Rediscovering and recovering lost and endangered American liberties by studying our Founders' ideas, contemporaries, and etymology – because our united States "…are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States…"
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness…it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
The Declaration of Independence matter-of-factly affirms the right of the people to change their current form of government when it no longer justly represents them. However, have those words in the Declaration become so ubiquitously familiar that we’ve forgotten the power they once held? Our federal government seems non-threatened by, and maybe even comfortable with, the words “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish,” as if no one thinks of them as anything other than archaic and unnecessary. In fact, the federal government has even passed laws that outright forbid the idea.
Contradicting the Declaration
Currently, Title 18, Section 2385 of the U.S. Code says that anyone who even affiliates himself with persons who encourage overthrowing the government by force can expect to spend up to twenty years in jail:
“Whoever knowingly or willfully advocates, abets, advises, or teaches the duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing or destroying the government of the United States or the government of any State, Territory, District or Possession thereof, or the government of any political subdivision therein, by force or violence, or by the assassination of any officer of any such government; or
Whoever, with intent to cause the overthrow or destruction of any such government, prints, publishes, edits, issues, circulates, sells, distributes, or publicly displays any written or printed matter advocating, advising, or teaching the duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing or destroying any government in the United States by force or violence, or attempts to do so; or
Whoever organizes or helps or attempts to organize any society, group, or assembly of persons who teach, advocate, or encourage the overthrow or destruction of any such government by force or violence; or becomes or is a member of, or affiliates with, any such society, group, or assembly of persons, knowing the purposes thereof—
Shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than twenty years, or both, and shall be ineligible for employment by the United States or any department or agency thereof, for the five years next following his conviction.”
That certainly puts a damper on the option of altering or abolishing government. Note the ironic contrast between these words:
“Whoever…teaches the duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing…the government…[s]hall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than twenty years.”
…and these words from the Declaration:
“...it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government…”
What Did the Founders Really Think?
Other than the words in the Declaration, what did the Founding Fathers have to say about the right to alter or abolish an oppressive government? Would they have agreed with current federal statutes, or would they have resisted them? Let’s see what some of their ideas were, in their own words:
Thomas Jefferson imagined armed resistance to be a healthy flexing of the people’s authority that should occur periodically – if only to serve as a stiff warning to abusive government leadership. In a letter to William S. Smith in 1787 discussing the recent Shays’ Rebellion (an armed revolt by veterans of the Revolution over lack of wartime pay and heavy debt/tax burdens), he openly endorsed violent rebellion ‘from time to time’ (emphasis added):
“…what country can preserve it’s [sic] liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
He even justified rebellion that might be initiated in ignorance or with incomplete information. Again in the same letter, he reflected on Shays’ Rebellion:
“…can history produce an instance of rebellion so honourably conducted? I say nothing of it’s [sic] motives. They were founded in ignorance, not wickedness. God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all, & always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty.”
Based on his attitude displayed above, it seems safe to say that Jefferson would approve of instances of modern armed resistance to perceived and/or legitimate government oppression and usurpation, such as the Bundy Standoff in 2014 and the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in early 2016.
In sharp contrast to what Jefferson believed, the current Title 18, Section 2385 of the U.S. Code forbids any rebellion against the authority of the U.S. Government:
“Whoever incites, sets on foot, assists, or engages in any rebellion or insurrection against the authority of the United States or the laws thereof, or gives aid or comfort thereto, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both; and shall be incapable of holding any office under the United States.”
In Federalist 78, Alexander Hamilton referred to a “fundamental principle of republican government, which admits the right of the people to alter or abolish the established Constitution, whenever they find it inconsistent with their happiness,” and he couldn’t even envision the possibility that the federal government’s military strength could grow powerful enough that it would no longer be held in check by the threat of the states and their people taking “measures for their own defense,” in effort to alter or abolish the general government. In Federalist 28, he rhetorically asks:
“When will the time arrive that the federal government can raise and maintain an army capable of erecting a despotism over the great body of the people of an immense empire, who are in a situation, through the medium of their State governments, to take measures for their own defense, with all the celerity, regularity, and system of independent nations?”
Interestingly, Hamilton’s expectation may have been founded on an assumption that the people would, unquestionably, always be a completely armed citizenry.
James Madison wrote and proposed a Bill of Rights for the Constitution after the Anti-Federalists insisted that amendments guaranteeing protection of certain rights were needed. His proposed First Amendment evoked the Declaration of Independence, maintaining that the people have the unquestionable right to alter or abolish government (emphasis added):
“First. That there be prefixed to the constitution a declaration that all power is originally vested in, and consequently derived from the people.
That government is instituted, and ought to be exercised for the benefit of the people; which consists in the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the right of acquiring and using property, and generally of pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.
That the people have an indubitable, unalienable, and indefeasible right to reform or change their government, whenever it be found adverse or inadequate to the purposes of its institution.”
George Mason, an influential Virginia statesman who refused to sign the Constitution, was the main author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, written in 1776, from which Jefferson drew upon heavily when drafting the Declaration of Independence (emphasis added):
“That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation, or community; of all the various modes and forms of government, that is best which is capable of producing the greatest degree of happiness and safety and is most effectually secured against the danger of maladministration. And that, when any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community has an indubitable, inalienable, and indefeasible right to reform, alter, or abolish it, in such manner as shall be judged most conducive to the public weal.”
John Adams was the principal author of the Massachusetts Constitution in 1779. It was approved in 1780, and is now the world’s oldest functioning constitution. The document’s Declaration of Rights, Article VII, reads as follows (emphasis added):
“Government is instituted for the common good; for the protection, safety, prosperity and happiness of the people; and not for the profit, honor, or private interest of any one man, family, or class of men: Therefore the people alone have an incontestable, unalienable, and indefeasible right to institute government; and to reform, alter, or totally change the same, when their protection, safety, prosperity and happiness require it.”
Besides Massachusetts and Virginia, many other states were also resolute in their belief in reserving the right to alter or abolish oppressive government. Some examples taken from just a few state constitutions reveal that these convictions were widely shared (emphases added):
“All power is inherent in the people; all free governments are founded in their authority and instituted for their benefit; they have therefore an unalienable and indefeasible right to institute government, and to alter, reform, or totally change the same, when their safety and happiness require it.”
“All political power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority, and instituted for their benefit. The faith of the people of Texas stands pledged to the preservation of a republican form of government, and, subject to this limitation only, they have at all times the inalienable right to alter, reform or abolish their government in such manner as they may think expedient.”
“That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation or community; and not for the particular emolument or advantage of any single man, family or set of men, who are a part only of that community; and that the community hath an indubitable, unalienable and indefeasible right to reform, alter, or abolish, government, in such manner as shall be, by that community, judged most conducive to the public weal.”
“All political power is inherent in the people. Government is instituted for their equal protection and benefit, and they have the right to alter, reform or abolish the same whenever they may deem it necessary; and no special privileges or immunities shall ever be granted that may not be altered, revoked, or repealed by the legislature.”
“All power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority and instituted for their peace, safety, happiness and the protection of property. For the advancement of these ends, they have at all times an inalienable and indefeasible right to alter, reform or abolish their government in such manner as they may deem proper.”
We can see a theme in these states’ constitutions: a fierce insistence that the people indisputably reserve the right to change their form of government when it no longer satisfies their needs. As an interesting side note, the outcome of the Civil War did not seem to make an impact on any of the above state declarations – these states saw no reason to relinquish their written declarations of their right to alter or abolish government.
The right to alter or abolish government by force has been effectively stifled via current federal statutes, despite the plain words in many of our founding documents. No provision for exceptions (such as those for continuously abusive, oppressive, and tyrannical government usurpations) can be found in the current Title 18 sections referenced above.
Some may argue that we still retain the right to change our government though peaceful means – and peaceful reform is certainly preferable to forceful change. The results of the 2016 British vote to withdraw from the European Union (‘Brexit’) is a great example of another country’s modern, peaceful secession – but a more fundamental change to government, even in response to legitimate complaints of abuse, would most likely be met with the armed resistance of those in power.
The purpose of this article is not to promote any forceful resistance, but is instead simply meant to point out the contradictions between our current federal statutes and the precepts of our founding documents – not one of the writings we have examined appear to make pacifism a requisite for changing government structure. The founders undoubtedly believed in and highly valued the right of the people to alter or abolish their form of government. They didn’t think government should be changed on a whim, or for ‘light and transient causes,’ yet they demonstrated a firm resolve to force the issue after suffering ‘a long train of abuses and usurpations.’