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James Otis on the right of the people to alter their government (1764)

The Massachusetts lawyer and revolutionary pamphleteer James Otis (1725–83) argued as early as 1764 that people had a natural right to alter their government and should so by agreement or “compact”:

The form of government is by nature and by right so far left to the individuals of each society, that they may alter it from a simple democracy or government of all over all, to any other form they please. Such alteration may and ought to be made by express compact: But how seldom this right has been asserted, history will abundantly show. For once that it has been fairly settled by compact; fraud force or accident have determined it an hundred times. As the people have gained upon tyrants, these have been obliged to relax, only till a fairer opportunity has put it in their power to encroach again.

Government is founded immediately on the necessities of human nature, and ultimately on the will of God, the author of nature; who has not left it to men in general to choose, whether they will be members of society or not, but at the hazard of their senses if not of their lives. Yet it is left to every man as he comes of age to chuse what society he will continue to belong to. Nay if one has a mind to turn Hermit, and after he has been born, nursed, and brought up in the arms of society, and acquired the habits and passions of social life, is willing to run the risque of starving alone, which is generally most unavoidable in a state of hermitage, who shall hinder him? I know of no human law, founded on the law of nature, to restrain him from separating himself from the species, if he can find it in his heart to leave them; unless it should be said, it is against the great law of self-preservation: But of this every man will think himself his own judge.

The few Hermits and Misanthropes that have ever existed, show that those states are unnatural. If we were to take out from them, those who have made great worldly gain of their godly hermitage, and those who have been under the madness of enthusiasm, or disappointed hopes in their ambitious projects, for the detriment of mankind; perhaps there might not be left ten from Adam to this day.

The form of government is by nature and by right so far left to the individuals of each society, that they may alter it from a simple democracy or government of all over all, to any other form they please. Such alteration may and ought to be made by express compact: But how seldom this right has been asserted, history will abundantly show. For once that it has been fairly settled by compact; fraud force or accident have determined it an hundred times. As the people have gained upon tyrants, these have been obliged to relax, only till a fairer opportunity has put it in their power to encroach again.

But if every prince since Nimrod had been a tyrant, it would not prove a right to tyranize. There can be no prescription old enough to supersede the law of nature, and the grant of God almighty; who has given to all men a natural right to be free, and they have it ordinarily in their power to make themselves so, if they please.

About this Quotation:

Otis drew upon the ideas of John Locke in an important political pamphlet “The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved” (1764) which he wrote at a very early stage in the American Revolution when there was no consensus about independence from Britain. This was to come some 12 years later when Tom Paine wrote the best-selling “Common Sense” in 1776. In the opening section, Otis examines the origin of government and concludes that every person, when they came of age, had a natural right “to chuse what society he will continue to belong to”. He even seem to presage a version of Herbert Spencer’s notion of “the right to ignore the state” when he admits the right of “the Hermit” to “separate himself” from society. Another quite radical notion was the idea that any new form of government had to be the result of an “express compact” among the people, even though this would be a unique event in history, as governments had always been the result of “fraud force or accident.” Otis may not have fully grasped the significance of what he was arguing for but he helped pave the way for Paine who also had a very radical section in “Common Sense” on the origin of governments.

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