Tyrannical “governments” are not genuine governments

Some background sources for the principle in our Declaration of Independence that tyrannical “governments” are merely a large-scale form of organized crime, rather than real governments:

In the views of the American Founders: Don B. Kates, The Second Amendment and the Ideology of Self-Protection, 9 Cconstitutional Commentary 87 (1992) (Founders saw no fundamental distinction between individual self-defense against criminals and collective self-defense against criminal governments).

Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government, ed., Thomas G. West  (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1996), ch. 3, sect. 46, p. 574 (To be subject to a tyrant is little different from being under the power of a pirate). Sidney, who was executed for treason in 1683 by the wicked Stuart regime, was venerated by the English and Americans as one of the greatest martyrs of liberty. Thomas Jefferson listed Sidney (along with Aristotle, Cicero, and John Locke) as one of the four major sources of the American consensus on rights and liberties which was expressed in the Declaration of Independence.

Philo of Alexandria (approx. 20 B.C. – 50 A.D.). One of the greatest Jewish legal scholars of antiquity, Philo wrote about the Jewish law in Alexandria, Egypt, during the period when Egypt and Israel were both under Roman rule. Much of Philo’s treatise aimed to show that Jewish law from the Bible was consistent with Roman law. Erwin R. Goodenough, The Jurisprudence of the Jewish Courts in Egypt: Legal Adminsitration by the Jews Under the Early Roman Empire as Describes by Philo Judeaus 230-31 (The Lawbook Exchange 2002; reprint of 1929 translation) (A petty thief is no different in principle from a tyrant who steals the resources of his nation, or nation which plunders another nation. In other words, all forms of theft are merely variations on a single type of attack on society: an assault on the right of ownership of private property.)

Mencius (approx. about 371-289 B.C.), the most influential developer of Confucian thought: “Now the way feudal lords take from the people is no different from robbery.” Mencius, transl. D.C. Lau (N.Y.: Penguin, 1970), book 5, part B. Accordingly, killing a tyrant is very different from killing a legitimate king, which would be immoral: “A man who mutilates benevolence is a mutilator, while one who cripples rightness is a crippler. He who is both a mutilator and a crippler is an ‘outcast.’ I have heard of the punishment of the ‘outcast Tchou’ [an emperor who was overthrown], but I have not heard of any regicide.” Ibid., book 1, part B, item 8. Unlike the other authors cited in this post, the philosophy of Mencius was not known to the American Founders directly, nor was it known indirectly through other philosophers. Mencius did, however, express the same principles of Natural Law which the Founders believed to be universal. (More by Kopel on Mencius here.)

John of Salisbury. Author of Policraticus (approx. 1159), the most influential Western book written between the sixth century and the thirteenth. To rule tyrannically is necessarily to perpetrate treason, and therefore a tyrant may be slain:

[I]t is not only permitted, but it is also equitable and just to slay tyrants.  For he who receives the sword deserves to perish by the sword.
 But ‘receives’ is to be understood to pertain to he who has rashly usurped that which is not his, not to he who receives what he uses from the power of God.  He who receives power from God serves the laws and is the slave of justice and right.  He who usurps power suppresses justice and places the laws beneath his will.  Therefore, justice is deservedly armed against those who disarm the law, and the public power treats harshly those who endeavour to put aside the public hand.  And, although there are many forms of high treason, none of them is so serious as that which is executed against the body of justice itself.  Tyranny is, therefore, not only a public crime, but if this can happen, it is more than public.  For if all prosecutors may be allowed in the case of high treason, how much more are they allowed when there is oppression of laws which should themselves command emperors?  Surely no one will avenge a public enemy, and whoever does not prosecute him transgresses against himself and against the whole body of the earthly republic.

Jofhn of Salisbury, Policraticus 25 (Cary J. Nederman ed. and trans., Cambridge Univ. Press 1990) (approx. 1159). (My essay on the book is here.)

Augustine of Hippo. The most influential Christian philosopher since the closing of the canon: “If justice be taken away…what are governments but great bands of robbers?” Augustine, Concerning the City of God Against the Pagans 139 (Henry Bettenson trans., Penguin, book 4, 1984) (translation from 1467 manuscript; originally written in early 5th century ). To illustrate the point, Augustine used a story attributed to Cicero:

Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor.”

“All tyrants reach a miserable end,” wrote John of Salisbury. He was not universally right, at least in the sense that he meant, listing various tyrants who died violently; Stalin, Lenin, and Mao died of natural causes. But his words are coming true in Libya. How long will Gaddafi’s mercenaries from Chad, Niger, and Syria be willing to endanger their own lives in attempting to resist the overwhelming might of air forces and navies which are better-armed, and superior in every respect?