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

James Otis

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.

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.