Book 4, Chapter 01 : Of Resistance

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Book 4, Chapter 01




Subject of the fourth book. - First branch of the subject. - Question of 
    resistance stated. - Resistance of a nation. - Ambiguity of the term
    nation. - Case of a military subjection considered. - Resistance of a 
    majority - of a minority. - Further ambiguity of the term nation.
    Nature of liberty. - Remark. - Resistance of the individual.

HAVING now made some progress in the inquiry originally instituted, it may be proper to look back, and consider the point at which we are arrived. We have examined, in the first place, the powers of man as they relate to the subject of which we treat; secondly, we have delineated the principles of society, as founded in justice and general interest, independently of, and antecedent to, every species of political government; and, lastly, have endeavored to ascertain the fundamental conditions which must belong to the most rational system of government. We might now proceed to investigate the different objects of government, and deduce the inferences respecting them which are pointed out to us by the preceding reasonings. But there are various miscellaneous considerations which, though they have not fallen under the former heads, are of considerable importance to our disquisition, and may usefully occupy the remainder of the present volume. They are of different classes, and in a certain degree detached from each other; but may perhaps without impropriety be ranged under two branches: the mode in which the speculative opinions of individuals are to be rendered effectual for the melioration of society; and the mode in which opinion is found to operate in modifying the conduct of individuals.

The strong hold of government has appeared hitherto to have consisted in seduction. However imperfect might be the political constitution under which they lived, mankind have ordinarily been persuaded to regard it with a sort of reverential and implicit respect. The privileges of Englishmen, and the liberties of Germany, the splendor of the most Christian, and the solemn gravity of the Catholic king, have each afforded a subject of exultation to the individuals who shared, or thought they shared, in the advantages these terms were conceived to describe. Each man was accustomed to deem it a mark of the peculiar kindness of providence that he was born in the country, whatever it was, to which he happened to be long. The time may come which shall subvert these prejudices. The time may come when men shall exercise the piercing search of truth upon the mysteries of government, and view without prepossession the defects and abuses of the constitution of their country. Out of this new order of things a new series of duties will arise. When a spirit of impartiality shall prevail, and loyalty shall decay, it will become us to inquire into the conduct which such a state of thinking shall make necessary. We shall then be called upon to maintain a true medium between blindness to injustice and calamity on the one hand, and an acrimonious spirit of violence and resentment on the other. It will be the duty of such as shall see these subjects in the pure light of truth to exert themselves for the effectual demolition of monopolies and usurpation; but effectual demolition is not the offspring of crude projects and precipitate measures. He who dedicates himself to these may be suspected to be under the domination of passion, rather than benevolence. The true friend of equality will do nothing unthinkingly, will cherish no wild schemes of uproar and confusion, and will endeavor to discover the mode in which his faculties may be laid out to the greatest and most permanent advantage.

The whole of this question is intimately connected with the inquiry which has necessarily occupied a share In the disquisitions of all writers on the subject of government, concerning the propriety and measures of resistance. "Are the worst government and best equally entitled to the toleration and forbearance of their subjects? Is there no case of political oppression that will authorize the persons who suffer it to take up arms against their oppressors? Or, if there be, what is the quantity of oppression at the measure of which insurrections begin to be justifiable? Abuses will always exist, for man will always be imperfect; what is the nature of the abuse which it would be pusillanimous to oppose by words only, and which true courage would instruct us was to be endured no longer?"

No question can be conceived more important than this. In the examination of it philosophy almost forgets its nature; it ceases to be speculation, and becomes an actor. Upon the decision, according as it shall be decided in the minds of a bold and resolute party, the existence of thousands may be suspended. The speculative enquirer, if he live in a state where abuse is notorious and grievances frequent, knows not, while he weighs the case in the balance of reason, how far that which he attempts to describe is already realized in the apprehension of numbers of his countrymen. Let us enter upon the question with the seriousness which so critical an inquiry demands.

Resistance may have its source in the emergencies either of the public or the individual. "A nation," it has commonly been said, "has a right to shake off any authority that is usurped over it." This is a proposition that has generally passed without question, and certainly no proposition can appear more plausible. But, if we examine it minutely, we shall find that it is attended with equivocal circumstances. What do we mean by a nation? Is the whole people concerned in this resistance, or only a part? If the whole be prepared to resist, the whole is persuaded of the injustice of the usurpation. What sort of usurpation is that which can be exercised by one or a few persons over a whole nation universally disapproving of it? Government is founded in opinion.1 Bad government deceives us first, before it fastens itself upon us like an incubus, oppressing all our efforts. A nation in general must have learned to respect a king and a house of lords, before a king and a house of lords can exercise any authority over them. If a man or a set of men, unsanctioned by any previous prejudice in their favor, pretend to exercise sovereignty in a country, they will become objects of derision rather than of serious resistance. Destroy the existing prejudice in favor of any of our present institutions, and they will fall into similar disuse and contempt.

It has sometimes been supposed "that an army, foreign or domestic, may be sufficient to hold a people in subjection, completely against their inclination." A domestic army at least will in some degree partake of the opinions and sentiments of the people at large. The more precautions are employed to prevent the infection, the doctrine will probably spread with so much the more certainty and rapidity. Show me that you are afraid of my entertaining certain opinions or hearing certain principles, and you will infallibly, sooner or later, awaken my curiosity. A domestic army will always be found a very doubtful instrument of tyranny in a period of crisis. - A foreign army after a time will become domesticated. If the question be of importing a foreign army for the specific purpose of supporting tottering abuse, great alarm will inevitably be excited. These men, it may be, are adapted for continuing the reign of tyranny; but who will pay them? A weak, superstitious or ignorant people may be held in the chains of foreign power; but the school of moral and political independence sends forth pupils of a very different character. In the encounter with their penetration and discernment, tyranny will feel itself powerless and transitory. In a word, either the people are unenlightened and unprepared for a state of freedom, and then the struggle and the consequences of the struggle will be truly perilous; or the progress of political knowledge among them is decisive, and then everyone will see how futile and short-lived will be the attempt to hold them in subjection, by means of garrisons and a foreign force. The party attached to liberty is, upon that supposition, the numerous one; they are the persons of true energy, and who have an object worthy of their zeal. Their oppressors, few in number, and degraded to the rank of lifeless machines, wander with no certain destination or prospect over the vast surface, and are objects of pity rather than serious alarm. Every hour diminishes their number and their resources; while, on the other hand, every moment's delay gives new strength to the cause, and fortitude to the champions, of liberty. Men would not be inclined pertinaciously to object to a short delay, if they recollected the advantages and the certainty of success with which it is pregnant. - Meanwhile these reasonings turn upon the probability that the purposes of liberty will be full as effectually answered without the introduction of force: there can be little doubt of the justifiableness of a whole nation having recourse to arms, if a case can be made out in which it shall be impossible for them to prevent the introduction of slavery in any other way.

The same reasonings, with little variation, will apply to the case of an unquestionable majority of a nation, as to that of the whole. The majority of a nation is irresistible; it as little needs to have recourse to violence; there is as little reason to expect that any usurper will be so mad as to contend with it. If ever it appear to be other wise, it is because, in one of two ways, we deceive ourselves with the term majority. First, nothing is more obvious than the danger incident to a man of a sanguine temper of overestimating the strength of his party. He associates perhaps only with persons of his own way of thinking, and a very small number appears to him as if it were the whole world. Ask persons of different tempers and habits of life how many republicans there are at this hour in England or Scotland, and you will immediately be struck with the very opposite answers you will receive. There are many errors of a sanguine temper that appear, at first sight, innocent or even useful: but surely every man of integrity and conscience will hesitate, before he suffers the possibility that an error of this sort should encourage him to plunge a nation in violence, and open a sea of blood. He must have a heart of strange composition who, for the precarious inferences he draws in moral or political calculation, would volunteer a mandate of death, or be the first to unsheath the sword of summary execution.

A second deception that lurks under the word majority lies, not in the question of number, but of quality and degree of illumination. A majority, we say perhaps, is dissatisfied with the present state of things, and wishes for such a specific alteration. Alas, it is to be feared that the greater part of this majority are often mere parrots who have been taught a lesson of the subject of which they understand little or nothing. What is it they dislike? A specific tax perhaps, or some temporary grievance. Do they dislike the vise and meanness that grow out of tyranny, and pant for the liberal and ingenuous virtue that would be fostered in their own minds in a different condition? No. They are very angry, and fancy themselves very judicious. What is it they desire? They know not. It would probably be easy to show that what they profess to desire is little better than what they hate. What they hate is not the general depravation of the human character; and what they desire is not its improvement. It is an insult upon human understanding, when we speak of persons in this state of infantine ignorance, to say that the majority of the nation is on the side of political renovation. Few greater misfortunes can befall any country than for such persons to be instigated to subvert existing institutions, and violently to take the work of political reformation into their own hands.

There is an obvious remedy to each of the deceptions here enumerated: Time: Is it doubtful whether the reformers be a real majority of the inhabitants of any country? Is it doubtful whether the majority truly understand the object of their professed wishes, and therefore whether they be ripe for its reception, and competent to its assertion? Wait but a little while, and the doubt will probably be solved in the manner that the warmest friend of human happiness and improvement would desire. If the system of independence and equality be the truth, it may be expected hourly to gain converts. The more it is discussed, the more will it be understood, and its value cherished and felt. If the state of the majority be doubtful, a very few years, perhaps a shorter time, will tend to place it beyond the reach of controversy. The great cause of humanity, which is now pleading in the face of the universe, has but two enemies; those friends of antiquity, and those friends of innovation, who, impatient of suspense, are inclined violently to interrupt the calm, the incessant, the rapid and auspicious progress which thought and reflection appear to be making in the world. Happy would it be for mankind if those persons who interest themselves most zealously in these great questions would confine their exertions to the diffusing, in every possible mode, a spirit of inquiry, and the embracing every opportunity of increasing the stock, and generalizing the communication, of political knowledge!

A third situation, which may be conceived to exist in a country where political reform has been made a topic of considerable attention, is that where neither the whole, nor the majority, of the nation is desirous of the reform in question, but where the innovators are an unquestionable minority. In this case nothing can be more indefensible than a project for introducing by violence that state of society which our judgments may happen to approve. In the first place, no persons are ripe for the participation of a benefit the advantage of which they do not understand. No people are competent to enjoy a state of freedom who are not already imbued with a love of freedom. The most dreadful tragedies will infallibly result from an attempt to goad mankind prematurely into a position, however abstractedly excellent, for which they are in no degree prepared. Secondly, to endeavor to impose our sentiments by force is the most detestable species of persecution. Others are as much entitled to deem themselves in the right as we are. The most sacred of all privileges is that by which each man has a certain sphere, relative to the government of his own actions, and the exercise of his discretion, not liable to be trenched upon by the intemperate zeal or dictatorial temper of his neighbor.2 To dragoon men into the adoption of what we think right is an intolerable tyranny. It leads to unlimited disorder and injustice. Every man thinks himself in the right; and, if such a proceeding were universally introduced, the destiny of mankind would be no longer a question of argument, but of strength, presumption or intrigue.

There is a further ambiguity in the term nation, as employed in the proposition above stated, "that a nation has a right forcibly to shake off any authority that is usurped over it." A nation is an arbitrary term. Which is most properly termed a nation, the Russian empire, or the canton of Berne? Or is everything a nation upon which accident shall bestow that appellation? It seems most accurate to say that any number of persons who are able to establish and maintain a system of mutual regulation for themselves conformable to their own opinions, without imposing a system of regulation upon a considerable number of others inconsistent with the opinion of these others, have a right, or, more properly speaking, a duty obliging them to adopt that measure. That any man, or body of men, should impose their sense upon persons of a different opinion is, absolutely speaking, wrong,and in all cases deeply to be regretted: but this evil it is perhaps in some degree necessary to incur, for the sake of a preponderating good. All government includes in it this evil, as one of its fundamental characteristics.

There is one circumstance of much importance to be attended to in this disquisition. Superficial thinkers lay great stress upon the external situation of men, and little upon their internal sentiments. Persevering inquiry will probably lead to a mode of thinking the reverse of this. To be free is a circumstance of little value, if we could suppose men in a state of external freedom, without the magnanimity, energy and firmness that constitute almost all that is valuable in a state of freedom. On the other hand, if a man have these qualities, there is little left for him to desire. He cannot be degraded; he cannot readily become either useless or unhappy. He smiles at the impotence of despotism; he fills up his existence with serene enjoyment and industrious benevolence. Civil liberty is chiefly desirable as a means to procure and perpetuate this temper of mind. They therefore begin at the wrong end, who make haste to overturn and confound the usurped powers of the world. Make men wise, and by that very operation you make them free. Civil liberty follows as a consequence of this; no usurped power can stand against the artillery of opinion. Everything then is in order, and succeeds at its appointed time. How unfortunate is it that men are so eager to strike and have so little constancy to reason!

It is probable that this question of resistance would never have admitted of so long a controversy, if the advocates of the system of liberty promulgated in the last century had not, unobserved to themselves, introduced a confusion into the question. Resistance may be employed, either to repel the injuries committed against the nation generally, or such as, in their immediate application, relate to the individual. To the first of these the preceding reasonings principally apply. The injuries to a nation depend for their nature, for the most part, upon their permananency, and therefore admit of the utmost sobriety and deliberation as to the mode in which they are to be remedied. Individuals may be injured or destroyed by a specific act of tyranny, but nations cannot; the principal mischief to the nation lies in the presage contained in the single act, of the injustice that is to continue to be exercised. Resistance, by the very meaning of the term, as it is used in political inquiry, signifies a species of conduct that is to be adopted in relation to an established authority: but an old grievance seems obviously to lead, as its counterpart, to a gradual and temperate remedy.

The consideration which, by being confounded with this, has served to mislead certain enquirers is that of what is commonly known by the name of self-defense, or, more properly, the duty obliging each individual to repel, as far as lies in his power, any violent attack made either upon himself or another. This, by the terms of the question, is a circumstance that does not admit of delay; the benefit of the remedy entirely.depends upon the time of the application. The principle in this case is of easy development. Force is an expedient the use of which is much to be deplored. It is contrary to the nature of intellect, which cannot be improved but by conviction and persuasion. It corrupts the man that employs it, and the man upon whom it is employed. But it seems that there are certain cases so urgent as to oblige us to have recourse to this injurious expedient: in other words, there are cases where the mischief to accrue from not violently counteracting the perverseness of the individual is greater than the mischief which the violence necessarily draws along with it. Hence it appears that the ground justifying resistance, in every case where it can be justified, is that of the good likely to result from such interference being greater than the good to result from omitting it.

There are probably cases where, as in a murder for example about to be committed on a useful and valuable member of society, the chance of preventing it by any other means than instantaneous resistance is so small as by no means to vindicate us in incurring the danger of so mischievous a catastrophe. But will this justify us, in the case of an individual oppressed by the authority of a community? Let us suppose that there is a country in which some of its best citizens are selected as objects of vengeance by an alarmed and jealous tyranny. It cannot reasonably be doubted that every man, a condemned felon or murderer, is to be commended for quietly withdrawing himself from the execution of the law; much more such persons as have now been described. But ought those well affected citizens that are still at large to rise in behalf of their brethren under persecution? Every man that is disposed to enter into such a project, and who is anxious about the moral rectitude of his conduct, must rest its justification upon one of the two grounds above stated: either the immediate purpose of his rising is the melioration of public institutions, or it is to be estimated with reference to the meritoriousness of the individuals in question. The first of these has been sufficiently discussed; we will suppose therefore that he confines himself to the last. Here, as has been already observed, the whole, as a moral question, will turn upon the comparative benefit or mischief to result from the resistance to be employed. The disparity is great indeed between the resistance ordinarily suggested by the term self-defense, and the resistance which must expect to encounter in its progress the civil power of the country. In the first, the question is of a moment; if you succeed in the instant of your exertion, you may expect the applause, rather than the prosecution, of executive authority. But, in the latter, the end will scarcely be accomplished but by the overthrow of the government itself. Let the lives of the individuals in supposition be as valuable as you please, the value will necessarily be swallowed up in the greater questions that occur in the sequel. Those questions therefore are the proper topics of attention; and we shall be to blame if we suffer ourselves to be led unawares into a conduct the direct tendency of which is the production of one sort of event, while all we intended was the production of another. The value of individuals ought not to be forgotten; there are men whose safety should be cherished by us with anxious attention; but it is difficult to imagine a case in which, for their sake, the lives of thousands, and the fate of millions, should be committed to risk.


1Book 1, Chap. VI, p. 148; Book II, Chap. lII, pp. 181-2.
2Book II, Chap. V, VI.

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