Revolution, Right of

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REVOLUTION, RIGHT OF. Revolution is the over-throw of an established government, but to assert a right of revolution is to imply that such an upheaval is legitimate. It should therefore be distinguished from insurrection, coup d'état, and especially rebellion, for rebellion is opposition to all authority rather than resistance to unlawful power.

There are two major streams of thought that ultimately formed the right of revolution at the time of the American Revolution. The first came from the Protestant Reformation. John Calvin, while warning against popular insurrection, argued that magistrates had a positive duty to defend the people's freedoms against monarchs who disobeyed God's commands. John Knox expanded this doctrine, urging popular revolution in Scotland in 1560. The revolutionary faith of Scottish Presbyterianism strongly influenced English Puritans in their struggle against divine right monarchy, ultimately leading to the English Civil War and the execution of Charles I in 1649. The monarchy was restored in 1660, however, in reaction to the religious radicalism of the Commonwealth.

The second major stream of thought was developed in the 1680s against the increasing absolutism of the later Stuarts. Parliament established a constitutional monarchy in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, relying on John Locke's secular social contract theory. Individuals in a state of nature delegated power to government for the protection of their lives, liberties, and estates, but when lawmakers acted contrary to these ends, they used force without right and thus made themselves "rebels" in "a state of War with the People, who [were] thereupon absolved from any farther Obedience," as Locke argued in his Second Treatise on Government (1690). Power then reverted to the people, who had the sovereign right to dissolve the government and form it anew. Locke's was an ideology of successful revolution, but in the early eighteenth century a "country" opposition emerged against England's monarchy. John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon warned of government's inherent tendency to subvert popular liberty and corrupt the "mixed" constitution, but while this radical Whig ideology was marginal in England, it became the lens through which many Americans viewed British actions.

These streams were continually reinforced in addresses such as Jonathan Mayhew's Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission (1750), given on the anniversary of Charles I's beheading. British efforts to tighten control of its empire after 1763 were interpreted by American revolutionaries as leading to arbitrary rule. Thomas Jefferson justified independence on Lockean grounds, arguing in the Declaration of Independence that "when a long train of abuses and usurpations … evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism," it is the right and duty of the people "to throw off such Government." In this respect, the goal of the American Revolution, wrote Bernard Bailyn in The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967), was not "the overthrow or even the alteration of the existing social order but the preservation of political liberty threatened by the apparent corruption of the constitution."

These revolutionary ideas were exported to France, Haiti, and Latin America, in works such as Thomas Paine'sThe Rights of Man (1791), although others like Edmund Burke, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), attempted to distance American doctrines from French radicalism. Jefferson himself recommended frequent recourse to revolution, although many Americans opposed it, especially when Southerners used the right of revolution to defend secession in the 1860s. Since the Civil War, the right of revolution has been interpreted by most Americans as having only limited application.


Bailyn, Bernard. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967.

Wood, Gordon. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: Knopf, 1992.

Fred W.Beuttler

See alsoLocke's Political Philosophy ; Political Theory .

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Revolution, Right of

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