St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274), Italian scholastic philosopher, argued that, “A King who is unfaithful to his duty forfeits his claim to obedience. It is not rebellion to depose him, for he is himself a rebel whom the nation has a right to put down. But it is better to abridge his power, that he may be unable to abuse it. For this purpose, the whole nation ought to have a share in governing itself; … No government has a right to levy taxes beyond the limit determined by the people. All political authority is derived from popular suffrage, and all laws must be made by the people or their representatives. There is no security for us as long as we depend on the will of another man.” This language, according to Lord Acton, contains the earliest exposition of the Whig theory of revolution, and it was this theory as passed on and developed through English Whigs, which America would use to form the basis for its own revolutionary raison d’être.
If we adjudge the march of freedom over the span of the entire Middle Ages, some 1,000 years from the fall of Rome, great good had certainly come about and what a difference it was from the Dark Ages that had initially followed collapse of empire. Representative government, which was nearly unknown to the ancients, was almost universal. The methods of election may have been crude, but the principle that no tax was lawful that was not granted by the class that paid it, that is, taxation was inseparable from representation, was recognized. Not a prince in the world, said Philip de Commines, can levy a penny without the consent of the people. Absolute power was deemed more intolerable and more criminal than slavery; and the right of insurrection was admitted and defined as a duty sanctified by religion. Ironically, religious influence on the state actually declined. Whereas, in the days when every state made the unity of faith its first care, it came to be thought that the rights of men, and the duties of neighbors and of rulers towards them varied according to their religion. Society certainly did not acknowledge the same obligations to a Turk or a Jew, a pagan or a heretic, or a devil worshipper, as to an orthodox Christian. When the ascendancy of religion grew weaker, this privilege of treating its enemies on exceptional principles was claimed by the state for its own benefit. The idea that the ends of government justify the means employed, was worked out systematically by the Italian statesman and writer on government, Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527). Unfortunately, his political philosophy was accepted and studied by the ruling class in Europe and gave immense impulse to absolutism by silencing the consciences of religious kings. Kings resorted to wicked acts, treachery and murder in the name of political science, in order to further their statecraft and political agendas, and to dispatch rivals. What Lord Acton calls Machiavelli’s “studied philosophy of crime” and “thorough perversion of the moral sense” made good and bad kings look very much alike. The clergy, who had in so many ways served the cause of freedom during the prolonged strife against feudalism, were associated now with the interest of royalty. Initial attempts to reform the Church within failed, and its hierarchy united with the crown to oppose systems of divided power. It was this situation that gave rise and impetus to Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. Religious wars twixt Catholics and Protestants had as much to do with freedom as anything, and ultimately, the challenge posed by the Reformation not only stemmed the flood of absolutism in the state (eventually) but helped to reform the Catholic Church. But then I sweep much cruelty and excess under the rug as masses of people were involved on both sides, and masses of people tend to engender both cruelty and excess. For the belief that it is right to murder tyrants, first taught among Christians by John of Salisbury, the most distinguished English writer of the twelfth century, and confirmed by Roger Bacon, the most celebrated Englishman of the thirteenth, had acquired by the sixteenth century a jaded and fatal significance. Moreover, that men should understand governments do not exist by divine right, and that arbitrary government is the violation of divine right is good only so far as it goes. It gives little aid to progress or reform, because the mere resistance to tyranny implies no faculty of constructing a legal government in its place. If you substitute nothing else positive, then you trade one bad situation for another. The principles, which discriminate in politics between good and evil, and make states worthy to last, were not yet found. This required a few more innovations. In the meantime, after so many years of religious wars and assassination, strong monarchies prevailed. The church muffled its view that resistance to kings might be a religious duty. A sixteenth century preacher warned, “You will perish, not by invasion or war, but by your infernal liberties!”
Wesley Allen Riddle is a retired military officer with degrees and honors from West Point and Oxford. Widely published in the academic and opinion press, he ran for U.S. Congress (TX-District 31) in the 2004 Republican Primary. This piece largely abridged and condensed from an address by Lord Acton to the Bridgnorth Institute in England on 28 May 1877. Email: email@example.com.