Having thus demonstrated and explored the principally religious aspects of the case Jonathan Mayhew put forth in his Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission, it remains now to discuss the extent to which his attempt to oppose an observance he deemed corrupt and un-Christian was in fact a deeply political statement about the nature of authority and the relationship between rulers and their subjects. Bearing in mind that the elements of Discourse that might fairly be identified as chiefly political or philosophical in nature do tend to flow out of statements or observations that were in turn explicitly religious, there is bound to be some degree of overlap between the convictions of Mayhew’s faith and his ideological leanings. Indeed, in Mayhew’s mind there was surely little difference between the rules he believed ought to govern either the spiritual or material circumstances of the human race. Attempting to explore these categories of thought in tandem, however, would surely make for something of a rambling muddle. The distinction that has here been drawn – while to some degree artificial – thus stems from a legitimate desire for organizational clarity. Mayhew himself might have found it a curious choice, but it would seem, under the circumstances, a necessary one.
That being said – and begging the forgiveness of those who perceive a plain contradiction in what follows – the core of Mayhew’s political rationale within the text of Discourse undeniably sprang from an attempt on his part to elucidate the true meaning of a particular passage from the Holy Bible.
The excerpt in question was the oft-cited Romans 13:1-8, an extract invariably deployed by regimes that claim to embody Christian piety while pursuing demonstrably un-Christian ends. In seeming preemptive answer to those whose ire might fairly have been aroused by his accusing the Church of England of supporting Charles I out of rank self-interest, Mayhew challenged the common interpretation of Romans as a blanket sanction for actions undertaken by rulers and governments of any stripe. To that end, he first cited the verses in question – notable among them the injunction, “Let every soul be subject to the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be, are ordained by God” – and then commenced to separate the words themselves from what he regarded as their true and substantial meaning. First, Mayhew reminded his audience to pay heed to the context in which the relevant text was written. The author in question, Saint Paul (5-64/67), had set himself to addressing the nature of earthly authority for a very specific reason. At so early a period in the history of the Christian faith, it seemed, there existed converts who interpreted, “That liberty which the gospel promised” as pertaining to their material existence and thus, “Disowned subjection to the civil powers in being where they respectively lived [.]” Described elsewhere by Saint Peter as, “Them that–despise government–presumptuous are they, self-willed, they are not afraid to speak evil of dignities [,]” these anarcho-Christians supposedly failed to understand the nature of Christ’s kingdom – described by Mayhew as being, “In a very plain and important sense […] not of this world” – and so became a nuisance to themselves and their fellow converts by applying the stain of insurrection to their as yet small and vulnerable community. In consequence, it appeared necessary to Saint Paul to explain to his fellow believers that acknowledging the supremacy of Christ over all earthly authorities did not practically absolve one from the responsibility of obedience to the same.
Mayhew then proceeded to draw the attention of his audience to certain key phrases within the cited text. Consider, he asked of them, Saint Paul’s assertion that, “Whosoever […] resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God; and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.” Did this not make plain that civil rule – in whatever form it may take – is the instrument of God’s will on Earth, and that to resist one was to resist the other? And then there was the apostle’s declaration that, “Rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil […] Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise for the same.” Was this not an affirmation that, “Even pagan rulers, are not, by the nature and design of their office, enemies and a terror to the good and virtuous actions of men,” and that it was accordingly needless to oppose a given civil authority, “When ye see the good end and intention of it?” Mayhew’s interest, it seemed, was in what he perceived to be the subtext of Romans 13, particularly as it related to the intention of God in granting his ordinance to civil rulers. Two further citations appeared to give answer to this inquiry.
“But if thou do that which is evil,” Mayhew quoted Saint Paul as having written, “Be afraid, for he beareth not the sword in vain. For he is the minister of God, a revenger, to execute wrath upon him that doth evil.” To the minister of the Old West Church, it seemed, this passage was clearly meant to affirm that civil rulers were not possessed of the means of punishment for reasons passing understanding. “They are,” he asserted, “By their office, not only the ministers of God for good to those that do well; but also his ministers to revenge, to discountenance and punish those that are unruly, and injurious to their neighbors.” When Mayhew next quoted Saint Paul as having declared that, “For this cause pay you tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing,” it was coupled to a kind of logical inverse of this same affirmation of purpose. “And here is a plain reason also why ye should pay tribute to them [,]” he explained accordingly,
For they are God’s ministers, exalted above the common level of mankind, not that they may indulge themselves in softness and luxury, and be entitled to the servile homage of their fellow-men; but that they may execute an office no less laborious than honorable; and attend continually upon the public welfare.
If the good had nothing to fear from civil rulers, Mayhew claimed, and the wicked every reason to feel alarm in offering opposition to the same, it must accordingly have followed that the ordinance and trust of God in these same earthly authorities was joined to his desire to protect one and punish the other. A civil authority that promoted justice and peace, therefore, was indeed a “minister of God” and thus deserving of obedience. And a ruler whose behavior fostered injustice and was “injurious to their neighbors” deserved nothing but reproach, for God would surely never deign to sanction those who would do evil in his name.
Having thus sufficiently teased out what he regarded as the genuine intention behind Saint Paul’s admonition to always obey the civil authority, Mayhew then proceeded in the text of his Discourse to distill the relevant verses of Romans 13 into a relatively straightforward set of value statements. Notable among these various declarations was the bond he consistently perceived and affirmed between the duties of an office and the claim to its titles and dignities. “The end of magistracy is the good of civil society,” he accordingly affirmed, and, “There should be some persons vested with authority in society, for the well-being of it [.]” He also declared that, “The sole end of government [is] the happiness of society [,]” and that, “The true ground and reason of our obligation to be subject to the higher powers, is the usefulness of magistracy (when properly exercised) to human society, and its subserviency to the general welfare [.]” If the sentiment embodied in these statements appears in any way familiar to either longtime readers of this program or students of the European Enlightenment, there is ample reason for it. Though he arrived at this conviction in particular through an analysis of scripture rather than via the ruminations of abstract thought, the conviction here expressed by Mayhew as to the purpose of civil government bears an undeniable – and deeply significant – similarity to the political theory most recently explored – as of 1750 – by English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704).
Locke, whose Two Treatises on Government was originally published in 1689, famously described therein the so-called “state of nature” in which mankind existed by default in the absence of any laws, governments, or civil institutions. While this state provided absolute freedom to all who dwelled within it – “All being kings [,]” as it were – it concurrently offered nothing in the way of security for one’s person or property. In the state of nature, therefore, power was the only source of legitimacy and the only guarantor of liberty. Seeking to extricate itself from this tenuous existence, Locke posited that mankind developed cooperative mechanisms by which a modicum of autonomy might be sacrificed by groups of individuals in exchange for an increase in the safety and comfort of all. In time these mechanisms took the form of increasingly complex civil societies which expanded, combined, and formalized to the point that they took on the aspect– by 17th century standards – of recognizable government. Complex though these administrations ultimately became, however, and in many ways self-sustaining and self-perpetuating, Locke affirmed that their central purpose never changed. The end of government, he asserted, was to protect and promote the liberty of the individual (within reason) and secure to them the enjoyment of their personal property. And while it was possible for monarchies, republics, and aristocracies alike to successfully achieve this aim, the regime that demonstrably failed to do so – though greed, corruption, cruelty, or neglect – was inherently illegitimate. The resulting “right of revolution” permitted – nay, obligated – the citizens of such a regime to remove their rulers by force of arms and replace them with those who appeared more likely to fulfill their responsibilities. The resulting arrangement of trust and obligation, check and balance was described by Locke as kind of “social contract.”
While Mayhew never used this specific phrase in Discourse to describe the relationship he believed was embedded in the text of Romans 13, his exploration of its significance and implications showed obvious parallels to Locke’s earlier construction. Attempting to introduce the beginnings of an argument against the kind of oppressive rule practiced by Charles I through the lens of scripture, for example, he posited to his audience that there were perhaps certain instances in which resistance rather than subjection to higher powers became necessary. “Some have thought it warrantable and glorious,” he thus claimed,
To disobey the civil powers in certain circumstances; and, in cases of very great general oppression, when humble remonstrances fail of having any effect; and when the publick welfare cannot be otherwise provided for and secured, to rise unanimously even against the sovereign himself, in order to redress their grievances; to vindicate their natural and legal rights: to break the yoke of tyranny, and free themselves and posterity from inglorious servitude and ruin.
Consider, again, some of the terminology Mayhew here chose to deploy. Like Locke, he affirmed that the paramount measure of the legitimacy for a ruler or regime was its ability to protect and promote “public welfare.” This being the fundamental and original purpose of government – i.e. the basis of the social contract – those that either failed to pursue it successfully or actively damaged it by their actions caused the obligation of seeking “redress” or “remonstrance” to once more devolve upon the public itself. Mayhew’s use of the phrase “natural and legal rights” also served to echo the doctrine of authority earlier espoused by Locke. He believed that natural law guaranteed to every individual a fundamental right to life, liberty, and property regardless of the authority or government to which they were subject. Legal rights in turn served the end of natural rights by harnessing state institutions to the purpose of securing individual liberty.
That Mayhew approved of this formulation was made evident by his subsequent citation of several historical instances in which tyrannical rulers were removed or overthrown by the very people whose rights they sought to suppress. “It was upon this principle [,]” he thus affirmed,
That Tarquin was expelled from Rome; and Julius Cesar, the conqueror of the world, and the tyrant of his country, cut off in the senate house. It was upon this principle, that king Charles I, was beheaded before his own banqueting house. It was upon this principle, that king James II was made to fly that country which he aim’d at enslaving: And upon this principle was that revolution brought about, which had been so fruitful of happy consequences to Great-Britain.
The citation of these four figures – Tarquin, Caesar, Charles, and James – was both individually and collectively significant. Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (??? – 495 BC), also known as Tarquin the Proud, was the legendary seventh and final king of Rome whose oppressive treatment of his subjects was so unbearable as to trigger the popular uprising that led to the creation of the Roman Republic. Caesar (100-44 BC), of course, was the Roman statesman and general whose actions helped bring about the downfall of that same republic, while Charles I and James II were kings of England whose respective reigns came to abrupt ends amid protest, civil war, and revolution. While each of these men on their own would seem to represent the kind of oppressive ruler Mayhew believed it was just to overthrow – with James in particular looming large in the contemporary Anglo-American mythos of responsible government and legitimate resistance to authority – grouping them together provided for a somewhat clearer definition of his philosophical sensibilities.
Tarquin, it seemed, whose role in classical Roman history was to be an almost cartoonishly evil figure against which the virtue of the republic could be contrasted, was of the same category to Mayhew as Julius Caesar, who was of the same category as Charles I, who was of the same category as James II. While in point of fact these men wrought different levels of damage upon the institutions and populations under the authority – Caesar and James seem particularly far apart in that regard – the minister of the Old West Church evidently perceived in them a moral equivalency that belied the true extent of their transgressions. As his Discourse would have it, violating the natural and legal rights of the individual was the worst possible crime that any ruler could commit, and one which consistently justified the overthrow of the same. It thus mattered little that Tarquin purportedly had several of his relatives killed so that he could ascend the throne while Charles I perpetrated the comparatively mild offense of seeking to tax his subjects without the permission of Parliament. One was as bad as the other in the eyes of Jonathan Mayhew, and as undeserving of obedience and loyalty. Bearing this conviction in mind, his criticism of the veneration of Charles I’s execution would appear to be grounded upon philosophy as well as faith. If men like Tarquin, Caesar, and James II remained objects of dishonor to the mainstream of contemporary Anglo-American society – and indeed they did – it would doubtless follow that Charles, their fellow tyrant, was no more deserving of reverence than they were. Definitive though this may seem, Mayhew’s effective combination of scripture and Enlightenment philosophy found even more pointed expression in the section of his Discourse which drew a distinction between those who claimed the title of ruler and those who earned it.
Yet still expanding upon the significance of Romans 13 and the supposed intentions of its author, Mayhew asserted that anything like a close and careful study of the words put down by Saint Paul would show that his exhortation to submit oneself to civil authority, “Be such an one as concludes not in favor of submission to all who bear the title of rulers, in common; but only, to those who actually perform the duty of rulers, by exercising reasonable and just authority, for the good of human society.” While the similarity between this conviction – rulers are only legitimate if they rule justly – and that which formed the core of Locke’s right of revolution – governments are only legitimate if they serve the general welfare – is plainly evident, Mayhew’s perspective was manifestly less secular. Whereas Locke emphasized the primacy of natural law, Mayhew grounded his argument upon a deep respect and reverence for what he believed to be the will of God. Granted, Mayhew did believe in the primacy of natural law and in the necessity of its protection by any ruler or government who sought to claim the loyalty of their subjects. But he often seemed to locate its source as being explicitly scriptural. “The apostle’s argument for submission to rulers,” he thus affirmed,
Is wholly built and grounded upon a presumption that they do in fact answer this character; and is of no force at all upon supposition of the contrary. If rulers are a terror to good works, and not to the evil; if they are not ministers for good to society, but for evil and distress, by violence and oppression; if they execute wrath upon sober, peaceable persons, who do their duty as members of society […] it is plain that the apostle’s argument for submission does not reach them; they are not the same, but different persons from those whom he characterizes; and who must be obeyed according to his reasoning.
Though it seemed to amount to the same thing – i.e. the coupling of political legitimacy to outward respect for a set of freedoms and behaviors – Locke’s identification of the rights in question was more abstract and theoretical than Mayhew’s.
The former’s conception of the social contract was built upon the supposition that at some point in the early history of mankind there existed a state of nature in which every individual was sovereign, and that humanity’s extrication from this condition was voluntary and conditional. Logical this may have been, but even for the literate Anglo-American of the late 18th century it was a rather heady concept. By comparison, Mayhew posited the existence of essentially the same relationship between ruler and subject using scripture as a moral and structural basis. In so doing, rather than ask his audience to accept a theory of sovereignty and human social dynamics almost wholly unconnected to their daily lived existence, he effectively tied the success of his theory of authority and legitimacy to the status of the Bible as the last and definitive word of Lord. The resulting relationship – possessing three focal points (ruler, subject, and God) instead of two (ruler and subject) – could not have but struck the members of Mayhew’s congregation somewhat closer to home than the abstract conjecture of a long-dead Englishmen. This isn’t to say that Locke was unknown in contemporary British America. Certain segments of the middle and upper classes thereof would soon enough prove exceptionally responsive to the kinds of claims that Locke had attempted to advance in 1689, and as a whole Americans were as conscious of the significance and value of their rights as any subject of the British Crown. That being said, 1750 was a fair distance even from 1765, let alone the tumultuous 1770s. Having little reason to concern themselves with the origin of their sovereign rights or the legitimacy of their rulers, the majority of Mayhew’s fellow colonists, or his fellow residents of Boston, or even his fellow attendees of the Old West Church were doubtless better attuned to their faith at the time that Discourse was first delivered than to much more than the basic contours of Lockean political philosophy.
Clearly Mayhew was an exception to this tendency, or else he arrived at almost exactly the same conclusion as John Locke by some miraculous coincidence. In light of his education at Harvard College and at Aberdeen in Scotland – and his obvious interest in the kinds of questions Locke sought to answer at the end of the previous century – the former would seem the likeliest explanation. Bearing this in mind, Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission might fairly be characterized – at least in part – as an attempt by Jonathan Mayhew to make Lockean social contract theory digestible for an otherwise uninitiated audience by fusing it to the unquestionable moral authority of scripture. The advantage of this approach would seem quite plain. Rather than ask the members of his flock to first understand that humanity exited the state of nature by its own volition – thus provisionally delegating sovereignty rather than ceding it forever – Mayhew need only have depended upon the piety each of them had acquired over a lifetime of moral education. Thus he could successfully claim, without necessarily having to explain why, that,
Rulers have no authority from God to do mischief. They are not God’s ordinance, or God ministers, in any other sense than as it is by his permission and providence, that they are exalted to bear rule; and as magistracy duly exercised and authority duly applied, in the enacting and executing good laws,–laws attempered and accommodated to the common welfare of the subjects, must be supposed to be aggregable to the will of the beneficent author and supreme Lord of the universe; whose kingdom ruleth over all; and whose tender mercies are over all his works.
God here carried the weight of moral condemnation in a way that “natural law” almost certainly could not. Particularly according to the sensibilities of mid-18th century New England Congregationalism, there could be no uncertainty as to the love God held for those who did good in his name, the depth of his desire for humanity to live in peace and harmony, and the magnitude of his wrath towards those who did injury to their fellow man in pursuit of greed, ambition, or power. Mayhew’s genius – if genius be an apt descriptor – was in harnessing this basic assumption about the nature of God to an argument against unquestioning submissiveness to political authority.