The right of revolution, according to classical liberal thinkers, is derived from the natural right of self‐preservation. Because the purpose of government is to protect individuals against assaults on their lives, liberty, and property, governments lack legitimacy if either they fail to offer such protection or attack the individuals they were created to safeguard. In such cases, individuals owe their government no loyalty, have no obligation to bow to its unjust measures, and may choose to dissolve the old regime in order to create a new government that performs its legitimate role. Thomas Jefferson stated this argument most famously when, in the Declaration of Independence, he wrote, echoing Locke, that “governments are instituted” to secure “inalienable rights.” If a government “becomes destructive of these ends,” he asserted, “it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form … most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”
The ancestors of classical liberalism writing in the 17th and 18th centuries frequently cited historical instances in which people exercised the right of revolution. In his Discourses Concerning Government, Englishman Algernon Sidney mentioned Greek and Roman revolutionaries such as Epaminondas, Publicola, Valerius, and Marcus Brutus, as well as biblical figures such as Moses, Gideon, David, and the Maccabees. In his famous outburst against George III’s sanction of the 1765 Stamp Act, American statesman Patrick Henry proclaimed before Virginia’s House of Burgesses that “Caesar had his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell, and George the Third may profit by their example.”
Henry might have added that England’s King John had his Magna Carta. Forced to sign the document when noblemen, clerics, and commoners united in protest of his disregard for the customary obligations of the monarchy, John agreed in 1215 to strict limits on his power to tax, incarcerate, and dispense unequal justice. He also agreed that, were he or his heirs to violate these rules and ignore subsequent complaints, a council elected by barons had the right, “by taking our castles, lands and possessions,” to “oppress us in every way in their power.”
Such historical precedents exemplify the theoretical basis of the right of resistance, which is predicated on the idea of a social contract entered into to achieve certain ends. Writers such as Sidney and Locke developed their ideas within a tradition that included the political philosophies of Thomas Aquinas, Marsilius of Padua, William of Ockham, Juan de Mariana, and Richard Hooker, all of whom maintained that government, authorized by either the governed or their ancestors, exists for specific purposes. They shared the belief that governments existed for the purpose of permitting individuals to collectively secure the safety that was lacking when all lived independently in—as they described it—a state of nature.
Locke wrote that the fundamental “Law of Nature” proscribed anyone from harming another “in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions.” Yet solitary individuals found themselves open to murder, injury, enslavement, and theft when confronted with superior force. Thus, reasonable, self‐interested people joined together and formed governments to protect themselves. As Thomas Gordon, coauthor of Cato’s Letters, explained, “What is Government, but a Trust committed by All, or the Most, to One, or a Few, who are to attend upon the Affairs of All, that every one may, with the more Security, attend upon his own?”
Proponents of the right of revolution had their critics. Thomas Hobbes had a particularly negative view of the anarchic state of nature and was prepared to support even the most absolutist of governments provided they imposed order. Once an individual entered into a society, Hobbes maintained, he could rightfully defy the orders of the sovereign only in defense of his life. In contrast, David Hume rejected the idea of a social contract, although he acknowledged “the agreement by which savage men first associated and conjoined their force.” Hume contended that in nearly every instance this agreement was “so ancient” as to have been “obliterated by a thousand changes of government and princes”—in other words, “it cannot now be supposed to retain any authority.” Regimes, he said, were founded on conquest far more often than consent.
Those who posited that governments rested on the consent of the governed, but denied that a right to revolution existed, rebuked their opponents by pointing out the problems faced by those who accepted an alternative theory. Men could no more permanently give away their liberty, Locke asserted, than they could take their own lives. People who question the right of revolution, he thought, might as well cast doubt on the propriety of men who “oppose Robbers or Pirates, because this may occasion disorder or bloodshed.” In other words, without such checks on political authority, the wolves of government might feed freely on the sheep they governed. In such a scenario, Sidney asserted, “forests would be more safe than cities.” Both Locke and Sidney identified themselves with the opposition to the Stuart depredations on English liberties, and Locke was a firm supporter of the post‐1688 establishment. In that year, members of Parliament had deposed James II, who on several occasions had overreached his authority, and installed as monarchs William and Mary. In the tradition of King John, they agreed to new limits on the power of the monarchy. They also recognized a number of civil rights, all of which bolstered the protection of the natural rights to life, liberty, and property.
Advocates of the right of revolution emphasized that governments could not be dissolved, as Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “for light and transient causes.” The American Revolution against British rule, he maintained, was a case in which “repeated petitions” for reform had been “answered only by repeated injuries.” Jefferson assured the world that the American revolutionaries had met the tests of Sidney, Locke, and John Milton, who believed that the overthrow of governments required significant justification, requiring “a long train of Abuses, Prevarications, and Artifices,” as Locke wrote. In such instances, he maintained, people have as much right to overturn their government as a ship’s passengers do to mutiny when the captain of their vessel, despite contrary winds, leaks, and low supplies, steers them into a hurricane.
Because neither ruler nor ruled should be subject to arbitrary action, singular instances of government injustice should be met with personal resistance instead of revolution. Good governments listen to the governed and revise unjust laws. Political authorities “who know the frailty of human nature will always distrust their own,” Sidney contended, “and desiring only to do what they ought, will be glad to be restrained from that which they ought not to do.” Likewise, people tend to restrain themselves from rash action. “Revolutions happen not upon every little mismanagement in publick affairs,” Locke maintained, for even “great mistakes” of rulers will be endured by the people “without mutiny or murder.” Only when regimes ignore or outlaw all criticism, public protest, and other forms of resistance may the people turn to violent resistance.
If these theorists are correct, then one of the most powerful safeguards of individual rights—as well as of law and order—is a society’s recognition of the right of revolution. The public’s willingness to exercise this right discourages government officials from ignoring their most basic obligations to the governed.
Bailyn, Bernard. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967.
Brooks, David L., ed. From Magna Carta to the Constitution: Documents in the Struggle for Liberty. San Francisco: Fox & Wilkes, 1993.
Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Rossiter, Clinton. Seedtime of the Republic: The Origin of the American Tradition of Political Liberty. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1953.
Sidney, Algernon. Discourses Concerning Government. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1990.
Trenchard, John, and Thomas Gordon. Cato’s Letters or Essays on Liberty, Civil and Religious, and Other Important Subjects. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1990.
Tuck, Richard. Natural Rights Theories: Their Origin and Development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.