist on these exceptions, and defend the rights of injured truth and liberty. The second, and, perhaps, better reason, is founded on the nature of the British constitution and form of government.

It is almost peculiar to our constitution to establish a first magistrate with such high pre-eminence and dignity, that, though limited by the laws, he is, in a manner, so far as regards his own person, above the laws, and can neither be questioned nor punished for any injury or wrong, which may be committed by him. His ministers alone, or those who act by his commission, are obnoxious to justice; and while the prince is thus allured, by the prospect of personal safety, to give the laws their free course, an equal security is, in effect, obtained by the punishment of lesser offenders, and at the same time a civil war is avoided, which would be the infallible consequence, were an attack, at every turn, made directly upon the sovereign.

But though the constitution pays this salutary compliment to the prince, it can never reasonably be understood, by that maxim, to have determined its own destruction, or to have established a tame submission, where he protects his ministers, perseveres in injustice, and usurps the whole [492] power of the commonwealth.

This case, indeed, is never expressly put by the laws; because it is impossible for them, in their ordinary course, to provide a remedy for it, or establish any magistrate, with superior authority, to chastise the exorbitancies of the prince. But as a right without a remedy would be an absurdity; the remedy in this case, is the extraordinary one of resistance, when affairs come to that extremity, that the constitution can be defended by it alone.

Resistance therefore must, of course, become more frequent in the British government, than in others, which are simpler, and consist of fewer parts and movements. Where the king is an absolute sovereign, he has little temptation to commit such enormous tyranny as may justly provoke rebellion: But where he is limited, his imprudent ambition, without any great vices, may run him into that perilous situation.

This is frequently supposed to have been the case with Charles the First; and if we may now speak truth, after animosities are ceased, this was also the case with James the Second. These were harmless, if not, in their private character, good men; but mistaking the nature of our constitution, and engrossing the whole legislative power, it became necessary to oppose them with some vehemence; and even to deprive the latter formally of that authority, which he had used with such imprudence and indiscretion.


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