The Parallels

Modern Christians are shocked at the idea of social order without "the government." They are just as shocked as many were when The United States of America adopted an idea called "the consent of the governed." Nobody today believes in the Divine Right of Kings. In a few hundred years, nobody will believe in the monopoly of force which we call "the State."


Divine Right of Kings, ancient doctrine that sovereigns are representatives of God and derive their right to rule directly from God. The concept was formulated from the theocracies of the East. Before the Reformation, the monarch was considered God's representative in all secular matters. Following the Reformation, in Protestant countries, the ruler filled this function in religious matters also. According to the doctrine, a ruler's power is not subject to secular limitation; the ruler is responsible only to God. In the 17th century the doctrine was supported by the English Royalists against the Parliamentarians, who maintained that the exercise of political power springs from the will of the people.

Encarta 99


A political doctrine claiming that monarchy was a divinely ordained institution in which kings and queens were answerable only to God. It therefore followed that it was a sin for the subjects of even the most evil or incompetent monarchs to disobey them. The doctrine evolved in the middle ages, partly as a reaction to interference in the affairs of a nation by the pope and partly to strengthen the hand of monarchs in their dealings with parliaments. In its practical, rather than its mystical, aspects the doctrine can therefore be seen as an early form of the idea of national sovereignty and as an attempt to form a strong centralized executive. 


Divine right of kings, a name given to the patriarchal theory of government, especially to the doctrine that no misconduct and no dispossession can forfeit the right of a monarch or his heirs to the throne, and to the obedience of the people.

Benjamin Rush: My Copernican Revolution

Lawrence A. Cremin, American Education: The National Experience, 1783-1876, NY: Harper & Row, 1980, p. 114-15.


Jefferson passed from the scene with a profound sense of his role as author of the Declaration of Independence; his friend Benjamin Rush lived his life with an equally profound sense of his role as a signer. For Rush, who was present in the Congress as a representative of Pennsylvania, the events surrounding the creation of the Republic marked nothing less than a turning point in the course of human history. "I was animated constantly," he reflected in later years, "by a belief that I was acting for the benefit of the whole world, and of future ages, by assisting in the formation of new means of political order and general happiness."11

         11. The Autobiography of Benjamin Rush, edited by George W. Corner (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1948), p.161.

The self-justifying reminiscences of an old man, perhaps. Yet there is abundant evidence of their legitimacy, for Rush's republicanism was scarcely new in 1776. A native of Pennsylvania, he had been educated at Samuel Finley's academy at Nottingham (Finley was his uncle), then at the College of New Jersey, where he remained only briefly from the spring of 1759 through September, 1760, having been admitted to the junior class, then via an apprenticeship with Dr. John Redman of Philadelphia, during which he attended the lectures of John Morgan and William Shippen at the College of Philadelphia, and then at the University of Edinburgh, with clinical work at Middlesex and St. Thomas hospitals in London (after the fashion of John Morgan). While in Europe he was introduced to Whig radicalism, first by his fellow student John Bostock, who directed him to Locke and Sydney ("Never before had I heard the authority of kings called in question. I had been taught to consider them nearly as essential to political order as the sun is to the order of our solar system"), and then by the circle around Catharine Macaulay, which included James Burgh, John Sawbridge, and Adam Ferguson. He returned from Europe to a professorship of chemistry at the College of Philadelphia -- the first formal chair of its kind in America -- and proceeded to build a thriving practice, something of an accomplishment since he was a Presbyterian Whig in a city whose middling and upper classes included large numbers of Anglican and Quaker Tories.12

         12. Ibid., p.46.

Jonathan Mayhew

George Bancroft, History of the United States, Vol.2, p.354
In January 1730, the still youthful Mayhew, alarmed at the menaced encroachments of power, summoned every lover of truth and of mankind to bear a part in the defensive war against 'tyranny and priestcraft." From the pulpit and through the press he reproved the impious bargain "between the sceptre and the surplice;" he preached resistance to "the first small beginnings of civil tyranny, lest it should swell to a torrent and deluge empires." "The doctrines," he cried, "of the divine right of kings and non-resistance are as fabulous and chimerical as the most absurd reveries of ancient or modern visionaries." "If those who bear the title of civil rulers do not perform the duty of civil rulers, if they injure and oppress, they have not the least pretence to be honored or obeyed. If the common safety and utility would not be promoted by submission to the government, there is no motive for submission;" disobedience becomes "lawful and glorious," "not a crime, but duty."

James Otis

George Bancroft, History of the United States, Vol.3, p.80

Suspecting the designs of Bernard, Otis, in July, spoke thus through the press. "The British constitution comes nearest the idea of perfection of any that has been reduced to practice. Let parliament lay what burdens they please on us, it is our duty to submit and patiently bear them till they will be pleased to relieve us. If anything fall from my pen that bears the least aspect but that of obedience, duty, and loyalty to the king and parliament, the candid will impute it to the agony of my heart.

"Government is founded not on force, as was the theory of Hobbes; nor on compact, as was the theory of Locke and of the revolution of 1688; nor on property, as was asserted by Harrington. It springs from the necessities of our nature, and has an everlasting foundation in the unchangeable will of God. Man came into the world and into society at the same instant. There must exist in every earthly society a supreme sovereign, from whose final decision there can be no appeal but directly to heaven. This supreme power is originally and ultimately in the people; and the people never did in fact freely, nor can rightfully, make an unlimited renunciation of this divine right. Kingcraft and priestcraft are a trick to gull the vulgar. The happiness of mankind demands that this grand and ancient alliance should be broken off forever.

William Jackman, History of the American Nation, Vol.1, 

Chapter 9: The Settlement of Virginia
London and Plymouth Companies—King James' Laws—The Voyage and Arrival—Jamestown—John Smith; his Character, Energy, Captivity and Release—Misery of the Colonists—New Emigrants—Lord Delaware—Sir Thomas Gates—Pocahontas; Her Capture and Marriage—Yeardley—First Legislative Assembly.

King James was enamored of what he called kingcraft. He believed that a king had a divine right to make and unmake laws at his own pleasure, and was bound by no obligation,—not even to keep his own word. In maintaining the former of these kingly rights, James sometimes found difficulty; he was more successful in exercising the latter. He took upon himself the authority and labor of framing laws for the colony about to sail. These laws are a fair specimen of his kingcraft. They did not grant a single civil privilege to the colonists, who had no vote in choosing their own magistrates, but were tobe governed by two councils, both appointed by the king,—one residing in England, the other in the colony. In religious matters, differences of opinion were forbidden; all must conform to the rites of the church of England. The Indians were to be treated kindly, and if possible, converted to Christianity.

William Jackman, History of the American Nation, Vol.2, Chapter 20: 1655-1757 Marauding Expeditions; Settlement of Louisburg, p.321 - p.322
When the indignant people of England drove the bigoted James from his throne and invited William of Orange to fill it, Louis XI took up the quarrel in behalf of James, or of legitimacy, as he termed it. He believed in the divine right of kings to rule, and denied the right of a people to change their form of government. Louis had for years greatly abused his power, and all Europe had suffered from his rapacity. Religious feeling exerted its influence in giving character to the war, and Protestant Holland joined heart and hand with Protestant England in opposing Catholic France.

Thomas Paine

Common Sense
But where, says some, is the King of America? I'll tell you. Friend, he reigns above, and doth not make havoc of mankind like the Royal Brute of Britain. Yet that we may not appear to be defective even in earthly honors, let a day be solemnly set apart for proclaiming the charter; let it be brought forth placed on the divine law, the word of God; let a crown be placed thereon, by which the world may know, that so far we approve of monarchy, that in America THE LAW IS KING. For as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law OUGHT to be King; and there ought to be no other. But lest any ill use should afterwards arise, let the crown at the conclusion of the ceremony, be demolished, and scattered among the people whose right it is.

Kirk, The Roots of American Order, p.409
By "consent of the governed," the delegates to the Congress were affirming not so much a political philosopher's theory as an experienced institutional reality. That consent, after all, obtained in England, George III notwithstanding (the Patriots holding only that the King intended to make himself a tyrant, not that he was despotic already). Through Parliament, the consent of the governed was realized; divine-right theories of kingship virtually had been abandoned, even among the High Tories, by 1776. And as for America, from the first, in corporate colonies, proprietary colonies, and royal colonies alike, colonial assemblies had fulfilled the right of the [p.410] governed to be represented in government. "Consent of the governed," therefore, did not necessarily imply firm belief in some primitive social compact, whether the type of Locke or the type of Hobbes. The image which that phrase summoned to most Americans' minds was representative government on existing British and American models.

Jonathan Elliot, Debates on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution, Vol. 2, 

The Debates in the Convention of the State of Pennsylvania on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution
Monday, November 26, 1787

Mr. WILSON. The system proposed, by the late Convention, for the government of the United States, is now before you. Of that Convention I had the honor to be a member. As I am the only member of that body who has the honor to be also a member of this, it may be expected that I should prepare the way for the deliberations of this assembly, by unfolding the difficulties which the late Convention were obliged to encounter; by pointing out the end which they proposed to accomplish; and by tracing the general principles which they have adopted for the accomplishment of that end.
Jonathan Elliot, Debates on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution, Vol. 2, p.423
It is worthy of remark, and the remark may, perhaps, excite some surprise, that representation of the people is not, even at this day, the sole principle of any government in Europe. Great Britain boasts—and she may well boast—of the improvement she has made in politics by the admission of representation; for the improvement is important as far as it goes; but it by no means goes far enough. Is the executive power of Great Britain rounded on representation? This is not pretended. Before the revolution, many of the kings claimed to reign by divine right, and others by hereditary right; and even at the revolution, nothing further was effected or attempted than the recognition of certain parts of [p.424] an original contract, (Blackstone, 233,) supposed, at some former remote period, to have been made between the king and the people. A contract seems to exclude, rather than to imply, delegated power. The judges of Great Britain are appointed by the crown. The judicial authority, therefore, does not depend upon representation, even in its most remote degree. Does representation prevail in the legislative department of the British government? Even here it does not predominate, though it may serve as a check. The legislature consists of three branches—the king, the lords, and the commons. Of these, only the latter are supposed by the constitution to represent the authority of the people. This short analysis clearly shows to what a narrow corner of the British constitution the principle of representation is confined. I believe it does not extend further, if so far, in any other government in Europe. For the American states were reserved the glory and the happiness of diffusing this vital principle throughout the constituent ports of government. Representation is the chain of communication between the people and those to whom they have committed the exercise of the powers of government. This chain may consist of one or more links, but in all cases it should be sufficiently strong and discernible.


Saint Robert Bellarmine: a Moderate in a Disputatious Age
Avery Dulles, S.J.*
Crisis Magazine, December 1994, p.42
Bellarmine's bad reputation in the English-speaking world is largely due to his polemical exchanges with King James I, undertaken at the direction of Paul V (1605-1621). Against the King of England, Bellarmine defended his doctrine of the pope's "indirect power," and attacked the idea that kings rule with absolute power by divine right. Bellarmine held that civil power comes to the ruler not directly from God but through the people, who may set up any kind of regime that serves the common good. Regalists such as William Barclay and Robert Filmer, responding to Bellarmine, characterized him as the ablest defender of the doctrine they were opposing. John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison seem to have been acquainted with Bellarmine, especially through the writings of his adversaries. It has been plausibly argued that in this way Bellarmine exercised an indirect influence upon the American system of government. In any case he belonged to the general movement of thought that favored popular sovereignty.

The Conservative Lexicon

American Revolution
     The period in the nation's history (1775-1783) when colonists rejected the rule of George III, took up arms, and, after a lengthy struggle, defeated Cornwallis at Yorktown and ended British rule of the American colonies. 
     This major event is "claimed" by both conservatives and liberals alike, though each age has produced its own reinterpretation of the background and reasons for the American Revolution and its significance for later generations.
     Liberals have tended to argue that the Revolution came about as the result of the Enlightenment, when Reason replaced Faith as the guiding principle in Western society and the new more-educated class rejected the church and monarchy in favor of "free thinking" and democracy. Those holding this view cite Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin as deists and rationalists who typified the new way of looking at the world.
     On the other hand, those conservatives who emphasize individual freedom and denounce Big Government have tended to view the Revolution as an example of conservative reaction to a continuing governmental tyranny. They maintain that fiscal policy established by a remote central government lay at the heart of the colonists' dissatisfaction, but they also point out the many additional abuses cited in the Declaration of Independence—governmental intrusions that have their counterparts in current federal policy.
     A later conservative reinterpretation of the Revolution argues that the colonists in their petitions to the crown—and in the Declaration of Independence itself—were traditionalists appealing to an old and respected English political heritage of limited government—a tradition that began at least as far back as the Magna Carta, survived the Cromwellian interlude, and was reaffirmed with the Glorious Revolution, when William and Mary's acceptance of "the Bill of Rights" effectively ended the doctrine of "the divine right of kings" and ushered in the modern period of parliamentary rule.
     Scholars who hold this view quote from the writings of Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin to demonstrate that these Founding Fathers were not the "free thinkers" 20th-century liberals have painted them to be. Such scholars also analyze the Declaration and other documents to show their appeal to tradition, authority, and legal precedent. This particular view of the American Revolution reconciles the views of both libertarian conservatives and those who believe in an ongoing tradition.