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The Scottish Covenanters’ Contribution to America’s Founding Principles

“I find no more privilege granted unto kings by God, more than unto the people, to offend God’s majesty,” wrote John Knox in his History of the Reformation in Scotland.

In so writing, Knox stood firmly with John Calvin and other Reformed thinkers. All believed that rulers were as much under God’s authority, and answerable to Him, as anyone else, and ultimately this led them to conclude that subjects—citizens—had a right to rebuke, resist, and even to overthrow and replace rulers who egregiously vitiated the purposes for which God ordained them.

In the Institutes, Book 4, Chapter 20, “Of Civil Government,” Calvin taught that subjects owe honor and obedience to rulers:

The first duty of subjects towards their rulers, is to entertain the most honourable views of their office, recognising it as a delegated jurisdiction from God, and on that account receiving and reverencing them as the ministers and ambassadors of God. … From this, a second consequence is, that we must with ready minds prove our obedience to them, whether in complying with edicts, or in paying tribute, or in undertaking public offices and burdens which relate to the common defence, or in executing any other orders. “Let every soul,” says Paul, “be subject unto the higher powers.” “Whosoever, therefore, resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God” (Rom. 13: 1, 2). Writing to Titus, he says, “Put them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates, to be ready to every good work” (Tit. 3: 1). Peter also says, “Submit yourselves to every human creature” (or rather [Calvin interjects], as I understand it, “ordinance of man,”) “for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evil-doers, and for the praise of them that do well” (1 Pet. 2: 13).

Let no man here deceive himself, since we cannot resist the magistrate without resisting God. For, although an unarmed magistrate may seem to be despised with impunity, yet God is armed, and will signally avenge this contempt.

This obedience, Calvin taught, was due even to wicked rulers, who were sent by God as punishment on wicked peoples. Rather than foment unrest under them, people should “seek the peace of the city” (Jeremiah 29:7), for “It is not the part of subjects but of God to vindicate the right.” “But rulers, you will say, owe mutual duties to those under them. This I have already confessed. But if from this you conclude that obedience is to be returned to none but just governors, you reason absurdly.”

Nay, since the duty of all is not to look behind them, that is, not to inquire into the duties of one another but to submit each to his own duty, this ought especially to be exemplified in the case of those who are placed under the power of others. Wherefore, if we are cruelly tormented by a savage, if we are rapaciously pillaged by an avaricious or luxurious, if we are neglected by a sluggish, if, in short, we are persecuted for righteousness’ sake by an impious and sacrilegious prince, let us first call up the remembrance of our faults, which doubtless the Lord is chastising by such scourges. In this way humility will curb our impatience. And let us reflect that it belongs not to us to cure these evils, that all that remains for us is to implore the help of the Lord, in whose hands are the hearts of kings, and inclinations of kingdoms (Prov. 21:1). “God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods” (Ps. 82:1).

Nonetheless, said Calvin, “Constitutional magistrates … ought to check the tyranny of kings; obedience to God comes first”:

… when popular magistrates have been appointed to curb the tyranny of kings (as the Ephori, who were opposed to kings among the Spartans, or Tribunes of the people to consuls among the Romans, or Demarchs to the senate among the Athenians; and, perhaps, there is something similar to this in the power exercised in each kingdom by the three orders, when they hold their primary diets). So far am I from forbidding these officially to check the undue license of kings, that if they connive at kings when they tyrannize and insult over the humbler of the people, I affirm that their dissimulation is not free from nefarious perfidy [i.e., treachery], because they fraudulently betray the liberty of the people, while knowing that, by the ordinance of God, they are its appointed guardians.

Further, “Obedience to man must not become disobedience to God”:

But in that obedience which we hold to be due to the commands of rulers, we must always make the exception, nay, must be particularly careful that it is not incompatible with obedience to Him to whose will the wishes of all kings should be subject, to whose decrees their commands must yield, to whose majesty their scepters must bow. And, indeed, how preposterous were it, in pleasing men, to incur the offence of Him for whose sake you obey men! The Lord, therefore, is King of kings. When he opens his sacred mouth, he alone is to be heard, instead of all and above all. We are subject to the men who rule over us, but subject only in the Lord. If they command anything against Him, let us not pay the least regard to it, nor be moved by all the dignity which they possess as magistrates—a dignity to which, no injury is done when it is subordinated to the special and truly supreme power of God. On this ground Daniel denies that he had sinned in any respect against the king when he refused to obey his impious decree (Dan. 6: 22), because the king had exceeded his limits, and not only been injurious to men, but, by raising his horn against God, had virtually abrogated his own power. On the other hand, the Israelites are condemned for having too readily obeyed the impious edict of the king. For, when Jeroboam made the golden calf, they forsook the temple of God, and, in submissiveness to him, revolted to new superstitions (1 Kings 12: 28).

So for Calvin, so far as he addressed the subject in the Institutes, subjects not only may but must disobey when commanded to do what God forbids or forbidden to do what God commands, and tyrants might be resisted, but only, it seemed, by what later Calvinist political writers would term “lesser magistrates,” not by the common people.

Yet in 1561 Calvin wrote in his commentary on Daniel 6:22, “earthly princes lay aside all their power when they rise up against God, and are unworthy of being reckoned in the number of mankind. We ought rather utterly to defy than to obey them whenever they are so restive and wish to spoil God of his rights, and, as it were, to seize upon his throne and draw him down from heaven.” “Utterly to defy them.” That seemed more radical than the language of the Institutes.

A long train of other Calvinist writers took up the theme over the next 150 years or so. Here are a few examples:

  1. John Ponet, in A Short Treatise of Politic Power (1556);
  2. John Goodman, How Superior Powers Ought to be Obeyed of their Subjects: and Wherein they may lawfully by Gods Worde be disobeyed and resisted (1558);
  3. John Knox, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1558);
  4. Francois Hotman, Francogallia (1573);
  5. Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor as pastor in Geneva, in Right of Magistrates (1574);
  6. Hubert Languet and Philippe du Plessis Mornay, Vindiciae, Contra Tyrannos, or, concerning the legitimate power of a prince over the people, and of the people over a prince (1579), written after the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of Huguenots by the French king had demonstrated just how far a tyrant might go if not resisted;
  7. George Buchanan (tutor to James VI of Scotland, son of Mary Queen of Scots, in his minority), in De Jure Regni apud Scotos (“The Law of Kings in Scotland”) (1579);
  8. Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor as pastor in Geneva, in Right of Magistrates (1574);
  9. Johannes Althusius, in Politica Methodice Digesta (1603), one of the most important treatises on government of its time, particularly for its application of covenant theology to politics;
  10. Samuel Rutherford, one of the most beloved of all Scottish Presbyterian pastors and theologians, in Lex, Rex, or The Law and the Prince; a Dispute for the Just Prerogative of King and People: containing the Reasons and Causes of the Most Necessary Defensive Wars of the Kingdom of Scotland (1644);
  11. John Milton, in The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649) and A Defence of the People of England (1651);
  12. Richard Baxter, the great Puritan theologian and pastor, in A Holy Commonwealth (1659);
  13. the Scottish Presbyterian pastor John Brown of Wamphray, in An Apologeticall Relation Of the particular sufferings of the faithfull Ministers & professours of the Church of Scotland, since 1660 (1665);
  14. Samuel Pufendorf, in On the Duty of Man and Citizen According to the Natural Law (1673);
  15. Alexander Shields, in A Hind Let Loose, or an historical Representation of the Testimonies of the Church of Scotland (1687);
  16. John Locke, who by most historians of philosophy until the 1980s was wrongly counted a fairly secular thinker but was in fact a Puritan who built his entire philosophy on his understanding—however accurate or mistaken—of the Scripture that he considered to be the very Word of God, in Two Treatises of Government (1690);
  17. Algernon Sidney, in Discourses Concerning Government (1698).

I offer you this list to suggest that the ideas I’m going to convey through the rest of this talk, though taken from one particular writer, have a deep pedigree in Calvinist thought—deep enough, indeed, that historians of political thought have a formal name for it: “Calvinist resistance theory,” a particular strain of a larger stream of thought identified with the “monarchomachs”—those who fought against, not monarchy per se, but the ideas of “divine right of kings,” or “absolute monarchy,” exemplified tragically in the thought (but because of his prudence not so much the practice) of James VI of Scotland and I of England, who defended it in two books, The Trew Law of Free Monarchies: Or The Reciprock and Mutuall Duetie Betwixt a Free King, and His naturall Subiects (1598), and Basilicon Doron: Or His Maiesties Instructions to His Dearest Sonne, Henry The Prince (1599).

The writer on whom I will focus is James Stewart of Goodtrees (1635–1713), a Scottish covenanting lawyer, politician, and amateur (though good) theologian who was influenced heavily by Samuel Rutherford and John Brown of Wamphray and, through his studies in law at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, became conversant with the writings of the most important Calvinist political theorists. He developed his ideas in two books. The first, Naphtali, Or The Wrestlings of the Church of Scotland For the Kingdom of Christ (1667), co-authored with James Sterling, the minister of the Presbyterian church at Paisley near Glasgow, was a legal, ethical, and theological defense of the “Pentland Rising,” an effort by Covenanters of the southwest of Scotland to bring grievances before the Privy Council of Scotland in 1666 that ended in their massacre by royal forces. The second, far larger and more mature, was Jus Populi Vindicatum, Or The People’s Right, to defend themselves and their Covenanted Religion, vindicated (1669), in which he refuted a critique of Naphtali by the Scottish Episcopal bishop Andrew Honyman. To save time, I’ll focus just on Jus Populi.

Typical of treatises of the time, the full title of the work was Jus Populi Vindicatum, or The Peoples Right, to defend themselves and their Covenanted Religion, vindicated. wherein the Act of Defence and Vindication, which was interprised Anno 1666. is particularly justified: The lawfulnesse of private Persons defending their Lives, Libertyes and Religion, against manifest Oppression, Tyranny and violence, exerced by Magistrats Supream and Inferiour, contrare to Solemne Vowes, Covenants, Promises, Declarations, Professions, Subscriptions, and Solemne Engadgments, is demonstrated by many Arguments. Being a full Reply to the first part of the Survey of Naphtaly &c. The government of Charles II condemned the book (as it did others that were similar) to be burned and threatened its owners with death for treason. Indeed, Stewart himself was tried thrice in absentia for treason and found guilty, escaping penalty by going into exile on the continent, where eventually he joined other English and Scots radicals, including John Locke and Algernon Sidney, at the court of William of Orange at the Hague in the Netherlands, where he eventually swore fealty to William and was involved in planning and executing William’s invasion of England that became known as the “Glorious Revolution” leading to James VII and II’s abdication and William’s becoming king in his place.

Stewart had several purposes in writing Jus Populi. The first and most obvious was to rebut Honyman. A second, the necessary consequent, was to vindicate the Pentland Rising, as he had done already in Naphtali, but now against specific counterarguments. A third and much larger purpose was to justify resistance to tyranny not only by “lesser magistrates” but also by private persons—an idea that was to be crucial to the American Revolution. But even this wasn’t his highest aim. That was to chart a path to just and stable government and the prevention of tyranny. Not rebellion, not instability, not democracy or anarchy, not even a republic, but stable, limited, constitutional, godly monarchy was Stewart’s principle.

The first four chapters of Jus Populi were largely historical, and though he interwove some political arguments, we can safely pass them over. Chapters 5 through 8 contain the core of Stewart’s argument. In them Stewart sets forth a covenantal theory of the erection, nature, limits, and end of civil government: salus populi, the safety of the people.

In chapter 5, Stewart appealed to what would become a principal element of Whig political philosophy, the idea of the origination of government from a free agreement among people in a state of nature to enhance the defense of life, liberty, and property—an idea found in such earlier Calvinist writers as Hotman and Buchanan. Since the whole purpose of government was to defend life, liberty, and property, it was unimaginable that those who formed it had intended to forfeit their own rights to defend such. But that was the implication of the idea that private persons had no right to resist tyrants.

Although government was ordained by God, its specific form and officers in any state were “meerly from the People,” “no man coming out of the womb into this world, with a crowne on his head, and a scepter in his hand.” The distinction between office and person followed, God ordaining the former and the people choosing the latter, a point Stewart supported by references to the Bible and political theorists. It followed that the people retained the power to change both the form and the officers of government, if they thought it necessary, to preserve the ends for which they had erected it.

In chapter 6, Stewart argued, drawing heavily from Althusius, on the basis of Biblical covenant theology that king and people were united by a covenant that was binding on both and the breaking of which by either party released the other from its obligation. Not least important among the reasons to believe that government was always erected on conditions was that Scripture taught so. Stewart spent over ten pages arguing the point (99-110) from David’s covenant with the ten tribes of Israel (2 Samuel 5:3; 1 Chronicles 11:3), Jehoiada’s covenant with the people of Judah (2 Kings 11:17; 2 Chronicles 23:3, 16), and Jephthah’s covenant with the people (Judges 11:2-13), all cited by Althusius as examples illustrating the same point.

In sum, Stewart wrote, ‘by vertue of this mutual compact, the Subjects, have jus against the King, a Right in law to pursue him for performance’ (112), despite Honyman’s strident objections (112-17). When the king violates the covenant, wholly or in the main, the people are free, by the nature of a covenant, ‘For it is absurd to say, that in a mutual conditional compact, one party shall still be bound to performe his conditions, though the other performeth none . . ., or performeth not the maine and principal one’ (117).

Stewart built on the distinction between office and person, mentioned a moment ago, by arguing that the prince cannot violate the constitution “as a Prince, having already engaged as a prince to maintaine the constitution, [so] he must do it as a private person, or an enemy to the constitution and whole body of the land. Therefore he may wel be resisted, even by private persones’ (140–41). In support of the last point he cited (but did not quote) Althusius, who had written that a ‘tyrant, working against the contract entered into with the people and breaking the very fundamentals of the state, loses by the law itself all power and becomes a private citizen . . . against whom it is lawful for anyone, even a private citizen, to defend himself, and to repel the one attacking the life or goods and laws of the people tyrannically, and to get rid of the danger’. Indeed, Stewart added, ‘a Prince violating all, or the maine conditions, upon which he was made Prince, becometh stricto jure no Prince’ and therefore ‘may be resisted, even by Private persones’, as Althusius also implied (141).

Chapter 7 Stewart devoted to discussing the limits to royal power and their implications for the right of resistance, beginning with a list of seven types of power a king did not have. A king’s power over his subjects was not:

  1. parental, because it arose from a voluntary compact;
  2. marital, because a wife was appointed to help her husband, but a king to help his subjects;
  3. organic, because while a body’s members die without the head, a commonwealth survives the death of its king;
  4. ‘lordly, dominative, or masterly’, because such was ‘a frute of sin’, not freely chosen by slaves, would put subjects in a worse condition than before the contract of government, and entailed a right to sell subjects as masters sold slaves, which kings could not do since ‘Subjects are the King’s brethren, 17. 20’;
  5. despotic and masterly as of an owner over his possessions, for the prince was chosen to protect, not to destroy or take, his subjects’ property;
  6. proprietary, because the king could not sell his kingdom;
  7. usufructuary, because princes could not pledge or give their kingdomes away or do with them whatever they pleased, as usufructuaries could (144-9).

It was simply not rational, Stewart argued, for people to choose a government that could do such things to them. Rather, the sovereign’s power was properly fiduciary, ‘for to this end & purpose was He created of the People, that he might defend them from injuries and oppressions’, and his power, like that of any other fiduciary, was restricted by compact (149).

From these observations Stewart derived eight arguments for the right to resist kings violating the contract of government. If (a) children could resist their fathers, and (b) wives their husbands, and (c) servants their masters, bent on destroying them, and if (d) the body could resist a distemper in the head, then, although in each instance the authority of the one over the others was less conditioned than that of a prince over his subjects, surely subjects could resist a prince bent on their destruction. If princes (e) had no despotic power over their people’s goods and (f) could not sell their kingdoms, then the people had a right to resist if they acted otherwise. (g) If an owner could hinder a usufructuary from damaging his land, then the people could hinder the prince from damaging the commonwealth. Finally, (h) ‘If the King’s power be only fiduciary, as is shewed. Then when that power is manifestly abused . . . lawfully enough may he be resisted’ (149–53), as Althusius affirmed.

Chapter 8 turned to the Ciceronian maxim that the people’s safety was the supreme law, arguing that it implied limits to royal power. Their own safety was the people’s aim in constituting the government and choosing their rulers in the first place; consequently they must have intended to limit all their rulers to that end. As the end it must be preferred above all means to it. The Word of God (Romans 13:4) defined the magistrate as ordained by God for the people’s good. All laws were enacted for the people’s good, which was ‘anima & ratio Legis’ [the soul and reason of law]; hence no law detrimental to it was valid, and the sovereign could in cases of necessity neglect the letter of the law to serve its supreme end (153-4). Consequently, it was irrational to exalt a sovereign, who was a means, over the safety of the people, which is the end of government; any law contrary to the safety of the people was ‘really no law’; fine points of laws ‘must be accounted as no lawes really’ if contrary to that end; as surely as the people’s safety prevailed over any privilege or prerogative of the crown, so it prevailed over any privilege or prerogative of parliament, another means; neither could king and parliament, both means, together outweigh their end. So when king and parliament together sought to overthrow ‘the work of reformation’, to force the people to sin by renouncing their covenant with God, and to overturn the constitution, so that ‘by an arbitrary and illegal tyranny, no man hath security for his life, his lands, his libertyes, nor his religion’, salus populi was manifestly threatened and could be defended.

If the king’s power were absolute, absurdities would follow: The people would have set over themselves someone without limits, making their condition worse after than before and effectively repealing salus populi. The king ‘might then break all bonds and oathes’ and so would become ‘a great plague and judgment to a People’, his subjects then being ‘formal Slaves’ to him and he not ‘the Servant of God for the good of the People, contrare to Rom. 13:4’. The thrust of his argument was that monarchical absolutism was the repudiation of the rule of law. That his view, expressed by others in coming generations, became dominant in the Anglophone world is illustrated by American founder John Adams’s remark that Aristotle, Livy, and Harrington ‘define a republic to be a government of laws, and not of men’,1 the last eight words being incorporated into the Massachusetts Constitution (1780).

Lest you think that Stewart’s argument was drawn primarily from human authorities or his own notions of prudence, I should point out that by far the most common source of quotations and references for Stewart was the Bible, which he considered the very Word of God, ‘written for our learning’ and as examples, and ‘for our admonition’, not to be looked upon ‘slightly’ but pondered ‘narrowly.’ He cited roughly 400 different verses from the Bible—Romans 13:1 most frequently.

As I have already said, Stewart’s primary purpose in Jus Populi was to assert and defend a theory of limited, constitutional government that would prevent magistrates’ degenerating into tyrants and so bringing contempt on themselves and government in general, ‘the ruine of humane Societyes and Kingdomes’, and ‘the destruction of the People both in soul and body’ (465). many radicals then and after, Stewart proved himself, after the Glorious Revolution, as capable and energetic in office (as Lord Advocate of Scotland most of the time from 1693 to his death in 1713) in a monarchical government as, before it, he had been in opposition. He was no anarchist; he was not even an antimonarchist. He was a constitutional monarchist ardently opposed to absolutism, the practice of which he believed was the surest means to undermine any government.

Absolutism was the real threat to monarchy. Constitutionalism and its companion doctrine, the right of resistance, were its real friends. When kings forgot their calling to rule ‘as Ministers of God for the good of the People’, they exposed ‘themselves to disgrace, and to the contempt of these who otherwise would most willingly honour them as God’s vicegerents’. Far from ‘opening a gap to endlesse rebellions’, Stewart sought ‘to prevent rebellions’ by vindicating the right not to rebel but to resist tyranny, ‘for if Kings remembered that their Subjects might lawfully and would oppose them, when they turned Tyrants, they would walk more soberly, . . . and so give lesse occasion to Subjects to think of opposeing them’ (465).

All of the major arguments in the far more famous Two Treatises of Government by John Locke can be found, usually at greater length, in Jus Populi, but Stewart’s work suffered two disadvantages. First, as a writer Stewart, the Scot, lacked the elegance of Locke, the Englishman. Second, Jus Populi was condemned as treasonous as soon as published, with almost all copies being burned. Had it not been for those two disadvantages, Jus Populi might be the more famous of the two, and historians of American political thought might ascribe to it the influence they ascribe to Locke’s work.

I will conclude by demonstrating how closely Stewart’s thinking was reflected in America’s most important founding document, the Declaration of Independence.

The political historian Daniel Elazar, author of numerous books and articles on the importance of the Biblical doctrine of covenant in the entire history of Western politics, has argued persuasively that the Declaration of Independence should be understood as a religious covenant. Viewing it in light of the heavy influence of English Puritan and Scotch-Irish Presbyterian political thought in the colonies during the decades leading up to the Revolution, we should expect to see in the Declaration marked similarities to the typical Scottish Covenanter resistance arguments. While I make no claim of direct causal connection, the parallels between it and Jus Populi are strong and are to be explained by the shared discourse and perspective of the documents’ authors. While Thomas Jefferson, principal penman of the Declaration, did not share Stewart’s religious perspective, many members of the Continental Congress, in whose name Jefferson labored, did. The Declaration should be seen as authored not by Jefferson but by the Congress with Jefferson its wordsmith.

As Stewart wrote Jus Populi (and the earlier True and short Deduction) to justify a specific instance of resistance in the eyes of the world, the Declaration began with a preamble stating the concern of its authors to justify their act of separation from the British Empire:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

The next paragraph set forth ten principles on which the colonists acted. Stewart also stated each one, though in different words, in Jus Populi:

  1. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Stewart had written that in the state of nature, ‘there was none, who by birth, or any other lawful clame, could challenge to himself any civill dominion . . . so that as to any actual, and formal right unto Magistracy, and supream government, all are by nature alike.
  2. “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” Stewart had written that ‘this liberty & privilege of self defence, against manifest injuries, cannot be taken away from Rational Creatures, by the erection of a Government’, ‘Nor . . . could they ever give away the power of self-defence, which is their birth right’, and had affirmed that ‘liberty which nature [not king, parliament, or the nation] hath granted unto them’.
  3. “that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Stewart had written that “liberty … is the privilege of all free subjects,” and had asked, “when by an arbitrary and illegal tyranny, no man hath security for his life, his lands, his libertyes, nor his religion, is not the saifty of the People in danger?”
  4. “–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Stewart had written of “the Peoples power, in erecting Governours” and that magistrates are “official fathers appoynted by the subjects, and set over them by their will and consent.”
  5. “–That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.” Stewart had written, “in so far as that meane [viz., government] is perverted, and actually abused to the destruction of those high and noble Ends, [the people] must be interpreted as Non consenters, and eatenus de Iure [in the extent of right], in no worse condition, then they would have been into, if they had not erected such a constitution, or set such over themselves.”
  6. “and to institute new Government.” Stewart had written, “when through the notorious and manifest perversion of the great ends of society and government, the bond there of is dissolved, and the persons now relapseing into their Primeve liberty and privilege, may no lesse now joyne and associate together, to defend Themselves and their Religion, then at first they entered into societies”
  7. “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.” Stewart had written, “People setteth Magistrates over themselves, to promove the glory of God, the good of Religion, and their temporal felicity” and “That the peoples saifty is the cardinal law, hence appeareth, 1. That the attaineing of this end, was the maine ground and motive of the peoples condescending upon the constitution.”
  8. “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.” Stewart had written, “by saifty here is not meaned dignity, or liberty in some small and inconsiderable triffles, unto which some small and inconsiderable hurt is opposite: … yet … the saifty of the people, is in hazard, when it is manifest and notour, so as they who run may read it, that lawes … are annulled, condemned, and rescinded; nay the Covenants whereby the land was devouted to God, and their Religion secured to them, and the fundamental law or ground of the Constitution, and condition on which the Sove­raigne was admitted to his throne, overturned,” and “in smaller injuries subjects may be patient, and beare a little, for redeeming more, and rather suffer the losse of little then hazard all, but when it comes to an extremity; and Life, and Religion and Liberty, … then they may lawfully stand to their defence, and resist that abused power, … because it … destroyeth the ends for which it was appoyntd,” and “We plead not for resistence by every one who thinketh himself wronged, but for resistence when the wrongs are manifest, notour, undenyable, grievous and intolerable, and … as manifest as the sun at the nonetide of the day.”
  9. “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.” Stewart had written, “Since The [sic] privileges, and lawful prerogatives of the Soveraigne must vaile, in cases of necessity, unto this High and Supreame Law, the saifty of the People. Then no lesse must the privileges of a Parliament yeeld unto this: for whatever privilege they enjoy, it is in order to this end, and the meanes must always have a subserviency unto the end, and when they tend to the destruction of the end, they are then as no meanes unto that end, nor to be made use of for that end.”
  10. “–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government.” Stewart had written, “when strong and inevitable necessity urgeth, in order to necessary and just ends, people may have their owne convocations, even against authority, and de jure be guilty of the breach of no standing law against the same, seing all know that salus populi est suprema lex,” and “it was in the Peoples power to limite the time definitely or indefinitly, how long such a forme [of government] should continue, and therefore had power . . . to change that forme, when the necessity of their condition did require it,” and “the King may be resisted in cases of necessity,” and “People must make use of that Court and tribunal of necessity, which nature hath allowed, and by innocent violence, repel the unjust violence of Princes, seing there is no other remedy.”

Finally, the Declaration set forth historical examples of the sorts of “abuses and usurpations” that its authors asserted justified their action. As we have seen, both Naphtali and Jus Populi strove to do likewise in justification of the Pentland Rising.

Was there a historical path from Stewart’s thought to theirs and the Declaration? Did any of America’s founders actually read Jus Populi? We don’t know for sure. It likely had an impact on the Scottish Claim of Right of 1689, which asserted not merely, as the English Bill of Rights did, that James VII & II had abdicated but that by violating the covenant with the Scottish people had forfeited the crown, and to which the Declaration of Independence and the American Bill of Rights was more closely aligned than to the English.

The likelihood is only slight that Jus Populi (or Stewart’s earlier work, Naphtali) was unknown to John Witherspoon (1723–1794), who “saw himself as an heir of the Scottish Covenanters and the Glorious Revolution.” He was called from the pulpit of Paisley (which had been Naphtali co-author James Stirling’s pastorate a century before) to be president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) in 1768 and not only was a delegate to the Continental Congress (in which he served continuously, on over one hundred committees, from 1776–1782) and the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence but also had among his many influential students James Madison (principal author of the Constitution and fourth president of the United States) and eighteen other members of the Constitutional Convention. Horace Walpole had Witherspoon in mind when he complained that “Cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson.” In his February 1758 sermon “Prayer for National Prosperity, and for the Revival of Religion Inseparably Connected,” Witherspoon affirmed God’s providential blessing on the National Covenant, the Solemn League and Covenant, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Although “much of Witherspoon’s library acquisition for Princeton focused on the Scots,” and the Princeton Theological Seminary library includes one copy each of both Naphtali and Jus Populi, there appears to be no way to determine whether either came to the library via Witherspoon, because his library was damaged by British forces during the Revolutionary War.

However, Covenanter political theory like Stewart’s was certainly familiar to some Americans during the Revolutionary War, as the republication of an extract from Alexander Shields’s A Hind Let Loose that cited, extensively summarized, and indeed plagiarized much from Jus Populi makes clear. Whether Jus Populi itself was read and used by the patriots is unclear, but “A Moderate Whig,” Stephen Case, referenced both of Stewart’s books in his anonymously published 1782 sermon Defensive Arms Vindicated and the Lawfulness of the American War Made Manifest.

In any case, Americans who love liberty surely owe a significant debt not only to Sir James Stewart of Goodtrees but to the whole tradition of Calvinist Resistance Theory of which his work is an important example.

1John Adams (1735-1826), The Works of John Adams, vol. 4, ed. Charles Francis Adams (Boston: Little, Brown, 1851), and Novanglus Papers, Boston Gazette, no. 7 (1774).

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