Saturday, May 18, 2013

"In all such cases resistance is an obvious duty--the highest of social obligations"

[Pg. 100]

Right to bear Arms.

   The right of self defence is a natural right, which legislation should aid rather than supersede. By some it is thought that in a well-regulated community individuals should be altogether debarred from what is called "taking the law into their own hands," and that they should in every case, look to the public authorities for protection from injury. It is said that social order is best maintained by the enforcement of such a principle. A standing army is upheld, in order to protect the community from foreign aggression; a police force is maintained, in order to protect individuals from private wrong; and it is argued that the agency of these forces supersedes the necessity of individual effort.

   Undoubtedly the maintenance of social order is an object of paramount importance; but social order itself may be purchased at too dear a rate, if it can only be upheld by extinguishing manly virtues in a population. During the middle ages scenes of violence were of much more frequent occurrence than in modern days, and great evil arose from those breaches of social order; but it cannot be denied that the energies of individual character were by these very disorders developed, in a manner almost unknown to the present generation.

   The right to bear arms is one of those fundamental rights upon which the liberties of a free people rests. In a well-ordered community, the occasions may be rare in which an individual has occasion to protect his person from violence; but such cases may occur, and when they occur, the tardy interference of the authorities often comes too late to repel the menaced wrong. For personal protection, therefore, every man should be allowed to possess arms. If he make an improper use of these arms, let him be severely punished; but the apprehension of an occasional outrage is no sufficient reason for disarming a whole community.


   The use of arms by the population at large is the best security that a nation can possess against subjugation by a foreign foe. When a people rely exclusively upon a standing army for protection, then if that army be vanquished in a battle, or in a succession of defeats, no alternative remains except submission; but a people accustomed to the use of arms, and courageous in spirit, may rally after a hundred defeats, and recover its freedom.

   Nor is it alone against foreign foes that a nation ought to be prepared to defend its liberty. The minister or sovereign who desires to enslave a people naturally wishes to deprive them of the means of resistance. Insurrection is an alternative to which a nation should be slow to resort; but the fear of such a contingency ought to be ever present to the minds of those who design to enslave a country. A patriotic legislator, therefore, will encourage rather than repress a disposition on the part of the people to possess arms, and to learn their use. The liberties of England are due to the maintenance of this right, which is secured, as a part of the constitutional system of England, by the Bill of Rights. The liberties of America were acquired by the use of the rifle, handled by brave men. The liberties of Switzerland were acquired, and have been maintained, by the possession of arms, and by a manly determination to use them in the hour of need. Such popular rights as are to be found among the nations of the Continent are secured by the practice of training to the use of arms, as a national guard or militia, a large proportion of the population. On the other hand, England strives to deprive the Irish of the use of arms, because she desires to keep that nation in a state of subjection, and because she remembers that when Ireland possessed, in the Volunteers of 1782, a military organization, of a national character, the interests of Ireland ceased to be sacrificed to those of England.

   Among the fundamental rights of a nation, the right of resistance to illegal acts ought to be distinctly recognized by the law. In the case of misdoings by inferior functionaries, this right is admitted by the common law of England. If a constable arrest a person without proper authority, or beyond the limits of his jurisdiction, he may be resisted; and though the law is not explicit in establishing a right to resist kings and parliaments, when they invade the fundamental liberties of the people, yet, the history of the English nation proves that the [Pg. 102] practical exercise of this right has been in no slight degree instrumental in animating the spirit, and in moulding the form, of the British constitution. Not to seek examples in the era during which Magna Charta and other charters were wrested from weak and wicked sovereigns, we may observe, that the general concurrence of thinking men now applauds the resistance of the Parliament to the illegal and tyrannical proceedings of Charles I., and sanctions the deposition of James II., at the Revolution of 1688, for infringing the laws, and invading the liberties of the British people. A similar concurrence of opinion applauds the successful resistance of the American colonists to the misguided legislation of the British Parliament. Even upon the Continent of Europe, where, upon the whole, usurpation by oppressors has been more successful than resistance by the oppressed, we find instances in which this right has been vindicated, and its exercise approved by the general verdict of mankind. No one now hesitates to admit that the Low Countries were justified in resisting the bigoted tyranny of Spain, or that Switzerland was justified in liberating itself from the Austrian yoke. Few will be found to deny that Charles X. was justly deposed by the French people in 1830, on account of his violation of the charter and suppression of the liberty of the Press. It is unnecessary to multiply examples drawn from ancient or modern times. When successful, revolt and rebellion are almost always commended; but our judgment respecting the lawfulness of resistance ought not to depend upon the test of success. I shall not attempt to argue this question upon religious grounds. The advocates of passive obedience and of active resistance have equally drawn from the Sacred Scriptures passages which appear to support and sanction their respective views and proceedings. The common sense of mankind, the implanted instinct of man's nature is, in reference to this question, a surer guide than fanatical interpretations of doubtful precedents or dogmas extracted by forced constructions from either the Old or the New Testament. When a ruler attempts to violate the rights which belong to a nation, he ought to be firmly resisted by the conscientious citizen, even as the multitude ought to be resisted when they invade the province which has been assigned to the ruler, by the deliberate will of the nation.

   If, then, kings or parliaments violate the law or the constitution, these high functionaries ought to be resisted with as much promptitude as would be exhibited in opposition to the [Pg. 103] meanest bailiff, if he were to act without due authority. Resistance upon such occasions is a duty. Its exercise may be restrained by force, and then prudential considerations may in some measure excuse neglect of duty; but the moral complexion of the act of resistance in no degree depends upon the chances of success. When Louis Napoleon, by the coup d etat of December, 1851, superseded all the constitutional authorities of the state, and invested himself, by the aid of military power, with a dictatorship, it was the duty of every French citizen to have opposed force to force; and those who fell in the performance of this duty deserve to be honored as martyrs to the cause of constitutional freedom. When the union between England and Ireland was effected by a corrupt traffic between the wicked ministers of England and an equally wicked majority of the Irish Parliament, it was the duty of the Irish nation to have resisted, by force, this surrender of their constitutional right of self-government. The Legislative Union between England and Ireland was perpetrated, in violation of the most solemn international compact; and this violation was not sanctioned by an appeal to the nation. It was simply effected by purchasing the votes of a majority in both Houses of the Irish Parliament--by the corruption of men, who under a defective constitution were invested with the function of making laws for the Irish people, but not with a right to extinguish their legislature. If the British Parliament were to abdicate their functions, and deliver over to the sovereign all authority, legislative, judicial, and executive, it would become the duty of every British citizen to resist by force such a treacherous surrender of their constitutional rights. In all such cases resistance is an obvious duty--the highest of social obligations. Illegal usurpation, aided by military power and immoral corruption, often triumphs over right, and in such cases those who fail must expect to suffer the penalties which frequently attend the performance of virtuous deeds, just as a soldier must expect to lose his life in fighting the battles of his country; but in the case of both the citizen and the soldier, the merit or demerit of his conduct does not depend upon success. In the regulation of human affairs, Providence does not always award retribution to crime or reward to virtue. Yet crime is not the less crime, because it remains unpunished; nor is virtue the less virtue, because it is unrewarded.

[Pg. 104]

   I may here quote, in support of these opinions, the authority of of Locke, who says, "In all states and conditions the true remedy of force without authority is to oppose force to it. The use of force without authority always puts him that uses into a state of war as the aggressor, and renders him liable be treated accordingly." But not only is the citizen justified in resisting acts which are clearly at variance with the law and the constitution of the country in which he lives, he may also be warranted in resisting misgovernment, even though it be not contrary to law. Were not such resistance justifiable, abuses and tyranny, once established, would be forever perpetuated. I will not avail myself of this opportunity for endeavoring to prove that the Irish nation would have justified in rebelling against British misgovernment in the year 1848, or that the inhabitants of Hungary and Northern Italy deserve to be commended for having endeavored to shake off the yoke of Austria. I will not go back to the of the Sicilian tyrants, or of the Imperial Caesars, but will content myself with adducing the most recent instance that has fallen under my observation, in which resistance to misgovernment would have been justifiable, even though that misgovernment were not at variance with law. Only a few months have elapsed since the Australian colonies of Great Britain were engaged in a controversy with the mother country on account of the continued transportation of criminals to these colonies. A tissue of fallacies had been woven, and used even till they became threadbare, by successive Colonial Secretaries, in defence of this persevering violation of the wishes and interests of the inhabitants of Australia. Now, if these adolescent communities had resisted by force the importation of the concentrated crime of the empire into their bosom, all mankind would have pronounced that a resort to arms upon sucha quarrel would have done honor to those who bore them, even though it should have led to an open revolt from the dominion of the mother country. This contingency was averted by a tardy concession to the opinion of Australia, but the concession was made rather through consideration for the interests of England, and through apprehension of the result of a struggle, than from a just appreciation of the claims and wishes of the inhabitants of Australia. In all such cases, however, considerations of expediency should control the emotions and acts that may be prompted by justifiable disaffection. We have seen that when a functionary violates the law, resistance becomes an imperative duty; but when a ruler misgoverns a country without absolutely contravening any existing law, those who desire to effect, by force of arms, a change in the political institutions, with a view to prevent the continuance of such misgovernment, ought carefully to weigh the chances of success. It is obvious that in such case failure will strengthen the hands of the oppressor, and tend to extinguish the hope of future amelioration. A civil war, indeed, is not the worst of evils, for patient acquiescence in servitude debases the spirit of a people and injures their character, if not their material interest, more than the most destructive civil war; but still internal warfare is, undoubtedly, one of the greatest calamities that can afflict a nation. No one, therefore ought to take upon himself the responsibility of exciting or of aiding such a conflict, until he is fully convinced that the misgovernment which his country endures is productive of more evil than can reasonably be expected to arise from a revolutionary struggle--nor unless there appears to be a probable chance of success.

   It is scarcely necessary to discuss the question, whether individuals are at liberty to get rid of tyrants by means of assassination, because the common feeling of mankind revolts at such a mode of destroying a public enemy. As a matter of casuistry, indeed, it may be debated whether Charlotte Corday, in assassinating Marat, committed an act which ought to be condemned, or rather which was not deserving of applause. We know that Cicero, no mean authority in regard of moral philosophy, commended the assassination of Julius Caesar. The memory of Harmodius and Aristogiton was cherished by the Athenians, for having delivered their country from servitude by the murder of a tyrant. It may be argued that an oppressor is like a wild beast, which may be lawfully killed by every brave man who has the hardihood to encounter it. Undoubtedly
it will be found that not only many kings, but also many ministers, and even many private individuals, have been permitted to live, whose early destruction, by any means, fair or foul, would have saved the lives and abridged the sufferings of multitudes of human beings. But although we may admit that the extinction of such monsters would have been attended with benefit to mankind, we cannot but feel that [Pg. 106] it would be in the highest degree dangerous to encourage individuals to become the executioners of those whom they may choose to regard as public enemies. It is obvious that sentiments of private revenge, or of fanaticism, or the suggestions of self-interest, would often be masked under pretensions of public duty; and the life of such a king as Henry IV. of France would be as often exposed to the dagger of the assassin as that of a Dionysius or a Nero. The punishment of a tyrant is a solemn act of national justice. It cannot always be effected by means of a regular juridical trial, but it ought always to be sanctioned by the verdict of the nation, and to be executed by the ministers of the national will. Hence, the legislator must denounce, and the law must punish, an individual assassin even, though his victim may be a monster, whose removal from earth is a blessing and a deliverance to mankind.


"Id est caput civilis prudentiae in qua omnis haec nostra versatur oratio, videre itinera flexusque rerum publicarum, ut cum sciatis quo quaeque res inclinet retinere aut ante possitis occurrere."--Cicero De Republica.

BOSTON: PATRICK DONAHOE, 23 Franklin Street. 1856.]     

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