It has become a common belief among Americans that they should “respect the office” of an official, even if they don’t respect the person holding that office. The same, of course, goes for “the law.” And while I understand that people saying such things are trying to be virtuous, they are mistaken.
Respecting the office and the law are unAmerican, and I’m going to show you precisely why, and mainly from the mouths of the American founders.
I’ll start with a passage from the soul of the American experiment, the Declaration of Independence, which I’ll condense to make my point:
We hold these truths to be self-evident… that all men are endowed by their Creator with inherent and inalienable Rights… that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted.
What I want you to see from this is the relationship between primary and secondary. According to the Declaration, we are the primary and governments are the secondary… the derivative.
Government exists because people create it, to serve themselves. They are in no way secondary to it. It is secondary to them.
And if that wasn’t clear enough, the Declaration gets specific in the very next line:
Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.
Again, the people are primary, government is derivative. Government serves at our pleasure. It is our right to abolish it if we so desire, just as we have the right to close our business if it no longer turns a profit.
Yes, There Is More
Following are a few more passages from the people who solidified American liberty:
Virginia Declaration of Rights 1776
All power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people. Magistrates are their trustees and servants, and at all times answerable to them.
Boston Gazette, January 21, 1771
The body of the people, for whose sake government is instituted; or rather, who have themselves erected it, solely for their own good.
Letter to John Adams November 25, 1790
Is not Government designed for the Welfare and happiness of all the People? And is it not the uncontrollable essential right of the People to amend, and alter, or annul their Constitution, and frame a new one, whenever they shall think it will better promote their own welfare, and happiness?
Now let’s move to some non-famous people.
In 1773, the people of Hubbardston, Massachusetts, a town of about 300, published a declaration:
We are of the opinion that rulers first derive their power from the ruled by certain laws and rules agreed upon by rulers and ruled, and when a ruler breaks over such laws … and makes new ones … then the ruled have a right to refuse such new laws and … to judge for themselves when rulers transgress.
In Worcester, a town of a few thousand, a similar letter was published at about the same time:
It is our opinion that mankind are by nature free, and the end design of forming social compacts … was that each member of that society might enjoy his life and property, and live in the free exercise of his rights … which God and Nature gave.
In both of these passages, stated not quite as elegantly, we see the same relationship between primary and secondary.
More than that, early Americans acted like bosses rather than servants.
When a group of creditors, lawyers, and judges posed a threat to the small farmers and artisans of Worcester county (in the mid-1770s), they formed their own legal system, abandoned government courts and used arbitration to resolve their disputes.
The Sons of Liberty, while by no means saintly, were quite willing to judge and to act in the interest of their freedom. They did so often, their groups being comprised mainly of workmen, mechanics, small farmers and shop owners.
American housewives were also a lot feistier in those days, but that’s a story for another day.
So, does “have no respect” apply to law as well? Well, on one hand yes, and on the other perhaps not. Here’s what I mean:
- The common law is a millennium-long tradition that grew out of actual human needs, and in a non-monopolistic way. That being so, it is due a certain amount of appreciation and even respect.
- Legislation is merely an edict from a government. As such, it is inherently secondary. In addition, edicts are highly variable and monopolistic.
One of Thomas Jefferson’s comments on law is particularly valid here:
Law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual.
They Owe Allegiance To Us, Not Us To Them
It’s worth saying one more time that we are the primary entities and that governments, their offices, their laws and all they control are (or at least were supposed to be) subsidiary to us. We do not owe them allegiance. They exist to service us, that is all.
To this attest Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams, John Adams, George Mason and most of the generation of 1776. This is what American liberty was, and what it was supposed to remain. Anything beyond this bleeds into idolatry.