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Mayhew's Case for Revolution


Tags World HistoryPhilosophy and MethodologyPolitical Theory


Most Americans say that understanding our founding is very important. However, we actually pay almost no attention to it, leaving us woefully unaware of many critical aspects of our heritage.

One of the most important but overlooked Revolutionary era influences were New England ministers. Franklin Cole, editor of They Preached Liberty, described them as "watchmen on...the wall of liberty," making them "the 'forgotten men' among the heroes of the American Revolution." The most influential was Boston Congregationalist minister, Jonathan Mayhew (1720-1766), who Declaration of Independence signer Robert Treat Paine called "The Father of Civil and Religions Liberty in Massachusetts and America."

Especially important was his address of January 30, 1750. On that day, Mayhew delivered a sermon entitled A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers, which has been termed "The Morning Gun of the American Revolution." The sermon, which was printed and, in Adams' words, "read by everybody," not only in Boston, but throughout the colonies and in London, argued that God sanctioned revolution against tyranny.

Mayhew's Discourse took place on the centennial of the execution of Charles I in England. He rejected attempts to efforts to portray Charles as a martyr, insisting that his execution was a Biblically justifiable response to his tyranny. He said that "Common tyrants, and public oppressors, are not entitled to obedience from their subjects, by virtue of any thing here laid down by the inspired apostle," because tyranny violates the divinely instituted purpose of government. But his argument did not just apply to Charles I. If rebellion against Charles for eviscerating British liberty was morally and scripturally justifiable, one could hardly fail to see that the same arguments applied to King George III.

As we again pass the date on which, over a quarter of a millennium ago, Jonathan Mayhew started what John Adams called "the spark that ignited the American Revolution," consider his argument for our liberty, which is only safe from assault when we recognize its fundamental importance.

"...the powers that be, are ordained of God...[But] how does this prove, that those who resist a lawless, unreasonable power, which is contrary to the will of God, do therein resist the will and ordinance of God?"

"...such as really performed the duty of magistrates, would be enemies only to the evil actions of men...But how is this an argument, that we must honor, and submit to...such as are not a common blessing, but a common curse, to society!"

"...if magistrates are unrighteous...the main end of civil government will be frustrated. And what reason is there for submitting to that government, which does by no means answer the design of government?"

"...the apostle argues the duty of a cheerful and conscientious submission to civil government, from the nature and end of magistracy...to punish evildoers...But does this argument conclude for the duty...to such persons as use all their power to hurt and injure the public?...to such as have no natural and just claim...?"

"For what can be more absurd than an argument thus framed? 'Rulers are, by their office, bound to consult the public welfare and the good of society: therefore you are bound to pay them tribute, to honor, and to submit to them, even when they destroy the public welfare, and are a common pest to society, by acting in direct contradiction to the nature and end of their office'...arguments to enforce submission...conclude only in favor of submission to such rulers...as rule for the good of society, which is the only end of their institution. Common tyrants, and public oppressors, are not entitled to obedience..."

"...the apostle's argument is so far from proving it to be the duty of people to obey, and submit to, such rulers as act in contradiction to the public good, and so to the design of their office, that it proves the direct contrary. For...if the end of all civil government be the good of society...and if the motive and argument for submission to government be taken from the apparent usefulness of civil authority; it follows, that when no such good end can be answered by submission, there remains no argument or motive to enforce it; if...by submission, a contrary end is brought about...here is a plain and positive reason against submission...And therefore, in such cases, a regard to the public welfare ought to make us withhold from our rulers that obedience and subjection which it would, otherwise, be our duty to render to them...when he turns tyrant...we are bound to throw off our allegiance to him, and to resist...Not to discontinue our allegiance, in this case, would be to join with the sovereign in promoting the slavery and misery of that society, the welfare of which, we ourselves, as well as our sovereign, are indispensably obliged to secure and promote..."

"...the apostle...grounding his argument for submission wholly upon the good of civil society...authorizes, and even requires us to make resistance, whenever this shall be necessary to the public safety and happiness..."

"...nothing can well be imagined more directly contrary to common sense, than to suppose that millions of people should be subjected to the arbitrary, precarious pleasure of one single man;so that their estates, and every thing that is valuable in life, and even their lives also, shall be absolutely at his disposal...What unprejudiced man can think, that God made ALL to be thus subservient to the lawless pleasure and frenzy of ONE, so that it shall always be a sin to resist him!"

"...no government is to be submitted to, at the expense of that which is the sole end of all government—the common good and safety of society...The only reason of the institution of civil government; and the only rational ground of submission to it, is the common safety and utility. If therefore, in any case, the common safety and utility would not be promoted by submission to government, but the contrary, there is no ground or motive for obedience and submission, but, for the contrary."

"...authority [is] a trust, committed by the people...all besides, is mere lawless force and usurpation; neither God nor nature, having given any man a right of dominion over any society, independently of that society's approbation, and consent...those in authority may abuse their trust and power to such a degree, that neither the law of reason, nor of religion, requires, that any obedience or submission should be paid to them: but, on the contrary, that they should be totally discarded..."

"A people, really oppressed...to arise unanimously, and to resist their prince, even to the dethroning him, is not criminal; but a reasonable way of indicating their liberties and just rights; it is making use of the means, and the only means, which God has put into their power, for mutual and self-defense. And it would be highly criminal in them, not to make use of this means. It would be stupid tameness, and unaccountable folly, for whole nations to suffer one unreasonable, ambitious and cruel man, to wanton and riot in their misery."

"For what reason, then, was the resistance to king Charles made?...during a reign, or rather a tyranny of many years, he governed in a perfectly wild and arbitrary manner, paying no regard to the constitution and the laws of the kingdom, by which the power of the crown was limited...He levied many taxes upon the people without consent of parliament; and then imprisoned great numbers of the principal merchants and gentry for not paying them. He erected, or at least revived, several new and arbitrary courts, in which the most unheard-of barbarities were committed...He sent a large sum of money, which he has raised by his arbitrary taxes...to raise foreign troops, in order to force more arbitrary taxes upon his subjects. He not only by a long series of actions, but also in plain terms, asserted an absolute uncontrollable power..."

"...on account of king Charles's thus assuming a power above the laws, in direct contradiction to his coronation oath, and governing...in the most arbitrary oppressive manner...resistance was made to him."

"...this resistance which was made...[was] a most righteous and glorious stand, made in defense of the natural and legal rights of the people, against the unnatural and illegal encroachments of arbitrary power. Nor was this a rash and too sudden opposition. The nation had been patient under the oppressions of the crown...and there was no rational hope of redress in any other way—Resistance was absolutely necessary in order to preserve the nation from slavery, misery and ruin...against one which was impiously attempting to overturn law and equity and the constitution; and to exercise a wanton licentious sovereignty over the properties, consciences and lives of all the people...king Charles set himself up above all these...And now, is it not perfectly ridiculous to call resistance to such a tyrant, by the name of rebellion?" 

"[English] kings hold their title to the throne solely by...the voluntary consent of the people...the prerogative and rights of the crown are stated, defined and limited by law...he cannot, while he confines himself within those just limits which the law prescribes to him as the measure of his authority, injure and oppress the subject. The king...swears to exercise only such a power as the constitution gives him. And the subject...swears only to obey him in the exercise of such a power...From whence it follows, that as soon as the prince sets himself up above law...he has no more right to be obeyed...The subjects' obligation to allegiance then ceases..."

"There is an essential difference...between resisting a tyrant and rebellion...King Charles' government was illegal, and very oppressive... therefore, to resist him, was no more rebellion, than to oppose any foreign invader, or any other domestic oppressor."

"[King Charles] died an enemy to liberty and the rights of conscience..."

"It is to be hoped that it will prove a standing memento, that Britons will not be slaves; and a warning to all corrupt counselors and ministers, not to go too far in advising to arbitrary, despotic measures..."

Jonathan Mayhew's role in America's Revolution extends beyond his Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers. He preached a sermon against the Stamp Act, arguing that the essence of slavery is subjection to others, "whether many, few, or but one, it matters not," that led to the stamp riots. He coined the phrase "no taxation without representation." He proposed the idea of Committees of Correspondence.

Despite his many contributions, however, the main reason that Franklin Cole concluded that "to Jonathan Mayhew belongs the distinction of being the first of the Revolutionary preacher-patriots," was the influence of his Discourse. He even demonstrated substantial parallels between it and the Declaration of Independence.

Mayhew said "having learned from the Holy Scriptures that wise, brave and virtuous men were always friends to liberty...made me conclude that freedom was a great blessing." Today, we need to remember how great is the blessing of freedom that has been passed down to us from his generation, and rekindle the same level of commitment to it, for freedom is always under fire.

Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. He is the author of The Apostle of Peace: The Radical Mind of Leonard Read.


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