Vindiciae contra tyrannos

Vindiciae contra Tyrannos:
A Defence of Liberty against Tyrants
Or of the lawful power of the prince over the people and of the people over the prince. Being a treatise written in Latin and French by Junius Brutus, and translated out of both into English.



… The king is established by the Lord God, the King of Kings; to the end he should administer justice to his people and defend them against all his enemies. The vassal receives law and conditions from his sovereign: God commands the king to observe his laws and to have them always before his eyes, promising that he and his successors shall possess long the kingdom, if they be obedient, and on the contrary that their reign shall be of small continuance, if they prove rebellious to their sovereign king. …

… a people truly affected to true religion, will not simply consent themselves to reprove and repress a prince that would abolish the law of God, but also will have special regard that through malice and wickedness he innovate nothing that may hurt the same, or that in tract of time may corrupt the pure service of God …

… But I see well, here will be an objection made, what will you say? That a whole people, that beast of many heads, must they run in a mutinous disorder, to order the businesses of the Commonwealth? What address or direction is there in an unruly and unbridled multitude? what counsel or wisdom to manage the affairs of state?

    When we speak of all the people, we understand by that, only those which hold their authority from the people, to wit, the magistrates which are inferior to the king, and whom the people hath substituted or established, as it were, consorts i the empire and with a kind of tribunitial authority, to restrain the encroachments of sovereignty and to represent the whole body of the people. We understand also the Assembly of the Estates, which is nothing else but an epitome or a brief collection of the kingdom, to whom all public affairs have special and absolute reference, such were the Seventy Ancients in the kingdom of Israel amongst whom the High Priest was, as it were, president, and they judged all matters of greatest importance, those seventy being first chosen by six out of each tribe, which came out of the Land Of Egypt, then the heads or governors of provinces …

…But here presents itself another question the which deserves to be considered, and amply debated in regard of the circumstance of time. Let us put the case that a king seeking to abolish the law of God or ruin the church, that all the people or the greatest part yield their consents, that all the princes or the greatest number of them make no reckoning; and notwithstanding, a small handful of people, to wit some of the princes and magistrates, desire to preserve the law of God entirely and inviolably and to serve the Lord purely: what may it be lawful for them to do? if the king seek to compel those men to be idolaters, or will take from them the exercise of true religion? We speak not here of private and particular persons considered one by one, and which in that manner are not held as parts of the entire body; as the planks, the nails, the pegs are no part of the ship, neither the stones, the rafters, nor the rubbish are any part of the house: but we speak of some town or province which makes a portion of the kingdom, as the prow, the poop, the keel and other parts make a ship; the foundation, the roof and the walls make a house. We speak also of the magistrate which governs such a city or province. …

I say again, that not only the king and the people, but also all the towns of Israel and their magistrates, oblige themselves to God and as homagers to their liege lord tie themselves to be his forever, with and against all men; for further proof thereof, I would entreat the Reader to diligently turn over the holy Bible, especially in the Books of Kings and the Chronicles. … But if the king should pass yet further and send his lieutenants to compel us to become idolaters, and if he commands us to drive God and his service from amongst us; shall we not rather shut our gates against the king and his officers, than drive out of our town the Lord, which is King of Kings? Let the burgesses and citizens of towns, let the magistrates and governors of the people of God dwelling in the towns, consider with themselves that they have contracted two covenants, and taken two oaths:  The first and most ancient with God, to whom the people have sworn to be his people:  The second and next following with the king, to whom the people hath promised obedience, as unto him which is the governor and conductor of the people of God.

… The kings, the communalties of the people, the magistrates into whose hands the whole body of the commonwealth hath committed the sword of authority, must and ought to take care that the church be maintained and preserved; particulars ought only to look that they render themselves members of this church. Kings and popular Estates are bound to hinder the pollution or ruin of the Temple of God, and ought to free and defend it from all corruption within and all injury from without. Private men must take order that their bodies, the temples of God, be pure, that they may be fit receptacles for the Holy Ghost to dwell in them. If any man defile the temple of God, saith the Apostle, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are. To the former he gives the sword which they bear with authority:  to the other he recommends the sword of the spirit only, to wit, the word of God, wherewith St. Paul arms all Christians against the assaults of the devil. What shall private men do if the king will constrain them to serve idols?

If the magistrates into whose hands the people hath consigned their authority, or if the magistrates of the place where these particulars dwell, do oppose these proceedings of the king, let them in God's name obey their leaders, and employ all their means (as in the service of God) to aid the holy and commendable enterprises of those, which oppose themselves lawfully against his wicked intention. … But if the princes and magistrates approve the courses of an outrageous and irreligious prince, or if they do not resist him, we must lend our ears to the counsel of Jesus Christ, to wit, to retire ourselves into some other place. We have the example of faithful mixed among the ten tribes of Israel, who seeing the true service of God abolished by Jeroboam, and that none made any account of it, they retired themselves into the territories of Judah, where religion remained in her purity. Let us rather forsake our livelihoods and our lives than God; let us rather be crucified ourselves than crucify the Lord of life. Fear not them (saith the Lord) which can only kill the body.

…Kings are made by the People
We have showed before that it is God that doth appoint kings, which chooseth them, which gives the kingdom to them: now we say that the people establish the kings, putteth the scepter into their hands, and which with their suffrages approveth the election. God would have it done in this manner to the end that the kings should acknowledge that, after God, they held their power and sovereignty from the people, and that it might the rather induce them, to apply and address the utmost of their care and thoughts for the profit of the people, without being puffed with any vain imagination that they were formed of any matter more excellent than any other men …

Briefly for so much as none were ever born with crowns on their heads and sceptres in their hands, and that no man can be a king by himself nor reign without people; whereas on the contrary, the people might subsist of themselves, and were long before they had any kings, it must of necessity follow that kings were at the first constituted by the people.…

…The whole body of the people is above the king
Now seeing that the people choose and establish their kings, it followeth that the whole body of the people is above the king; for it is a thing most evident that he which is established by another is accounted under him that hath established him. and he which receives his authority from another is less than he from whom he derives his power.

… In these days there is no rhetoric more common in the courts of rules, than of those who say all is the king's. Whereby it follows, that in exacting anything from his subjects, he takes but his own, and in that which he leaves them, he expresseth the care he hath that they should not be altogether destitute of means to maintain themselves. This opinion has gained so much power in the minds of some rulers, that they are not ashamed to say that the pains, sweat and industry of their subjects is the proper revenue, as if their miserable subjects only kept beasts to till the earth for their insolent master's profit and luxury. And indeed, the practice at this day is just in this manner, although in all right and equity it ought to be contrary. Now we must always remember that kings were created for the good and profit of the people, and that those (as Aristotle says) who endeavor and seek the welfare of the people are trusty kings; whereas those that make their own private ends and pleasures the only butt and aim of their desires, are truly tyrants.

It being then so that every one loves that which is his own, yea that many covet that which belongs to other men, is it anything probable that men should seek a master to give him frankly all that they had long labored for, and gained with the sweat of their brows? May we not rather imagine that they chose such a man on whose integrity they relied for the administering of justice equally both to the poor and rich, and which would not assume all to himself, but rather maintain every one in the fruition of his own goods? Or who, like an unprofitable drone, should suck the fruit of other men's labors, but rather preserve the house for those whose industry justly deserved it? Briefly, who, instead of extorting from the true owners their goods, would see them defended from all ravening oppressors? What I pray you skills it, says the poor country man, whether the king or the enemy make havoc of my goods, since through the spoil thereof I and my poor family die for hunger? What imports it it whether a stranger or home-bred caterpillar ruin my estate, and bring my poor fortune to extreme beggary; whether a foreign soldier, or a sycophant courtier, by force or fraud, make me alike miserable? Why shall he be accounted a barbarous enemy, if thou be a friendly patriot? Why he a tyrant if thou be a king? Yea, certainly by how much parricide is greater than manslaughter, by so much the wickedness of a king exceeds in mischief the violence of an enemy.

If then therefore, in the creation of kings, men gave not their own proper goods to them, but only recommended them to their protection; by what other right then, but that of freebooters, can they challenge the property of other men's goods to themselves?…

First, the law of nature teacheth and commandeth us to maintain and defend our lives and liberties, without which life is scant worth the enjoying, against all injury and violence. Nature hath imprinted this by instinct in dogs against wolves, in bulls against lions, betwixt pigeons and sparrow-hawks, betwixt pullen and kites, and yet much more in man against man himself, if man become a beast: and therefore he who questions the lawfulness of defending oneself, doth as much as in him lies question the law of nature. To this must be added the law of nations, which distinguisheth possessions and dominions, fixes limits, and makes out confines, which every man is bound to defend against all invaders. And, therefore, it is no less lawful to resist Alexander the Great, if without any right or being justly provoked, he invades a country with a mighty navy, as well as Diomedes the pirate which scours the seas in a small vessel. For in this case Alexander's right is no more than Diomedes his, but only he hath more power to do wrong, and not so easily to be compelled to reason as the other. Briefly, one may as well oppose Alexander in pillaging a country, as a thief in purloining a cloak; as well him when he seeks to batter down the walls of a city, as a robber that offers to break into a private house. There is, besides this, the civil law, or municipal laws of several countries which governs the societies of men by certain rules, some in one manner, some in another; some submit themselves to the government of one man, some to more; others are ruled by a whole communalty; some absolutely exclude women from the royal throne, others admit them; these here choose their king descended of such a family, those there make election of whom they please, besides other customs practiced amongst several nations. If therefore, any offer either by fraud or force to violate this law, we are all bound to resist him, because he wrongs that society to which we owe all that we have, and would ruin our country, to the preservation whereof all men by nature, by law and by solemn oath, are strictly obliged: insomuch that fear or negligence, or bad purposes, make us omit this duty, we may justly be accounted breakers of the laws, betrayers of our country, and contemners of religion.  Now as the laws of nature, of nations, and the civil commands us to take arms against such tyrants; so, is there not any manner of reason that should persuade us to the contrary; neither is there any oath, covenant, or obligation, public or private, of power justly to restrain us; therefore the meanest private man may resist and lawfully oppose such an intruding tyrant. …

… This, of which we have spoken, is to be understood of a tyranny not yet firmly rooted, to wit, whilst a tyrant conspires, machinates, and lays his plots and practices. But if he be once so possessed of the state, and that the people, being subdued, promise and swear obedience; the commonwealth being oppressed, resign their authority into his hands; and that the kingdom in some formal manner consent to the changing of their laws; for so much certainty as then, he hath gained a title which before he wanted and seems to be as well a legal as actual possessor thereof, although this yoke were laid on the people's neck by compulsion, yet must they quietly and peaceably rest in the will of the Almighty, who, at his pleasure transfers kingdoms from one nation to another. Otherways there should be no kingdom, whose jurisdiction might not be disputed. And it may well chance, that he who before was a tyrant without title, having obtained the title of a king, may free himself from any tyrannous imputation, by governing those under him with equity and moderation. … For after promise of performance, it is too late to repent. And, as in battles every one ought to give testimony of his velour, but, being once taken prisoner, must faithfully observe covenants, so it is requisite, that the people maintain their rights by all possible means; but, if it chance that they be brought into the subjection of another's will, they must then patiently support the dominion of the victor. So did Pompey, Cato, and Cicero and others, perform the parts of good patriots then when they took arms against Caesar, seeking to alter the government of the state; neither can those be justly excused, whose base fear hindered the happy success of Pompey and his partakers' noble designs. Augustus himself is said to have reproved one who railed on Cato, affirming that he carried himself worthily and exceedingly affected to the greatness of his country, in courageously opposing the alteration which his contraries sought to introduce in the government of the state, seeing all innovations of that nature are ever authors of much trouble and confusion.

Furthermore, no man can justly reprehend Brutus, Cassius, and the rest who killed Caesar before his tyrannical authority had taken any firm rooting. And so there were statues of brass erected in honour of them by public decree at Athens, and placed by those of Harmodius and Aristogiton, then when, after the dispatching of Caesar, they retired from Rome, to avoid Mark Anthony and Augustus their revenge. But Cinna was certainly guilty of sedition, who, after a legal transferring of the people's power into the hands of Augustus, is said to have conspired against him. …

… if a prince outrageously over-pass the bounds of piety and justice, a neighbor prince may justly and religiously leave his own country, not to invade and usurp another's, but to contain the other within the limits of justice and equity; and if he neglect or omit his duty herein, he shows himself a wicked and unworthy magistrate. If a prince tyrannize over the people, a neighbor prince ought to yield succour as freely and willingly to the people, as he would do to the prince his brother, if the people mutinied against him. Yea, he should so much the more readily succour the people, by how much there is more just cause of pity to see many afflicted, than one alone.

[Spelling and punctuation modernized]

"Junius Brutus", the pen name chosen by the author of this tract - probably Phillipe du Plessis-Mornay, refers to Roman history. Lucius Junius Brutus was the legendary leader of the opposition to Tarquin the Proud, King of Rome. Brutus' rebellion led to the creation of the Roman Republic. Marcus Junius Brutus (85-42 BC), a descendant of Lucius, joined the plot to assassinate Julius Caesar because he feared that Julius wanted to overthrow the Republic and institute personal rule. The first edition of the Vindiciae (1579) gave the author's name as "Stephanus Junius Brutus" - Stephanos means "crowned" in Greek; furthermore, the assassin of the Emperor Domitian (51-96 AD) was called Stephanos.
Shakespeare's poem The Rape of Lucrece deals with the incident - the rape of Collatinus' wife, Lucrece by Tarquinius Superbus - that provoked Junius Brutus to rebel.

The office of tribune of the plebs (tribuni plebis) existed in ancient Rome to protect plebeian rights against abuse by magistrates; the tribune could prosecute corrupt magistrates and block unjust decisions.

In ancient Israel, the Great Sanhedrin was a religious court and legislative body made up of seventy (or seventy-one) elders; it exercised quasi-parliamentary functions.

I Corinthians 3:17 - "If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are".

Butt = A mark for archery practice (precisely the mound where the target is mounted) - i.e. a goal or end.

Pullen = poultry

Augustine, City of God, IV.4 - "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."

Communalty = commonalty = The general body of the community; commoners as opposed to the upper classes, i.e. the commons collectively.

Brutus - contrast his attitude to Brutus with that of Dante or Feltham.

Harmodius & Aristogeiton = Two youths who lived in 6th century BC Athens and who avenged an insult by trying to kill the tyrant Hippias and his brother, Hipparchus. Both were killed and later celebrated as heroes of Athenian liberty.

For the story of L. Cornelius Cinna, see Montaigne Essays, XXIII.