During the Viking Age, there was a man called Þorgnýr the Lawspeaker. The Lawspeaker’s office made him spokesmen for Swedes who owned their own farms—while not ‘citizens’ in our sense, they were a class of ordinary free people whose interests sometimes differed from those of their kings and lords. One such king, for reasons of pride, tried to draw Þorgnýr’s people into an unwanted war. This resulted in an outcry, and the king held a public meeting to persuade the people to go along. Þorgnýr spoke at this meeting, and reminded the King that seven previous kings had been drowned in a nearby well when they proved resistant to the advice of the people, and should reconsider his war.
And so he did.
The right of revolution offers a counterbalance against those who wield the power of the state. It allows ordinary people to resist criminal cartels and similar groups.
Þorgnýr would have understood the American notion of the right of revolution. According to the Declaration of Independence, it is “the Right of the People to alter or to abolish” a government that becomes destructive of their rights.
Tellingly, our Constitution also guarantees that “the Right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” This right can frustrate those who hold a social position similar to Þorgnýr’s kings and lords. Although some of our elites incessantly invoke “revolutions”—Bernie Sanders, for example—a revolution to thwart the will of politicians at the behest of an armed citizenry is not what they have in mind.
Paradoxically, the right to revolution, rather than engendering turmoil, actually fosters internal stability. Of course, in the face of insistent kings, violent revolution is not out of the question. But by asserting a right to revolt, Þorgnýr stopped a king from launching a ruinous war.The right of revolution offers a counterbalance against those who wield the power of the state. It allows ordinary people to resist criminal cartels and similar groups. Revolutions sometimes come, but by far the greater effect is peace.
Politicians do not like to feel threatened, but the power of the people to overthrow them is philosophically legitimate and has historically been an important mechanism for both advancing liberty and ensuring stability.
THE POWER OF THE STATE DERIVES FROM THE CITIZEN
In America, effectively, the citizen is an officer of the state. As jurors, citizens wield the ultimate sovereign power: to punish—or not punish—crimes. The right to revolution is simply a more radical expression of this exact same concept. Just as the citizenry may set aside a law that is immoral or corrupt, they may set aside a government that has become reliably immoral or corrupt. Those in power dislike this—just as Þorgnýr’s king would have disliked the threat of being thrown headfirst into a well. All the same, the right of revolution limits the extent to which power can corrupt by distributing the capacity for force broadly among the population.
Citizens have the right, and arguably the duty, “to be at all times armed.” The citizen exists to control the state, not the state to control the citizens.
Numerous historical examples show just how decentralized power can restrain tyrants. Prior to William the Conqueror’s ‘Norman Conquest’ of 1066, the English kingdom had a council of elders called the “Witengamot” that was empowered to choose the king from among claimants. The idea of compelling and constraining the king did not die in England, as it had in ancient Greece. The English later compelled the Magna Carta Libertatum (“Great Charter of Liberties”) from King John. Among Magna Carta’s clauses was a guarantee that the king would not use his power at least against the nobility without consent of a jury of their peers. That guarantee was expanded over time, and conflict, to all free people.
In the Declaration of Arbroath, Scottish warriors backed Robert the Bruce’s campaign for independence from the tyrannical descendants of Edward I Longshanks. This declaration was addressed to the Pope, who held that kings were not chosen but appointed by God. The Scots said that while they would accept that Robert—and not Edward—was God’s choice to lead them, if he should surrender their rights to the English they would cast him out and pick another. In the most stirring language, they declared that they were fighting not for honor or glory nor riches, but for freedom alone—a freedom they won, in spite of the Pope and the kings of England.
These historical examples draw out just why the Founders elected to enshrine “the Right of the People to alter and abolish” governments that become harmful to their rights.
CITIZENS ARMED AGAINST TYRANNY ARE A PROPER FEATURE OF A STATE
The examples also show why the Founders likewise declared that “the Right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” As Thomas Jefferson wrote, the state and Federal constitutions of his day held that:
…all power is inherent in the people; that they may exercise it by themselves, in all cases to which they think themselves competent, (as in electing their functionaries executive and legislative, and deciding by a jury of themselves, both fact and law, in all judiciary cases in which any fact is involved) or they may act by representatives, freely and equally chosen; that it is their right and duty to be at all times armed; that they are entitled to freedom of person; freedom of religion; freedom of property; and freedom of the press.
For Jefferson, all power is inherent in the people. That he means ‘the citizenry’ by ‘the people’ is indicated by the fact that he immediately mentions that ‘they may exercise…power’ via the jury function, which juries can only be composed of citizens.
It is in their occasional revolutionary efforts to recover their power that the people have advanced the cause of human liberty across centuries.
Citizens have the right, and arguably the duty, “to be at all times armed.” The citizen exists to control the state, not the state to control the citizens. It is in their occasional revolutionary efforts to recover their power that the people have advanced the cause of human liberty across centuries. Ensuring that such revolutions remain a perpetual possibility, that no government can feel secure in its power over the people, is essential to ensuring that human liberty continues to flourish.
This is not to say that no revolution has been fought on ill-conceived grounds, nor that small groups of people can’t pose unacceptable threats to human liberty. George Washington fought both a revolution and a counter-insurrection campaign, both times in the cause of securing constitutional liberty. Rather, the lesson here is that the citizenry may not rightly be subjugated by other, lesser, officers of the state.
“The Right of the People” is the first right. All our efforts at security must prioritize the primacy of the citizen, and that means seeing the class of citizen as a high honor. It matters that citizens, and only citizens, serve certain functions. It matters that citizens be trained to believe in and support the American project. It matters who the citizens are, in other words, just as it matters who the President is.
Citizenship is fundamental to America and to the survival and flourishing of human liberty. But citizenship is duty as much as it is an entitlement—a duty that demands that Americans be at all times armed against the encroachment of tyranny.