American Revolution, Bill of Rights, French Revolution, Golden Bull of 1222, Magna Carta, Mandate of Heaven, Natural Law, Political Philosophy, Positive Law, Right of Rebellion, Right to Revolution, The 2nd Amendment, United States Constitution, United States Declaration of Independence
In political philosophy, the right of revolution (or right of rebellion) is the right or duty, variously stated throughout history, of the people of a nation to overthrow a government that acts against their common interests. Belief in this right extends back to ancient China, and it has been used throughout history to justify various rebellions, including the American Revolution and the French Revolution.
The right of revolution was perhaps first articulated as part of an official state philosophy by the Zhou Dynasty (1122 – 256 BC) of China. To justify their overthrowing of the earlier Shang Dynasty, the Zhou kings promulgated the concept known as the Mandate of Heaven, that Heaven would bless the authority of a just ruler, but would be displeased and withdraw its mandate from a despotic ruler. The Mandate of Heaven would then transfer to those who would rule best. Chinese historians interpreted a successful revolt as evidence that the Mandate of Heaven had passed on. Throughout Chinese history, rebels who opposed the ruling dynasty made the claim that the Mandate of Heaven had passed, giving them the right to revolt. Ruling dynasties were often uncomfortable with this, and the writings of the Confucian philosopher Mencius (372 – 289 BC) were often suppressed for declaring that the people have the right to overthrow a ruler that did not provide for their needs.
See also: Mandate of Heaven
According to scholar Bernard Lewis, the Qur’an and Sunnah have several points to make on governance regarding the right of revolution in Islam. The Quran, for example, makes it clear that there is a duty of obedience:
“Obey God, obey the Prophet, obey those who hold authority over you.”
And this is elaborated in a number of sayings attributed to Muhammad. But there are also sayings that put strict limits on the duty of obedience. Two dicta attributed to the Prophet and universally accepted as authentic are indicative. One says, “there is no obedience in sin”; in other words, if the ruler orders something contrary to the divine law, not only is there no duty of obedience but there is a duty of disobedience. The other pronouncement, “do not obey a creature against his Creator,” again clearly limits the authority of the ruler, whatever form of ruler that may be in front of God.
In Europe, the right of revolution may be traced back to Magna Carta, an English charter issued in 1215, that required the King to renounce certain rights and accept that his will could be bound by the law. It included a “security clause” that gave the right to a committee of barons to overrule the will of the King through force if needed. Magna Carta directly influenced the development of parliamentary democracy and many constitutional documents, such as the United States Constitution.
The Golden Bull of 1222 was a golden bull, or edict, issued by King Andrew II of Hungary. The law established the rights of Hungary’s noblemen, including the right to disobey the King when he acted contrary to law (jus resistendi). The Golden Bull is often compared to the Magna Carta; the Bull was the first constitutional document of the nation of Hungary, while the Magna Carta was the first constitutional charter of the nation of England.
Thomas Aquinas also wrote of the right to resist tyrannical rule in the Summa Theologica. John of Salisbury advocated direct revolutionary assassination of unethical tyrannical rulers in his Policraticus.
Early Modern Europe
Main article: Resistance theory in the Early Modern period
In the Early Modern period, the Jesuits, especially Robert Bellarmine and Juan de Mariana, were widely known and often feared for advocating resistance to tyranny and often tyrannicide—one of the implications of the natural law focus of the School of Salamanca.
John Calvin believed something similar. In a commentary on the Book of Daniel, he observed that contemporary monarchs pretend to reign “by the grace of God,” but the pretense was “a mere cheat” so that they could “reign without control.” He believed that “Earthly princes depose themselves while they rise up against God,” so “it behooves us to spit upon their heads than to obey them.” When ordinary citizens are confronted with tyranny, he wrote, ordinary citizens have to suffer it. But magistrates have the duty to “curb the tyranny of kings,” as had the Tribunes in ancient Rome, the Ephori in Sparta, and the Demarchs in ancient Athens. That Calvin could support a right of resistance in theory did not mean that he thought such resistance prudent in all circumstances. At least publicly, he disagreed with the Scottish Calvinist John Knox’s call for revolution against the Catholic Queen Mary Tudor of England.
The Catholic Church shared Calvin’s prudential concerns—together with a concern for saving the souls even of tyrants, a concern that was irrelevant in double-predestinarian Calvinism. Thus, the Pope condemned Guy Fawkes‘ Gunpowder Plot, and Regnans in Excelsis was widely considered to be a mistake. St. Thomas Aquinas had argued that fear of tyrannicide drove tyrants to worse conduct, and that tyrannicide and rebellion tended to end in the placement of an even worse tyrant on the throne—so that the safest course of action for the people was to endure tyranny for as long as it could be borne, rather than run the larger risks of armed revolution.
The presumption in favor of peace, in just war theory, came to be the more common belief and is the one officially held by the Catholic Church as of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries.
Use in history
Among the revolutionary movements claimed to seek justification as an exercise of the right of revolution include:
- French War Of Religion: The right of revolution was expounded by the Monarchomachs in the context of the French Wars of Religion, and by Huguenots thinkers who legitimized tyrannicides.
- Glorious Revolution: The right of revolution formed the basis of the philosophical defense of the Glorious Revolution, when Parliament deposed James II of England in 1688 and replaced him with William III of Orange-Nassau.
- American Revolution: The right to revolution would play a large part in the writings of the American revolutionaries. The political tract Common Sense used the concept as an argument for rejection of the British Monarchy and separation from the Empire, as opposed to merely self-government within it. It was also cited in the Declaration of Independence of the United States, when a group of representatives from the various states signed a declaration of independence citing charges against King George III. As the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 expressed it, natural law taught that the people were “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” and could alter or abolish government “destructive” of those rights.
- French Revolution: The right of revolution was also included in the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen during the French Revolution.
The Right of Revolution as an individual or collective right
Although some explanations of the right of revolution leave open the possibility of its exercise as an individual right, it was clearly understood to be collective right under English constitutional and political theory. As Pauline Maier has noted in her study From Resistance to Revolution, “private individuals were forbidden to take force against their rulers either for malice or because of private injuries….”Instead, “not just a few individuals, but the ‘Body of the People’ had to feel concerned” before the right of revolution was justified and with most writers speaking of a “ ‘whole people who are the Publick,’ or the body of the people acting in their ‘public Authority,’ indicating a broad consensus involving all ranks of society.”
The concept of the right of revolution was also taken up by John Locke in Two Treatises of Government as part of his social contract theory. Locke declared that under natural law, all people have the right to life, liberty, and estate; under the social contract, the people could instigate a revolution against the government when it acted against the interests of citizens, to replace the government with one that served the interests of citizens. In some cases, Locke deemed revolution an obligation. The right of revolution thus essentially acted as a safeguard against tyranny.
Duty versus right
Some philosophers argue that it is not only the right of a people to overthrow an oppressive government but also their duty to do so. Howard Evans Kiefer opines, “It seems to me that the duty to rebel is much more understandable than that right to rebel, because the right to rebellion ruins the order of power, whereas the duty to rebel goes beyond and breaks it.”
Morton White writes of the American revolutionaries, “The notion that they had a duty to rebel is extremely important to stress, for it shows that they thought they were complying with the commands of natural law and of nature’s God when they threw off absolute despotism.”The U.S. Declaration of Independence states that “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” (emphasis added). Martin Luther King likewise held that it is the duty of the people to resist unjust laws.
Preconditions to the right of revolution
Some theories of the right of revolution imposed significant preconditions on its exercise, limiting its invocation to the most dire circumstances. In the American Revolutionary context, one finds expressions of the right of revolution both as subject to precondition and as unrestrained by conditions.
On the eve of the American Revolution, for example, Americans considered their plight to justify exercise of the right of revolution. Alexander Hamilton justified American resistance as an expression of “the law of nature” redressing violations of “the first principles of civil society” and invasions of “the rights of a whole people.” For Thomas Jefferson the Declaration was the last-ditch effort of an oppressed people—the position many Americans saw themselves in 1776. Jefferson’s litany of colonial grievances was an effort to establish that Americans met their burden to exercise the natural law right of revolution.
Certain scholars, such as Christian Fritz, have written that with the end of the Revolution, Americans did not renounce the right of revolution. In fact they codified it in their new constitutions.For instance, constitutions considered to be “conservative,” such as those of post-revolutionary Massachusetts in 1780, preserved the people’s right “to reform, alter, or totally change” government not only for their protection or safety but also whenever their “prosperity and happiness reduired it.” This expression was not unusual in the early American constitutions. Connecticut’s 1818 constitution articulated the people’s right “at all times” to alter government “in such a manner as they may think expedient.”
Legal historian Christian Fritz in American Sovereigns: The People and America’s Constitutional Tradition Before the Civil War, describes a duality in American views on preconditions to the right of revolution: “Some of the first state constitutions included ‘alter or abolish’ provisions that mirrored the traditional right of revolution” in that they required dire preconditions to its exercise. Maryland’s 1776 constitution and New Hampshire’s 1784 constitutions required the perversion of the ends of government and the endangering of public liberty and that all other means of redress were to no avail.But in contrast, other states dispensed with the onerous preconditions on the exercise of the right. In the 1776 Virginia constitution the right would arise simply if government was “inadequate” and Pennsylvania’s 1776 constitution required only that the people considered a change to be “most conducive” to the public welfare.
Natural law or positive law
Descriptions of the Right of Revolution also differ in whether that right is considered to be a natural law (a law whose content is set by nature and that therefore has validity everywhere) or positive law (law enacted or adopted by proper authority for governing of the state).
An example of the dual nature of the right of revolution as both a natural law and as positive law is found in the American revolutionary context. Although the American Declaration of Independence invoked the natural law right of revolution, natural law was not the sole justification for American independence. English constitutional doctrine also supported the colonists’ actions, at least up to a point. By the 1760s, English law recognized what William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England called “the law of redress against public oppression.” Like the natural law’s right of revolution, this constitutional law of redress justified the people resisting the sovereign. This law of redress arose from a contract between the people and the king to preserve the public welfare. This original contract was “a central dogma in English and British constitutional law” since “time immemorial.”The Declaration’s long list of grievances declared that this bargain had been breached.
This well-accepted law of redress justified a people resisting unconstitutional acts of government. Liberty depended upon the people’s “ultimate” right to resist. Unconstitutional commands breaching the “voluntary compact between the rulers and the ruled” could be “ignored” and arbitrary commands opposed with force.This “right” implied a duty on the part of the people to resist unconstitutional acts. As Alexander Hamilton noted in 1775, government exercised powers to protect “the absolute rights” of the people and government forfeited those powers and the people could “reclaim” them if government breached this constitutional contract.
The law of redress had limits like the right of revolution under natural law. The law of redress, like the right of revolution, was not an individual right. It belonged to the community as a whole, as one of the parties to the original constitutional contract.It was not a means of first resort, or response to trivial or casual errors of government. Blackstone’s Commentaries suggested that using the law of redress would be “extraordinary,” for example applying if the king broke the original contract, violated “the fundamental laws,” or abandoned the kingdom.
During the Stamp Act crisis of the 1760s the Massachusetts Provincial Congress considered resistance to the king justified if freedom came under attack from “the hand of oppression” and “the merciless feet of tyranny.” A decade later the “indictment” of George III in the Declaration of Independence sought to end his sovereign reign over the colonies because he violated the original constitutional contract.
As explained in legal historian Christian Fritz’s description of the role of the right of revolution in American Revolution, American independence was justified by conventional theories under Anglo-American constitutional thought at the time about the people’s collective right to cast off an arbitrary king. “Both natural law and English constitutional doctrine gave the colonists a right to revolt against the sovereign’s oppression.” But these understandings about the right of revolution on the eve of the American Revolution rested on a traditional model of government. That model posited the existence of a hypothetical bargain struck in the mists of antiquity between a king and a people. “In this bargain, the people were protected by the monarch in exchange for the people giving the king allegiance. This was a contractual relationship. American revolutionaries accused George III of breaching his implied duty of protection under that contract, thereby releasing the people in the colonies from their allegiance. The sovereign’s breach of the hypothetical contract gave rise to the subjects “right of revolution”—grounded on both natural law and English constitutional doctrine.”
Examples of the right of revolution as positive law
Although many declarations of independence seek legitimacy by appealing to the right of revolution, far fewer constitutions mention this right or guarantee this right to citizens because of the destabilizing effect such a guarantee would likely produce. Among the examples of an articulation of a right of revolution as positive law include:
- The szlachta, nobles of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, also maintained a right of rebellion, known as Rokosz
- New Hampshire‘s constitution guarantees its citizens the right to reform government, in Article 10 of the New Hampshire constitution’s Bill of Rights:
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.
- The Kentucky constitution also guarantees a right to alter, reform or abolish their government in the Kentucky Bill of Rights:
All power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority and instituted for their peace, safety, happiness and the protection of property. For the advancement of these ends, they have at all times an inalienable and indefeasible right to alter, reform or abolish their government in such manner as they may deem proper.
- Similar wording is used in Pennsylvania‘s constitution, under Article 1, Section 2 of the Declaration of Rights:
All power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority and instituted for their peace, safety and happiness. For the advancement of these ends they have at all times an inalienable and indefeasible right to alter, reform or abolish their government in such manner as they may think proper.
That government being instituted for the common benefit, the doctrine of non-resistance against arbitrary power and oppression is absurd, slavish, and destructive of the good and happiness of mankind.
3d. That Government ought to be instituted for the common benefit, protection and security of the people; and that the doctrine of non-resistance against arbitrary power and oppression is absurd, slavish, and destructive to the good and happiness of mankind.
- The Constitution of Texas also contains similar wording in Article 1, Sect 2:
All political power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority, and instituted for their benefit. The faith of the people of Texas stands pledged to the preservation of a republican form of government, and, subject to this limitation only, they have at all times the inalienable right to alter, reform or abolish their government in such manner as they may think expedient.
- The preface to the French Constitution of 1793 is a “Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen” with several right of revolution provisions which stated in
Article 11: Any act directed against a person, apart from the cases and without the forms determined by law, is arbitrary and tyrannical; if attempt is made to execute such act by force, the person who is the object thereof has the right to resist it by force.
Article 12: Those who incite, dispatch, sign, or execute arbitrary acts, or cause them to be executed, are guilty and must be punished.
Article 27: Let any individual who would usurp sovereignty be put to death instantly by free men.
Article 33-35: Resistance to oppression is the consequence of the other rights of man. There is oppression against the social body when a single one of its members is oppressed. There is oppression against every member when the social body is oppressed. When the government violates the rights of the people, insurrection is for the people, and for every portion thereof, the most sacred of rights and the most indispensable of duties.
- The post-World War II Grundgesetz, the Fundamental Law of the Federal Republic of Germany contains both entrenched, un-amendable clauses protecting human and natural rights, as well as a clause in its Article 20, recognizing the right of the people to resist unconstitutional tyranny, if all other measures have failed.
- The Greek Constitution, in Article 120, states that “[…] it is both the right and the duty of the people to resist by all possible means against anyone who attempts the violent abolition of the Constitution.” All Greek constitutions since the Greek Revolution have contained a similar formulation as the concluding article.
- This right is inferred in the third paragraph of the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states: Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by rule of law.”
Relevance of the right of revolution in positive law
Some have argued that because in modern times democratic governments can be overthrown by popular vote, the right of the people to remove the government has become embedded into the political system. In a study of the idea of rule by the people in the American Revolution and in early post-revolutionary America, legal historian Christian G. Fritz writes:
“The constitutional logic of recognizing the people, not a king, as the sovereign implied the irrelevance of a right of revolution in America. This did not develop instantly or uniformly after the establishment of American governments. Some of the first state constitutions included ‘alter or abolish’ provisions that mirrored the traditional right of revolution…. Other state constitutions adopted different versions of this right to ‘alter or abolish’ government that did not sound like the traditional right of revolution. In these provisions, the ability of the people to revise constitutions existed regardless of the traditional preconditions for the right of revolution…. Increasingly, as Americans included it in their constitutions, the right of revolution came to be seen as a constitutional principle permitting the people as the sovereign to control government and revise their constitutions without limit. In this way, the right broke loose from its traditional moorings of resistance to oppression. The alter or abolish provisions could now be interpreted consistent with the constitutional principle that in America, the sovereign was the people.”
Perry, Elizabeth.  (2002). Challenging the Mandate of Heaven: Social Protest and State Power in China. Sharpe. ISBN 0-7656-0444-2
Ralph V. Turner. Magna Carta. Pearson Education. (2003). ISBN 0-582-43826-8 p.1
See Christian G. Fritz, American Sovereigns: The People and America’s Constitutional Tradition Before the Civil War (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2008), 14 (noting that under English constitutional law the right of revolution “belonged to the community as a whole, as one of the parties to the original constitutional contract”). See also John Phillip Reid, Constitutional History of the American Revolution (4 vols., University of Wisconsin Press, 1986-1993), I:111 (identifying the collective right of the people “to preserve their rights by force and even rebellion against constituted authority”), III:427n31 (quoting Viscount Bolingbroke that the “collective Body of the People” had the right to “break the Bargain between the King and the Nation”).
Pauline Maier, From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776 (Alfred A. Knopf, 1972), 33.
Maier, From Resistance to Revolution, 35-36.
Alexander Hamilton, The Farmer Refuted, [Feb. 23], 1775, The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, I:136
See Christian G. Fritz, American Sovereigns: The People and America’s Constitutional Tradition Before the Civil War’‘ (In Chapter 2, entitled “Revolutionary Constitutionalism,” Professor Fritz notes that after the Revolution, “[i]ncreasingly, as Americans included it in their constitutions, the right of revolution came to be seen as a constitutional principle permitting the people as the sovereign to control government and revise their constitutions without limit.”)(Cambridge University Press, 2008) at p. 25 [ISBN 978-0-521-88188-3
Massachusetts 1780 Constitution, Bill of Rights, Art. 7.
Connecticut 1818 Constitution, Bill of Rights, Sec. 2.
Christian G. Fritz, American Sovereigns: The People and America’s Constitutional Tradition Before the Civil War (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2008), 24.
See Maryland 1776 Constitution, Bill of Rights, Sec. 4; New Hampshire 1784 Constitution, Bill of Rights, Art. 10.
Virginia 1776 Constitution, Bill of Rights, Sec. 3; Pennsylvania 1776 Constitution, Bill of Rights, Sec. 5.
See Reid, Constitutional History, I:111 (identifying the collective right of the people “to preserve their rights by force and even rebellion against constituted authority”), III:427n31 (quoting Viscount Bolingbroke that the “collective Body of the People” had the right to “break the Bargain between the King and the Nation”); Pauline Maier, From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776, 33-34 (“Private individuals were forbidden to take force against their rulers either for malice or because of private injuries, even if no redress for their grievances were afforded by the regularly constituted government”).
“Preface to the Constitution of 1793 (Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen)”. National Assembly of France. college.columbia.edu. Retrieved 5 November 2012.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations website.
- Locke and the Social Order
- The Founders Constitution, Vol. 1 Chapter 3, Right of Revolution
- North Carolina Constitution of 1789