Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.
All of the natural rights philosophers—such as Blackstone, Montesquieu, Hobbes, and Locke—who provided the intellectual foundation of the American Revolution saw self-defense as “the primary law of nature,” from which many other legal principles could be deduced.
John Locke argued that a man’s life belonged to God. Accordingly, the life was inalienable property; a man could not destroy his life by suicide, or sell his life by voluntarily choosing to become a slave. To allow one’s life to be destroyed because one failed to engage in self-defense was a form of hubris. As a 1747 sermon in Philadelphia put it:
He that suffers his life to be taken from him by one that hath no authority for that purpose, when he might preserve it by defense, incurs the Guilt of self murder since God hath enjoined him to seek the continuance of his life, and Nature itself teaches every creature to defend itself.
Like the Catholic canonists, the New Englanders connected the natural law right of self-defense to the duty to protect one’s national liberties:
There is a Principle of Self-Defence and Preservation, implanted in our very Natures, which is necessary to us almost as our Beings, which no positive Law of God ever yet contradicted….When our Liberty is invaded and struck at, ‘tis sufficient Reason for our making War on the Defence or Recovery of it.
Simeon Howard, preaching the Boston artillery company in 1773 likewise asserted the natural law right of self-defense:
Self-preservation is one of the strongest, and a universal principle of the human mind: And this principle allows of every thing necessary to self-defence, opposing force to force, and violence to violence. This is so universally allowed that I need not attempt to prove it.
According to Howard, failure to practice self-defense was a sin, one reason being that tame submission to tyranny created an environment conducive to sin: “Such submission tends to slavery; and compleat slavery implies every evil that the malice of man and the devils can inflict.” Samuel Cooper likewise connected servility with moral degradation, for servility was “commonly accompanied with the meanest vices, such as adulation, deceit, falsehood, treachery, cruelty, and the basest methods of supporting and procuring the favour of the power upon which it depends.”
The New Testament said that a man who neglects to provide for his family has implicitly denied the faith and is worse than an infidel. “But,” asked Howard, “in what way can a man be more justly chargeable with this neglect, than by suffering himself to be deprived of his life, liberty or property, when he might lawfully have preserved them?”
Preaching the Boston election sermon of 1776, Samuel West pointed to another implication of “the law of nature” and its “principle of self-defence.” Self-defense included a duty to one’s community. It was violation of common sense and of natural law for people to think that they “did God service when they unmercifully butchered and destroyed the lives of the servants of God; while others, upon the contrary extreme, believe that they please God while they sit still and quietly behold their friends and brethren killed by their unmerciful enemies without endeavoring to defend or rescue them. The one is a sin of omission, and the other is a sin of commission…” Both sins were “great violations of the law of God.”
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