The Principles of Natural and Politic Law (1748)
Jean Jacques Burlamaqui
Of the inviolable rights of sovereignty, of the deposing of sovereigns, of the abuse of the supreme power, and of tyranny.
I. WHAT we have said in the preceding chapter, concerning the duties of subjects to their sovereigns, admits of no difficulty. We are agreed in general upon the rule, that the person of the sovereign should be sacred and inviolable. But the question is whether this prerogative of the sovereign be such, that it is never lawful for the people to rise against him, to cast him from the throne, or to change the form of government?
II. In answer to this question, I observe in the first place, that the nature and end of government lay an indispensable obligation on all subjects not to resist their sovereign, but to respect and obey him, so long as he uses his power with equity and moderation, and does not exceed the limits of his authority.
III. It is this obligation to obedience in the subjects, that constitutes the whole force of civil society and government, and consequently the entire felicity of the state. Whoever therefore rises against the sovereign, or makes an attack upon his person or authority, renders himself manifestly guilty of the greatest crime, which a man can commit, since he endeavours to subvert the first foundations of the public felicity, in which that of every individual is included.
IV. But if this maxim be true with respect to individuals, my we also apply it to the whole body of the nation, of whom the sovereign originally holds his authority? If the people think fit to resume, or to change the form of government, why should they not be at liberty to do it? Cannot they, who make a king, also depose him?
V. Let us endeavour to solve this difficulty. I therefore affirm, that the people themselves, that is, the whole body of the nation, have not a right to depose the sovereign, or to change the form of government, without any other reason than their own pleasure, and purely from inconstancy or levity.
VI. In general the same reasons, which establish the necessity of government and supreme authority in society, also prove, that the government ought to be stable, and that the people should not have the power of deposing their sovereigns whenever, through caprice or levity, they are inclined so to act, and when they have no sound reason to change the form of government.
VII. Indeed it would be subverting all government, to make it depend on the caprice or inconstancy of the people. It would be impossible for the state to be ever settled amidst those revolutions, which would expose it so often to destruction; for we roust either grant, that the people cannot dispossess their sovereign, and change the form of government; or we must give them, in this respect, a liberty without control.
VIII. An opinion, which saps the foundation of all authority, which destroys all power, and consequently all society, cannot be admitted as a principle of reasoning, or of conduct in politics.
IX. The law of congruity or fitness is in this case of the utmost force. What should we say of a minor, who, without any other reason, than his caprice, should withdraw from his guardian, or change him at pleasure? The present case is in point the same. It is with reason, that politicians compare the people to minors; neither being capable of governing themselves. They must be subject to tuition, and this forbids them to withdraw from their authority, or to alter the form of government, without very substantial reasons.
X. Not only the law of congruity forbids the people wantonly to rise against their sovereign or the government; but justice also makes the same prohibition.
XI. Government and sovereignty are established by mutual agreement betwixt the governor and the governed; and justice requires that people should be faithful to their engagements. It is therefore the duty of the subjects to keep their word, and religiously to observe their contract with their sovereign, so long as the latter performs his engagements.
XII. Otherwise the people would do a manifest injustice to the sovereign, in depriving him of a right, which he has lawfully acquired, which he has not used to their prejudice, and for the loss of which they cannot indemnify him.
XIII. But what must we think of a sovereign, who, instead of making a good use of bis authority, injures his subjects, neglects the interest of the state, subverts the fundamental laws. drains the people by excessive taxes, which he squanders away in foolish and useless expenses, etc? Ought the person of such a king to be sacred to the subjects? Ought they patiently to submit to all his extortions? Or can they withdraw from his authority?
XIV. To answer this question, which is one of the most delicate in politics, I observe that disaffected, mutinous, or seditious subjects, often make things, highly innocent, pass for acts of injustice in the sovereign. The people are apt to murmur at the roost necessary taxes; others seek to destroy the government, because they have not a share in the administration. In a word, the complaints of subjects oftener denote the bad humour and seditions spirit of those, who make them, than real disorders in the government, or injustice in those, who govern.
XV. It were indeed to be wished, for the glory of sovereigns, that the complaints of subjects never had juster foundations. But history and experience teach us, that they are too often well founded. Under these circumstances, what is the duty of subjects? Ought they patiently to suffer? Or may they resist their sovereign?
XVI. We must distinguish between the extreme abuse of sovereignty, which degenerates manifestly into tyranny, and tends to the intire ruin of the subjects; and a moderate abuse of it, which may be attributed to human weakness, rather than to an intention of subverting the liberty and happiness of the people.
XVII. In the former case, I think the people have a right to resist their sovereign, and even to resume the sovereignty, which they have given him, and which he has abused to excess. But, if the abuse be only moderate, it is their duty to suffer something, rather than to rise in arms against their sovereign.
XVIII. This distinction is founded on the nature of man, and the nature and end of government. The people roust patiently bear the slight injustices of their sovereign, or the moderate abuse of his power, because this is no more, than a tribute due to humanity. It is on this condition they have invested him with the supreme authority. Kings are men as well as others, that is to say, liable to be mistaken, and, in some instances, to fail in point of duty. Of this the people cannot be ignorant, and on this footing they have treated with their sovereign.
XIX. If, for the smallest faults, the people had a right to resist or depose their sovereign, no prince could maintain his authority, and the community would be continually distracted; such a situation would be directly contrary both to the end and institution of government, and of sovereignty.
XX. It is therefore right to overlook the lesser faults of sovereigns, and to have a regard to the laborious and exalted office, with which they are invested for our preservation. Tacitus beautifully says; “We must endure the luxury and avarice of sovereigns, as we endure the barrenness of a soil, storms, and other inconveniences of nature. There will be vices as long as there are men; but these are not continual, and are recompensed by the intermixture of better qualities.”1
XXI. But if the sovereign should push things to the last extremity, so that his tyranny becomes insupportable, and it appears evident, that he has formed a design to destroy the liberty of his subjects, then they have a right to rise against him, and even to deprive him of the supreme power.
XXII. This I prove, 1. by the nature of tyranny, which of itself degrades the sovereign of his dignity. Sovereignty always supposes a beneficent power. We must indeed make some allowance for the weakness inseparable from humanity; but beyond that, and when the people are reduced to the last extremity, there is no difference between tyranny and robbery. The one gives no more right than the other, and we may lawfully oppose force to violence.
XXIII. 2. Men have established civil society and government, for their own good; to extricate themselves from troubles, and to be rescued from the evils of a state of nature. But it is highly evident, that, if the people were obliged to suffer every oppression from their sovereigns, and never to resist their encroachments, they would be reduced to a far more deplorable state, than that, which they attempted to avoid, by the institution of sovereignty. It can never surely be presumed, that this was the intention of mankind.
XXIV. 3. Even a people, who have submitted to an absolute government, have not thereby forfeited the right of asserting their liberty, and taking care of their preservation, when they find themselves reduced to the utmost misery. Absolute sovereignty in itself is no more, than the highest power of doing good; now the highest power of procuring the good of a person, and the absolute power of destroying him at pleasure, have no connexion with each other. Let us therefore conclude, that never any nation had an intention to submit their liberties to a sovereign in such a manner, as never to have it in their power to resist him, not even for their own preservation.
XXV. “Suppose,” says Grotius,2 “one had asked those, who first formed the civil laws, whether they intended to impose on all the subjects the fatal necessity of dying, rather than taking up arms to defend themselves against the unjust violence of their sovereign? I know not whether they would have answered in the affirmative. It is rather reasonable to believe they would have declared, that the people ought not to endure all manner of injuries, except perhaps when matters are so situated, that resistance would infallibly produce very great troubles in the state, or tend to the ruin of many innocent people.”
XXVI. We have already proved,3 that no person can renounce his liberty to such a degree, as that here mentioned. This would be selling his own life, that of his children, his religion, in a word every advantage he enjoys, which it is not certainly in any man’s power to do. This may be illustrated by the comparison of a patient and his physician.
XXVII. If therefore the subjects have a right to resist the manifest tyranny even of an absolute prince, they must, for a stronger reason, have the same power with respect to a prince, who has only a limited sovereignty, should he attempt to invade the rights and properties of his people.4
XXVIII. We must indeed patiently suffer the caprice and austerity of our masters, as well as the bad humor of our fathers and mothers; but, as Seneca says, “though a person ought to obey a father in all things, yet he is not obliged to obey him, when his commands are of such a nature, that he ceases thereby to be a father.”
XXIX. But it is here to be observed, that when we say the people have a right to resist a tyrant, or even to depose him. we ought not, by the word people, to understand the vile populace or dregs of a country, nor the cabal of a small number of seditious persons, but the greatest and most judicious part of the subjects of all orders in the kingdom. The tyranny, as we have also observed, must be notorious, and accompanied with the highest evidence.
XXX. We may likewise affirm, that, strictly speaking, the subjects are not obliged to wait till the prince has entirely rivetted their chains, and till he has put it out of their power to resist him. It is high time to think of their safety, and to take proper measures against their sovereign, when they find, that all his actions manifestly tend to oppress them, and that he is marching boldly on to the ruin of the state.
XXXI. These are truths of the last importance. It is highly proper they should be known, not only for the safety and happiness of nations, but also for the advantage of good and wise kings.
XXXII. They, who are well acquainted with the frailty of human nature, are always diffident of themselves; and, wishing only to discharge their duty, are contented to have bounds set to their authority, and by such means to be hindered from doing what they ought to avoid. Taught by reason and experience, that the people love peace and good government, they will never be afraid of a general insurrection, so long as they take care to govern with moderation, and hinder their officers from committing injustice.
XXXIII. However the abettors of despotic power and passive obedience start several difficulties on this subject.
First Objection. A revolt against the supreme power includes a contradiction; for if this power is supreme, there is none superior to if. By whom then shall it be judged? If the sovereignty still inheres in the people, they have not transferred their right; and if they have transferred it they are no longer masters of it.
Answer. This difficulty supposes the point in question, namely, that the people have divested themselves so far of their liberty, that they have given full power to the sovereign to treat them as he pleases, without having in any case reserved to themselves the power of resisting him. This is what no people ever did, nor ever could do. There is therefore no contradiction in the present case. A power, given for a certain end, is limited by that very end. The supreme power acknowledges none above itself, so long as the sovereign has not forfeited his dignity. But if he has degenerated into a tyrant, he can no longer claim a right, which he has forfeited by hit own misconduct.
XXXIV. Second Objection. But who shall judge whether the prince performs his duty, or whether he governs tyrannically? Can the people be judges in their own cause?
Answer. It certainly belongs to those, who have given any person a power, which he had not of himself, to judge whether he uses it agreeably to the end, for which it Was conferred on him.
XXXV. Third Objection. We cannot without imprudence grant this right of judging to the people. Political affairs are not adapted to the capacity of the vulgar, but are sometimes of so delicate a nature, that even persons of the best sense cannot form a right judgment of them.
Answer. In dubious cases, the presumption ought ever to be in favor of the sovereign, and obedience is the duty of subjects. They ought ever to bear a moderate abuse of sovereignty. But in cases of manifest tyranny, every one is in a condition to judge, whether he is highly injured or not.
XXXVI. Fourth Objection. But do we not expose the state to perpetual revolutions, to anarchy, and to certain ruin, by making the supreme authority depend on the opinion of the people, and by granting them liberty to rise on particular occasions against their sovereign?
Answer. This objection would be of some force, if we pretended, that the people had a right to oppose their sovereign, or to change the form of government, through levity or caprice, or even for a moderate abuse of the supreme power. But no inconvenience will ensue, while the subjects only use this right with all the precautions, and in the circumstances above supposed. Besides experience teaches us, that it is very difficult to prevail on a nation to change a government, to which they have been accustomed. We are apt to overlook not only slight, but even very considerable mistakes in our governors.
XXXVII. Our hypothesis does not tend more than any other, to excite disturbances in a state; for a people, oppressed by a tyrannical government, will rebel as frequently, as those, who live under established laws. Let the abettors of despotic power cry up their prince as much, as they please, let them say the most magnificent things of his sacred person, yet the people, reduced to the last misery, will trample those specious reasons under foot, as soon as they can do it with an appearance of success.
XXXVIII. In fine, though the subjects might abuse the liberty, which we grant them, yet less inconvenience would arise from this, than from allowing all to the sovereign, so as to let a whole nation perish, rather than grant it the power of checking the iniquity of its governors.
1. Quomodo sterilitatem, aut nimios imbres, et cætera naturæ mala, ita luxum vel avaritiam dominantium tolerate. Vitia erunt donee homines; sed neque hæc continua, et meliorum intervente pensantur. Hist. lib. iv. cap. lxxiv. N. 4.
2. Book i. chap. iv. § 7. N. 2.
3. Part i. chap. vii. N. 22. etc.
4. Grotius on the Right of War and Peace, book i. chap. iv. § 8.