The Duty to Throw off Such Government

“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.”
—The U. S. Declaration of Independence, 1776.

David Goldman, in a recent article in the Asia Times (June 26), was struck by the fierce loyalty that his countrymen showed to Napoleon, even after several spectacular defeats. Goldman attributed this reaction to Napoleon’s ability to break the bonds of society and to concentrate all hope and loyalty into himself. The people no longer had sufficient interior virtues and standards whereby they themselves could form judgments about what was right and wrong. That function was subsumed into dependence and confidence in the emperor’s force of personality and external mission.

Readers of Plato and Aristotle know their recurring thesis: a tyrant arises out of a democracy when the citizens have little or no inner principle of order other than what they will for themselves. The tyrant becomes the “leader of the people” and, finally, their master. He can impose on them his cure for their well-being. But he is seen as a savior because the people, no longer in contact with the rationale of their own tradition, have little else in their souls with which to judge him. Hence, the loyalty and enthusiasm follow the “leader.” What struck Goldman about both Napoleon and Hitler was not so much that they failed, but how close they came to succeeding. The wonder is whether we will always be so lucky.

When we read the powerful words of the Declaration, we are struck by the truth of its observation that mankind is disposed to suffer evils, if it can, rather than to take the effort to throw them off. Custom, for all its good contributions to stability, makes us slow to see things as they go wrong. A people are accustomed to its own political “Form,” even if they retain the capacity to “right themselves” from its abuses. A point can come where they no longer retain such a capacity or a will to exercise it.

 

The Declaration of Independence is mostly remembered for its ringing words of principle, the “We hold these truths.” But as a document, the greater part is a bill of particulars that recounts the abuses of the British Crown as seen by the colonists, themselves nurtured in this same English tradition. The reason why the abuses are so diligently listed is to make a rational case before mankind that a “design” was being followed to reduce the people to “absolute despotism.”

The British Crown, no doubt, would have denied that such was its real intention. It merely wanted to restore order to its hot-headed colonial subjects. And no doubt with some considerable prudence on its part, the Crown might well have prevented the Revolution. As we watch the British Empire after both the French and American Revolutions, it did learn many lessons that were more benignly applied to other colonial outposts, some of which are still in existence today.

The American founders saw that the kind of limited government that they formed was likely to be strong enough to withstand most external enemies. What some of them also recognized was that the most dangerous threats to the country’s future would come from within and not without. The American system was put together to prevent despotism. Hence, all its offices were constrained. They were to be limited, checked, and balanced so that the enthusiasm which we associate with Napoleon did not arise among us. This nation, under God, was to be a country of citizens not of masses.

What we see today, I think, is the awareness that we must form a careful list of abuses, analogous to those composed by the writers of the Declaration. This time, the abuses are not against any colonial power but against our own rulers. Who would ever have imagined that freedom of religion would come to be on the government’s agenda as an item to be restricted? We see that marriage itself is no longer understood and its supposed alternatives promoted by official policy. The list is getting longer every day.

Though the courts have often been contributors to this list, we see that the Supreme Court may still function as a check on governmental despotism. But what seems clear is that the very idea of a Constitution, of a form of order according to which we should govern ourselves, is called into question when it conflicts with what the democracy or its leader wants. The American Republic was established so that a people who could rule themselves did rule themselves also in the public order. But it was also a Republic based on the idea that such a thing as virtue of soul and order in human affairs existed. They were not simply created in any form we wanted.

Reflecting now on the Fourth of July 2012, we have to wonder about a regime now manifesting a growing list of abuses to the fundamental nature of human worth. These abuses are put into effect by elected rulers themselves. They are accepted by many citizens who themselves are “democratic” in the classic Greek sense, that in their soul they have little principle of order.

Hence, they have no reason to object to anything on any other basis than that of personal whim or want. The term “unconstitutional” is meaningless. This situation is not a far cry from that list found in the Declaration. In describing these abuses, it read: “He (the King) has made Judges dependent on his Will alone.” “He has refused to assent to Laws.” And “He has combined with others to subject us to a Jurisdiction foreign to our Constitution.”

Constitutional rule derives from a people who understand the nature and demands of the virtues and their relation to our final end. It is aware of an order transcendent to politics. Arbitrary rule arises when a leader, seeing that the people have no real order of soul, sees himself able to impose whatever form of rule that he thinks good for the people. Unless they acquiesce in this rule and its decrees, they are no longer citizens, whatever a written Constitution might say.

In 2012, when we read the Declaration of Independence and its appeal to the judgment of mankind, it seems more addressed to our own government rather than to the British Crown.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.

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Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books including The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His later books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His last books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017); The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018); Run That By Me Again (Tan, 2018) and The Reason for the Season (Sophia Institute Press, 2018).

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