Ministers, “watchmen on…the wall of liberty,” according to Franklin Cole, editor of They Preached Liberty, were among America’s greatest revolutionary influences. The most influential was Boston Congregationalist minister Jonathan Mayhew (1720-1766).
Declaration of Independence signer Robert Treat Paine called Mayhew America’s “Father of Civil and Religious Liberty.” Especially important was his January 30, 1750, address, which was widely printed and read. Given for the centennial of Charles I’s execution, Mayhew argued that obedience is not the due of oppressive governments because such tyranny violates the divinely-instituted purpose of government to benefit the people. And if rebellion against Charles for eviscerating British liberty was justifiable, the same arguments applied to Americans’ loss of liberty under George III.
As we commemorate Mayhew, reconsider his argument for our liberty, which is safe only when we recognize its fundamental importance—an argument so important John Adams called it “the spark that ignited the American Revolution.”
“Such as really performed the duty of magistrates would be enemies only to the evil actions of men…But how is this an argument that we must honor and submit to…such as are not a common blessing, but a common curse, to society…If magistrates are unrighteous…the main end of civil government will be frustrated. And what reason is there for submitting to that government, which does by no means answer the design of government?”
“[We have] the duty of a cheerful and conscientious submission to civil government, from the nature and end of magistracy…to punish evildoers…But… what can be more absurd than an argument thus framed? ‘Rulers are, by their office, bound to consult the public welfare and the good of society: therefore you are bound to…submit to them, even when they destroy the public welfare…in direct contradiction to the nature and end of their office.'”
“Tyrants and public oppressors are not entitled to obedience.”
“The end of all civil government [is] the good of society…a contrary end…is a plain and positive reason against submission…nothing [is] more directly contrary to common sense, than…that millions of people should be subjected to the arbitrary, precarious pleasure of one single man; so that their estates, and every thing that is valuable in life…shall be absolutely at his disposal.”
“No government is to be submitted to, at the expense of that which is the sole end of all government—the common good and safety of society…The only reason of the institution of civil government; and the only rational ground of submission to it, is the common safety and utility. If therefore, in any case, the common safety and utility would not be promoted by submission to government, but the contrary, there is no ground or motive for obedience and submission.”
“Authority [is] a trust committed by the people…all besides is mere lawless force and usurpation; neither God nor nature, having given any man a right of dominion over any society, independently of that society’s…consent.”
“Resistance…[is] a most righteous and glorious stand, made in defense of the natural and legal rights of the people, against the unnatural and illegal encroachments of arbitrary power.. to exercise a wanton licentious sovereignty over the properties, consciences and lives of all the people.”
“The prerogative and rights of the [ruler] are stated, defined and limited by law… he cannot, while he confines himself within those just limits…injure and oppress … as soon as the prince sets himself up above law…he has no more right to be obeyed.”
Franklin Cole considered Jonathan Mayhew “the first of the Revolutionary preacher-patriots.” Aware that “Wise and brave and virtuous men are always friends to liberty,” Mayhew recognized that freedom was an incomparable blessing. And what was true then with regard to a king remains true of government leadership now. Today, we need to reawaken to that knowledge and rekindle our commitment to it, for freedom remains under fire.