On Sovereignty (XIII)

If what a government mandates is unjust and harmful to the governed, can they disobey it?

The storming of the Bastille, July 14, 1789, painting by Jean-Pierre Houël.

***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.***

If what a government mandates is unjust and harmful to the governed, can they disobey it? Can they take up arms against the established government, destroy it, and substitute in its place another that they deem more beneficial to the country? According to the principles of national sovereignty, there is nothing easier than providing satisfactory answers to these questions. If they finally held that there are cases in which passive resistance is lawful, or that individuals and peoples can and should resist governments, and disobey their commands when they are contrary to the sound morality and religion of the State, we would not be the ones to challenge them; but they go further. They vigorously defend that the supreme heads of States exercise their power by virtue of a pact with the people; a pact reduced to the fact that they must govern well, that is, in a manner that is useful and convenient to their subordinates, and that, consequently, if they do not do so, they break the pact, and it is permitted, both to the community and to the individual, to withdraw from their obedience and to attack their authority, substituting for them another who will better fulfill their task.

With the previous testimony of the famous ideologue Destutt-Tracy, two things have been proved: first, that wherever the law yields to the will of one man or of many, there is despotism, oppression, and abuse of authority; and second, that there is no state in which this is not seen from time to time. Therefore, according to the doctrine of national sovereignty, in all States, whether governed by absolute monarchs or by popular leaders, whenever they are unlawful or misgoverned, insurrection against them is lawful. This is the necessary consequence: so that the Emperor of Morocco as well as the most liberal English government, and the still more liberal government of the United States, may be lawfully overthrown by the people or by individuals whenever they fail to fulfill their duty. To what disasters would such an absurd principle lead us! It would condemn men to a life of perpetual war; or, rather, it would be tantamount to the destruction of society. For we know that so long as God does not change man’s condition, he will be a defective being; and consequently, if fortune raises him up to command his fellows, he will make mistakes, he will abuse his position. Therefore, if people could revolt every time he made a mistake or abused his position, the fate of Eve’s children in this world would be little different from that of animals.

Perhaps someone will respond: «That’s not what the defenders of national sovereignty want: what they maintain is that people can legitimately rise up against governments in the case of real, complete, and persistent oppression that cannot be destroyed by any other means; but not because there is some other abuse, or, if you will, some other violation of the law.» Is that what you are saying, you advocates of popular sovereignty? If so, you must renounce that principle of insurrection which you always shout from the rooftops; for it is nearly impossible to justify in almost any case. This is the sound, true, and useful doctrine you ought to preach to the people; not that vague right of resistance which, misunderstood and given an indefinite scope, has set almost the whole civilized world on fire, and caused more blood to be shed in the short space of sixty-four years than in the three thousand or more so-called religious wars of which you never cease to speak. The most that can exist in civilized nations is imperfect, temporary, and accidental oppression; or, in other words, those who command may voluntarily and maliciously commit errors, and tolerate and introduce injurious abuses; but this does not legitimize insurrection, an evil incomparably greater than that which can be produced by the government which oppresses in this way. We say that it does not legitimize insurrection because there is another way to avoid the harm, which is to make passionate appeals to those who can remedy it. And do not tell us that this resource is ineffective, for history has proven its salutary effects. Indeed, how often have abuses of power been checked by the legal censure of state authorities! How much did the situation in France improve, from the reign of Francis I to the Revolution, thanks to the appeals of the States, of the provinces, of the consulates, of the guilds of all kinds, of the intendants and governors, and thanks to the firmness of the parliaments, which refused to register the edicts wrested from the monarch by trickery and seduction! And why go to foreign lands in search of cases? How many useful provisions have been obtained in all ages by the deliberations of the prelates and councils of the Church? How many and how wise are the laws enacted by the zeal and enlightenment of the magistrates of Castile? These, then, are the legal means of promoting the prosperity of nations and reducing the sum of abuses, not popular revolutions, which only serve to worsen their lot.

We shall press the matter further. Let us suppose the very rare case of an absolute, constant and systematic oppression. More clearly: let us imagine a prince who, at his whim, changes the fundamental laws of the State and alters its institutions or its venerable customs; who proscribes or subverts the religion of his subjects, or introduces innovations which fundamentally endanger their welfare and security; who scorns all appeals addressed to him and persecutes their authors; in a word, who is a ferocious monster, one of those which, fortunately for the human race, the centuries have seldom produced. What then, are the rights of the governed? Such a monarch must be regarded as a madman; and therefore the authorities and bodies that most influence the direction of public affairs should agree and see how to provide for this evil, either by appointing a regency, or by placing the immediate successor at the head of the nation, so that, if possible, the people will not be involved, nor will there be any shedding of blood. We do not want the people to participate, for as the philosopher said, «Once enraged, they have no restraint for their cruelty, and are dragged into monstrosities that afflict the good and satisfy the wicked.»



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