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LEGITIMACY AND REVOLUTIONISM.
[From Brownson's Quarterly Review for October, 1848.]
We take, in our political essays, unwearied pains to make ourselves understood, and to guard against being misapprehended; but, through our own fault or that of our readers, our success has rarely corresponded to our efforts. On all sides, from all quarters, we are charged with being hostile to liberty and favorable to despotism,—the enemy of the people, and the friend of their oppressors. We could smile at this ridiculous charge, were it not that some honest souls are found who appear to believe it, and some moon-struck scribblers make it the occasion of exciting unjust prejudices against our friends, and of placing them, as well as ourselves, in a false position before the public. Injustice to us personally is of no moment, and demands of us no attention ; but when, owing to our peculiar position, it can hardly fail to work injustice to others, we are bound to notice and to repel it.
The age in which we live is an age of theoretical, and, to a great extent, of practical anarchy. Its ideas and movements are marked by impatience of restraint, denial of law, and contempt of authority. We have seen this, and have felt it our duty to protest against it, and to do what we could, in our limited sphere, to recall men to a sense of the necessity of government, and to the fact of their moral obligation to uphold the supremacy of law. This is our offence. Yet one would naturally suppose that people of ordinary intelligence, somewhat acquainted with our past history, might, without much difficulty, believe that in this our motive has been to serve the cause of freedom, not that of despotism. We, in fact, have done it, because liberty is impossible without order, order is impossible without government, and government in any worthy sense of the term is impossible without a settled conviction on the part of the people of its legitimacy, and of their obligation in conscience to obey it. Nothing deserving the name of government can be founded on the sense of the agreeable or of the useful. Governments, so called, which appeal to nothing higher, more catholic, and more stable, are mere creatures of passion or caprice, and must follow the lead of popular folly and excess, instead of restraining them, and directing the general activity to the public good. They are not governments, but mere instruments for the private gain or aggrandizement of the adroit and scheming few who contrive to possess themselves of their management. It is philosophically and historically demonstrable, that the
permanence and stability of government, and its wise and just administration for the common weal,--the only legitimate end of its institution,--are impracticable, unless the government is held to rest on the universal and unalterable sense of duty, under the protection of religion.
This truth, though, in fact, a very commonplace truth, our age overlooks, or, if it does not overlook, it rejects. Hence the danger with which liberty in our times is threatened. We have believed it, therefore, not improper to guard against this danger, and in order to do so, we have traced government back to its source, and to the foundation of its authority. We have found its origin, not in the people, but in God, from whom is all power; and we have concluded from this its divine right, within its legitimate province, to our allegiance. It has, since it derives its authority from God, a divine right to command, and, if so, we must be bound in conscience to obey it. Then it rests, not on the sense of the agreeable or of the useful, to fluctuate as these flnctuate, but on the sense of duty,-and not merely duty to our country or to mankind, but duty to God—a duty founded in the unalterable relations of man to his Maker. This raises political allegiance and obedience to the law to the rank of moral virtue, and declares their violation to be a sin against God, to whom we belong, all we have, and all we are. Hence, in its legitimate province, even civil government becomes sacred and inviolable; and therefore we assert, on the one hand, our duty to obey it, and, on the other, deny the right of revolution, what La Fayette calls “the sacred right of insurrection.”
Here, in general terms, is the doctrine we have endeavoured to inculcate. That it is hostile to the political atheism now so rife, we concede. We are Christians, and do not understand the possibility of being Christians, and yet atheists in politics. We have but one set of principles, and these are determined by our religion. We cannot adopt one set of principles in our religion and a contradictory set in our politics, saying “Good Lord” in the one, and age for that.
“ Good Devil” in the other. We are too far behind the
But that this doctrine is hostile to liberty or favorable to despotism, we do not concede,—nay, positively deny. In setting it forth, we have dwelt on that phase of it directly opposed to the dangerous tendencies of the age, because it was not necessary to guard against tendencies from which we have nothing to apprehend, and because we presume that our readers would of themselves see that it had another phase equally opposed to the opposite class of tendencies. But for the hundredth time in our short life we have learned that the writer who presumes any thing on the intelligence or discrimination of the bulk of readers presumes too much, and will assuredly be disappointed. The doctrine protects the government against radicals, rebels, and revolutionists; but it protects, also, the people against tyrants and oppressors. The fears of our politicians on this last point, whether real or affected, do little credit to their sagacity. The monsters which affright them a little more light would enable them to see are as harmless as the charred stump or decaying log which the benighted traveller mistakes for bear or panther.
When we assert the doctrine of legitimacy, we are understood to assert passive obedience and non-resistance to tyrants; but needs it any extraordinary intellectual power and cultivation to perceive that legitimacy, while it smites the rebel or the revolutionist, must equally smite the tyrant or usurper? If the doctrine asserts the right of legitimate, it must deny the right of illegitimate government; if it denies the right to disobey the legitimate authority, it must also deny the right of illegitimate authority to command; if it disarms the subject before the legal authority, it must equally disarm the illegal authority before the subject. How, then, from the fact that we are forbidden to resist or to subvert legitimate government, the legal constitution of the state, conclude that we are forbidden to resist or to depose the tyrant? Tyranny, oppression, is never legal, and therefore no tyrant or oppressor ever is or can be the legitimate sovereign. To resist him is not to resist the legitimate authority, and therefore demands for its justification no assertion of the revolutionary principle. How is it, then, that you do not see that the doctrine of legitimacy gives a legal right to resist whatever is illegal, and therefore lays a solid foundation for liberty?
People, we know, are prejudiced against the doctrine which asserts the divine origin and right of government, but it is because they misapprehend the doctrine, and because they identify liberty with democracy. The doctrine, undoubtedly, does assert the sacredness, inviolability, and legitimacy of every actual political constitution, whatever its form, and that the monarchical or aristocratic order, where it is the established order, is as legitimate as the democratic. But, if liberty and democracy are one and the same thing, since the monarchical order is that which is actually the established order in most states, liberty in most states is precluded, and the people are and must be slaves. Yet is it true that liberty and democracy are identical or convertible terms? Democracy, whose expression is universal suffrage, intrusts every citizen with a share in the administration of the government, which is and can be done by no other political order. But the elective franchise is a trust, not a right, and therefore to withhold it is not to withhold freedom. Liberty is in the possession and exercise of our natural rights. We have none of us any natural right to govern; for under the law of nature all men are equals, and no one has the right to exercise authority over others. The franchise is a municipal grant, and depends on the will of the political sovereign. Liberty, unless the question be between nation and nation, is not a predicate of the government, but of the subject, and of the subject not in his quality of a constituent element of the sovereignty, but in his quality of subject. As subject he may be free, without being intrusted with authority to govern, and therefore may be free under other forms of government than the democratic.
In fact, democratic politicians never attain to the conception of liberty. The basis of their theory of government is despotism. They make the right to govern a natural right, and differ from the confessedly despotic politicians only in claiming for every man what these claim for only one. They make government a personal right, incident to manhood, inalienable, and inamissible,—not a solemn trust which the trustee is bound to hold and exercise according to law, and for which he is accountable. Hence it is that democracy always sooner or later terminates in despotism or autocracy. We deny that government is ever a personal right, whether of the one, the few, or the many, and therefore deny that a man has a natural right to a share in the administration. He only has the right to whom the power is delegated by the competent authority, and he holds
it, not as a personal right, but as a trust. Consequently, we do not concede that the establishment of the democratic régime is at all essential to the establishment or maintenance of liberty. He is free, enjoys his liberty, who is secured in the possession and enjoyment of all his natural rights; and this is done wherever the legitimate authority governs, and governs according to the principles of justice. We are aware of no form of government that cannot so govern, or which cannot also govern otherwise, if it choose.
We are republicans, because republicanism is here the established order, but we confess that we do not embrace, and never have embraced, as essential to liberty, or even as compatible with liberty, the popular democratic doctrine of the country. We beg leave to refer here to our remarks on Democracy which we wrote in 1837, and published in the first number of The Boston Quarterly Review, January, 1838.* When we wrote them, we had the reputation of being one of the stanchest friends of liberty and the most ultra radicals in the country,-a fact which we commend to those of our former friends who are now so ready to represent us as having gone over to the side of despotism.We should not now call the doctrine democracy, as we did when we wrote it, nor should we use certain locutions, to be detected here and there, dictated by an erroneous theology; but the doctrine itself is our present doctrine, as clearly and as energetically expressed as we could now express it. It seems to us to contain an unanswerable refutation of the popular democratic principle and a triumphant vindication of the sovereignty of justice,-therefore, of the divine origin and right of government; for justice, in the sense the writer uses it, is identical with God, who alone is absolute, immutable, eternal, and sovereign Justice.
The purpose of the writer was evidently to obtain a solid foundation for individual freedom. If he, in order to do this, found and proved it necessary to assert the divine origin and right of government, to rise above the sovereignty of kings, of nobles, and even of the people, to the eternal and underived suvereignty or God, King of kings, and Lord of lords, how should we suspect ourselves of being hostile to liberty, when asserting the same doctrine in defence of the rights of government? Having for years proved
*Brownson's Works, Voi. XV.,