West's Founding VI: Right of Revolution

This is a section of fundamental importance that he treats very briefly. He shows through citations to the Declaration of Independence, New Hampshire's constitution and the preamble to New Jersey's 1776 constitution that the right to revolution is firmly established in the founding documents. (127-8) I'm going to quote the latter two because they are not as immediately familiar.

NH: "whenever the ends of government are perverted, and public liberty manifestly endangered, and all other means of redress are ineffectual, the people may, and of right ought, to reform the old, or establish a new government. The doctrine of nonresistance against arbitrary power and oppression is absurd, slavish, and destructive of the good and happiness of mankind." (128)

NJ: "allegiance and protection are, in the nature of things, reciprocal ties, each equally depending upon the other, and liable to be dissolved by the others being refused or withdrawn." (ibid)

West points out that this is not license for any minority to reject a government because it disapproves of the laws or loses a legitimate election (even a hotly contested and strange one like the election of 1860). The election of an opposing party does not justify revolution; but if that new government should violate its duty to protect and secure the natural rights of the people, it can. 

The New Hampshire constitutional language is very nice. It establishes three conditions that all have to apply before the revolution can be justified.

1) The ends of government are perverted, and,
2) Public liberty manifestly endangered, and,
3) All other means of redress are ineffectual.

Our current case satisfies the first two of these, but we are still trying 'other means of redress,' as we ought to do. The ends of government are obviously perverted in the present case, where a government feels that public health might require mandatory vaccinations and lockdowns but also is allowing vast numbers of people with the very disease they fear to enter the United States illegally, and then is shipping them around the nation. The ends are perverted when we see (as mentioned yesterday) rioters who burn our cities let free by prosecutors, but those who tried to defend home and community persecuted and ruined under color of law. The ends are perverted when the national security state is turned into a partisan weapon, as the National Strategy to Counter Domestic Terrorism explicitly does (and in the absence of actual terrorism). The ends are perverted, too, when the executive and judicial branches collude to usurp the authority of state legislatures to determine election laws, and thus (demonstrably, and quite outside of any need to establish fraud in the election) decide elections outside of the legal and constitutional framework. The reader can easily add others. 

The public liberty has been under increasing threat -- restrictions on religious free exercise; freedom of speech under constant attack by the unconstitutional union of corporate and government power to suppress rights the government is forbidden to suppress; a President who speaks of banning all semi-automatic weapons in direct violation of the Heller decision and therefore of the 2nd Amendment; a similar government/corporate conspiracy to vacate 4th Amendment privacy protections; etc. Again, the reader can easily add to this list.

We are saved from revolution in the moment by the third criterion, the pursuit of other means of redress. Audits to establish the facts about weaknesses in our election systems, state legislatures' reassertion of their right to make laws to protect both voting rights and election security, and court cases to challenge unconstitutional acts by the Federal and state governments are such means. These are peaceful and lawful, and it is right and proper to pursue them. 

Note, however, that the New Hampshire language follows the Declaration in asserting that -- should all these conditions be satisfied -- revolution is not merely a right but a duty. "The people may, and of right ought," they said in New Hampshire; the Declaration, just after the discussion of prudential reasons to suffer ills as long as they may prove transient, adds that if the ills are not transient and sufferable the people have both the right and the duty.

West points out the Declaration's language on the need for caution and patience. "Prudence indeed will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes. And accordingly all experience has 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." (129) Prudence, the Aristotelian virtue, is the guide here; and West says that "[o]nly prudence can judge how far 'evils are sufferable' in the unique circumstances of a particular time and place.” (ibid)

Let us hope that Prudence guides us wisely; and that those in power find at least a shadow or reflection of that virtue, and have the wisdom not to prevent the success of our efforts to seek redress through peaceful means. 


Galen said...

West's book has been lying unread on my stack for oh, I don't know, three whole years now. Thanks for these posts. I will try to go more slowly so that I can catch up and perhaps contribute a question.

Grim said...

You are welcome!

The most promising part of the book is yet to come. In Part II he claims he’s going to establish that the American system was meant to inculcate moral virtues in the citizenry. That’s usually rejected: most scholars I’ve talked to believe that unlike Plato or Aristotle, the Founders’ embrace of freedom of conscience meant the state couldn’t and shouldn’t be concerned with whether any citizen adheres to morality so long as they obey the positive law. (Whether purely moral laws can be constitutional— eg laws against homosexuality, a non-victim-creating offense against a moral vision the homosexual is not obligated to share — is also hotly debated.)

I’ll be interested to see that argument.