Resistance, Theory of

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RESISTANCE, THEORY OF. The development of the theory of resistance in the early modern period was complex and was based in large part on the political, philosophical, and legal arguments of French authors during the religious wars in the sixteenth century. Their arguments in turn were a development of three earlier theories based on Roman, canon (church), and medieval law: the right to defend oneself and one's property, the contractual relationship between the ruler and the people, and the just war theory. The sixteenth-century authors took the earlier justification of an individual's right to use violence in self-defense, added just war theory, and turned them into a justification for using violence to resist the ruler's authority when he violated the contractual relationship on which he based his power.


The Roman law maxim vim vi repellere licit (force may repel force) formed the basis of the concept of justified defense against violence. Laws and statutes permitted violent defense against aggression because it was generally believed that both natural law (ius naturale) and human law (ius gentium) granted the individual a right to defense. Roman and medieval law limited this violence by requiring that the defense was immediate and the force used was moderate. Medieval scholars developed these two concepts of immediacy and moderation from simple self-defense into the area of defending one's property, including one's rights.


The idea of popular sovereignty had become increasingly common with the medieval revival of Roman law. Writers commenting on the Roman civil law interpreted passages of Justinian's Digest as meaning that the emperor's or king's authority originally came from the people. The sixteenth-century coronation ceremonies in many countries supported this interpretation because they contained a consensus populi (consent of the people) clause that suggested election. This was applied by proponents of the resistance theory.

Others saw the question not as one of elective elements in the coronation oath, but of contractual ones. The feudal contract, like any contract, carried rights and duties for all parties. As a contract between a king and his people, the coronation oath bound both parties. The king had to observe the oath unless the people released him from it. In this feudal view of kingship, royalty was not absolute and the king was only the administrator, not the owner, of the kingdom. In his coronation oath the king swore to obey the law, defend the faith, and protect his subjects and their property. The inclusion of his duty to defend the faith obligated him to fight heresy, which could also mean to maintain order, since heresy was seen as a threat to the peace of the kingdom. In addition, since the king was supposed to protect the faith, any challenge to that faith became a kind of treason. Numerous canon law precedents also justified the use of force against heretics and the confiscation of their property.


The Christian theory of just war was developed from the works of a number of medieval theologians, including St. Augustine (354430) and St. Thomas Aquinas (12251274). In this theory there were three conditions necessary for a war to be a just war: a legitimate ruler had to order the war, there had to be a just cause (the enemy had to have done something wrong), and the declarers of the war had to have good intentions, to be fighting for the repression of evil, not for revenge. By the sixteenth century the king's commitment in his coronation oath to defend religion and the concept of the consent of the people led to the development that protecting religion was a legitimate reason for a just war.


The theory of resistance was developed fully by sixteenth-century French political theorists. Théodore de Bèze (15191605) implied in his Du droit des magistrats (1574; Right of magistrates) that the kingship still could be elective, and he reminded his readers that the French kings still took an oath when they were anointed at their coronation. In Vindiciae contra Tyrannos (1579; Judgment against tyrants) the pseudonymous author Étienne Junius Brutus (probably Philippe Duplessis-Mornay, but also attributed to Hubert Languet) claimed that a twofold covenant was made at the coronation: the first part among God, the king, and the people, and the second between the king and the people. The latter stipulated that the people would obey the king if he were a proper ruler. These oaths may have been more myth than history, as in the case of the Aragónese oath, "We who are worth as much as you, take you as our king, provided that you preserve our laws and liberties, and if not, not," but their power to influence the popular mind and political theory was strong nevertheless.

The sixteenth-century activists recognized the necessity of remaining within the prescribed limits of the law when advocating or using violence. The ethical and practical issues they faced paralleled those Roman law writers had raised concerning self-defense and canonists and theologians had raised while developing the arguments for just war. First the Huguenots in 1562 and then the Catholics in 1576 justified arming themselves against the king's will with the argument that they were taking arms not against the authority of the king, but against heresy and evil counselors of the king. They claimed to be doing this in defense of themselves, their property, their king, and their religion. They appealed to the king based on his legal duties and obligations under the coronation oath: his promises to obey the law, defend the faith, and protect his subjects and their property. A breach of those promises could, according to some theorists, justify correction of a ruler by the lesser magistrates (civil officials, including members of the city governments and officials of the central government) with the power to administer the law. The personal responsibility of the magistrates for their own actions as well as for those of the king seems to have been widely accepted during the sixteenth century, although earlier medieval theorists (such as Marsilius of Padua [c. 1280c. 1343] and John of Salisbury [1115 or 11201180]) had not named any representative group as having such responsibility.

The massacre of Huguenots on St. Bartholomew's Day in 1572 forced the Huguenot theorists into a new position. They continued to use the constitutional and historical arguments and the legal precedents, but now they used the new arguments to reason that true sovereignty belonged to the community and enabled its representatives to discipline, depose, or even assassinate the ruler. In this way, Francis Hotman (15241590) in his 1573 work Francogallia reminded his readers that the Parlement of Paris had to approve the king's laws and edicts before they had any force, and Bèze claimed that it was the duty of the lesser magistrates to resist tyranny and safeguard the people until the Estates-General, or whoever held the legislative power of the kingdom, could provide for the public welfare. Bèze went further and claimed that the Estates-General had the authority to appoint and to depose the chief officers of the crown, or at least to supervise the king in doing so. Arguing from the law of fiefs, Bèze declared that since a lord lost his fief for committing a felony against his vassal, a king must also lose his fief, or kingdom, for committing a felony against his subjects.

This feudal basis for forfeiture of the kingdom was repeated in Judgment against Tyrants and tied to the covenant made at the coronation ceremony. The author of Judgment took this another step toward legitimate resistance to and rebellion against the king when he claimed that a king who committed a felony against his people also committed treason (lèse majesté) against the kingdom and was no better than any other rebel. These ideas were not unanimously accepted. For example, Jean Bodin (15301596) argued in his Les six livres de la république (1583; Six books of the republic) that the king was restricted by natural law to respect his subjects' liberty and property, but his violations of these restrictions did not justify resistance by his subjects because the king answered only to God.


Hugo Grotius (15831645), a Dutch scholar and jurist, recognized in his 1625 work De Jure Belli ac Pacis (The law of war and peace) that the individual had a right to resist injury, but he also stated that society had an obligation to maintain order and could limit that right of resistance. Extreme cruelty or injustice could justify resistance by individuals or groups, but a primary consideration for him was whether that resistance itself would be more destructive or harmful to the state than the original injustice.

John Locke (16321704), on the other hand, argued in his Second Treatise of Civil Government (1690) that although the contract made between the sovereign and the people is binding, a ruler who misused the authority or broke the contract could be resisted, even to the point of removing that ruler and restoring the governing power to the people. A ruler who acted arbitrarily was not fulfilling his duty, and the people could assume governing power in order to restore their rights.

The theory of resistance has continued to develop. It remains an important part of modern popular revolutions and arguments for just war.

See also Authority, Concept of ; Bèze, Théodore de ; Bodin, Jean ; Grotius, Hugo ; Law ; Locke, John ; Wars of Religion, French .


Primary Sources

Constitutionalism and Resistance in the Sixteenth Century: Three Treatises by Hotman, Beza, & Mornay. Translated and edited by Julian H. Franklin. New York, 1969. English translations of key excerpts from their major works on resistance, with an introduction.

Hotman, François. Francogallia. Variorum edition. Latin text by Ralph E. Giesey. Translated by J. H. M. Salmon. Cambridge, U.K., 1972.

Secondary Sources

Gelderen, Martin van. The Political Thought of the Dutch Revolt. Cambridge, U.K., 1992.

Giesey, Ralph E. If Not, Not: The Oath of the Aragónese and the Legendary Lives of Sobrarbe. Princeton, 1968.

. "The Monarchomach Triumvirs: Hotman, Beza, and Mornay." Bibliothèque d'humanisme et Renaissance 32 (January 1970): 4156.

Hanley, Sarah. "The French Constitution Revised: Representative Assemblies and Resistance Right in the Sixteenth Century." In Society and Institutions in Early Modern France, edited by Mack P. Holt, pp. 3650. Athens, Ga., 1991.

Jackson, Richard A. "Elective Kingship and Consensus Populi in Sixteenth-Century France." Journal of Modern History 44 (June 1972): 155171.

Johnson, James Turner. Ideology, Reason, and the Limitation of War: Religious and Secular Concepts, 12001740. Princeton, 1975.

Parrow, Kathleen A. From Defense to Resistance: Justification of Violence during the French Wars of Religion. Philadelphia, 1993.

Kathleen A. Parrow