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No Treason, no. 1

Mises Daily: Tuesday, March 22, 2011 by

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[No Treason, no. 1, was first printed in 1867, just after the American Civil War. An MP3 audio file of this article, narrated by Brad O'Connell, is available for download.]

The question of treason is distinct from that of slavery, and it is the same that it would have been if free states, instead of slave states, had seceded.

On the part of the North, the war was carried on not to liberate the slaves, but by a government that had always perverted and violated the Constitution to keep the slaves in bondage, and was still willing to do so if the slaveholders could be thereby induced to stay in the Union.

The principle on which the war was waged by the North was simply this: that men may rightfully be compelled to submit to and support a government that they do not want, and that resistance on their part makes them traitors and criminals.

No principle that is possible to be named can be more self-evidently false than this nor more self-evidently fatal to all political freedom. Yet it triumphed in the field, and is now assumed to be established. If it be really established, the number of slaves, instead of having been diminished by the war, has been greatly increased; for a man thus subjected to a government that he does not want is a slave.

And there is no difference, in principle — but only in degree — between political and chattel slavery. The former, no less than the latter, denies a man's ownership of himself and the products of his labor, and asserts that other men may own him and dispose of him and his property for their uses and at their pleasure.

Previous to the war, there were some grounds for saying that — in theory, at least, if not in practice — our government was a free one — that it rested on consent. But nothing of that kind can be said now, if the principle on which the war was carried on by the North is irrevocably established.

If that principle be not the principle of the Constitution, the fact should be known. If it be the principle of the Constitution, the Constitution itself should be at once overthrown.

The Nature of Our Government

Notwithstanding all the proclamations we have made to mankind within the last 90 years — that our government rested on consent, and that that was the only rightful basis on which any government could rest — the late war has practically demonstrated that our government rests upon force: as much so as any government that ever existed.

The North has thus virtually said to the world, "It was all very well to prate of consent, so long as the objects to be accomplished were to liberate ourselves from our connection with England, and also to coax a scattered and jealous people into a great national union. But now that those purposes have been accomplished, and the power of the North has become consolidated, it is sufficient for us — as for all governments — simply to say, Our power is our right."

In proportion to her wealth and population, the North has probably expended more money and blood to maintain her power over an unwilling people than any other government ever did. And in her estimation, it is apparently the chief glory of her success, and an adequate compensation for all her own losses, and an ample justification for all her devastation and carnage of the South, that all pretence of any necessity for consent to the perpetuity or power of the government is (as she thinks) forever expunged from the minds of the people.

In short, the North exults beyond measure in the proof she has given that a government professedly resting on consent will expend more life and treasure in crushing dissent than any government openly founded on force has ever done.

And she claims that she has done all this on behalf of liberty! On behalf of free government! On behalf of the principle that government should rest on consent!

If the successors of Roger Williams, within a hundred years after their state had been founded upon the principle of free religious toleration had taken to burning heretics with a fury never before seen among men, and had they finally gloried in having thus suppressed all question of the truth of the state religion, and had they further claimed to have done all this in behalf of freedom of conscience, the inconsistency between profession and conduct would scarcely have been greater than that of the North, in carrying on such a war as she has done, to compel men to live under and support a government that they did not want and in then claiming that she did it on behalf of the principle that government should rest on consent.

This astonishing absurdity and self-contradiction are to be accounted for only by supposing, either that the lusts of fame, power, and money have made her utterly blind to or utterly reckless of the inconsistency and enormity of her conduct, or that she has never even understood what was implied in a government's resting on consent. Perhaps this last explanation is the true one. In charity to human nature, it is to be hoped that it is.

Seven Implications of Consent

What, then, is implied in a government's resting on consent?

If it be said that the consent of the strongest party in a nation is all that is necessary to justify the establishment of a government that shall have authority over the weaker party, it may be answered that the most despotic governments in the world rest upon that very principle, viz, the consent of the strongest party.

These governments are formed simply by the consent or agreement of the strongest party that they will act in concert in subjecting the weaker party to their dominion. And the despotism, tyranny, and injustice of these governments consist in that very fact. Or at least that is the first step in their tyranny; a necessary preliminary to all the oppressions that are to follow.

If it be said that the consent of the most numerous party in a nation is sufficient to justify the establishment of their power over the less numerous party, it may be answered,

  1. That two men have no more natural right to exercise any kind of authority over one than one has to exercise the same authority over two. A man's natural rights are his own against the whole world; and any infringement of them is equally a crime whether committed by one man or by millions; whether committed by one man calling himself a robber (or by any other name indicating his true character) or by millions calling themselves a government.

  2. It would be absurd for the most numerous party to talk of establishing a government over the less numerous party, unless the former were also the strongest as well as the most numerous: for it is not to be supposed that the strongest party would ever submit to the rule of the weaker party, merely because the latter were the most numerous.

    And as matter of fact, it is perhaps never that governments are established by the most numerous party. They are usually, if not always, established by the less numerous party — their superior strength consisting in their superior wealth, intelligence, and ability to act in concert.

  3. Our Constitution does not profess to have been established simply by the majority, but by "the people" — the minority as much as the majority.

  4. If our fathers, in 1776, had acknowledged the principle that a majority had the right to rule the minority, we should never have become a nation — for they were in a small minority as compared with those who claimed the right to rule over them.

  5. Majorities, as such, afford no guarantees for justice. They are men of the same nature as minorities. They have the same passions for fame, power, and money as minorities and are liable and likely to be equally — perhaps more than equally, because more boldly — rapacious, tyrannical, and unprincipled, if entrusted with power.

    There is no more reason, then, why a man should either sustain or submit to the rule of a majority than of a minority. Majorities and minorities cannot rightfully be taken at all into account in deciding questions of justice. And all talk about them in matters of government is mere absurdity.

    Men are dunces for uniting to sustain any government or any laws except those in which they are all agreed. And nothing but force and fraud compel men to sustain any other. To say that majorities, as such, have a right to rule minorities, is equivalent to saying that minorities have, and ought to have, no rights except such as majorities please to allow them.

  6. It is not improbable that many or most of the worst of governments — although established by force, and by a few, in the first place — come, in time, to be supported by a majority. But if they do, this majority is composed in large part of the most ignorant, superstitious, timid, dependent, servile, and corrupt portions of the people; of those who have been overawed by the power, intelligence, wealth, and arrogance; of those who have been deceived by the frauds; and of those who have been corrupted by the inducements of the few who really constitute the government.

    Such majorities, very likely, could be found in half, perhaps in nine-tenths, of all the countries on the globe. What do they prove? Nothing but the tyranny and corruption of the very governments that have reduced such large portions of the people to their present ignorance, servility, degradation, and corruption — an ignorance, servility, degradation, and corruption that are best illustrated in the simple fact that they do sustain the governments that have so oppressed, degraded, and corrupted them.

    They do nothing toward proving that the governments themselves are legitimate, or that they ought to be sustained, or even endured, by those who understand their true character. The mere fact, therefore, that a government chances to be sustained by a majority, of itself proves nothing that is necessary to be proved in order to know whether such government should be sustained or not.

  7. The principle that the majority have a right to rule the minority practically resolves all government into a mere contest between two bodies of men, as to which of them shall be masters and which of them slaves: a contest, that — however bloody — can never, in the nature of things, be finally closed so long as man refuses to be a slave.

What Makes a "Nation"?

But to say that the consent of either the strongest party or the most numerous party in a nation is a sufficient justification for the establishment or maintenance of a government that shall control the whole nation does not obviate the difficulty. The question still remains: how comes such a thing as "a nation" to exist?

How do many millions of men, scattered over an extensive territory — each gifted by nature with individual freedom; required by the law of nature to call no man, or body of men, his masters; authorized by that law to seek his own happiness in his own way, to do what he will with himself and his property so long as he does not trespass upon the equal liberty of others; authorized also, by that law, to defend his own rights and redress his own wrongs, and to go to the assistance and defense of any of his fellow men who may be suffering any kind of injustice — how do many millions of such men come to be a nation, in the first place?

How is it that each of them comes to be stripped of all his natural, God-given rights, and to be incorporated, compressed, compacted, and consolidated into a mass with other men, whom he never saw; with whom he has no contract; and toward many of whom he has no sentiments but fear, hatred, or contempt?

How does he become subjected to the control of men like himself, who by nature had no authority over him, but who command him to do this and forbid him to do that, as if they were his sovereigns and he their subject — and as if their wills and their interests were the only standards of his duties and his rights — and who compel him to submission under peril of confiscation, imprisonment, and death?

Clearly, all this is the work of force or fraud, or both.

By what right then did we become "a nation"? By what right do we continue to be "a nation"? And by what right do either the strongest or the most numerous party now existing within the territorial limits, called "The United States," claim that there really is such "a nation" as the United States?

Certainly they are bound to show the rightful existence of "a nation" before they can claim, on that ground, that they themselves have a right to control it: to seize for their purposes so much of every man's property within it as they may choose, and at their discretion to compel any man to risk his own life or take the lives of other men for the maintenance of their power.

To speak of either their numbers or their strength is not to the purpose. The question is by what right does the nation exist? And by what right are so many atrocities committed by its authority? Or for its preservation?

The answer to this question must certainly be that at least such a nation exists by no right whatever.

We are, therefore, driven to the acknowledgment that nations and governments, if they can rightfully exist at all, can exist only by consent.

A Revolution of Individuals

The question, then, returns: What is implied in a government's resting on consent?

Manifestly this one thing (to say nothing of others) is necessarily implied in the idea of a government's resting on consent, viz, the separate, individual consent of every man who is required to contribute, either by taxation or personal service, to the support of the government. All this, or nothing, is necessarily implied, because one man's consent is just as necessary as any other man's.

If, for example, A claims that his consent is necessary to the establishment or maintenance of government, he thereby necessarily admits that B's and every other man's are equally necessary, because B's and every other man's rights are just as good as his own. On the other hand, if he denies that B's or any other particular man's consent is necessary, he thereby necessarily admits that neither his own, nor any other man's, is necessary, and that government need not be founded on consent at all.

There is therefore no alternative but to say either that the separate, individual consent of every man who is required to aid, in any way, in supporting the government is necessary, or that the consent of no one is necessary.

Clearly this individual consent is indispensable to the idea of treason, for, if a man has never consented or agreed to support a government, he breaks no faith in refusing to support it. And if he makes war upon it, he does so as an open enemy, and not as a traitor — that is, as a betrayer, or treacherous friend.

All this, or nothing, was necessarily implied in the Declaration made in 1776. If the necessity for consent then announced was a sound principle in favor of three million men, it was an equally sound one in favor of three men, or of one man. If the principle was a sound one on behalf of men living on a separate continent, it was an equally sound one on behalf of a man living on a separate farm or in a separate house.

Moreover it was only as separate individuals, each acting for himself and not as a member of an organized government, that the three million declared their consent to be necessary to their support of a government, and at the same time declared their dissent to the support of the British Crown. The governments then existing in the colonies had no constitutional power, as governments, to declare the separation between England and America.

On the contrary, those governments, as governments, were organized under charters from and acknowledged allegiance to the British Crown. Of course the British king never made it one of the chartered or constitutional powers of those governments, as governments, to absolve the people from their allegiance to himself.

So far, therefore, as the colonial legislatures acted as revolutionists, they acted only as so many individual revolutionists and not as constitutional legislatures. And their representatives at Philadelphia, who first declared independence, were, in the eye of the constitutional law of that day, simply a committee of revolutionists and in no sense constitutional authorities or the representatives of constitutional authorities.

It was also, in the eye of the law, only as separate individuals, each acting for himself and exercising simply his natural rights as an individual, that the people at large assented to and ratified the Declaration.

It was also only as so many individuals, each acting for himself and exercising simply his natural rights, that they revolutionized the constitutional character of their local governments so as to exclude the idea of allegiance to Great Britain, changing their forms only as and when their convenience dictated.

The whole revolution, therefore, as a revolution, was declared and accomplished by the people acting separately as individuals and exercising each his natural rights, and not by their governments in the exercise of their constitutional powers.

It was, therefore, as individuals and only as individuals, each acting for himself alone, that they declared that their consent — that is, their individual consent, for each one could consent only for himself — was necessary to the creation or perpetuity of any government that they could rightfully be called on to support.

In the same way each declared, for himself, that his own will, pleasure, and discretion were the only authorities he had any occasion to consult in determining whether he would any longer support the government under which he had always lived. And if this action of each individual were valid and rightful when he had so many other individuals to keep him company, it would have been, in the view of natural justice and right, equally valid and rightful if he had taken the same step alone.

He had the same natural right to take up arms alone to defend his own property against a single tax gatherer that he had to take up arms in company with three million others to defend the property of all against an army of tax gatherers.

Thus the whole Revolution turned upon, asserted, and, in theory, established the right of each and every man, at his discretion, to release himself from the support of the government under which he had lived. And this principle was asserted not as a right peculiar to themselves, or to that time, or as applicable only to the government then existing, but as a universal right of all men, at all times, and under all circumstances.

George III called our ancestors traitors for what they did at that time. But they were not traitors in fact, whatever he or his laws may have called them. They were not traitors in fact because they betrayed nobody and broke faith with nobody. They were his equals, owing him no allegiance, obedience, nor any other duty except such as they owed to mankind at large.

Their political relations with him had been purely voluntary. They had never pledged their faith to him that they would continue these relations any longer than it should please them to do so, and therefore they broke no faith in parting with him. They simply exercised their natural right of saying to him and to the English people that they were under no obligation to continue their political connection with them, and that, for reasons of their own, they chose to dissolve it.

What was true of our ancestors is true of revolutionists in general. The monarchs and governments from whom they choose to separate attempt to stigmatize them as traitors. But they are not traitors in fact, inasmuch as they betray and break faith with no one. Having pledged no faith, they break none.

They are simply men, who, for reasons of their own — whether good or bad, wise or unwise, is immaterial — choose to exercise their natural right of dissolving their connection with the governments under which they have lived. In doing this, they no more commit the crime of treason — which necessarily implies treachery, deceit, breach of faith — than a man commits treason when he chooses to leave a church, or any other voluntary association, with which he has been connected.

This principle was a true one in 1776. It is a true one now. It is the only one on which any rightful government can rest. It is the one on which the Constitution itself professes to rest. If it does not really rest on that basis, it has no right to exist, and it is the duty of every man to raise his hand against it.

If the men of the Revolution designed to incorporate in the Constitution the absurd ideas of allegiance and treason, which they had once repudiated, against which they had fought, and by which the world had been enslaved, they thereby established for themselves an indisputable claim to the disgust and detestation of all mankind.