An important right asserted by early American colonists during the American founding era and acknowledged in the U. S. Declaration of Independence of 1776 was the people’s right to revolution, the right to resist tyranny and unjust oppression. Tyranny may be generally understood as the unauthorized use, application, or exercise of power or making of laws in violation of the people’s consent and rights, and the Law of Nature. In addition to many colonial patriot clergymen supporting defensive war from the Old Testament, the American Founders and revolutionaries largely drew from Enlightenment-era British philosopher John Locke and his Bible-based views of popular sovereignty, natural rights, and social contract in order to support and explain man’s right of revolution.
In his 1689 Two Treatises on Government, Locke’s view of man’s just right of revolution was actually a natural outcome of his Bible-based views and assertions about popular sovereignty, natural rights, and social contract. In his First Treatise, Locke presented the idea that because God in Genesis created all men as equal before Him and gave all mankind dominion, the whole people, not just one person, rightly holds political power in a civil state. As such, the people have a right to choose their governors or representatives. Civil bodies or governors receive their legitimate authority through the people’s consent. In his Second Treatise, Locke asserted that because mankind is created and valued by God, all men have certain God-given, inherent, natural property rights including life, liberty, and estate. Consequently, the civil power cannot violate or remove these rights without just cause. Doing so would be an abuse of power. Also in his Second Treatise, Locke articulated the means for the free people’s rule through social contracts. In a social contract, the people join together in a civil society that is able to enforce the Law of Nature, restrain evil, and protect citizens’ rights for their safety and preservation. In this society, the people agree on the civil laws and form of government, and they choose their governors. If a governor or civil body violates or breaches the social contract, the people may justly reform, remove, or overthrow them and institute a new one.
Along these lines of reasoning, Locke thus asserted that the people have a right to reform or overthrow their civil governors or government—or a right to revolution—if the civil power exists or acts without the people’s consent, abuses the rights of citizens, or departs from its responsibilities defined by the social contracts of the civil state. Locke expresses this right in his Second Treatise, …
But if a long train of abuses, prevarications, and artifices, all tending the same way, make the design visible to the people, and they cannot but feel what they lie under, and see whither they are going, it is not to be wondered that they should then rouse themselves, and endeavour to put the rule into such hands which may secure to them the ends for which government was at first elected…. [bold emphasis mine]
Revolutionary-era Americans applied Locke’s assertion of the right of revolution to defend the American cause for freedom and independence from Britain in the 1700s. The American Founders, in fact, drew heavily from Locke on the matter when they drafted the Declaration. Echoing Locke, the Declaration states,
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. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of these colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. [bold emphases mine]
The Founders upheld the legitimacy and purpose of just civil government based on the people’s consent and for the people’s benefit. They asserted that when the government violates the people’s rights and departs from its intended purpose, the people have a right to resist, reform, and change their government or governors.
During the American Revolution, the American Founders and revolutionaries strongly defended and clearly articulated the American people’s right to resist tyranny and oppression, or the right of revolution, and thus to seek independence from Britain. They supported this right primarily from Locke and his Bible-based explanations of popular sovereignty, natural rights, and social contract. From these principles, the Founders were able to morally, rationally, and philosophically justify the American cause of freedom.
Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.
Source for more information:
Kamrath, Angela E. The Miracle of America: The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief. Second Edition. Houston, TX: American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015.
1. The Principle of Popular Sovereignty: The People’s Rule
2. What is the Doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings?
3. Great Awakening Principle: All Men Equal Before God
4. The American Revolution: An Introduction
5. American Revolution Debate: The Lawfulness of Defensive War
6. American Revolution Debate: The Principle of Civil Covenants
7. American Revolution Debate: The American Quest for a New, Bible-Inspired Republic
8. The Creator God: The Basis of Authority, Law, & Rights for Mankind in the United States of America
9. The Law of Nature: The Universal Moral Law of Mankind
10. The Law of Nature and Nature’s God: The American Basis and Standard for Just Civil Law
11. The Principle of Rule of Law
12. Self-Evident Truth: A Philosophy of Rights in the Declaration of Independence
13. John Locke and Algernon Sidney: A Bible-based Defense of Equality and Popular Sovereignty for the American Founders
14. The American, Bible-based Defense of Unalienable Rights
15. The Purpose of American Civil Government
16. The American Social Contract
Poster: Declaration of Independence
Activity: The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 7, Part 2, Activity 10: Concepts in the Declaration of Independence, p. 254. MS-HS.
Concepts in the Declaration of Independence….
Purpose/Objective: Students learn key principles of the Declaration of Independence including Creator God, Supreme Judge and Divine Providence, Law of Nature and Nature’s God, Popular Sovereignty and Consent of the Governed, Unalienable Rights, and Social Contract. Students will consider the definition/meaning, explanation, and context of each principle.
1) Chapter 7 of Miracle of America reference/text. Students read sections 7.1-7.23, and pp. 236-237.
2) Essay/Handout: Principles of the Declaration of Independence by Angela E. Kamrath found in the “Supporting Resources” of the Miracle of America HS Teacher Course Guide, pp. 362-365, or in the “Miracle of America Snapshots” handout under member resources at americanheritage.org.
3) Related articles/videos (see above).
Activity: Declaration Principle Chart
Have students consider the Bible-based and philosophical concepts incorporated in the Declaration of Independence. In the appropriate columns on charts, students (in pairs or small groups) research and write down the source(s) from which each concept was derived and the concept’s meaning, explanation, and/or context in their own words. See the “Concepts in the Declaration of Independence” principle chart in the “Supporting Resources” section of this Miracle of American HS Teacher Course Guide, p. 388. This activity may also be found in chapter 7 of the Miracle of America text/sourcebook, p. 241.
To download this whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the “resources” page on americanheritage.org. To order the printed binder format of the course guide with all the units, go to the AHEF bookstore.
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