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1649: Rous, Lawfulness of Obeying the Present Government (Pamphlet)

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Source: The Struggle for Sovereignty: Seventeenth-Century English Political Tracts, 2 vols, ed. Joyce Lee Malcolm (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999). Vol. 1.

Francis Rous, The Lawfulnesse of Obeying the Present Government (1649).

Editor's Introduction

If the attribution is correct it was at the age of seventy, after an already long career as a prominent Puritan divine, a member of Parliament, and a pamphleteer that Francis Rous wrote “The Lawfulnes of Obeying the Present Government” in defense of the newmodeled English government.He had set to work within a month of the publication of Parliament’s “Declaration,” and the tract appeared on 25 April 1649.

Rous was born in Devonshire, was educated at Oxford, and was step-brother to John Pym. In both religion and politics he was a vociferous member of the Presbyterian party.He already had published numerous religious tracts by the outbreak of the civil war. Shortly before the king’s execution he switched from the Presbyterian to the triumphant independent party.

Rous’s parliamentary career began with the first parliament of Charles I. He was to sit in every subsequent Parliament, including those of the Interregnum, until his death in 1659. In the Parliament of 1628 he was notable for his violent attack on Roger Maynwaring and “popery.” In the Long Parliament it was he who began the debate on the legality of Archbishop Laud’s new canons of 1640. He was speaker of the parliament of 1653. And in 1656 Rous was one of those selected to urge Cromwell to accept the crown.

The arguments Rous relied upon to urge obedience to the new regime were a break with the past.Rather than defending the legality of the Rump’s assumption of power, he argued that even an unlawful government could and should be obeyed. “It must not be looked at what he is that exercises the power,” he maintained, or “by what manner he does dispense it, but only if he have power.” Why? Because all power came of God. Moreover, not to obey those in power would cause chaos. In short, Rous turned to the arguments many royalists had used to insist upon obedience to the king. It was the most pragmatic sort of appeal, one Thomas Hobbes would endorse in Leviathan. “The Lawfulnes of Obeying the Present Government” was designed to win over the war-weary enemies of the regime. But despite its moderate tone, its arguments provoked a furor.Three replies were published within weeks, one of which is reprinted below.Within four months Rous brought out a second edition of the tract with additions, while a third edition was published in 1650. An expert on the pamphlets of the period judges that Rous’s was the one tract we can assume all his successors had read. The reasonable tone he adopted was one of his bequests to them. The first edition is reprinted below.

The Lawfulnesse of Obeying the Present Government (1649).

A Declaration hath been lately published,1 wherein the grounds are exprest of setling the present Government, with which if any be not so far satisfied as to think that Settlement lawfull, yet even to such is this Discourse directed, which proposeth Proofes, that though the change of a Government were beleeved not to be lawfull, yet it may lawfully be obeyed.

The Apostle intreating of purpose upon the duty of submission and obedience to Authority, layes down this precept; Let every soul be subject to the higher powers, for there is no power but of God; the powers that are, are ordained of God; and hereupon infers,Wherefore ye must needs be subject not only for wrath, but for conscience’ sake. And that he speakes not in this place meerly of power or authority abstracted from persons, but of persons cloathed with that authority, appeares in that he saith; For, rulers are not a terrour to good workes. So that he speakes of persons ruling, as well as of the power by which they rule. And againe,He is the Minister of God, and they are God’s Ministers; & accordingly he directs Timothy, to pray for a blessing upon those that are in authority. Now if the Powers, Rulers, and those that were in authority in that time were ordained of God, and were to be obeyed for conscience’ sake, let us consider how lawfully they came into that power, rule, and authority. This Epistle most probably, if not certainly, was written in the time of Claudius Caesar, or Nero, the former of which banished the Jews out of Rome, upon which occasion Aquila and Priscilla came out to meet with Paul at Corinth: and by the sentence of the latter, Paul having made his appeale to Caesar finished his course, and passed unto a crowne of righteousnesse. And now, behold the lawfulnesse by which these two persons came to be invested in their power and authority.

Of Claudius Caesar the Story tells us this; After the death of Gaius Caligula, the Consuls and Senate of Rome entered into a consultation, how they might restore the Common-wealth to her ancient freedom, which by the Caesars had been taken from them. So that the taking in of an Emperour, and consequently of Claudius for Emperour, was directly against the wills and resolution of the Counsuls and Senate; yet these anciently for many hundred yeares had the chiefe power of Government. But see the way of Claudius his coming to the Empire; during the Interregnum, Claudius being frighted with the newes of Caligula’s death, and fearing himselfe might be enquired for upon suspicion withdrew, and hid himselfe behind the Hangings, or covering of a doore; where a Souldier seeing his feet, and desirous to know what he was drew him forth, and upon knowledge of him saluted him Emperour, though even then for feare falling downe low before him. This one Souldier brought him forth to his fellow Souldiers, who lifted him up as Emperour; and thus while the Senate was slow in executing their purposes, and differences grew among them, Claudius, who was sent for by the Senate to give in his councell concerning the common freedome, undertooke the Empire.Thus in one Souldier at first, and then in more, was the foundation of Claudius his Emperiall power, against the will, consultations, and endeavours of Consuls and Senate. And for Nero (his Successor) Britannicus, who was nearer of kin to Claudius, being his Son, was kept in by the cunning of Nero’s mother, and by the same craft Nero being brought forth to the Souldiery, was first saluted Emperour by them. This sentence of the Souldiers was followed with the consent of the Senate, and then it was not scrupled in the Provinces; so that the Souldiery was also the foundation of Nero’s Empire. Thus we see Rulers put by Souldiers into that power which is said by the Scripture to be ordained of God; and even to these Rulers men must be subject for conscience.

But passing from the Romane state to our owne; sure we are that in this Nation many persons have beene setled in supreame power and authority by meere force without title of inheritance, or just conquest. And it hath been observed by some that accurately have looked into our story, that not any three immediately succeeding each other, came to the Crowne by true lineall succession and order of blood. Neither is there any great difficulty in finding it, untill we come to Queene Mary, whose title being by an incestuous marriage,2 these observers say that Queene Elizabeth should have raigned in her stead. However, we are cleerly told by story, that five Kings on a row (of which the Conquer was the first) had no title at all by lineall descent and proximity of blood.The first came in by force;The second and third had an elder Brother living when they came to the Crowne;The fourth raigned when his Predecessor had a Daughter, and Heire living which was Mawd the Empresse;The fifth being the Son of that Empresse, raigned while his Mother was alive, by whom his Title came. But leaving these, and Edward the third who raigned in his Father’s lifetime, and the three Henries; fourth, fifth, and sixth, who raigned upon the Lancastrian (that is a younger Brother’s) Title, Let us more particularly consider Henry the seventh. This Henry came in with an Army, and by meere power was made King in the Army, and by the Army; so that in the very field where he got the Victory, the Crowne was set upon his head, and there he gave Knighthood to divers. And upon this foundation of military power, he got himselfe afterwards to be solemnely Crowned at Westminster. And soone after upon authority thus gotten, he called a Parliament, and in that Parliament was the Crowne entailed upon him and his Heires. Thus both his Crowne and his Parliament were founded upon power. As for any right Title, he could have none; for he came from a Bastard of John of Gaunt, which though legitimated by Parliament for common Inheritances, yet expressely was excluded from right to the Crowne. And for his wive’s Title, that came in after his Kingship, and his Parliament, which before had setled the Crowne upon him and his Heirs. And he was so farre from exercising authority in her right, that her name is not used in any Lawes as Queene Marie’s was, both before and after her marriage with the Spanish King. Now this and the rest who came in by meere power without Title of inheritance, being in their opinion who are now unsatisfied, to be held unlawfull, yet the maine body of this Nation did obey them, whilst they ruled, yea doth yield subjection to their Lawes to this very day. And the learned in the Lawes doe continually plead, judge, justify, and condemne according to these Lawes. So that herein the very voice of the Nation with one consent seemes to speake aloud;That those whose title is held unlawfull, yet being possest of authority may lawfully be obeyed.

And hereunto Divines and Casuists give their concurrence; among them one that is resolute both for Monarchy and lineall Succession, thus expresseth his judgement, both for seeking of right and justice from an usurper (whom he calleth a Tyrant, in regard of an unjust Title, not in respect of Tyranicall oppression) and for obeying his commands. First, that Subjects may lawfully seek justice of him;And secondly, that if his commands be lawfull and just, they must be obeyed. And another well esteemed in the Reformed Churches, is of the same judgement.

Pareus saith, That it matters not by what means or craft Nimrod, Jeroboam, got Kingdomes to themselves; For the power is one thing which is of God, and the getting and the use of the power is another.3 And after:The beginning of Nimrod’s power was indeed evill, as to the getting and usurping power, because abusing his strength, force, & wealth, he violently subdued others, and compelled them to obey; but not the power or force wherewith he seemed to be indeed by God, above others: And another more plainely.When a question is made whom we should obey; it must not be lookt at what he is that exerciseth the power, or by what right or wrong he hath invaded the power, or in what manner he doth dispence it, but only if he have power. For if any man doe excell in power, it is now out of doubt, that he received that power of God; wherefore without all exception thou must yield thyselfe up to him, and heartily obey him.

And indeed how can it be otherwise? For when a person or persons have gotten Supreme power, and by the same excluded all other from authority, either that authority which is thus taken by power must be obeyed, or else all authority and government must fall to the ground, & so confusion (which is worse than tituler Tyranny) be admitted into a Common-wealth; And (according to the doctrine of King James) the King being for the Common-wealth, and not the Common-wealth for the King, the end should be destroyed for the meanes, the whole for a part. If a Master’s mate had throwne the Master over Board, and by power would suffer no other to guide the Ship but himselfe; if the Marriners will not obey him commanding aright for the safe guiding of the Ship, the Ship must needs perish and themselves with it. And whereas some speake of a time for setlement, they indeed do rather speak for a time of unsetlement; for they will have an unsetlement first, and a setlement after. And whereas like doth produce its like; yet they would have an unsetlement to beget a setlement.They would have confusion, distraction, destruction, to bring forth order and safety. But the former Scriptures speake not of the future, but of the present time; not of obeying those that shall be powers, and shall be in authority; but the powers that are, and those that are in authority.Neither doe the Casuists and Divines speake of obedience to those that shall be setled but those that are in actuall possession of authority.Neither did our Ancestors in the former examples defer obedience to the Kings that came in by power without Title; but gave it presently, being presently vested and possessed of authority. Besides, let it be considered whether that may not be called a setlement, how soone soever it is when there is such a way setled that men may have Justice if they will, and may enjoy that maine end of Magistracie, to live a peaceable life in godlinesse and honesty.

And indeed when one is in possession by power, and another pretends a Title, what can the maine body of a Nation, which consists of the Common-people doe in this case? They cannot judge of Titles; but they see who doth visibly and actually exercise power and authority. Yea even Learned men, and Statesmen have been found ignorant of the former observations, of the not succeeding three in order of blood since the Conquest; and then how should the Common people know it? Yet further, even Peeres, chiefe Cities, Parliaments, and all having to one in every three, thus subjected themselves upon termes of power and not of right; what can be expected but that what hath been done, may or should be done hereafter? especially when in this present age obedience is given to the Lawes and Commands of those Princes? But some say that there are Oathes that justifie disobedience to the present Government. Surely Oathes are sacred bonds and reverent obligements, and where they doe not themselves leave or make us free, we are not to cut or breake them in pieces. Yet concerning these there are faults on both hands: On the one side the slighting of an Oath, (and such is the comparing it with an Almanack) which is a light as well as an unproper comparison; except it were such an Oath as was made only for a yeare; But we finde some part of the Vow and Covenant to speake of all the dayes of our lives, which doubtlesse may lie on many of the takers for many years. True it is that the obligation of some things may end, because they can no longer be kept, as that of the King’s person; for to impossible things there is no obligation: but will any man that understands, and favours Religion and Piety, say that the clauses which concerne Religion and Piety are expired? Did we promise to God in our severall places and callings, to extirpate Profanenesse, Heresie, and Blasphemy, and to endeavour a reformed life in ourselves and ours; only till our Enemies were overcome, and then to make an end? What were this but to say unto God, If thou wilt deliver us, we will be bound to thee till we are delivered and no longer? Would this invite God to deliver us from our enemies, or rather to keep our Enemies still in strength against us? Least we being delivered from our Enemies should not serve him in righteousnesse and holinesse all our lives. Surely this is too like that course of carnall Israel, of whom it is written, When he slew them, then they sought him, and they enquired early after God; but their heart was not right with him, neither were they stedfast in his Covenant. Much more piously and faithfully a reverend and truly spirituall Divine; A well grounded covenant is a sure, a firme and an irrevocable Act.When you have such an All This (and such you have) as is here concentered in the Text, to lay into, or for the foundation of the Covenant; the superstruction (is aeternitati sacrum and) must stand forever.

But on the other side there are other faults; such are the urging of an Oath or Covenant against enemies, and not against friends in one and the same Action; and if not altogether so, yet a slight and diminishing charge of it upon one, and a vehement and aggravating charge of it upon the other. Another fault may be, a stiffe insisting on one part, and a neglect, or at least silence in another part; as likewise when by event two parts of it come to be inconsistent, to chuse and inforce the keeping of the lighter or lesse necessary part, and to give way to the losse and not keeping of the greater.There is another, in racking an Oath or Covenant, to make it speake that which it meant not. And here it were good to consider, whether there be any clause in any Oath or Covenant, which in a faire and common sence forbids obedience to the commands of the present Government and Authority, much lesse when no other can be had, and so the Common-wealth must goe to ruine. And whether it forbids obedience to the present Authority more than to Lawes that have beene formerly enacted, by those which came into Authority meerly by power? If it be said that in the Oath of Allegiance, Allegiance is sworne to the King, his Heires, and Successors, if His Heires be not His Successors, how doth that Oath binde? Either the word Successors must be superfluous, or else it must binde to Successors as well as to Heires; and if it binds not to a Successor, that is not an Heire, how can it binde to an Heire that is not a Successor? And if you will know the common and usuall sence (which should be the meaning of an Oath) of the word Successors, you need not so much aske of Lawyers and learned persons, as of men of ordinary knowledge, and demand of them,Who was the Successor of William the Conqueror, and see whether they will not say,William Rufus; and who succeeded Richard the third, and whether they will not say Henry the seventh? And yet (as it appeares before) neither of them was Heire. So it seemes in the ordinary acception, the word Successor is taken for him that actually succeeds in Government, and not for him that is actually excluded. And as in Language the ordinary acception of a word is to be taken for the meaning, so that meaning is to be understood as most proper to have been taken in an Oath.

Yet withall this Quaere may be added;While the Son is in the same posture in which the Father was, how comes this Oath at this time to stand up and plead for disobedience in regard of the Son, that was asleep and silent in regard of the Father?

Thus have I gone towards peace (as I beleeve) in the way of truth; and as farre as it is truth, and no further, I desire it may be received. I also wish that those who read and examine it, may doe it (as I professe sincerely myselfe to have endeavoured) with a calme, cleare, and peaceable spirit, without prejudice or partiship.And I doubt not but to such upright seekers of Truth,Truth will appeare in a true shape; whereas partiall and prejudiced mindes speake unto Truth what they would have her speake unto them, and doe not heare her what she saith of herselfe.


1. The declaration referred to is the Declaration of Parliament of March 1648/49 reprinted above.

2. This reference is, of course, to the assertion that the marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon,Mary’s parents, was incestuous because Catherine had been previously married to Henry’s brother Arthur.

3. Paraeus was a celebrated sixteenth-century Calvinist divine. His Commentary on Romans, cited here, offended James I by its antimonarchical principles.

Last modified April 10, 2014