Guest Essayist: Jennie Jones


Few factors are more fundamental to our early state constitutions, declarations of rights, and bills of rights than the Christian theory and practice of the right, or duty, of resisting injustice and tyranny.  The right of resistance is rooted in the Biblical principle summarized by the Apostle Peter: “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).  Civil government is one of the kinds of governments ordained by God (others being self-government, family government, church government, and employment-based government), and the “powers that be” are ordained by God, so every soul is to be subject to them, not to resist them (Romans 13:1,2).

But it does not follow from this that the ruled are obligated to obey absolutely everything that the rulers of civil government (or any kind of government) command.  Being ordained by God does not authorize government officials to usurp the place or authority of God.  Being ordained by God does not exempt the ruler from the standards by which all men’s words and actions are judged: the standards decreed by God in His law.  Furthermore, the ruler, like everyone else, is sinful: in the very core of his being, he longs to replace God with himself and God’s standards of good and evil with his own (Genesis 3:5).  Neither the providence of God nor the judgment of his Christian peers enables any man, or any ruler of civil government to act without sin in all that he does.  These highly unflattering truths are hard sayings, but they are essential to good government.

Moreover, the ruler of civil government is not to use the power of the sword to be a terror to good works but to evil deeds: he is the minister of God to the ruled for good, not for evil (Romans 13:3-7).  The ruler is God’s minister, or servant, not his own.  The rulers and the ruled are under the authority of God and His law.  God’s law is the authoritative standard that defines good and evil, the ethical laws of “nature,” and love.  Hence the Apostle Paul summarizes God’s law as the standard by which men can know that they are following the law of love and working no ill to their neighbors (Romans 13:8-10).  The ruler who enacts evil laws that violate God’s standards of law exceeds his authority, rebels against God, and violates the terms of his ministry under God.  To the extent that he violates God’s legal standards he is unworthy of honor, for Christians are not bound to honor or obey that which is evil (or he who commands that which is evil) but rather that which is good.[1]

A ruler who systematically violates God’s law—God’s standards and definitions of justice (and injustice)—is rebelling against God.  He is systematically scrapping God’s standards of good and evil and replacing them with his own.  He is a tyrant.

A tyrant is to be resisted by his subjects, and if he persists in his tyranny, may be removed from office.  Medieval, Reformation, and later Christian theorists differed about who should undertake this process of resistance and (if necessary) revolution.[2]  Most held that the “lesser civil magistrates,” lower-ranking civil government officials—who are also among the “powers that be” who are ordained by God—are to lead the people in this process of resistance (the constitutional theory).  Some maintained that the people, private individuals or the majority of citizens, are to do what is Biblically permissible to resist or overthrow the tyrant (the private right theory).  Such was a long tradition of Christian resistance theory dating back to the medieval period.  It was:

  • fundamental to the action of the barons led by Archbishop Steven Langton, who gave England the Magna Carta in 1215;
  • revived in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation;
  • practiced in the Dutch war for independence from the Spanish tyrant Philip II;
  • exemplified in the Petition of Right (1628);
  • taught and practiced in the English Civil Wars (1642-1651);
  • maintained (after a fashion) against the king in the Glorious Revolution (1688);
  • asserted in the English Bill of Rights (1689);
  • continued in the English colonies in America;
  • and preached in sermons before congregations and public officials during the movement to resist British tyranny.[3]

The right to petition rulers for a redress of grievances was a basic part of this tradition of Christian resistance theory.  The colonies followed this theory in resisting the king-in-Parliament and in their War for Independence.  This theory continued to be widespread in early America before and long after the framing and ratifying of the Constitution of the United States (and, of course, of our national Bill of Rights).  At least six states—New Hampshire, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Massachusetts—stated this right explicitly in their fundamental laws, and thereby implied the people’s right to use all legitimate means of resistance endorsed by that tradition.  The Maryland Declaration of Rights (1776) phrased it pointedly:

IV. That all persons invested with the legislative or executive powers of government are the trustees of the public, and, as such, accountable for their conduct; wherefore, whenever the ends of government are perverted and public liberty manifestly endangered, and all other means of redress are ineffectual, the people may, and of right ought, to reform the old or establish a new government. The doctrine of non-resistance, against arbitrary power and oppression, is absurd, slavish, and destructive of the good and happiness of mankind.

Where not stated explicitly, this doctrine was implicit in all the states’ constitutions and declarations—which owed their existence to exercising precisely such a conviction.

The right and duty of the states to resist the central government was originally intended to apply to future civil government officials. The Framers gave the states the means of protecting their people and the only legitimate means of changing the Constitution—the amendment process and convention of the states stated in Article V. That right and that means still apply. State and local officials have a duty to resist injustice and tyranny imposed upon their people by our central government. American citizens need to remind not only candidates for federal office, but also candidates for state office, of this fundamental constitutional reality, right, and duty. That is the only way (humanly speaking) we will reclaim and preserve our freedom.

Jennie Jones, Assistant Professor, American Government and History, Weatherford College

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[1] Romans 13:1-7 is frequently misinterpreted.  Including verses 8-10 of Romans 13 makes it easier to avoid misinterpreting the first seven verses, but a reading of the Rev. James M. Willson’s The Establishment and Limits of Civil Government; An Exposition of Romans 13:1-7 (Powder Springs, Georgia: American Vision Press, [1853] 2009) should eliminate all controversy over this crucial passage, for it destroys the misinterpretations that were fashionable in the early nineteenth century and which are too fashionable now.

[2] Revolution to depose the tyrant, not revolution to overthrow the religious and social or economic order, is the intention here, for to overthrow a religious, social or economic order based upon Biblical standards of justice would be sinful and unjust.

[3] See Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought: Volume Two: The Age of Reformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978); Julian H. Franklin, trans. and ed., Constitutionalism and Resistance in the Sixteenth Century: Three Treatises by Hotman, Beza and Mornay (New York: Pegasus, 1968); Junius Brutus, A Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants; or, of the Lawful Power of the Prince Over the People and of the People Over the Prince: Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (St. Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: Still Waters Revival Books, 1989); and Richard L. Greaves, Theology and Revolution in the Scottish Reformation; Studies in the Thought of John Knox (Grand Rapids: Christian University Press, 1980).


In thinking about what the Declaration of Independence meant for state powers, perhaps the better question is what powers didn’t the states have upon their independence? Consider the very first line and note what is emphasized: “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America.” This is telling. Why use “unanimous” if all the states were considered one entity? Importantly, “united” is not emphasized. This also occurs in the last paragraph of the document with the reference to the “Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled…” “Nation” only appears once in the Declaration, and it refers to England, not America. Rather than “nation,” the reference used twice is “Free and Independent States.” Indeed, during this time and up until the Constitution was ratified, the United States was cast as a plural entity. So, if we were going to war with France, the wording would not be “the United States is going to war”, but “the United States are going to war…”

The Declaration clearly calls for the independence of thirteen new nations, not one—“a baker’s dozen of new nations,” as Willmoore Kendall put it, thirteen free and independent states.  What the Declaration meant for the powers of the states was that the states being free and independent, each state had the powers any nation is entitled to, but since God has given man ethical laws in nature and in His laws revealed in Scripture (“the laws of nature and of nature’s God”), no nation and no state is entitled to powers which violate the laws of nature and of nature’s God, nor are the people of any state justified in consenting to any powers that violate the laws of nature and of nature’s God. The Declaration leaves the form of civil government chosen by the people or the representatives of the people of each state up to the representatives and the people of that state. Each must choose for itself a form of government and powers of government which are consistent with preserving the laws of nature and of nature’s God, and thereby preserving the people’s freedom. The people of each state are justified in framing their own particular constitution, civil government institutions, and laws so long as they do not violate the laws of nature and of nature’s God.

The Declaration of Independence was both produced by the states and produced the states.  The colonies’ (then states’) representatives in the Continental Congress produced it.  It is a tremendously important but often misinterpreted document.  There was not a government of the thirteen united States. The Continental Congresses did not have the authority to require the states to do anything; the respective states’ legislatures had to decide whether to act on the recommendations of the Continental Congress. The Continental Congress was based upon the equality of all states, not upon the will of the majority of the people who live in all those states. There was no vote of the people of the States and no attempt to determine the majority will of the people who lived in those thirteen states. The Declaration was unanimous because the representatives of the people of each state agreed upon it, not because the majority, or all of the people, of all the states agreed to it.

Colonists started talking about independence in 1774, but no original powers of legislation were granted to the Congresses of 1774 and 1775. The government was temporary only; it was permitted only for a particular and temporary object, and the States could at any time recall any and every power which it had assumed. Nothing in the powers employed by the revolutionary government, as far as can be seen from its acts, is inconsistent with the sovereignty and independence of the States. Regarding external relations, Congress seemed to have exercised every power of a supreme government. They declared war; formed alliances and made treaties; contracted debts and issued bills of credit. These powers were not “exclusive” though. The colonies raised troops, commissioned vessels of war, and conducted military operations. In conducting the war Congress had no “exclusive” power, and the States retained, and asserted, their own sovereign right and power to do that. Congress exercised no power reducing the absolute sovereignty and independence of the States.  Many powers entrusted exclusively to Congress could not be effectively exercised except by the aid of the State governments. The States raised troops required by Congress. Congress was allowed to issue bills of credit, but not make them a legal tender. Nor could it require the States to redeem them, nor raise by its own authority the necessary funds for the purpose. In these and other important functions, the “sovereignty” of the Federal Government was merely nominal; its efficiency was wholly due to the co-operation of the State governments. The relation between the colonies and their Congress did not change once independence was declared. The chief difference was that the relation was now between the States and their Congress.[1]

Although the powers actually assumed and exercised by Congress were very great, they were not always allowed by the States. Thus, the power to lay an embargo was earnestly desired by Congress, but was denied by the States.[2] The Continental Congress was not a central government of the newly independent States.

There was no central government until the Articles of Confederation in 1781—five years after the colonies issued the Declaration. Even under the Articles of Confederation, it was clear that the states were intended to have the vast majority of civil government power. Article II (of the Articles) clearly stated that “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.”

Article III established the United States as a league of states that emphasized the right of each state to govern its own internal affairs. It was “a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare…” The purpose of the Confederation was clearly defensive. It was deliberately left for each state to determine for itself how to order its own internal affairs.

Article VI limited the powers of the central government. Centralized power is incompatible with federalism and a confederate form of government. The power must be spread out and limited.

Article VII authorized state control of military ranks. The federal army was to be a very small standing army, supplied by the state militias.

Article VIII. Each state’s taxes were to be determined by the legislature of that state—not by the central government.

Article IX declared what the rights of the central government were. It meant that each state was a sovereign nation that had to be considered in forming any common governmental system for the peoples of the states to live under. The primary powers the central government had under the Articles were to declare war against foreign powers; establish standard weights and measures; mint coins and print currency; and serve as a mediator in all disputes between the states.

The Articles of Confederation was our first national constitution. The newly independent states created it because they recognized their weakness compared to European nations—and wanted to be able to defend themselves against attempts by other nations to conquer them.  They made their first constitution a confederacy because they wanted to continue to rule their own internal affairs, but still be able to join with the other states to defend against foreign aggression—based on religion or any other causes.

Although it was not ratified until March 1781, it was given to Congress in November of 1777, and it was essentially the structure of government that the United States operated under all through the War of Independence. In 1779, the Continental Congress passed a resolution acknowledging the operating status of the Articles prior to its being fully ratified by the states in 1781.[3]

The states declared their independence in order to be and remain independent, self-governing states. Their Declaration of Independence is neither our fundamental governing document nor the controlling authority for American civil government, law, and politics.  It is simply our original states’ declaration of their right to fight for their respective independence from England and of their equal status as free, independent nations. They created the Articles of Confederation to maintain their individual sovereignty, but to provide their united military power. When government under the Articles proved defective, many in the states sought to create a stronger central government; many others feared that the new central government would be too strong. The new governmental system that the colonies established under the Constitution was meant to retain the great majority of governmental power in the respective states, not to centralize power in the new, limited national government, nor to enable future officials in that government to centralize power. Those who advocated ratifying the finished Constitution insisted that the new central government did not and would not be a threat to the powers of the states.

Jennie Jones, Instructor of Government and History, Weatherford College

[1] Abel P. Upshur, The Federal Government: Its True Nature and Character; Being a Review of Judge [Joseph] Story’s Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States (New York: Van Evrie, Horton & Co., 1868), Reprinted by St. Thomas Press, Houston, Texas, 1977, p. 64-65

[2] Upshur, p. 66

[3] Dr. George Grant, Ph.D. Lit., King’s Meadow Humanities Curriculum: American Culture, Instructor’s Guide (Franklin, Tennessee: King’s Meadow, 2011). p. 202, 293

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