Right of Revolution

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The right of revolution is not a right that is defined and protected by the Constitution but a natural right. It would be absurd for a constitution to authorize revolutionary challenges to its authority. However, it would not have been absurd for the preamble to the Constitution to have acknowledged the right of revolution, as, for example, the preamble to the pennsylvania constitution of 1776 had done. It was unnecessary to include such an acknowledgment in the Constitution of 1787, for the Constitution did not supplant the declaration of independence of 1776, which remained the first organic law of the United States. The "people" who "ordain and establish this Constitution" are the same "people" who in 1776 "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." The Declaration, borrowing the reasoning of john locke, succinctly states the American doctrine of the right of revolution:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they 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 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. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown, 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.

Recognition of the right of revolution is, in this view, implicit in the recognition of human equality. A people who recognize that they are equal members of the same species—that no human being is the natural ruler of another—accept that the inequalities necessarily involved in government are not natural but must be "instituted" and operated by "consent"; and that the primary end of government is not the promotion of the interests of one allegedly superior class of human beings but the security of all citizens' equal rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." It follows that it is the right and the duty of such a people to change their government when it persistently fails to effect this end. This right and duty, the Declaration says, belongs not to all peoples but only to those enlightened peoples who recognize human equality and natural rights, and who will therefore exercise their revolutionary right to establish right-securing government by consent.

Not only the revolutionaries of 1776 but also the Framers of the Constitution of 1787 justified their actions on this basis. In the federalist #40 and #43 james madison cites the Declaration's right of revolution to explain and to support the revolutionary proposals of the constitutional convention. Madison argues that political leadership (by patriots like those assembled in Philadelphia) is needed in a revolution because "it is impossible for the people spontaneously and universally to move in concert towards their object." Thus, while the right of revolution is justly exercised when an enlightened people feel and judge that their government threatens to lead them back into an anarchical state of nature by failing to fulfill the duties they have entrusted to it, a revolution need neither wait for nor involve an anarchical disruption of society. However, exercise of the right of revolution (in contrast to mere civil disobedience) can well necessitate and justify war. Those who exercise the right of revolution must prudently measure their forces.

alexander hamilton, in The Federalist #16, acknowledged that no constitution can guarantee that a widespread revolutionary opposition to the government will never occur; such opposition might well proceed "from weighty causes of discontent given by the government" itself. In contrast to Marxist doctrines of revolution, the American doctrine does not anticipate a future in which the right of revolution can safely disappear. It is therefore a cause for concern that today the right of revolution is obscured not only because it is a natural rather than a constitutional right but also because natural rights are no longer generally recognized by political theorists and jurists.

John Zvesper


Mansfield, Harvey C., Jr. 1978 The Spirit of Liberalism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Stourzh, Gerald 1970 Alexander Hamilton and the Idea of Republican Government. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.