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Althusius argues that a political leader is bound by his oath of office which, if violated, requires his removal (1614)

Johannes Althusius (1557-1638) believed that all political leaders were bound by their oath of office to protect the liberties of the people. If he failed in this duty the people were free to replace him with another who would:

[I]f the supreme magistrate does not keep his pledged word, and fails to administer the realm according to his promise, then the realm, or the ephors and the leading men in its name, is the punisher of this violation and broken trust. It is then conceded to the people to change and annul the earlier form of its polity and commonwealth, and to constitute a new one.

The promise of obedience and compliance that follows the election and inauguration is the event in which the members of the realm—or the people through its ephors, and the ephors in its name—promise their trust, obedience, compliance, and whatever else may be necessary for the administration of the realm. This promise, which pertains to things that do not conflict with the law of God and the right of the realm, is made to the magistrate who receives the entrusted administration of the commonwealth, and is about to undertake his office and to rule the commonwealth piously and justly. …

The oath that the magistrate first swears to the subjects, and the subjects then offer to the magistrate, is properly called a homage (homagium) from ? μ ο ?, which means “at the same time” (simul), and ? γ ι ο ν, which means“sacred” (sacrum), so that, as it were, what is common, or a common oath, should be sacred. Those subjects who have upheld this oath are called faithful.

Because of this trust, compliance, service, aid, and counsel that the people promises and furnishes to its supreme magistrate, he is said to have innumerable eyes and ears, large arms, and swift feet, as if the whole people lent him its eyes, ears, strength, and faculties for the use of the commonwealth. Whence the magistrate is called mighty, strong, rich, wise, and aware of many things, and is said to represent the entire people. …

Such service and aid consist above all in works of occupational skilland in works of allegiance. Works of occupational skill consist in material services extended and performed for the welfare and utility of the realm and magistrate according to the function, trade, and office that each is able to perform. … Works of allegiance consist in obedience and reverence. Obedience is the compliance that is shown to the just commands of the magistrate, and is required even if he should be an impious or wicked man. For the life of the magistrate does not take away his office, and whoever disparages the magistrate scorns God. … However, obedience is not to be extended to impious commands of the magistrate. For obedience to God is more important than obedience to men. … Reverence is that honor, veneration, and adoration that the subject with fear and trembling owes to the magistrate because of the lofty position to which the magistrate is elevated by God, and because of the many and great benefits that God dispenses to us through the hand of the magistrate. Whence the deeds of the whole realm are attributed wisely and happily to the virtue and administration of the prince, and we honor no one in preference to him. …

If the people does not manifest obedience, and fails to fulfill the service and obligations promised in the election and inauguration—in the constituting—of the supreme magistrate, then he is the punisher, even by arms and war, of this perfidy and violation of trust, indeed, of this contumacy, rebellion, and sedition. But if the supreme magistrate does not keep his pledged word, and fails to administer the realm according to his promise, then the realm, or the ephors and the leading men in its name, is the punisher of this violation and broken trust. It is then conceded to the people to change and annul the earlier form of its polity and commonwealth, and to constitute a new one. In both cases, because a proper condition of the agreement and compact is not fulfilled, the contract is dissolved by right itself. In the first case, the prince will no longer treat such rebels and perfidious persons as his subjects, and is no longer required to perform toward them what he has promised. In the other case, likewise, the people, or members of the realm, will not recognize such a perfidious perjurous, and compact-breaking person as their magistrate, but treat him as a private person and a tyrant to whom it is no longer required to extend obedience and other duties it promised. The magistrate loses the right to exact them justly. And it can and ought to remove him from office. Thus Bartolus says that a legitimate magistrate is a living law, and if he is condemned by law he is condemned by his own voice. But a tyrant is anything but a living law. …

About this Quotation:

The idea that “the people” have the right to remove a bad ruler has a very long history before the American Revolution enshrined the principle in the modern era. Of course, the problem is to know what constitutes a sufficient degree of “badness” to merit such a drastic act, who exactly has this right of deposition (all “the people” or their delegates or “ephors” as Althusius phrased it); and when might this deposition occur (at any time as in the Westminster system, or only at election time as in the American system). In this instance, Althusius argues that there is quite a low level of “badness” before it is justified in throwing a bad ruler out, namely “not keeping his word”. If we held all elected officers to this standard there would probably only be the cleaning staff left in the chambers of Congress or Parliament.

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