On Sovereignty (XII)

tyranny, «the command of one who, overthrowing the established government by force, usurps the supreme authority»

Reading of a bill in the Chamber of Sessions (detail). 1908, by Asterio Mañanós. Photograph extracted from the book «El Patrimonio Histórico Artístico del Congreso de los Diputados».

***La versión original en español del artículo se puede encontrar en este enlace. La traducción al inglés la ha realizado uno de los miembros del Círculo Camino Real de Tejas con la supervisión de los traductores del Gremio San Jerónimo***

We publish the following article from the series on sovereignty from the LA ESPERANZA newspaper archives, originally published in early 1855.***

Having already shown how governments are established, by what means they are legitimized, and in what sense the advocates of certain doctrines have said that kings rule by divine right, it will not be out of place to examine whether there are governments which really are despotic, tyrannical, or oppressive, and which truly deserve this name. In this way, what we are about to say about the so-called principle of resistance and insurrection, which is supposed to canonize the principle of national sovereignty, will be better understood.

For the purpose to which we aspire, it is well to begin by explaining what is meant by despotism and tyranny, and what is meant by oppression. The Greek term despotism, applied to the government of States, expresses the idea of «a form of government in which the ruler has no law or rule but his own will and whim,» and can commit the most atrocious injustices with impunity.

The word tyranny, according to its primitive and strict meaning, means «the command of one who, overthrowing the established government by force, usurps the supreme authority,» and as these usurpers, who were quite common in the ancient Greek republics, had to resort to all kinds of harassment, violence and cruelty in order to maintain themselves, he is also called a tyrant who, while exercising legitimate power, abuses it, is violent and cruel, and unjustly mistreats those who are governed. The term oppression, metaphorically considered, is «the action of rulers when they unduly squeeze, compress, or restrain the action of their subjects.» Since the limits of their action must be indicated in the laws, it follows that to oppress is the same as to deviate from the law, and that therefore the word oppression in this case becomes synonymous with tyranny and despotism.

On this assumption, it will be said with all propriety that a government is despotic, tyrannical, and oppressive when it has no law or rule but that of its own will and caprice; when it can and does commit with impunity every kind of vexation, injustice, and cruelty; and when it abridges the liberty of its subjects more than the laws permit. It seems to us that our political opponents will agree with us on the meaning of these three words, and that, consequently, they will have no objection to raise against us.

And what follows from such premises? It follows that there is no government in the world (and, what is more, there cannot be one) which deserves the name of despotic, tyrannical, or oppressive, for the indisputable reason that, in the fact of its existence, there is necessarily some law, rule, or custom to which those who govern the State must conform; a custom, rule, or law which they cannot fail to observe, on pain of losing their political existence. Secondly, that even if we were to suppose that barbarian governments could be called despotic, tyrannical, and oppressive, inasmuch as, while acting in accordance with laws which are in themselves absurd, unjust, and oppressive, they permit them to do injustice, this cannot be the case with regard to civilized nations; for, being so, though their laws may have some imperfections, such laws never permit their rulers to commit injustice and cruelty with impunity. They may commit such acts, but it will not be by acting according to the laws, but by breaking them. For the rest, it is already known that the governor of a State is bound to rule according to law, and that there is no civilized nation in which it is lawful for the rulers to harass, abuse, and oppress the governed.

We will not further disturb the attention of our readers with other arguments in order to prove whether or not there are properly despotic governments, and what these are. We suppose you will be satisfied if we quote the testimony of a favorite son of European philosophy, who says as much on the subject as you could wish. This author is the famous ideologue Destutt-Tracy, who expresses himself in the book of his Commentary on Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws as follows: «The word despotic (he speaks of government) indicates an abuse, a vice, which is to be found more or less in all governments, because all human institutions are imperfect like their authors; but it does not indicate a particular form of society or a particular form of government; for wherever the established law has no force, or yields to the will of one man or of many, there is despotism, oppression, abuse of authority, and there is no place where this is not seen from time to time. In many countries imprudent or ignorant men have taken no precautions to prevent this misfortune, and in others they have taken inadequate precautions; but nowhere, even in the East, has it been established as a principle that man should be superior to law. There is, therefore, no government which can be called despotic in its nature.»

It is very clear from Tracy’s doctrine, either that all governments are tyrannical, or that there is not a single one that can be so called with any strict justice. What we shall say in conclusion is that in those nations which profess the Christian religion, there may be some disorder in one or another branch of the public administration; some officials may for a time abuse their authority, and all may, if you will, progress much less than they should; but that there is absolute, complete, permanent, and systematic oppression is impossible.

When we reply to the few newspapers that have challenged us, we will respond to the small article addressed to us on Thursday by our esteemed colleagues at El Adelante.



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