The Rights of Magistrates over their Subjects (1574)
Concerning the Rights of Rulers Over Their Subjects and the Duty Of Subjects Towards Their Rulers. A brief and clear treatise particularly indispensable to either class in these troubled times.
By Theodore Beza
Translation by Henry-Louis Gonin, edited by Patrick S. Poole
To Kings and Princes the Counsel of David: Psalm 2: Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for His wrath will soon be kindled.
To the Subjects: I Peter 2:13: Be subjects to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake.
Image right: Theodore Beza (1519-1605). Wikimedia Commons.
Inasmuch as only the will of almighty God is the eternal and immutable Rule of all Justice, we declare that it must be unconditionally obeyed. As regards however the obedience due to Princes, they too would doubtless have to be obeyed always and unconditionally if they ruled constantly in accordance with the utterance of God. Since however theirs is often the contrary case, such obedience must be made subject to the following condition, namely that they command nothing impious, nothing unjust. Impious or sinful I call those which God forbids in the First Table of His Law, or which forbid those which God there commands. Unjust behests, however, I call those by which the performance of that, which every man in accordance with his calling either public or private is in charity bound to render to his neighbor, is either prevented or forbidden.
To prove this with rational arguments as well as clear examples will not be difficult. The Lord says by the prophet Isaiah, "I will not give my glory unto another." Although the Lord has not spoken so clearly, yet in fact it admits of no doubt that commands emanating from purely human authority cannot without sin be regarded as of equal weight with those which God Himself has given. But the authority of God and men would be equal and alike if it were required that men should always be unconditionally obeyed in like manner with God. I add further that whenever the behests of God are neglected in favor of the commands of men, (those) men are being exalted above the throne of God [...].
Question 2. Is A Magistrate Held Responsible To Render Account Of All His Laws To His Subjects? And How Far Are They To Presume Such Laws To Be Just?
After this foundation has been laid we would also inquire into certain other questions which would appear to be germane to this discourse that the consciences of many may be satisfied. First the question is raised whether the magistrate is held to render account of all his laws to any man soever so as to offer proof that they be fair and in accordance with the precepts of religion. I answer that he is not so held; nay more, that it is fair that all virtuous subjects should regard their lords in the light of virtue and should not presume of suspect anything unjust concerning them; nay, that it is not becoming that men in private station should inquire over curiously even concerning doubtful matters beyond their comprehension or station in life. If, however, the conscience of some be at a loss, they can and are even under an obligation to examine (albeit discreetly and in a peaceful manner) what elements of reason and justice are to be found in the command by which they are bidden or forbidden to do something; for the word of the Apostle abides: "whatsoever is not of faith (that is while the conscience is in doubt whether that is being done justly or not) is sin". But if what is commanded is openly sinful or unjust, then indeed that which has been said above applies.
Question 3. How Far Must Obedience Be Rendered Or Refused To Unjust Or Impious Commands?
A further question is raised as to what limits this notion of disregarding sinful or unjust commands of Rulers should be extended. Here I reply: Each man must consider what his station and calling demands, be it general and public or private. Does the Ruler command what God forbids [...]? Then you will rightly perform your duty if you do not carry out a command of that kind, as we read concerning the illustrious jurisconsult Papinian who, though he was not a Christian, yet would rather be slain by the tyrant Caracalla than either to approve of the fratricide which he had committed, or justify it by his advocacy? But if the tyrant forbids what God commands, you should not at all judge that you have performed your duty if you have merely refused to obey the tyrant, unless at the same time you obey the command of God [...], since the Lord bids us, each as far as his calling permits, to bring succor to his brethren in peril. Thus also the Apostles, as we have said above, not merely did not desist from preaching the Gospel that they might heed the priests, but on the contrary they steadfastly preached everywhere since they had expressly received this command from the Lord: "Go ye and preach the Gospel to every creature" etc. Therefore when today we see many Rulers so bewitched by the Roman Antichrist that they by the sternest commands compel their subjects to attend the execrable sacrifice of Mass, the duty of all pious men requires not merely that they should not carry out that command, but further that they should [...] join in pious gatherings, there hear the word of God and have communion of the sacraments as Christ ordained that it should be done in the Church. The same principle must also be observed in the duties which men owe to their fellow men both by the law of God and by the law of nature, for example children to their parents, a wife to her husband, the shepherd to his flock, and in fine one neighbor to another. For it is not fitting that we should be deterred or led astray from those duties by means of any commands or threats or even by the most unjust punishment; only let obedience (which we owe above all to God who is greater than all these) be not at all excluded from the performances of duties of this kind which we carry out.
Question 4. How Can One Who Has Suffered Wrong At The Hands Of A Ruler Defend Himself Against Him?
Thereupon the further question is commonly asked: What is a virtuous man with a good conscience bound and able to do when the Ruler does not indeed make him the instrument of his injustice but is unjust towards him? Since this question consists of several parts we must distinguish. If therefore the Ruler who has wronged the subject is subordinate to a superior the sufferer of wrong will, in accordance with the laws, be entitled to have recourse to the supreme Ruler [...]. But let those subjects whose station is private observe here two principles above all: firstly, let them not make any trial of strength except by way of the courts of justice. Secondly, let them have regard not merely to what is permissible but especially to what is expedient [...].
But if it were to happen (as happens only too frequently in our times) that one lower magistrate should undertake some act of violence against another against the express will of their superior, then I should assuredly say that the magistrate who had been wronged is, when he has first exhausted all legitimate and peaceful means, entitled to equip himself with the armor of the laws and to oppose unjust violence with a just defence [...].
What, however, must be done if it is the supreme Ruler from whom the injustice comes? The Lord Jesus and after Him all the Martyrs have by their example clearly shown that injustices should be patiently borne; and this is the highest glory of Christians, namely, to endure injury from all but to cause it to none. What then, will someone say, is there no remedy remaining against the supreme Ruler who abuses his authority and power in violation of all the precepts of divine and human rights? Nay, there doubtless is a remedy remaining derived from human institutions. But when I say this, let no one be of opinion that I wish to favor the fanatical Anabaptists or other factious and mutinous men whom I should rather esteem most worthy of the hatred of all their fellowmen, and even of the severest punishments. To be sure, I must speak the truth because the matter rests on this argument: It must not be supposed that those who show in what ways evident tyranny may be opposed without violation to one's conscience are depriving good and legitimate rulers of that authority which God has granted them, or that they are paving the way for seditious risings. Nay rather, it is certain that neither can the authority of Rulers be rendered secure nor can the public peace be maintained [...] unless careful precautions be taken that tyranny may not steal in or if it has already stolen in that it be either abolished or expelled. The question, therefore, is whether subjects can by some just means without offense to God check, or if need be even expel by armed force, the evident tyranny of the supreme Ruler.
Question 5. Whether Manifest Tyrants Can Lawfully Be Checked By Armed Force.
To give a clearer answer to this question I must first lay down certain principles constituting as it were the foundations of the whole question. Assuredly, [it is clear] that peoples did not in the first instance originate from rulers, but whatever peoples desired to be ruled by a single monarch or by chief men elected by them were anterior to their rulers. Hence it follows that peoples were not created for the sake of rulers, but on the contrary the rulers for the sake of the people, even as the guardian is appointed for the ward, not the ward for the guardian, and the shepherd on account of the flock, not the flock on account of the shepherd. This proposition is not merely obvious in itself but may be corroborated by the history of nearly all nations [...].
[I]f we would investigate the histories of ancient times recorded by profane writers also, it will be established [...] that rulers by whose authority their inferiors might be guided were elected for this reason that either the whole human race must necessarily perish or some intermediate class must be instituted so that by it one or more [rulers] might be able to command the others, [and] protect good men but restrain the wicked by means of punishments. And this is what not only Plato, Aristotle and the other natural philosophers—furnished with the light of human reason alone—have taught and proved, but God Himself by the utterance of St. Paul writing to the Romans, the rulers of almost the entire world, confirmed this with clear words. There the origin of all States and Powers is with the best of reasoning derived from God the author of all good [...].
And therefore, since we are beginning a discussion concerning the power of Rulers, what shall prevent us from passing over to that prime origin from which they derived and from considering to what end they were instituted? For it is obvious that every discussion of things just or unjust must begin and end with the purpose [for which it exists]. [...] When therefore the duty of the rulers is inquired into, all will admit that it is assuredly right to remind them of their duty and also to admonish them roundly whenever they stray from it. But when a case occurs of either restraining tyrants who are such beyond a trace of doubt or of punishing them in accordance with their deserts, the majority commend patience and prayers to God so earnestly that they consider and condemn as mutineers and pseudo-Christians all those who refuse to bow their necks to torture. Here we are doubtless on dangerous ground; I would therefore once again beseech my readers to bear in mind my remarks immediately preceding, lest they draw inadmissible conclusions from what must be said in the sequel. I admit that I most strongly approve of Christian patience as laudable beyond all the other virtues and never sufficiently commended; I admit that men should be zealously exhorted to it because it contributes largely to the attainment of eternal bliss: rebellions and all disorder I detest as awful abominations; in affliction especially I am of opinion that we should depend upon God alone; prayer accompanied by a serious recognition of our error I recognize as the true and necessary remedies for the overthrow of tyranny since this evil is rightly counted among the scourges sent by God for the chastisement of the people [...].
Question 6. What is the duty of subjects towards their superiors who have fallen into tyranny?
It now remains for us to treat of the other question which has not without reason been debated by numerous people in these present times; that is, what may subjects of good conscience do whenever their supreme rulers, who are legitimate in other respects, degenerate into manifest tyrants? Must the authority of the supreme rulers who have become undisguised tyrants remain so sacred and inviolate that the subjects are obliged in all circumstances to endure it so that they can in no way offer resistance to it? Or if indeed resistance is in some way allowable, may they go so far as to seize arms?
Three kinds of subjects
I answer that there are three kinds of subjects in all [...]. Some are private citizens performing no duty of public administration; others do indeed hold a magistracy, but these are subject to the supreme rulers (such as we call subaltern or inferior magistrates). The third class, though they do not indeed hold the highest authority nor yet wield supreme and regular power, yet are placed in such a station that they are as it were the bridles and reins to keep the supreme ruler to his duty. As however these kinds are different so must a different reply be given concerning each.
Private citizens may not offer resistance to their lawful ruler who is a tyrant
Whether therefore those who are of private station have freely and openly agreed to the rule of an unjust usurper (as the Roman people of their own free will submitted to Augustus1 and his successors) or whether he who was their lawful ruler has become a manifest tyrants (as was Abimelech among the Israelites2 , the Thirty at Athens3 and the Decemvirs at Rome4 , and others elsewhere), I then maintain that (apart from a special injunction from God which I do not here discuss) no private citizen is entitled on his own private authority to oppose the tyrant with violence against violence, but that it in every way behooves him either to depart from the realm of that (ruler) and change his domicile or to bear the yoke of the tyrant patiently by taking refuge with God in prayer, provided only (as we have remarked from the beginning) he be not constrained to become the instrument of that very tyranny against someone or to refrain from performing any of those acts which are due to God or to his neighbor.
In short, [...] I maintain that no one in private station is allowed to set himself in open violence against a tyrant to whose domination the people of its own free will previously consented; for if we must so far abide by private contracts, pacts, agreements and undertakings that we suffer damage rather than break our word, how much more should private citizens be on their guard lest they in any way refuse to honor an obligation entered upon by a solemn and public agreement?
Concerning subordinate magistrates
I now come to the lower magistrates who are as it were intermediaries, and as the common people call them, subalterns, between the supreme magistrate and the people. Under this title I do not understand the domestic officers of the King personally (that is those who perform some duty within the royal palace and serve his person rather than the kingdom) but rather those who perform public duties, that is duties pertaining to the condition of the kingdom either as regards its courts of justice or matters of war, and who therefore even in monarchies are styled servants not of the King but of the Crown or Kingdom (for between these there is a highly important difference). Of this kind used to be in Rome, the consuls, the praetors, the city prefect, and the governors of provinces (whose [election] used to be entrusted now to the people itself, and now, in the time of the Emperors, even to the Senate) and similar officials of the Republic or the Empire, who for that reason were called magistrates of the Roman people even under the last Emperors. Such also were among the Israelites the leaders of the several tribes, the leaders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, of tens and the elders of the people. These political functions, first regulated by Moses, were in no way afterwards abolished when that aristocratic constitution was transformed into that of a monarchy, nay more, under Solomon they were carefully established and observed. Even today various classes of magistrates of the kind are to be found in most Christian kingdoms, and among them should be counted those who are styled dukes, marquises, counts, viscounts, barons and squires as having formerly been chosen in due order and lawfully to certain public duties and tasks that they might perform them. And though these subsequently became hereditary titles of honor, yet they have in no way lost their original right and authority. Among this class should further be included those who are elected with a view to a variety of duties in civic communities such as those who are generally called majors, vicars, consuls, capitolini (municipal judges), syndics, scabini (aldermen) and the like.
Subordinate magistrates are dependent not upon the person of the supreme magistrate but upon the supreme magistracy as such.
Further, although these are all subject to the supreme magistrate, receive their commands from him and are instituted and approved by him, yet they do not properly speaking depend upon him but so to speak upon the supremacy as such, that is upon that supreme power and authority of the empire or kingdom; hence upon the death of him who wielded the supreme power they each remain in their own station as before, just as the supreme power remains the same. As for the fact that he who succeeds to the place of him who has died confirms such subordinate magistrates as he also confirms the privileges of cities - Suetonius records in (his Life of Vespasian)9 that Tiberius Caesar first introduced this custom in the Roman Empire; and in earlier times it was not in use in Gaul10 except perchance when the kingship passed not from fathers to sons but to strangers - this confirmation I declare, does not bring about that the supreme magistrate should be regarded as their originator, that is, as the prime source of their being from whom they derive their origin, since the supreme magistrate himself also before he can be placed in possession of his highest administrative power, in turn takes the oath to the supreme power in accordance with the conditions expressed in the formula of the oath; just as he himself afterwards receives the oath from the officials severally also; so much so that such a confirmation bestows no new right - as little as the investiture of a vew vassal does so or that performed by a new lord - but it is merely a fresh recognition of an old right by reason of a change of person.
The obligation subsisting between supreme and subordinate magistrates is mutual
It hence appears that the obligation between the king and the officials of the kingdom is mutual and that not the entire administration of the kingdom is entrusted to the king alone but only the highest rank, and that the subordinate officials severally hold part of it each in accordance with his own rank, and that on fixed conditions on either side. If those conditions are not kept by the subordinate magistrates the supreme magistrate is entitled to discharge them or to correct them, yet only after their case has been heard in accordance with the regular procedure which the laws of the kingdom prescribe, unless he himself also desires to break the oath by which he promised to rule in accordance with the laws.
In the contrary case, however, if he who has received the royal dignity either by being elected thereto or by hereditary right openly departs from those conditions under which he was expressly recognized and approved as king, who would be inclined to doubt that the subordinate magistrates of the kingdom and further the very provinces also and the cities whose administration has been entrusted to them are automatically (ipso iure) free from their oath, in so far at all events that they have right to set themselves against the undisguised oppression of that kingdom whose defense and protection they undertook by oath each in accordance with his own office. "What then?" will someone say, "shall he who but lately was regarded as the supreme ruler (whose authority should be inviolable) - shall he by the arbitrary will of every subordinate now be deemed as mere private citizen so that it shall be lawful to assail him as a public enemy?"
Not at all, I answer, for this were to offer a loophole, as the saying is, to every kind of sinful sedition and conspiracy. But we are discussing open and manifest tyranny and tyrants of that type who cannot admit or endure any admonishments whatever. Furthermore, we are not treating the tyrant who must be utterly thrust and cast down from his throne, but we are inquiring whether no one can and should in accordance with his rank set himself against his open violence, since it was shown before that it was not right that any one should arbitrarily dishonor an obligation publicly contracted whoever he might be and however just cause of complaint he might have concerning the tyrant.
The duty of subordinate magistrates
But since on the other hand those subordinate instruments of the kingdom have received this office from the supreme power as such that they may be on their guard for the observance and protection of the laws among those who have been entrusted to their care, and since they have bound themselves by oath to perform that duty in all faith - an oath from which they cannot be absolved by any fault of him who from a king has become a tyrant and quite openly violates those conditions upon which he was appointed king and the observance of which he undertook upon oath - would it not be just according to all law, divine and human, that by reason of the oath taken by them to ensure the observance of the laws, somewhat greater [liberty of action] should be granted to these subordinate magistrates than to those [citizens] who are of entirely private station and without any public office? I therefore maintain that, if they are reduced to such unavoidable compulsion, they are certainly bound, even by means of armed force if they can, to protect against manifest tyranny the safety of those who have been entrusted to their care and honor, as long as their public interests have been better consulted and fittingly provided for in accordance with the collective counsel of the States-General or the Nomophylakes, that is, of those with whom all the legislative authority of the kingdom or empire in question rests. This moreover is not to be factious or a traitor towards your supreme ruler, but rather to be a most faithful keeper of your oath towards those whose direction you have undertaken, against perjury and against the oppressor of a kingdom whose protector he should have been.
A RESTATEMENT OF THE SIXTH QUESTION
The Orders or Estates, established to curb the supreme magistrates, can and should in every way offer resistance to them when they degenerate into tyrants
It still remains for us to speak of the third class of subjects who though they truly in one particular respect are subject to obedience to the supreme rulers, yet in another, especially in straightened and extreme circumstances, have been appointed as the defenders and champions of the rights of the supreme power as such, so that they must keep the supreme rulers to their duty and must if needs be constrain and punish them.
Here however we must keep in mind the remarks made above, namely that the people existed before there was any magistrate and that the magistrates were made for the sake of the people and not vice versa, the people for the sake of the magistrates. For however much some people seem to derive their origin from their kings - as the Roman people is said to have been created by Romulus, because there had not been an original people before but a multitude scraped together from a variety of nations and peoples - yet this can in no way be applied to others so that a general rule may be established from it. Furthermore, even Romulus did not hold sway over this congress of people except by their consent. Hence it follows that the authority of all magistrates, however supreme and powerful they are, is dependent upon the public authority of those who have raised them to this degree of dignity, and not contrariwise. And let no one use the objection that such was indeed the first beginning of magistracies but that subsequently the people completely subjected themselves to the power and arbitrary will of those whom they had received as their supreme magistrates and that they gave up their liberty to them wholly and without any reserve whatever. In the first place I deny that there is any certain proof of this complete renunciation; nay on the contrary I maintain that as long as right and justice have prevailed no nation has either elected or approved kings without laying down specific conditions.
And if those kings violate these the result is that those who had the power to confer this authority upon them have retained no less power again to divest them of that authority. That this may appear the more clearly, let us inquire whether this cannot be proved by the uninterrupted usage among the most famous and better known people throughout the ages.
[Beza proceeds to offer examples drawn from Scripture and classical antiquity, then, before turning to the case of France, presents some modern examples]
An Example from the Kingdom of the Danes
Thus within our memory the Danes not merely divested Christiernus, a most cruel tyrant, of his royal dignity but imprisoned him until his death and transferred the royal power to his uncle, a most wise and just king, the grandfather of the present ruler.
As regards the Swedes too, all men know how in our time Gustavus liberated himself and his people from their subjection to the Danes; and even today the Swedes keep their king captive for not having wisely ruled over the kingdom which had been transferred to his brother; may the Lord bless him.
The Scots also in former times removed their queen from office and condemned her to lifelong imprisonment because she was accused of a great number of foul adulteries and even of the most cruel murder of her husband, and I make bold to declare that if that accusation was justly proved, they would have acted more properly had they inflicted the deserved punishment upon her.
Examples from the Kingdom of England
As regards the kingdom of England, the most blessed of all, as many as may be seen today in the whole world—would that it may long continue in that blessedness—even if according to the right of succession it devolves upon him who is the nearer related in royal blood, yet it is apparent both from numerous noteworthy narratives and from the testimony of Polidorus in his Life of Henry, King of the English and first of that name, that nearly all authority of government is dependent upon the consent of Parliament as it is called. And certainly, if we wish to compare that blessed tranquillity which they have been enjoying for many years now under the kindest and most peaceful reign of her most serene Majesty Elizabeth with the wretched and unhappy condition of so many other parts, we shall learn from experience as such how beneficial and blessed that moderation of royal power is, if only it be rightly employed and if the very kings, Godfearing men and lovers of their people, allowed themselves, not to be swayed by it as (if they were) wards (in need of guardians)—as flatterers at court who stuff themselves with bread kneaded with the tears of the wretched commons are wont to say—but to be directed and advised by it, yet with that respect and obedience which befits their majesty and is due to it [...].
Examples taken from the Republic of Venice
Upon the same principle the Venetians, whose Republic, judging from events, is, in the light of human wisdom, regarded as the most happily and wisely constituted leader (Doge) not as some idol or image—as certain writers too little versed in politics have made bold to say—but as their leader and monarch that they may derive from him all the advantages of monarchy without any danger or tyranny. For assuredly just as the so-called General Council has complete authority to elect the Doge, but with due observance of the ceremonies which have been introduced and have become customary with them for this purpose, in the same way that very Council has reserved for itself that power without which all else might easily come to naught, namely the power to depose the Doge himself and to punish him if he should attempt or have committed any act of tyranny, as has often been proved by examples and in fact. Let therefore the remaining peoples of Italy, who have been wont to speak and reason so nicely of human affairs and who have also published numerous treatises of civil government, here consider whether they have all in this matter conducted themselves as wisely as the citizens of Venice [...].
Examples of the Kings of Gaul both before and after their Union with the Franks
I now come to the Franks. Julius Caesar is our witness that with them before their arrival in Gaul the kings were responsible to the Estates of the people; in recounting the words of Ambiorix, the chieftain of the Eburones (or the people of Liège as their modern name is) in some speech, he says that his authority is of such a nature that the multitude (that is the lawfully assembled multitude) possesses no less rights as against him than he as against it. The same is proved from the words of Vercingetorix, the king of the Averni pleading his cause in a gathering of the people as it is reproduced by the same Caesar.
But afterwards the Gauls and the Franks united under the style of the Francogalli. And although their kingdom has by striking favor of God been continued and preserved for a very long time (yet) at the present time at least, wherever the blame might attach, it seems so to totter that its most certain and immediate destruction has to be feared; and yet that can hardly happen without a mighty revolution in the remaining parts of the world. But the remarks which I now have to make on that score will, I strongly suspect, be pleasing and acceptable to some, but to others most disagreeable and ill-omened. Yet if I maintain nothing that is not the truth, I hope that God will grant me His favor against all misrepresentation.
Hence, although the Franco-Gauls elected their kings first from the house of the Nerobingians, then from the descendants of Charlemagne, and finally from the successors of Hugh Capet, yet I maintain that from the beginning they established their monarchy in such a way that their kings ruled, not by the sole right of succession, but were elected at the same time by the agreement of the Estates of the Kingdom. After being thus elected Pharamundus was raised to the royal throne in the year of our Lord 419; so (also) Pippin in the year 751 and his sons Charles and Carloman in the year 768. And at length in 771 Charles upon the authority of the Estates succeeded to his brother's portion. Following this authority he himself afterwards, that is in 812, appointed his son Louis heir to the empire and in his will he expressly provided, as Nauclerus who has recorded it testifies, that the people, that is the Estates themselves, should elect as his successor to the kingship whomsoever of his children they preferred and he also charged his uncles who might survive him to agree to such an election [...].
Moreover, that those very Estates had the power of dismissing the kings whom they had elected if they committed any wrong is proved by countless examples [...]. We also read that Hugh Capet deprived Charles, the brother of Lothar, of his kingdom since Charles was conducting the matter in a too negligent and as it were dilatory fashion and was bringing it before the Council, obviously hoping that the Estates of the Kingdom would according to the established custom settle their quarrel. And in short, if the Francogallic kingship was not bestowed by way of election, we should have to say that neither Pippin nor Capet possessed any right in it, since there was no lack of successors in the male line of Merovingian heirs when Pippin grasped the royal power, nor any lack of heirs from the sons of Charlemagne when Capet claimed the royal diadem for himself.
Furthermore, as regards the power of those some Estates by which they either conferred the principal positions of dignity and high office in the Kingdom and took them away or at least carefully noted how the kings behaved both in conferring or taking them away and in exacting taxes or in the other principal tasks of kingship in time of peace and war - for that power, I declare, there is evidence and to spare in the most ancient and entirely reliable records; these clearly prove the impudence of those flatterers who today do not cease by means of right and wrong to add to their power from the ruins of such a great kingdom so wisely established. And indeed that in our times the man who is the greatest in blood succeeds to the kingdom of France without summoning the Estates and introduces a new shape of things to suit the desire of those who have courted the favor and support of such a successor; that the meeting of the people is no longer convened at the appointed time, but only when that seems expedient to certain individuals who therein strive after personal advantages and safeguards from danger; that furthermore as often as the Estates are summoned, this happens not so much to the end that a serious decision concerning public affairs may be arrived at, but for the sake of talking, that is in order that after the fashion of the rhetoricians (or rather of the sophists) time and all action may be made vain by means of tedious and affected arguments; that those men there take their seats as judges against whom all the accusation and complaints are chiefly directed, and finally, that both wars and (questions of) peace or truce are decided upon, taxes and tribute imposed, laws upon public and private matters made and unmade, dignities and commands and likewise all public offices bestowed upon chosen men or taken from them according to the arbitrary will of a certain limited group of men or women, noble or baseborn, honest or abandoned, who enjoy greater authority or influence with the rulers of the state (since through their ears and eyes alone the latter hear and see) - all these circumstances, I declare, are completely at variance with the just customs and policy of our ancestors and clearly in direct opposition to the chief laws upon which the foundations of the French monarchy rest.
But I now leave it to all lawyers who possess a good conscience together with knowledge of the law to discuss the question whether any prescription of however long a period of time can or should in accordance with any law divine or human find application here. For the fact that even to this day kings are anointed in solemn ritual and swear their oath - would that its words were publicly printed so that they might become known to all - and that they are further wont, after they have secured the kingship, to confirm their privileges to the communities severally and also their public charges to the officials of the kingdom (albeit many abuses occur here which are in no wise to be commended), and lastly the fact that if the kings are minors the orders and Estates of the kingdom decide by common resolution to whom its administration shall be entrusted, all these I say are the present survivals of that erstwhile authority which the Estates enjoyed and which is now gradually disappearing. Yet two centuries have not passed since the will of Charles V, nicknamed the Wise, was annulled by the Estates themselves, that is in 1380. What more? When in 1467 Louis XI, who tried his utmost to transform the French monarchy into a tyranny (a procedure which the parasites of the palace call the emancipation of the sovereign of his release from slavery), was deservedly accused of the worst misgovernment of the kingdom, thirty (or thirty-six) men were given to him as guardians by the Estate gathered at Tours that he might allow himself to be directed and guided by them. It is true indeed that he afterwards easily rid himself of them since, under pretext of the idol of Clery which he worshipped with the greatest superstition, all his oaths and promises were but sport and jest to him; yet (he did this) with so much harm to himself and such an unhappy result that apart from the disgrace with which he is branded even today, he could enjoy no rest or peace during his lifetime and even at death's door experienced what it meant to be feared rather than loved by his subjects [...].
Epilogue and Conclusion about the Authority of the Estates
The purpose therefore of all that has been said above is as follows, namely that the highest authority rests with kings or other supreme rulers with this proviso that if they violate the nobelest laws and sworn conditions and degenerate into unabashed tyranny nor give heed to sound counsels, it shall be lawful and permitted to the subordinate magistrates to take precautions for themselves and for those over whom they exercise guardianship, and to offer resistance to the tyrant of the people. But the Estates or Orders of the realm upon whom this authority has been conferred by the laws, can and must so far oppose the tyrant and even, if need be, inflict just and deserved punishment upon him until matters have been restored to their former condition. And if they do so, so far from deriving to be regarded as guilty of sedition of high treason, they should on the contrary only then be deemed to have carried out conscientiously their duty and their oath by which they were bound towards God and their country. And though by means of the clearest examples of kingdoms and empires both ancient and modern we have already above demonstrated the practice in these matters, yet to answer the objection that (the matter) should be judged by legal arguments rather than by examples, I shall add as many other grounds as possible to lend greater support to our point of view.
I. Argument from natural law and equity
For to begin with I maintain that there are two propositions which justice as such or that law of nature upon which alone the maintenance of all human society depends, does not allow to be called in question; the first of these is that in all compacts and covenants which are contracted by mutual and sole agreement between the parties, those by whom the obligations were entered into, can of themselves cancel and annul it, whenever reason so demands. Accordingly those who possess authority to elect a king, will also have the right to dethrone him. The second (proposition) is that if there is any just occasion for the annulment of a compact or covenant by reason of which the obligation would of itself disappear and be held as naught, it never arises but when the essential conditions, for which particularly the obligation was entered upon, are manifestly violated.
Therefore let those who so far exalt the authority of kings and supreme rulers as to dare maintain that they have no other Judge but God alone to whom they are held bound to render account of their deeds, furnish proof that there has been any nation anywhere which has consciously and without intimidation or compulsion of some kind subjected itself to the arbitrary rule of some supreme ruler without the express or tacit addition of the proviso that it be justly and fairly ruled and guided by him.
But if someone were to furnish an example of peoples who upon being defeated in war surrendered at discretion and swore to the conditions dictated by the victors, it would not be enough for me to answer with the lawyers that (undertakings) extorted by violence or intimidation which is the rule of consciences does not easily permit oaths of that kind to be heedlessly violated). But I shall further add that even if any people has consciously and of its free will granted assent to an undertaking which is as such evidently sinful and opposed to the law of nature, such obligation is null and void; so little ground is there for reasonable doubt whether that obligation which was contracted as a result of violence or intimidation or of open deceit and malpractice should be regarded as valid and binding. For this general rule of law and justice sustained by the common principles of nature, which still linger in man after the Fall however corrupt (he may be) is so firmly established and so lasting, that nothing which is openly opposed and repugnant to them should be regarded as just and valid between men. This moreover must be understood about matters utterly unjust and manifestly sinful which everyone not entirely destitute of human insight realizes cannot be exacted or performed by anyone with a good conscience [...].
But let us grant that there was some nation which either from lack of foresight or as a result of blandishments or lastly because it once chanced upon a good ruler from a certain family and with excessive credulity assumed that all his descendants also would be like him always, submitted itself without any express condition to some (ruler); shall we on that account declare that all things that he may wish will be permissible to that ruler? Will not rather those things which by their nature are just and lawful have to be regarded as if they had been expressed? For what shall otherwise be the end of the matter? Or of what kind shall the life of men finally be, if a ruler of this description wantonly proceeds to such a pitch of license that he savagely slays the parents of his subjects, ravishes their wives and daughters, pillages their houses and possessions and finally murders them individually as the fancy takes him; because the people reposing their trust in his worth have from the outset admitted him as their ruler without any conditions?
II. Arguments from Analogy
Furthermore it would be most unfair to refuse to an entire nation and people that which justice itself freely grants to private persons, such as minors, women, people of an unsound mind and those who complain that they have been defrauded beyond half the fair value, particularly if there be proof of the bad faith of those towards whom such persons have bound themselves . But can anyone be found of worse faith than that tyrant who is so shameless that he wishes people to believe that he may do everything, lawful and unlawful, because he either so covenanted with the people or received such power from his ancestors? Meanwhile I for my part admit, as has been abundantly shown above, that in that case the authority of the Estates or Orders should be invoked and interposed that private citizens may not be free to undertake and attempt anything against the public order and that subordinate magistrates may not go beyond the limits of their calling.
But I put the further question whether the obligation of subjects towards their kings is greater than that of children towards parents, of slaves towards their master or of freedmen towards their patron who set them free. Let us listen particularly what Cicero, guided by justice and reason, writes concerning the duty of a (dependent) son whose father strives by violence to seize control of his country: "If a father," he says "by open violence attempts to grasp tyrannical power or to betray his country, shall a son remain silent? No, not at all; but he shall as suppliant beseech his father not to do so; but if by his entreaties he does not avail at all, he shall reproach him and frighten him with threats; but if the matter has already gone so far that there is reason to apprehend that this country may at length be overwhelmed, he shall set greater store by the preservation of his country than by the life of his father." Listen what was the opinion of that man, not merely in agreement with reason but also carrying the greatest authority.
As regards servants or slaves, there was a proviso in Roman law that a slave whom his master did not tend in illness should be regarded as free. And what is even more important, a slave is by a provision of the written law free to accuse his master of high treason. But who is more liable to this accusation than the tyrant who openly subverts all rights divine as well as human? But, you will rejoin, before whom shall he be accused? I answer, either before those who since they possessed the authority to elect him, also possess the authority to judge him, or before those who are the chief defenders of the supreme power and from whom there is no appeal.
Thus although freedmen owe every respect to their patrons, so much so that in ordinary law they can institute only civil actions against them, yet for special reasons, that is if they have suffered some terrible injustice at the hands of their patron or have caught him in adultery with their wives, they can in virtue of the civil law lay a capital charge against him. My purpose with these arguments is not to tighten the conscience (of men) by means of the civil laws or the pronouncements of philosophers as if by most reliable rules, but only to show as clearly as may be how unjust is the opinion of those who would leave men no means at all by which they may avail to break the onset of imminent or openly aggressive tyranny, however cruel and unjust the matter might be.
Various Objections Answered
a) Assuredly the usual objection that the king is not bound by the laws cannot and should not be accepted as a general proposition as the flatterers of kings and destroyers of kingdoms inauspiciously proclaim; for not to mention the example of so many, nay nearly all, nations which were adduced above, what is the purpose of so many weighty maxims of the jurists of old, derived from the law of nature? Such maxims are: the legislators are beholden to the laws; that each must observe the same right which he has decreed against another; that nothing is more profitable to imperial power than that the king should act according to the laws; and that it is a fitting saying that the ruler professes himself the subject of the laws. Hence the proposition which would appear to be made elsewhere by the jurists that the ruler is above the laws, or that the ruler is not bound by the laws (legibus solutus), must be understood only of the civil laws [...], but not of public law and the so-called constitutional law; much less of natural or divine law, for since men collectively and individually are subjected to it in so far as they are born men, it clearly follows that either kings are not men or that they are bound by this law.
b) If again someone were to raise the objection that public law referring to the constitution of the people or nation (for that is the kind we are discussing) differs widely from the law of nature common to all nations, I shall concede that this is true indeed in certain matters, but with this limitation that the entire distinction is connected with circumstances which cannot prevent general fairness and equity from so far remaining steadfast and invariable that every polity acting in violation of it — as for example if undisguised impieties, robberies and similar crimes both against God and against the law of nations and good morals were to meet with approval — should be utterly condemned and cast off.
c) The further exception might be raised that the supreme ruler does indeed stand arraigned if he rules contrary to his undertaking, but that he has no other judge but God Himself, and this might be proved by the example of David, for though he was an adulterer and a wicked slayer of men, yet he was judged by no mortal man. But I answer first that it is apparent from what has been said above that the nations themselves and the Estates of the people generally reserved for themselves the right to curb their rulers and that no antiquity or prescription can be urged against this right; further that there is a great difference between him who has on one occasion or even repeatedly committed some crime and the man who openly professes himself abandoned to every kind of crime, as also between the ruler of a dissolute way of life and the other who subverts every just method of rule in his kingdom; for I should not be inclined to think that the supreme ruler ought to be corrected in the same way as his subjects for private delicts which are personal in the strict sense of the word, but yet (I do think) that he can become so abandoned that he can and should deservedly be visited with penalties and punishments. How much more fair would it therefore be when the order of the state is at stake that those upon whom this duty rests should be free to take precautions and to strive lest the commonwealth suffer any harm? And if they neglect to do so, let them be regarded as traitors towards God and their country, to (both of) whom they have bound themselves by oath. When these distinctions are duly weighed and brought into relation with the general character of David as also with the public amends by which he did penance for his public crimes, no one will be surprised that nothing more severe was decreed or attempted against him. Moreover it is in principle an illogical conclusion of the argument to craw the inference that no punishment should have been inflicted for some wrong because none in fact was inflicted.
d) But perhaps there will not be wanting those who will furnish the (example of) the authority of the Turkish emperor over his subjects. I should wish these to have their answer in a single word: an empire of that description does not deserve to be called either kingly or human, but wholly barbarous, tyrannical, uncivilized and detestable, especially because whereas the other monarchies and empires, to however many faults they may have been subject, were still instruments suitable for the preservation of human society, it is obvious that on the contrary this Turkish tyranny is an awful scourge of God by means of which God in accordance with his just judgment threatens this world with its final ruin and overthrow. Therefore, if there are men to be found today who are counselors to kings so that these may fashion an example and an image of their rule from that source, I proclaim with a clear and loud voice that those Turks should be deemed the public enemies of humankind and should be cast out in banishment.
e) But to pursue the analogies concerning the right of one private citizen towards another upon which I set out above: will any obligation which is more stricti iuris than that of marriage arise between human beings? For in it God Himself intervenes as if He were the chief guarantor of this contract, and by it those who were two become one flesh. But even in marriage also, if one party deserts the other, the Apostle proclaims the deserted party relieved of every obligation, because the deserter violates the principal condition of marriage. But let us imagine that someone declares himself willing to keep his wife with him and that he attempts to do so, yet if it becomes known that this man desires to have his wife in order to kill her or to remove her in some other way, will he not have to be regarded in the light of a manifest deserter (of his wife)? But assuredly the design of tyrants does not differ from his since they do not strive to have subjects in their power for any other reason but to persecute and crush them to their destruction while they indulge their own lusts; why therefore should the wielders of judicial authority not pronounce the same judgment over both? But if not even the canons of the Church consider that a wife who cannot safely live with her husband, should be compelled to live with him, why shall a subordinate magistrate not be allowed to take precautions on behalf of himself and his people and to have recourse to the Estates against a manifest tyrant? [...]
In the question under discussion I therefore declare that a king or even an emperor, whose rule is dependent upon the supreme power, if he is guilty of that crime of treachery towards his vassals, that is his subjects — would that it never happened! — forfeits his feudal estate, in the sense not that it is judicially awarded to his vassals, but that those who recover that supreme power may dispose of it. But that the strength of this argument may be recognized it should be noted that such mediate (or as they are commonly called, subaltern) lords swear no oath to their vassals then they make their grant to them, so that the rule which we mentioned as applying to those who commit treachery, is supported by no other consideration but that of natural justice, and although it has not been expressed yet it must always of itself be understood. What therefore, that the comparison may proceed from the lesser to the greater, will have to be decided about him who has committed that crime against his subjects towards whom he has bound himself by express oath? Furthermore, even if we were to concede the point that the lord can never incur the charge of treachery against his vassal so as to forfeit his feudal right, yet no one doubts but what the vassal, if guilty of this crime against his lord, is deservedly deprived of his right. Therefore, since the emperor himself, as has been pointed out above, owes obedience (or homage as the people say) to the imperial power as being himself its first and most exalted subject — and a fortiori or at least with equal reason kings in their kingdoms must be regarded as being in the same position —who would doubt but what emperors or kings forfeit their feudal power if they recklessly go to such lengths of treachery as to degenerate into undisguised and regrettable tyranny? For we have proved that that was everywhere approved of.
Lastly, since it has upon reliable grounds and as the result of countless examples long since been the firm conviction of all men of sober judgment, even of those who call themselves Roman Catholics, that the Ecumenical or General Council is the superior of the Pope and possesses authority to depose him, for the crime of heresy at all events, it assuredly follows either that kings possess greater authority than pontiffs and that the crime of heresy is of less consequence than that of tyranny, or that the people possess as much power at all events against kings who have become tyrants as the Council possesses against an heretical Pontiff.
This then is our opinion about this inquiry into the problem as to the right possessed by subjects, whatever their rank, against the supreme ruler who has become an undisguised tyrant.
Question 7. What must be done when the Orders or Estates cannot be summoned to impede or to check tyranny?
Yet there still remains a considerable difficulty in this discussion. The question is what should be done when tyranny has attained to such influence that the meeting of the Estates, [which we have declared to be the lawful remedy against such tyranny] is, in a word, so hampered by connivance, or intimidation or malice on the part of the majority that it can in no way be assembled. I answer that private citizens, unless they have authority from a subordinate magistrate or the saner part of the Estates, concerning which more is discussed shortly, here have no other just remedy but reflection combined with patience and prayers which God will assuredly not always reject and without which all other remedies however legitimate will be subject to His curse. But there is no reason why subjects in private station should not betake themselves to the intermediate magistrates and take them to task concerning their duty; and if all of them or the saner part of them are prepared to make use of such help from private citizens, I have above shown sufficiently what they are bound to render to God and their country.
It is assuredly the duty of the subordinate magistrates at once unanimously to insist on an assembly of the Estates and meanwhile as far as they can and may to defend and protect themselves against undisguised tyranny; lastly, this duty rests upon the several Estates also earnestly to secure a lawful and general assembly of all the Estates, that the wicked may not check and obstruct the good, nor the slothful the diligent, nor the vulgar herd the more sober section. Nay more, in a crisis of that description all private citizens are under an obligation to attach themselves to their subordinate magistrates and perform the duty of subjects, and if the occasion demands it, the saner section upon being oppressed will even have the right to procure support from abroad especially from the allies and friends of the kingdom [...].
Question 8. What may be done against unjust oppressors?
But what, will someone say, if the ruler crushes the people with excessive taxes? When he has been properly warned, those who wield the chief and highest authority in accordance with the laws of the kingdom assuredly can and even should consult the commonwealth. But here it should also be noted that a ruler who exceeds the due measure in such matters because he is wasteful or avaricious or addicted to other vices, should not forthwith be regarded as a tyrant; for the mark of tyranny [...] is a persistent malice which strives with might and main to subvert the constitution and the laws upon which the kingdom rests as upon foundations. I add the following remark also that however just an occasion of offering resistance to manifest tyranny may at one time or another present itself, yet the excellent maxim expressed by a heathen should be continually considered and followed if possible: Its befits a wise man to make trial of all things by deliberation before armed force.
Question 10. Whether those who suffer persecution for the sake of their religion can defend themselves against tyrants without hurt to their consciences.
It finally remains for me to solve a question of the greatest moment, namely, whether it is allowable, in accordance with the condition and distinctions laid down above, to offer resistance by armed force to tyranny assailing the true religion and even stamping it out as far as may be, and to contend against persecution. The following may be the principal reasons for entertaining doubts [on this score]: firstly, since religion touches the consciences [of people] which can in no way be subjected to violence, it would appear that it should not be rendered secure or be defended by means of any armed force; for that reason we perceive that it has thus far been propagated by the preaching of the Word of God, by prayers and by patience. There are besides many passages to be found in the Scriptures from which the difference between the kingdoms of this world and the spiritual kingdom of Christ appears. To these may finally be added the example of the holy Prophets and in the last instance that of Christ Himself, our Lord, for although all authority, power and virtue dwelt in Him, yet He Himself never adopted this method of defense, just as the Apostles themselves and all the martyrs after them refrained from doing so; so much so that not even entire legions of the faithful of Christ, abundantly furnished with arms, declined to meet death rather than defend themselves by drawing the sword and assailing the very enemies of truth.
I answer first that it is an absurd, nay even a false opinion that the means by which the objects and affairs of this world are defended, such as both courts of law and armed force, not merely differ from the means by which things spiritual can be defended, but are as it were diametrically opposed to them and are so incompatible with them that they neither can nor ought to find any application in a matter of religion. But on the contrary I declare that it is the principal duty of a most excellent and pious ruler that there should apply whatever means, authority and power has been granted him by God to this end entirely that God may truly be recognized among his subjects and may, being recognized, be worshipped and adored as the supreme king of all kings. Therefore the man of that description will not merely put forth all the power of his jurisdiction and the authority of the laws against the despisers or disturbers of the true religion who have shown themselves not the least amenable to ecclesiastical words of rebuke and admonition, but will even punish with armed force those who cannot otherwise be restrained from impiety [...].
It will therefore be the part of a pious ruler who wishes to entice his people away from idolatry and false superstitions to the true religion, to see to it in the first instance that they are instructed in piety by means of true and reliable argument, just as on the other hand it is in the part of the subjects to give their assent to truth and reason and readily to submit. Finally the ruler will be fully occupied in rendering the true religion secure by means of good and noble decrees against those who assail and resist it out of pure obstinacy, as we have seen done in our times in England, Denmark, Sweden, Scotland, and the greater part of Germany and Switzerland against the Papists, the Anabaptists and other heretics. If the other nations preferred following their example rather than trusting and obeying that bloodstained whore of Rome, could greater tranquillity indeed by seen in the whole world in the sphere of religion as well as of politics?
What therefore will subjects have to do if on the other hand they are compelled by their ruler to worship idols? Assuredly reason does not permit them to force their ruler to a complete change in their condition; nay rather, they will consider it needful patiently to bear with him even to persecution, while they worship God purely in the meantime, or altogether to go into exile and seek new abodes. But if the free exercise of the true religion has once been granted by means of decrees lawfully passed and settled and confirmed by public authority, then I declare that the ruler is so much the more bound to have them observed as a matter of religion is of greater moment compared with all others, so much so that he has no right to repeal them upon his own arbitrary decision, and without having heard the case, but only with the intervention of that same authority by which they were in the first instance enacted. If he acts otherwise I declare that he is practicing manifest tyranny; and with due allowance for the observations made above, [his subjects] will be all the more free to oppose him as we are bound to set greater store and value by the salvation of our souls and the freedom of our conscience than by any other matters however desirable. It should therefore now be no cause of surprise to anyone that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Prophets and the Apostles, too, or the other martyrs, since they were men in private station, confined themselves within the limits of their calling.