The Founders Continued the Long British History of Resisting Unjust Authority

The Founders Continued the Long British History of Resisting Unjust Authority

Today’s essay, the last in the history of Resistance Theory, traces the Founder’s use of the right to revolution, famously preserved in the Declaration of Independence. Having examined the early history of the right to oppose unjust leadership, which prepared the way for the American Revolution, we must acknowledge what even the most cursory examination of this right exposes.

That this was a Christian undertaking, achieved during a time when Christianity was the unquestioned default belief system of the civilized world, according to John Witte, Jr., in The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism.

In fact, Witte traces the foundation of Western democratic republicanism to the tripartite development of the earliest social contract—coupling God, government, and man, within a series of duties and obligations. He also explains how this right of revolt against evil government, or Resistance Theory, became a precursor to our modern understanding of Natural Rights. Moreover, Witte describes the use of Resistance Theory in Europe to depose tyranny as a quintessential example of the free exercise of religion, writing:

Now, resistance was cast in more active terms: each Christian believer had the right and duty to disobey and to fight tyranny with a clear conscience so long as he or she followed the terms and procedures of the political covenant and the direction and example of faithful lower magistrates.

We now finally turn our attention to the Founding Fathers’ use of Resistance Theory.

I. Founding Fathers & Republicanism

It is important to note that the colonial Americans were members of a society which strongly believed in the Republican theory of government, according to The American Story: Penguin Academics Series. Republicanism was based upon the notion of liberty springing from a civic society, immersed in virtue and protected by a list of enumerated inalienable rights. The founding documents resulted from the work of such luminaries of liberty as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, main drafters of the Declaration and Constitution. The beliefs associated with republicanism included the fruit of the classical world, and a commitment to a society of virtues, a deep distrust of government, and a modern orientation towards Natural Rights.

Republicans despised the notion of hereditary leadership. Further, the republic was portrayed as a quasi-sacred entity. J.G.A. Pocock, in The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition, described the colonial republican view of society, being. . .

. . . a civic and patriot ideal in which the personality was founded in property, perfected in citizenship but perpetually threatened by corruption; government figuring paradoxically as the principal source of corruption and operating through such means as patronage, faction, standing armies (opposed to the ideal of the militia); established churches (opposed to the Puritan and deist modes of American religion); and the promotion of a monied interest—though the formulation of this last concept was somewhat hindered by the keen desire for readily available paper credit common in colonies of settlement.

II. Founder’s Views on Revolution

The Founders believed that what drove Britain’s usurpation of American rights was their desire to create an Anglican tyranny by way of tax authority, according to Bernard Bailyn. The goal of the British Crown, therefore, was the total annihilation of the American’s liberty and rights. According to Michael P. Zuckert, in The Natural Rights Republic, following Locke, the Founders believed the purpose of the state was to secure the rights of its citizens. Zuckert states, “The security of rights can be the only legitimate end of political society.” Therefore, when the state began to oppress the citizens, and steal their rights, this in itself justified their rebellion.

For today’s Americans, it goes without saying that the Founders believed in the right of resistance and revolution, as famously described by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.


We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their 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 powers from the consent of the governed,—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

But where did the Founders get their firm conviction to their absolute right to overturn their government and reform it upon new lines? According to Bernard Bailyn, in The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, the sources of the Revolution were varied. First was “the heritage of classical antiquity,” such as Cato and Cicero; then the writings of the Enlightenment rationalism, such as Locke and Voltaire. The third were luminaries of British legal history and the common law, such as Lord Coke and Blackstone; and the last being New England Puritanism, especially Reformed covenant theology.

What drew together these diverse elements? According to Bailyn, the tenor and logic of the English Revolution was used by the Founders, who followed the writings of such luminaries as John Milton and martyred hero, Algernon Sidney. John Locke was likewise enormously influential to the Founders.

According to Pauline Meier in American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson was asked by the Committee of Five to write the Declaration, and did so in haste. The preamble was a direct descendent of the English Declaration of Rights. The document was also influenced by George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights, which stated three basic concepts: (1) That all men were born equally free and independent, and cannot be divested of their rights to life and liberty or property. (2) That power is vested in The People, and therefore leaders only borrow their authority from these. (3) That government is created to protect and benefit the people, and when it fails to do this, the people have an inalienable right to overturn and reform the government.

It is without question that Jefferson, in declaring the inherent right to revolution, was continuing a long English tradition to the same, which resulted in the execution of Charles I for treason, at the end of the English Civil War, in 1649. This represents the Whig influence on America, closely connected to Lord Shaftesbury, and his aid and physician, John Locke. The thinkers influencing this right of revolt included Locke, Milton, Sidney, and many others.

Meier describes the ideas Jefferson inherited, writing,

By the time of the Revolution those ideas had become, in the generalized form captured by Jefferson, a political orthodoxy whose basic principles colonists could pick up from sermons or newspapers or even schoolbooks without ever reading a systematic work of political theory.

In other words, the ideas of Right of Resistance that Jefferson recorded in the Declaration were utterly commonplace in the colonial society of the day.

III. Colonial Revolutionary Pulpits & the Demand to Resist

In understanding the ides that drove the colonists and Founders to throw of English rule, and the support from colonial society, we cannot overlook the most omnipresent—that of the colonial pulpits. The typical early American attended church and sat under learned preaching from divines graduating from such seminaries as Harvard and Yale.

One such minister was Johnathan Mayhew, a Harvard graduate, who gave an exceedingly influential sermon on tract on January 30, 1750, entitled “A Discourse concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers: With some Reflections on the Resistance made to King Charles I. And on the Anniversary of his Death: In which the Mysterious Doctrine of that Prince’ s Saintship and Martyrdom is Unriddled.” The sermon was extremely long by today’s standards, some 18,000 words, or about 33 printed pages. Some claimed this sermon launched the American Revolution.

Here are a few of Mayhew’s points, developed from Paul’s arguments in Romans 13, which bear repeating:

A. Introduction: If God causes mankind to obey tyrants, how does this achieve good?

Let us now trace the apostle’s reasoning in favor of submission to the higher powers, a little more particularly and exactly. For by this it will appear, on one hand, how good and conclusive it is, for submission to those rulers who exercise their power in a proper manner: And, on the other, how weak and trifling and inconnected [sic] it is, if it be supposed to be meant by the apostle to show the obligation and duty of obedience to tyrannical, oppressive rulers in common with others of a different character.

B. If God’s leaders act like devils, must man obey them?

The apostle enters upon his subject thus—Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers; for there is no power but of God: the powers that be, are ordained of God. Here he urges the duty of obedience from this topic of argument, that civil rulers, as they are supposed to fulfil the pleasure of God, are the ordinance of God. But how is this an argument for obedience to such rulers as do not perform the pleasure of God, by doing good; but the pleasure of the devil, by doing evil; and such as are not, therefore, God’s ministers, but the devil’s!

C. Resisting lawless and unreasonable leaders is doing the work of God.

Whosoever, therefore, resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God; and they that resist, shall receive to themselves damnation. Here the apostle argues, that those who resist a reasonable and just authority, which is agreeable to the will of God, do really resist the will of God himself; and will, therefore, be punished by him. But how does this prove, that those who resist a lawless, unreasonable power, which is contrary to the will of God, do therein resist the will and ordinance of God? Is resisting those who resist God’s will, the same thing with resisting God? Or shall those who do so, receive to themselves damnation!

D. Good rulers are not a terror from God, bad rulers are a terror & must be resisted.

For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good; and thou shalt have praise of the same. For he is the minister of God to thee for good. Here the apostle argues more explicitly than he had before done, for revering, and submitting to, magistracy, from this consideration, that such as really performed the duty of magistrates, would be enemies only to the vile actions of men, and would befriend and encourage the good; and so be a common blessing to society. But how is this an argument, that we must honor, and submit to, such magistrates as are not enemies to the evil actions of men, but to the good; and such as are not a common blessing, but a common curse, to society!

E. God demands we resist tyrants so as to protect others.

If it be our duty, for example, to obey our king, merely for this reason, that he rules for the public welfare, (which is the only argument the apostle makes use of) it follows, by a parity of reason, that when he turns tyrant, and makes his subjects his prey to devour and to destroy, instead of his charge to defend and cherish, we are bound to throw off our allegiance to him, and to resist; and that according to the tenor of the apostle’s argument in this passage. Not to discontinue our allegiance, in this case, would be to join with the sovereign in promoting the slavery and misery of that society, the welfare of which, we ourselves, as well as our sovereign, are indispensably obliged to secure and promote, as far as in us lies. It is true the apostle puts no case of such a tyrannical prince; but by his grounding his argument for submission wholly upon the good of civil society; it is plain he implicitly authorises, and even requires us to make resistance, whenever this shall be necessary to the public safety and happiness.


We might rightly see the entire history of principled revolt, or the Right of Resistance, as a study in the duties of Christian citizenship under the throes of the political crisis of tyranny. The Puritan forebears of the Founders left a rich tradition which not only gave an outline for the proper role of government, but on the duties of patriots, as well. This was continued this from the most illustrious English rebels against the tyranny of the throne. According to Zuckert, one explanation of the American Revolution, which post-revolutionary New Englanders themselves accepted, was that the Revolutionary War was the final step in a long list of uprisings where a dissatisfied populace demanded a more Christian government.

Zuckert sums up the Puritan view of proper government, which still dominates the American landscape, quoting Levy and Young:

Puritan political theory, like Puritanism itself, left a lasting influence on American development…The social compact theory of government and representative government…natural law and rights, written constitutions and constitutional limitations on powers of government, religious liberty and separation of church and state, and the exceptional importance of the individual—all may be found in Puritan political ideas.

Written by Kelly OConnell.

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