Consent of the Governed

Increasingly, the drippy, long-on-sentiment, light-on-reason rhetoric we’ve come to associate with the “tea party” movement yields to just simple violence. So it was with a RedState post a few days back, but really, this is nothing special. We’ve seen it before, and we’ll see it again.

Indeed, our RedState “diarist” is only notable for her conformity with this trend: look closely, and you’ll see more and more conservative authors using the phrase “consent of the governed” as a bridge between effusive longing for what they imagine constituted the Founders’ vision for America, and a call to violence.

It makes sense. The phrase carries a mighty rhetorical provenance. As surely as the lilting middle stanza of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” (“The shadow of the dome of pleasure floated midway on the waves…”) eases the transition between the dream and its shadow, in the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson used “consent of the governed” to separate a description of his ideals from the means by which they must be achieved — namely, violence. Notice the shift in tone:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Unfortunately, while the “tea party” groups have stumbled upon a powerful rhetorical device, they’ve nonetheless failed to grasp its real meaning. Conservatives go amiss when they mistake what was written by Jefferson as an indictment of the “Form of Government” for an indictment of the government’s current iteration. Jefferson wasn’t attacking a King; he was attacking Kingship.

The mistake is understandable. The Declaration reads as an attack on a single man — King George III. But when Jefferson refers to “the consent of the governed,” it’s clear that he’s not arguing that King George, by committing his identified crimes against the colonies, forfeited a consent he’d somehow earned, but rather that he never even started with that consent in the first place. It’s this lack of initial consent that, alone, justifies a change of “Government,” writ large: since monarchies lack any method for securing the consent of the governed, revolution is the only option. Democracy remedies that defect by creating a process that, when followed, secures the “consent of the governed” by its very usage — even if not by its result.

Reading Jefferson to justify modern revolution, then, critically mistakes his meaning. The problem of a bad but duly elected President is a far cry from the problem of a bad monarch, and to fix the former, neither Jefferson, nor the Declaration of Independence justifies any remedy but to wait it out until the next election, or play within the system. Elections have consequences, and those consequences do not of their own force justify revolution, or the threat thereof.

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6 comments

  1. How ironic that they would read Jefferson to justify rebellion, and then kick him out of history textbooks.

  2. While agreeing entirely with your conclusion, I’m not sure whether you’re quite correct in your analysis of the purpose of the Declaration of Independence, and of these phrases in particular. It’s possible that Jefferson himself, being fairly radical on that question, thought that monarchy lacked legitimacy by definition, but the repeated attempts by the Congresses and by individuals such as Franklin to reconcile the colonists’ differences with London during the previous years suggest that many of them had absolutely no problem remaining within the allegiance of the Crown as long as it actually listened to their legitimate grievances.

    You’re quite right that the initial remarks are very evocative, but one of the Decl.’s most important phrase is actually buried all the way down below the list of George’s crimes: “A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.” This passage invokes a political principle that (IIRC) goes probably all the way back to Aristotle, but at least is very prominent in Thomas Aquinas and Hugo Grotius – the distinction between The Prince, who is legitimate and to whom one owes allegiance, and The Tyrant, who is owed no allegiance and whom one may even have a duty to overthrow. But the corollary of that theory is that as long as The Prince rules justly and “secure[s] these rights”, his subjects still do owe him allegiance as a as a “Government long established” – just being a Prince does not ipso facto imply a lack of consent and therefore legitimacy.

    Again, Jefferson may have thought so himself, and the Independence War probably convinced most Americans that he was right, but I doubt it was a particularly mainstream thought in 1776.

  3. Reading Jefferson to justify modern revolution, then, critically mistakes his meaning. The problem of a bad but duly elected President is a far cry from the problem of a bad monarch, and to fix the former, neither Jefferson, nor the Declaration of Independence justifies any remedy but to wait it out until the next election, or play within the system. Elections have consequences, and those consequences do not of their own force justify revolution, or the threat thereof.

    Ah, but at what point do a bad but duly elected President and Congressional majority, or a succession thereof, reflect the problem of a bad electorate justifying civil war or mass purges?

    I mean, which makes more sense: waging war against a nefarious elected government, or waging war on your nefarious bastard neighbors who voted that nefarious government into power, form its power base, and will just vote more of their nefarious bastard selves into power once it’s done?

  4. I mean, which makes more sense: waging war against a nefarious elected government, or waging war on your nefarious bastard neighbors who voted that nefarious government into power, form its power base, and will just vote more of their nefarious bastard selves into power once it’s done?

    Depends on the day of the week, and how much sleep I’ve had.

    Look, we get the government we “pay” for. If we vote, and we’re activist, we march, we engage in massive letter writing campaigns, WE VOTE, then we get a reasonably responsive government. If we sit back and want it all spoon fed to us under the assumption that “they” are all good guys doing the right thing . . . we get what we “pay” for.

  5. A vocal minority is claiming justification for revolution because they feel the government doesn’t accurately represent them? Maybe the homosexuals and atheists could join them. Wait, they wouldn’t like that.

    1. If the Republican antigay lobby has taught us anything, it’s that while they wouldn’t like it PUBLICLY, that says nothing about in private.

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