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January 1556

From Where Political Power Grows: John Ponet’s “Short Treatise,” Part I

“This rule is the law of Nature…reduced by Christ our Savior…:  You will love the Lord your God above all things, and your neighbor as yourself.”

Editor’s Note

In his 1787 Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, John Adams reflected that “there have been three periods in the history of England, in which the principles of government have been anxiously studied, and very valuable productions published.”  Though many of these venerable tomes were by then “wholly forgotten in their native country,” the best of them “are perhaps more frequently read abroad.”  Included among these great political treatises, Adams asserted, was John Ponet’s Short Treatise on Political Power (1556).  Published while Ponet was in exile and “Bloody” Mary briefly restored Catholic rule to England, Ponet’s decidedly Protestant political tract “contains all the essential principles of liberty,” rediscovered during the Interregnum period (ca. 1640-1660).  In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, “Sidney, Locke, Hoadley, Trenchard, Gordon, Plato Redivivus,” and others revived Ponet’s ideas.  Post-Revolutionary Americans, John Adams argued, “should make collections of all these speculations, to be preserved as the most precious relics of antiquity both for curiosity and use.”  On John Adams’ always-sincere advice, therefore, we begin our series exploring this powerful and early exposition of revolutionary liberalism.  In the first chapter, included below, Ponet establishes the source, purpose, and limits of political power.  In the next selection, we will examine the political and religious context in which he wrote and Ponet’s argument that even monarchs are subject to the rule of law.

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

A Short Treatise on Political Power, and of the true obedience which subjects owe to kings and other civil governors, with an Exhortation to all true and natural English men.

Compiled by Dr. John Ponet, Bishop of Rochester and Worchester.

Chapter I. From Where Political Power Grows, for what purpose it was ordained, and the right use and duties of the same: & etc.

As oxen, sheep, goats, and other such unreasonable creatures cannot for lack of reason rule themselves, but must be ruled by a more excellent creature, that is man: so man, although he has reason, yet because through the fall of the first man, his reason is radically corrupt, and sensuality has gotten the upper hand, he is not able by himself to rule himself, but must have a more excellent governor. Those of this world thought that this governor was their own reason. They thought that they by their own reason might do the things they lusted for, not only in private matters, but also in public. They thought reason to be the only cause that men first assembled themselves together in companies, that commonwealths were designed, that policies were well governed and long continued: but those of that mind were utterly blinded and deceived in their imaginations, their works and inventions (though they never seemed so wise) were so easily and so soon (contrary to their expectations) overthrown.

Where is the wisdom of the Greeks? Where is the fortitude of the Iberians? Where is both the wisdom and the force of the Romans gone? All have vanished away, nothing almost left to testify that they were, but that which declares well, that their reason was not able to govern them. Therefore, such were desirous to know the perfect and the only governor of all, constrained to seek further than themselves, and so at length to confess, that it was one God that ruled all. By Him we live, we move, and we have our being. He made us, and not we ourselves. We are His people, and the sheep of His pasture. He made all things for man: and man He made for Himself, to serve and Glorify Him. He has taken upon Himself the order and government of man, His chief creature, and prescribed a rule to him, how he should behave himself, what he should do, and what he may not do.

This rule is the law of nature, first planted and grafted only in the mind of man, then after that his mind was defiled by sin, filled with darkness, and encumbered with many doubts. God set this rule forth in writing in the Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments: and after that, reduced by Christ our Savior to just two commands: You will love the Lord your God above all things, and your neighbor as yourself. The latter part He also expounded on: Whatever you would want done unto yourself, do that unto others.

 In this law is compiled all justice, the perfect way to serve and glorify God, and the right means to rule each and every man: and the only stay to maintain every commonwealth. This is the touchstone to try every man’s works, whether he is king or beggar, whether he be good or evil. By this all men’s laws will be discerned, whether they be just or unjust, godly or wicked. For example; those that have authority to make laws in a commonwealth, make this law, that no punishment be imposed, but in their own country. This seems to be a trifling matter. Yet is by this means the people may be kept from idleness, it is a good and just law and pleases God. For idleness is a vice by which God is offended: and the way to offend Him in breach of the commandments: you shall not steal, you shall not kill, you shall not commit adultery, etc. For all these evils come from idleness. On the other side, if the people are well occupied in other things, and the people of another country live by pin making, and uttering them: if there should be a law made, that they may not sell them to their neighboring country, which is otherwise well occupied, it is a wicked and an unjust law. For taking away the means, whereby they live, a course is devised to kill them with famine, and so not only is this commandment broken, you shall not kill, but also the general law, which says: You shall love your neighbor as yourself; And, whatever you would want done unto yourself, do that unto others, for you yourselves would not be killed with hunger.

Likewise, if there is a law made, utterly prohibiting that any man can remain chaste, and cannot marry, this is an unjust, an ungodly, and a wicked law. For it is an occasion, that with marriage, he might avoid sinning: But if he does not marry, he commits fornication and adultery in act or thought contrary to God’s will and commandment; You shall not commit adultery.

Again, a prince forces his subjects (under the name of request) to lend him what they have, which they do unwillingly: and yet for fear of a worse turn, they must seem to be content with the action. Afterwards, he causes a Parliament to be assembled as if he had been lent nothing at all, and they dare not displease him. To please him, they remit this general debt. This is a wicked and an unjust law. For they are not acting as they would want acted upon, but be an occasion, that a great number of people are undone, their children perish by famine for lack of sustenance, and their servants are forced to steal, and even possibly commit murder. So if men will weigh this order and law that God has proscribed to man-thou shalt love the Lord God above all things, and your neighbor as yourself. And, what ever you will have men do to you, do the same to them: they may soon learn to discern good from evil, godliness from ungodliness, right from wrong.

And it is so plain and easy to be understood, that any plea of ignorance can or will excuse him that causes offense in this manner…

By [the Ten Commandments] He instituted political power and gave authority to men to make more laws. For He that gave man authority over the body and life of man, because He would have man to live quietly with man, that all might serve Him quietly in holiness and righteousness all the days of his life, it cannot be denied, but He gave him authority over goods, lands, possessions, and all such things that may breed controversy and discord, and so hinder the service and worship that He requires…But whether this authority to make laws, or the power to execute the same, shall be and remain in one person alone, or in many, it is not expressed, but left to the discretion of the people to make so many and so few, as the think necessary for the maintenance of the state…

And these diverse kinds of states or policies have distinct names, as where one ruled, a Monarchy: where many of the best, Aristocracy: where the multitude, Democracy: and where all together, that is, a king, the nobility, and commoners, a mixed state: which men by long continuance have judged to be the best sort of all. For where that mixed state was exercised, there did the commonwealth longest continue. But yet every kind of these states tended to one end, that is, to the maintenance of justice, to the wealth and benefit of the whole multitude, and not of the superior and governors alone. And when they saw that the governors abused their authority, they altered the state…The rich would oppress the poor, and the poor seek the destruction of the rich, to have what the rich had: the mighty would destroy the weak, and as Theodoretus says, “the great fish eats up the small”, and the weak seeks revenge on the mighty: and so one seeking the others destruction, all at length should be undone and come to destruction…

And the wonderful providence of God is herein to be well noted and considered, of all such as love and fear God, that in all places and counties where God’s word has been received and embraced, there for the time the people followed God, no tyranny could enter, but all the members of the body sought the prosperity and wealth of one another, for God’s word taught them to do this. You shall love the Lord your God (it says) above all things, and your neighbor as yourself. And, what you will have men do unto you, do you also to them. The fruits of His word is love one another, whatever state or degree in this world they be in. And the state of the policies and commonwealths have been disposed and ordained by God, that the heads could not (if they would) oppress the other members…

If he ought to be sharply used, who deceives one poor man, how much more sharply ought he to be punished, and of all men to be abhorred (yes, and even cast unto the dogs) that deceives the whole of the realm of ten or twenty hundred thousand persons? If he is thus to be punished and abhorred who is required to do another man’s business, and deceives him, how much more ought they to be abhorred and hated, that takes upon them to do for others, not desired but sung for it: not called thereto, but trusting in themselves: not praying, but paying, giving many liveries, procuring and making friends to give them their voice, obtaining great men’s letters, and ladies tokens, feasting freeholders, and making great bankletting cheer: not by the consent of the party, but by force and strength, with troops of horsemen, bills, bows, pikes, guns, and such of like kind and quality.

If this opinion be held, and judgment given against a man that seeks his own gain with the loss of his friends in small things: what opinions men have, what judgment shall be given of those that, intending to make themselves noble and rich, cuts the throats of those that committed themselves, their wives, their children, their goods, yes, and even their lives upon trust in to their hands?

If this judgment is given for worldly things, what judgment shall be given to those that willfully go about to destroy men’s souls, and to make them a present to the devil, so that they for a time may be his deputies here on earth? If men abhor and punish such that are unfaithful and dishonest persons, how much more will the Almighty God abhor, condemn, and exercise His severe judgment upon them that abuse the authority given to them by Him, and deceive and undo those poor sheep of His, in whom (as His ministers) they put their trust?

Listen, listen (while there is time for repentance) to the sentence of God, pronounced by the mouth of his servant Isaiah; “Wo be unto you that make unrighteous laws, and devise things which are hard to be kept, whereby the poor are oppressed on every side, and the innocent of my people are robbed of judgment, that widows may be your prey, and that you may rob the fatherless. What will you do in the time of the visitation and destruction that shall come from afar? To whom will you run to for help? Or to whom will you give your honor, that he may keep you from becoming prisoners, or lie among the dead?

This terrible woe of everlasting damnation was spoken not only to Jerusalem, but to Germany, Italy, France, Spain, England, Scotland, and all other countries and nations, where the like vices shall be committed. For God is just, and hates sin, that be never leaves it in any place unpunished: but the more common it is, the greater plagues and force does He use to repress it: as we may learn from the examples of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Jerusalem, His own city. And besides the general plague, he whips the authors of it with some special scourge, that they may be a spectacle, not only to those that are present, but also a remembrance to all that are to come.

But some, who are put in trust and authority to make the laws and statutes, will say that they would not do anything willingly against God’s honor, or the wealth of our country, or deceive any that put their trust in us.

If any such thing follows, it is by reason that we were ignorant…

Do you think that this bald excuse will serve? Is it not written, that if the blind leads the blind, both shall fall into the pit? Did the plea that Eve made for offending in eating the forbidden fruit (when she said that the serpent had deceived her) excuse her? Nothing less. She was not only herself punished with pains (none greater than death could be devised) but also all her posterity.

Perhaps others of you will say that you do not dare to do otherwise. If you did, you should be taken for enemies of the governor, running into indignation, and so lose your bodies and goods, and undo your children. O you that are faint of heart, do you think that your parents would have left you as you were found, if they were so faint of heart? Or do you think that you will serve your turn? Was it enough for Adam, our first father, when he fell with his wife in eating the forbidden fruit, to say, “I dare not displease my wife.” Or to say as he said, ” The woman that you gave me, gave the fruit to me?” No, it did not avail, but he and all his posterity were plagued for his disobedience, as we and all that shall follow us will do, if we have any fear of God before our eyes…

Thus you have heard not only from where political power grows, and of the true use and duty thereof, but also what will be laid to their charge, those that do not do their duty in making laws. Now see, what is said by God to the executors of the laws: “See what you do, for you execute not the judgment of man, but of God. And whatever you judge, it shall be rebounded to yourselves.” Let the fear of God be before your eyes, and do all things with diligence. For with the Lord our God there is no iniquity, neither difference among persons, nor does He have pleasure in rewards or bribes.

But of the ministers of the laws and governors of realms and countries, more shall be said hereafter.


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