This Article explores the religious origins of the right to alter or abolish government. I show in Part I that the right was widely accepted among the American colonies as expressed through their constitutions and, later, the federal constitution. In Part II, I usher the reader back in time and across the continent to seventeenth century England. There, I introduce two men who would have abhorred everything about American constitutional democracy - King James I and the philosopher Sir Robert Filmer. Both men, prominent in their respective domains of authority, devoted themselves to the governing axiom that kings were bequeathed a right by God to absolute rule. Part III sketches the seventeenth century arguments of two other Englishmen, also prominent--the philosophers John Locke and Algernon Sidney - who challenged James and Filmer. Locke and Sidney argued that God had never sanctioned the divine right of kings and instead had justified the people’s right to overthrow tyrants.
The arguments of Locke and Sidney will, as I show in subsequent sections, influence the American clergy who supported war against Britain and the right of revolution in general. Indeed, the development of this connection will occupy me for the remainder of the Article, but, in Part IV, I take a brief respite to summarize the historical circumstances that severely hampered governmental control over religion in colonial America and thus provided partially autonomous spaces for people to reflect on religion, including in ways that would inform their right to alter or abolish government. I illustrate in Part V how several prominent American clergymen, following Locke and Sidney, rejected as impossible the divine and supposedly infallible status of rulers. God, the clergy insisted, was the only one who could claim such infallibility; the clergy warned that rulers would do well to devote themselves to the people’s well being, not the former’s aggrandizement. In Part VI, I argue that, again echoing Locke and Sidney, a prominent group of American clergymen insisted that, contrary to the anti-democratic jeers of monarchists, God had given people the capacity for reason which enabled them to make meaningful decisions about their political future. I conclude in Part VII by illustrating how the federal and state constitutions following the American Revolution sought to protect conditions for the faithful to contemplate the religious meaning of the right to alter or abolish government.
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