Should the United States have seceded from the British Empire? There are, of course, two different questions being asked. The first is a moral or jurisprudential question: Was the status of the secession just, or at least reasonably justifiable at the time? The second is a utilitarian question: If we could judge the two timelines, would things have turned out better had the U.S. remained a part of the British Empire? I'm more interested here in the moral question. We have Jefferson's argument for its rightness, in the Declaration of Independence. But I thought it might be interesting to summarize an intelligent argument against its rightness, put forward by George Campbell. Campbell was one of the shining lights of the Scottish Enlightenment; his criticism of Hume in A Dissertation on Miracles and his work on rhetoric had a lasting influence on philosophy and on society. On December 12, 1776, which had been appointed a fast day for the rebellion in America, Campbell preached a sermon on the duty of allegiance, using the text, Meddle not with them who are given to change.
He opens by reflecting on national calamity, seeing it as a punishment for national vice: "National calamities we are taught to regard as the punishments of national vices, and as warnings to the people to bethink themselves and reform." The misery of a civil war, he argues, whether it be due to a usurpation of power on one side or a failure of obedience on the other, is an especially important occasion on which to reflect on our sins and reform. So Campbell calls for people on both sides of the Atlantic to take this attitude to the rebellion. War is an indicator of human failing and sinfulness; it is not merely a punishment, it is a natural effect of sin. The direct cause of every war is some sort of immorality on one side and "not seldom on both." Our response to war should be reflection, prayer, repentance for sins, reflection on the cause of the war, and the development of remedy for it. Not only this, but we must begin on this road as quickly as possible; because when people begin to go down an evil path, the farther they proceed, the more dfficult it is to stop them and set them on a better road.
With this as background, Campbell decides that, in order to make his own little contribution to the day set apart for this very purpose, he will try to show "the obligations which as men, as citizens, and as Christians, you lie under to give obedience to the powers which Providence has set over you, and not to meddle with them that are given to change; that is, to avoid giving your countenance or aid, either by speech or action, to the measures of those who would, on the slightest pretexts, subvert all established order, and throw everything into confusion."
Of course, in a sense he's preaching to the choir, and he fully recognizes this fact. The people he is addressing are, by and large, unlikely to have much sympathy with the rebellion. But Campbell points out that there are undoubtedly a few who might, and that it is easy for a few to grow into a many. Misrepresentations must be dealt with or they will spread discontent. Discontent tends to disaffection, disaffection tends to disloyalty, and disloyalty tends to revolution. It is better to prevent the malady than cure it after the fact. And, moreover, he wishes not merely to deal with the rebellion, but address its root causes by starting everyone on the small first steps toward reform. "Let us then, in the present great national contest, inquire impartially where the radical error lies; for that there is an error somewhere, is allowed on both sides." Campbell's inquiry proceeds by looking at two topics: the rights of magistrates and the grounds of the colonial war.
(1) Campbell begins the discussion of the rights of magistrates by reflecting on the dangers inherent in sudden and violent innovation of government. Good government contains within itself the means for legal and legitimate change. It is gradual, but gradual change, unlike sudden change, may be done constitutionally and with a view to the improvement of the whole society. In fact, everyone in power has a duty to engage in such reformation, "to exert the power which the constitution gives him, in such a way as will most promote the public welfare, correcting whatever is amiss, and improving whatever is found defective." But his primary concern in this question is how innovation is to be dealt with by the governed.
The general precept that the governed should follow is to obey those who govern. He admits that in cases of gross tyranny and oppression there may be exceptions; after all, most general rules admit of reasonable exceptions, so we should not assume that a general precept is exceptionless unless the nature of the case requires it. And in this case it is fairly clear that the nature of the case does not require it; there are exceptions every reasonable person would admit. We are obliged to obey and submit to government only because doing so is good for society; obedience is a means to common good. If government ever deteriorates to such an extent that civil war would be better for society than the continuation of the government, then (and only then, insists Campbell) could rebellion be lawful. It would have become an instance of self-defense; and self-defense is as legitimate for societies as for individuals. (Campbell, it should be noted -- and as he in good faith openly notes himself -- is going through all this trouble in order to disassociate the claim he is making from the doctrine of passive obedience. Passive obedience was a major issue in political philosophy in the eighteenth century. Berkeley, for instance, wrote an essay in favor of it; Hume wrote an essay against it. Berkeley's essay can be read here and Hume's essay can be read here.)
So the extent of the precept, that the people should obey their governors, is defined by the end or purpose of government, which is the public welfare. Note that the end here is that of the government itself, rather than everything the governors do in governing -- the precept is not that we should obey to the extent the measures put forward by the governors conduce to the good of society, but that we should obey to the extent that the governance of the governors in general tends to the good of society. While we shouldn't obey something morally wrong, throwing off obedience entirely merely because the governor errs or sins in governing is unreasonable. Most of the bad measures put forward by those who govern are nonetheless lesser evils than the total subversion of government would be. Even when the magistrate demands that we do something wrong as a part of the law, we are not always entitled to resist by force. When Christians were persecuted by the Roman empire, they did not resist by building armies to attack Rome; they resisted by affirming allegiance to Rome but refusing to obey laws they regarded as immoral. Even religion is not usually an adequate grounds for rebellion, although in rare cases it might be. Religious toleration, Campbell argues, is a natural right. Civil law is limited in authority by the impossible and the immoral; if you command a person to believe something he doesn't you ask the impossible, and if you command them to affirm something they do not believe, you ask the immoral. If violations of this right were sufficiently egregious, there would be call for active resistance -- both out of self-defence, and because such actions are detrimental to the good of the whole society, and not just a part, because they are self-subverting. The extraordinary circumstances would make the rebellion excusable. But it would be an exception to the general rule, a rule which we all must admit as a matter of reason.
Campbell goes on to note that the grounds for rebellion would not only have to be important and public; it would also have to be generally understood to be so. A handful don't have the right to drag the whole community into a war just because they think it needful. And if there is general and widespread doubt about the advisability of rebellion, safety requires that we stick to the general rule -- which is to submit to government. (Campbell further insists in a footnote that the right of the people to resist begins not with imagined wrongs but with real ones. The public is not infallible, anymore than sovereigns are. The necessity of the war must be real, and discernibly so.) He denies that the social contract provides any basis for an alternative conclusion:
I have not mentioned the original compact, one of the hackneyed topics of writers on politics. My reason is, I neither understand the word, as applied by those writers, nor know where to find the thing to which they refer. That there may have been politics founded in compact, I make no question; but the history of the world will satisfy every reasonable person, that in many more cases, perhaps thirty to one, states have arisen from causes widely different....As the matter stands, I consider it as one of those phrases which are very convenient for the professed disputant, because they are both indefinite and dark, and may be made to comprehend under them all the chimeras of his own imagination.
(Campbell's rejection of social contract thinking is fairly standard for the Scottish Enlightenment. Hume wrote an essay on that, too; he thinks it's as problematic as the theory of passive obedience.)
It is clear that rulers themselves can be the cause of rebellion; the rights and liberties of the people are as real and as much to be respected as the powers and prerogatives of the magistrate. So the question arises: What is the case in the colonial war? Is it due to misgovernment and tyranny? Has anything been done to justify violent revolt? Or might we say that "artful and ambitious men, both on their side of the water and on ours, had the address, for their own private ends, to mislead a people whom wealth and luxury have corrupted, and rendered prone to licentiousness and faction?"
Since he's only delivering a sermon and not writing a political treatise, he can't go into all the different details. He can, however, discuss what he thinks is 'the hinge' of the dispute: the right and authority of the government of Parliament to tax the American people. He points out that this authority is supported by custom; that this custom has always been considered constitutional; that the colonists, who had not yet discovered their "natural and unalienable right to pay no taxes, but such as have been imposed with their own consent" (as Campbell sarcastically calls it), submitted to these measures as part of their duty to government. The only real difference between then and now, Campbell says, is that they used to be poor and humble, and now were rich and arrogant. He points out that the colonial charters implicitly, and in one case explicitly, reserve Parliament the right of taxation. Everyone recognizes the right of Parliament to make laws for its colonies in other matters (e.g., criminal law). And he points out that Parliament had passed laws protecting the trade of the colonies even when it required restricting it on the other side of the Atlantic.
He then goes on to mock the claim (which we find in the Declaration of Independence) that it is self-evident that government should be by consent, noting that, despite the fact that something so supposedly self-evident has been undiscovered for so long, the people who make this claim never give any arguments for it, but only treat with contempt those who question it. Moreover, the claim is hardly intelligible -- what clear meaning can be given to 'consent' here that would not either be arbitrary or be inconsistent with government in general? The consent needed is obviously not actual and explicit; so it must be implicit and virtual. But any implicit and virtual consent would often be contrary to actual and explicit consent -- laws often are passed by duly elected and representative legislatures that are seriously disliked, even though everyone recognizes the prerogative of the legislatures to make them. So 'consent' here would be opposite to any actual consent. Campbell suggests that, because of this, talking about consent in this context can only be done with the purpose "to darken, to perplex, and to mislead."
The basis for all this "blundering," as Campbell calls it, is the confused and absurd notion that government can be compatible with limitless freedom. "The very basis of political union is partial sacrifice of liberty for protection." The notion is inimical to rule of law, or "legal government," as Campbell calls it. And it is inimical to free government, in which people are not only protected by law from arbitrary power, but are ruled by laws that tend to be conducive to justice and common good. Does the British constitution have safeguards to guarantee that, whatever its flaws, it is a free government? Campbell answers resoundingly that it does:
In regard to our own, That one of the essential branches of the legislature is elective, that its members must be men of such rank and fortune as give them a personal interest in preserving the constitution, and promoting the public good, that they are elected from all the different counties and boroughs in the island, by those who have a principal concern both in agriculture and in trade, that they are but temporary legislators, and may soon be changed, that the laws they make for others must affect themselves; these are the great bulwarks of BRITISH FREEDOM, as they afford the supreme council of the nation, the best opportunities of knowing, and the strongest motives for enacting, what is most beneficial, not to one part of the country, or to one class of the inhabitants, but to the whole.
He then argues that the principle that people should be self-legislating is obviously false if taken in a strong sense, because such a society would be anarchy; and if taken in a reasonable sense means no more than that people should acquiesce to the law for reasons of private and public good (in which case it is an absurdly misleading way to state it). He has a biting and important footnote to the published sermon in which he attacks the attempt to justify the rebellion by appeal to the natural equality and rights of men, in which he points out that the colonists keep slaves and mistreat Indians, and so really don't have the moral high ground here (and attacks Burke's intimation that they did). The footnote is worth quoting at some length.
It is indeed scarcely credible that any who entail slavery on their fellow-creatures, whom they buy and sell like cattle in the market (and some such, it is said, are in the congress) should have the absurd effrontery to adopt this language. If they really believe their own doctrine, what opinion must they entertain of themselves, who can haughtily trample on what they acknowledge to be the unalienable rights of mankind? Will they dare to elude this charge, by declaring that they do not consider negroes and Indians as of the human species? That they account them beasts, or rather worse, one would naturally infer from the treatment they too commonly give them. But I have not yet heard, that they openly profess this opinion. How well does their conduct verify what has been remarked with great justice of all those republican levellers, who raise a clamour about the natural equality of men, and their indefeasible rights; that they mean only to level all distinctions above them, and pull down their superiors, at the same time that they tyrannize over their inferiors, and widen, as much as possible, the distance between themselves and those below them.
Campbell allows that Americans are entitled to all the rights and privileges of British subjects; and that British subjects are entitled to be taxed only if they are represented in a broad sense. But he denies that they are entitled to be taxed only if they are represented in particular. The natural remedy for the woes the Americans imagine would be to allow them a few representatives in Parliament, and Campbell's OK with that. But, he says, they've always protested that possibility. It would be reasonable for them to want a modest fixed rate of taxation determined relative to the revenue produced by Great Britain. But they've protested that as well. What solution have they proposed themselves? Only total immunity, which is unreasonable.
Campbell's sermon concludes with the exhortation not to be angry at the people across the Atlantic, but to pity them. The unlearned masses who have been mired in this war by a few scheming men (on both sides of the water, Campbell still says) have ignorance as their excuse. Any guilt they might have is being expiated in the misery of war. Pretending to pursue liberty, they have turned away from it; they are wandering in the dark, without a clear destination. The people of Britain ought to pray that the God who calms the tempest will still the tumults of the people -- for their sake.
And that's Campbell's argument that the American rebellion was wrong: It was an attack on the principles of rule of law and free government, perpetrated by a selfish group of people out only for their own good and not that of society at large, justified by a dense veil of philosophical gobbledygook and the shockingly immoral presumption that you have the right to appeal to the natural equality and rights of men while enslaving your fellow man. It must be admitted that in a few places it has some bite.
You can read Campbell's sermon here.