Civil Disobedience In an Age of Tyranny:

by Gerald R. Thompson


“Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.” Thomas Jefferson, January 1, 1802, Letter to the Danbury Baptist Association (emphasis added).

Most civil governments in Western society have been built upon a lie – that as part of the process of erecting a stable and effective government, individuals must jointly give up some of their natural rights in order to achieve true liberty and other benefits of a peaceable state. This is the plain view of John Locke and other historic writers, whose musings on the subject I will discuss below. Now Locke got quite a number of things right, but this is one area where he fell short, as we will see.

The quotation from Jefferson above comes from a little letter written in response to a plea by the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut for the then newly elected President to use his influence to enhance religious liberty in the various states. At that time, many of the states were still very sectarian, the First Amendment being viewed as applicable only to Congress (a view which prevailed until 1947). The letter is most well known – even infamous, perhaps – for the phrase referring to “a wall of separation between Church and State,” used by the U.S. Supreme Court to justify hostility between government and religion in a way Jefferson never intended.

But in that same letter, Jefferson states a principle of far greater significance, broader in scope than mere religious liberty, which is unfortunately totally ignored by courts and the legal profession in general. Namely, that when properly understood and defined, natural rights and social duties (or if you will, private rights and public authority) should never conflict with each other. When such conflicts do arise, it is because either individual rights or government powers (almost always the latter) have exceeded their proper scope of authority.

If civil government would simply restrain itself and stop exercising powers it has no legitimate right to exercise, individual rights would always be preserved. Indeed, if that one little sentiment were practiced in real life, there would never be an occasion for civil disobedience. Unfortunately, we live in a world where natural rights are often neither recognized nor protected, and the scope of social duties imposed on people is far beyond anything Jefferson, the other American founders, or God ever imagined. The net result is that natural rights and social duties have been put on a collision course, with natural rights always being the loser.

And far from being extreme, I suggest that civil disobedience is in fact a natural, logical and predictable response when individuals are subjected to unrelenting government overreach.

But it isn’t as if natural rights and social duties are equal. It would have been a stronger statement if Jefferson had said, a man has no valid social duties in opposition to his natural rights, rather than the other way around. For as between social duties which originate with men, and natural rights which originate with God, natural rights must always prevail. Social duties are always subservient to natural rights, because things created by man are always inferior to things created by God. This principle is the root of all justifiable civil disobedience.

And the case can be made, if the Danbury correspondence is examined in its full context, that Jefferson intended we should always give preference to natural rights. But rather than leaving it to implication or some extended proof, I defer to a statement by William Blackstone made just a few years before Jefferson, which Jefferson was no doubt building upon:

“Upon these two foundations, the law of nature and the law of revelation, depend all human laws; that is to say, no human laws should be suffered to contradict these.”2

In other words, man’s laws must always yield to God’s laws. As both Blackstone and Jefferson well knew, natural rights are granted by God and are supported by the laws of nature and nature’s God (in Blackstone’s terminology, the law of nature and the law of revelation). Whereas social duties, arising from the exercise of civil power which has its origin in the consent of the governed (i.e., man, not God) and is supported by human laws, ought not be suffered to contradict God’s laws and natural rights.3

For the remainder of this essay, I will use the phrases God’s laws or laws of God interchangeably with the laws of nature and nature’s God – which means I define God’s laws very broadly. I will use the term natural rights to refer to those rights God gives to all men. Of course, it remains to be determined who has what natural rights, how conflicts of rights and authority are to be resolved, and who gets to decide these matters.

For the moment, let me just summarize where this essay will take us. Greater are the rights God grants to people, than any lawful authority wielded by civil government. This must necessarily be so, if Jefferson and Blackstone were right. And if they were wrong, then it would call into question many fundamental aspects of our legal heritage over the last 250 years. Of course, it can be argued this is exactly what has already taken place, since many of the fundamental principles of law our nation was built on have been ferociously attacked in recent decades. However, I believe Jefferson and Blackstone were right, and I will attempt to prove it.

I also have a bone to pick, as it were, with previous articulations of the right of civil disobedience by others. I will articulate a right to civil disobedience (compared to most other commentators) which extends to a broader range of natural rights, has a lower threshold for being properly invoked, and is not tied or constrained by the doctrine of lower magistrates, community values, or whether one is a Christian. Judge for yourself whether my conclusions are fully supported by biblical and lonang principles (i.e., the laws of nature and nature’s God).

  1.   The Grand Bargain That Never Was
  2.   The Nature and Extent of Natural Rights
  3.   Laws of the Nature of Authority
  4.   The Limited Nature of Civil Power
  5.   The Manhattan Declaration
  6.   Presumptions of Validity and Legality
  7.   Responding To Lawless Government
  8.   Individual Civil Disobedience; Epilogue


*     Copyright © 2018 Gerald R. Thompson. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
1.    Author’s Note: This essay is a companion piece to my essay on The Right to Alter or Abolish the Government. Many of the principles explained there are applicable here, so rather than repeating them here, I will simply refer back to that prior essay. If you have not yet read that essay, go read it first and then come back to this one. Seriously.
2.    Wm. Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Vol. 1, Intro §2 (1765).
3.    Of course, civil disobedience is not limited to conflicts between God’s law and man’s law. Conflicts between laws promulgated by rival political groups, political philosophies, and especially when one nation conquers another, can also give rise to instances of civil disobedience. But for present purposes, I will consider civil disobedience only as it relates to a claimed justification based on higher law (i.e., God’s laws or the laws of nature and nature’s God).