Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
The Right of Rebellion
By Sir James Mackintosh (1765–1832)
Causes of the English Revolution

THAT no man can lawfully promise what he cannot lawfully do is a self-evident proposition. That there are some duties superior to others, will be denied by no one; and that when a contest arises the superior ought to prevail, is implied in the terms by which the duties are described. It can hardly be doubted that the highest obligation of a citizen is that of contributing to preserve the community; and that every other political duty, even that of obedience to the magistrates, is derived from and must be subordinate to it. It is a necessary consequence of these simple truths, that no man who deems self-defence lawful in his own case, can, by any engagement, bind himself not to defend his country against foreign or domestic enemies. Though the opposite propositions really involve a contradiction in terms, yet declarations of their truth were imposed by law, and oaths to renounce the defence of our country were considered as binding, till the violent collision of such pretended obligations with the security of all rights and institutions awakened the national mind to a sense of their repugnance to the first principles of morality. Maxims, so artificial and over-strained, which have no more root in nature than they have warrant from reason, must always fail in a contest against the affections, sentiments, habits, and interests which are the motives of human conduct,—leaving little more than compassionate indulgence to the small number who conscientiously cling to them, and fixing the injurious imputation of inconsistency on the great body who forsake them for better guides.
  The war of a people against a tyrannical government may be tried by the same tests which ascertain the morality of a war between independent nations. The employment of force in the intercourse of reasonable beings is never lawful but for the purpose of repelling or averting wrongful force. Human life cannot lawfully be destroyed, or assailed, or endangered, for any other object than that of just defence. Such is the nature and such the boundary of legitimate self-defence in the case of individuals. Hence the right of the lawgiver to protect unoffending citizens by the adequate punishment of crimes: hence, also, the right of an independent state to take all measures necessary to her safety, if it be attacked or threatened from without; provided always that reparation cannot otherwise be obtained, that there is a reasonable prospect of obtaining it by arms, and that the evils of the contest are not probably greater than the mischiefs of acquiescence in the wrong; including, on both sides of the deliberation, the ordinary consequences of the example, as well as the immediate effects of the act. If reparation can otherwise be obtained, a nation has no necessary, and therefore no just cause of war; if there be no probability of obtaining it by arms, a government cannot, with justice to their own nation, embark it in war; and, if the evils of resistance should appear, on the whole, greater than those of submission, wise rulers will consider an abstinence from a pernicious exercise of right as a sacred duty to their own subjects, and a debt which every people owes to the great commonwealth of mankind, of which they and their enemies are alike members. A war is just against the wrongdoer when reparation for wrong cannot otherwise be obtained; but it is then only conformable to all the principles of morality, when it is not likely to expose the nation by whom it is levied to greater evils than it professes to avert, and when it does not inflict on the nation which has done the wrong sufferings altogether disproportioned to the extent of the injury. When the rulers of a nation are required to determine a question of peace or war, the bare justice of their case against the wrongdoer never can be the sole, and is not always the chief matter on which they are morally bound to exercise a conscientious deliberation. Prudence in conducting the affairs of their subjects is, in them, a part of justice.  2
  On the same principles the justice of a war made by a people against their own government must be examined. A government is entitled to obedience from the people, because without obedience it cannot perform the duty, for which alone it exists, of protecting them from each other’s injustice. But, when a government is engaged in systematically oppressing a people, or in destroying their securities against future oppression, it commits the same species of wrong towards them which warrants an appeal to arms against a foreign enemy. A magistrate who degenerates into a systematic oppressor shuts the gates of justice, and thereby restores them to their original right of defending themselves by force. As he witholds the protection of law from them, he forfeits his moral claim to enforce their obedience by the authority of law. Thus far civil and foreign war stand on the same moral foundation: the principles which determine the justice of both against the wrongdoer are, indeed, throughout, the same.  3
  But there are certain peculiarities, of great importance in point of fact, which in other respects permanently distinguish them from each other. The evils of failure are greater in civil than in foreign war. A state generally incurs no more than loss in war: a body of insurgents is exposed to ruin. The probabilities of success are more difficult to calculate in cases of internal contest than in a war between states where it is easy to compare those merely material means of attack and defence which may be measured or numbered. An unsuccessful revolt strengthens the power and sharpens the cruelty of the tyrannical ruler; while an unfortunate war may produce little of the former evil and of the latter nothing. It is almost peculiar to intestine war that success may be as mischievous as defeat. The victorious leaders may be borne along by the current of events far beyond their destination; a government may be overthrown which ought to have been only repaired; and a new, perhaps a more formidable, tyranny may spring out of victory. A regular government may stop before its fall becomes precipitate, or check a career of conquest when it threatens destruction to itself; but the feeble authority of the chiefs of insurgents is rarely able, in the one case, to maintain the courage, in the other to repress the impetuosity, of their voluntary adherents. Finally, the cruelty and misery incident to all warfare are greater in domestic dissension than in contests with foreign enemies. Foreign wars have little effect on the feelings, habits, or condition of the majority of a great nation, to most of whom the worst particulars of them may be unknown. But civil war brings the same or worse evils into the heart of a country and into the bosom of many families: it eradicates all habits of recourse to justice and reverence for law; its hostilities are not mitigated by the usages which soften wars between nations; it is carried on with the ferocity of parties who apprehend destruction from each other: and it may leave behind it feuds still more deadly, which may render a country depraved and wretched through a long succession of ages. As it involves a wider waste of virtue and happiness than any other species of war, it can only be warranted by the sternest and most dire necessity. The chiefs of a justly disaffected party are unjust to their fellows and their followers, as well as to all the rest of their countrymen, if they take up arms in a case where the evils of submission are not more intolerable, the impossibility of reparation by pacific means more apparent, and the chances of obtaining it by arms greater than are necessary to justify the rulers of a nation in undertaking a foreign war. A wanton rebellion, when considered with the aggravation of its ordinary consequences, is one of the greatest of crimes. The chiefs of an inconsiderable and ill-concerted revolt, however provoked, incur the most formidable responsibility to their followers and their country. An insurrection rendered necessary by oppression, and warranted by a reasonable probability of a happy termination, is an act of public virtue, always environed with so much peril as to merit admiration.  4
  In proportion to the degree in which a revolt spreads over a large body till it approaches unanimity, the fatal peculiarities of civil war are lessened. In the insurrection of provinces, either distant or separated by natural boundaries, more especially if the inhabitants, differing in religion and language, are rather subjects of the same government than portions of the same people,—hostilities which are waged only to sever a legal tie may assume the regularity, and in some measure the mildness of foreign war. Free men, carrying into insurrection those habits of voluntary obedience to which they have been trained, are more easily restrained from excess by the leaders in whom they have placed their confidence. Thus far it may be affirmed, happily for mankind, that insurgents are most humane where they are most likely to be successful. But it is one of the most deplorable circumstances in the lot of man, that the subjects of despotic governments, and still more those who are doomed to personal slavery, though their condition be the worst, and their revolt the most just, are disabled from conducting it to a beneficial result by the very magnitude of the evils under which they groan; for the most fatal effect of the yoke is, that it darkens the understanding and debases the soul, and that the victims of long oppression, who have never imbibed any noble principle of obedience, throw off every curb when they are released from the chain and the lash. In such wretched conditions of society, the rulers may, indeed, retain unlimited power as the moral guardians of the community, while they are conducting the arduous process of gradually transforming slaves into men, but they cannot justly retain it without that purpose, or longer than its accomplishment requires; but the extreme difficulty of such a reformation, as well as the dire effects of any other emancipation ought to be deeply considered, as proofs of the enormous guilt of those who introduce any kind or degree of unlimited power, as well as of those who increase by their obstinate resistance the natural obstacles to the pacific amendment of evils as tremendous.  5
  The frame of the human mind, and the structure of civilized society, have adapted themselves to these important differences between civil and foreign war. Such is the force of the considerations which have been above enumerated; so tender is the regard of good men for the peace of their native country, so numerous are the links of interest and habit which bind those of a more common sort to an establishment, so difficult and dangerous is it for the bad and bold to conspire against a tolerably vigilant administration,—the evils which exist in moderate governments appear so tolerable and those of absolute despotism so incorrigible, that the number of unjust wars between states unspeakably surpasses those of wanton rebellion against the just exercise of authority. Though the maxim, that there are no unprovoked revolts, ascribed to the Due de Sully and adopted by Mr. Burke, cannot be received without exceptions, it must be owned that in civilized times mankind have suffered less from a mutinous spirit than from a patient endurance of bad government.  6
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