The Roots of the American Revolution Lie in … the Middle Ages

By John Zmirak Published on April 27, 2022

There was no firm consensus among Christians in the West during the Middle Ages about the morality of rising up against unjust governments. Monarchs had grown stronger, compared to the nobles who jockeyed with them for power. Kings’ personal domains had multiplied, and they’d begun to have the cash to raise and maintain royal armies, instead of relying mostly on feudal levies of powerful subjects.

The anointing of kings by bishops granted their persons a certain sacerdotal protection, which disgruntled subjects were (mostly) loath to violate. (See the fall of Richard II, powerfully depicted by Shakespeare, for an exception.)

The First Document of Freedom

On the other hand, periodic revolts by barons in various lands had reinforced firm limits on the powers of kings. The English Magna Carta (1215) resulted from the elite uprising of nobles disgusted by the financial rapacity and military incompetence of King John. Tellingly, the document was negotiated and drafted in part by a cardinal and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

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It outlined the rights properly due an Englishman by virtue of the country’s (unwritten) constitution. It did not — and no document would, for several centuries — assert that such rights were proper to them as human beings, which anyone should enjoy regardless of his country. It would take the U.S. founding before an important country affirmed such rights as part of its governing philosophy.

The Roots of Rule by Parliament

The Magna Carta is justly revered as England’s first institutional guarantee of subjects’ rights, and limits on royal privileges. The document forbade arbitrary imprisonment of Englishmen, guaranteed the rights of the Church, and offered protections both for free subjects and serfs. It granted to major barons the right to refuse new taxes — a right that in subsequent centuries would be extended to leading commoners in Parliament.

The document would take on more importance over time, as subsequent kings felt constrained to republish and reaffirm the document, as the price of securing the throne. Kings who aspired to arbitrary rule would forbid discussion of it, while supporters of Parliament — and later, of independence for the Colonies — would cite the “Great Charter” as a long-revered legal precedent.

Limiting royal abuses was one thing. What about when a king ignored such constraints, and behaved as an outright tyrant? A pope might declare a king excommunicate and his subjects absolved from their oaths. But he couldn’t guarantee that those subjects would listen. And what if a king’s abuses didn’t focus on the Church, or he’d made the pope an ally? Was there any other recourse for subjects when a given king violated basic rights?

John of Salisbury

Medieval thinkers had laid the groundwork. The first to advance the idea that citizens had the right or perhaps the duty to resist unjust commands by a superior, even a king, was John of Salisbury. David Kopel offers a fascinating discussion of this thinker in The Morality of Self-Defense and Military Action. As Kopel writes of Salisbury’s main work, Policraticus (published 1159):

John explained that a good Christian should not be expected to obey the law or a superior’s order in all circumstances, for ‘Some things are … so detestable that no command will possibly justify them or render them permissible.’ For example, a military commander might order soldiers to deny the existence of God or to commit adultery. Similarly, if a prince ‘resists and opposes the divine commandments, and wishes to make me share in his war against God, then with unrestrained voice I must answer back that God must be preferred before any man on earth.’

John argued that intermediate magistrates, such as local governors, had a duty to lead forcible resistance if necessary against serious abuses by the highest magistrate, such as the king.

St. Thomas Aquinas

The doctrine that citizens can and must resist state-sponsored injustice goes back a lot longer than most modern people realize. This principle would find support in the greatest and most influential Medieval thinker, St. Thomas Aquinas. Kopel cites the saint’s reflection on whether subjects owed ongoing obedience to rulers who’d proven tyrannical. While “sedition,” or arbitrary rebellion, is gravely sinful, Aquinas made room for legitimate resistance, even by force:

A tyrannical government is not just, because it is directed, not to the common good, but to the private good of the ruler… . Consequently, there is no sedition in disturbing a government of this kind, unless indeed the tyrant’s rule be disturbed so inordinately, that his subject suffer greater harm from the consequent disturbance than from the tyrant’s government.

Note here that Aquinas is echoing Augustine — as he often does. The preconditions which Augustine set for a Just War apply equally to a just civil war or revolution. A key criterion for either one is the prudent judgment of whether the war (of either kind) is proportionate to the evil it’s meant to curb. Or is it merely a pretext? Worse, is the struggle clearly doomed, with no realistic prospect of success?

Not for Light and Transient Causes

Jump ahead 500 years, and you can hear an echo of these natural law precepts in the words of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. He asserts that all men

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.

But anarchy-minded citizens may not undertake revolutions willy-nilly. The bar set for embarking on such a grievous enterprise as civil war is a high one. Determining whether and when a political situation has become so “destructive” is a solemn and serious inquiry. Jefferson freely confesses this:

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

Indeed, it is Jefferson’s task in the rest of the Declaration to establish the necessity, justice, and prudence of the united colonies’ decision to cut all political ties to Britain. Most of the text is aimed at proving exactly this.


John Zmirak is a senior editor at The Stream and author or co-author of ten books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Immigration and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism. He is co-author with Jason Jones of “God, Guns, & the Government.”

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