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An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice

By William Godwin



Diversity of opinions on this subject. -- Argument in its vindication. -- The destruction of a tyrant not a case of exception. -- Consequences of tyrannicide. -- Assassination described. -- Importance of sincerity.
{226} A question, connected with the mode of effecting revolutions, and which has been eagerly discussed among political reasoners, is that of tyrannicide. The moralists of antiquity warmly contended for the lawfulness of this practice; by the moderns it has generally been condemned.

The arguments in its favour are built upon a very obvious principle. 'Justice ought universally to be administered. Upon lesser criminals it is done, or pretended to be done, by the laws of the community. But criminals by whom law is subverted, and who overturn the liberties of mankind, are out of the reach of the ordinary administration of justice. If justice be partially administered in subordinate cases, and the rich man be able to oppress {227} the poor with impunity, it must be admitted that a few examples of this sort are insufficient to authorise the last appeal of human beings. But no man will deny that the case of the usurper and the despots is of the most atrocious nature. In this instance, all the provisions of civil policy being superseded, and justice poisoned at the source, every man is left to execute for himself the decrees of eternal equity.'

'It may however be doubted whether the destruction of a tyrant be in any respect a case of exception from the rules proper to be observed upon ordinary occasions. The tyrant has certainly no particular sanctity annexed to his person, and may be killed with as little scruple as any other man, when the object is that of repelling immediate violence. In all other cases, the extirpation of the offender by a self-appointed authority, does not appear to be the proper mode of counteracting injustice.

For, first, either the nation, whose tyrant you would destroy, is ripe for the assertion and maintenance of its liberty, or it is not. If it be, the tyrant ought to be deposed with every appearance of publicity. Nothing can be more improper, than for an affair, interesting to the general weal, to be conducted as if it were an act of darkness and shame. It is an ill lesson we read to mankind, when a proceeding, built upon the broad basis of general justice, is permitted to shrink from public scrutiny. The pistol and the dagger may as easily be made the auxiliaries of vice as {228} of virtue. To proscribe all violence, and neglect no means of information and impartiality, is the most effectual security we can have for an issue conformable to the voice of reason and truth.

If the nation be not ripe for a state of freedom, the man, who assumes to himself the right of interposing violence, may indeed shew the fervour of his conception, and gain a certain degree of notoriety. Fame he will not gain, for mankind at present regard an act of this sort with merited abhorrence; and he will inflict new calamities on his country. The consequences of tyrannicide are well known. If the attempt prove abortive, it renders the tyrant ten times more bloody, ferocious, and cruel than before. If it succeed, and the tyranny be restored, it produces the same effect upon his successors. In the climate of despotism some solitary virtues may spring up. But in the midst of plots and conspiracies there is neither truth, nor confidence, nor love, nor humanity.

Secondly, the true merits of the question will be still farther understood, if we reflect on the nature of assassination. The mistake, which has been incurred upon this subject, is to be imputed principally to the superficial view that has been taken of it. If its advocates had followed the conspirator through all his windings, and observed his perpetual alarm lest truth should become known, they would probably have been less indiscriminate {229} in their applause. No action can be imagined more directly at war with a principle of ingenuousness and candour. Like all that is most odious in the catalogue of vices, it delights in obscurity. It shrinks from the penetrating eye of wisdom. It avoids all question, and hesitates and trembles before the questioner. It struggles for a tranquil gaiety, and is only complete where there is the most perfect hypocrisy. It changes the use of speech, and composes every feature the better to deceive. Imagine to yourself the conspirators, kneeling at the feet of Caesar, as they did the moment before they destroyed him. Not all the virtue of Brutus can save them from your indignation.

There cannot be a better instance than that of which we are treating, to prove the importance of general sincerity. We see in this example, that an action, which has been undertaken from the best motives, may by a defect in this particular tend to overturn the very foundations of justice and happiness. Wherever there is assassination, there is an end to all confidence among men. Protests and assertions go for nothing. No man presumes to know his neighbour's intention. The boundaries, that have hitherto served to divide virtue and vice, are gone. The true interests of mankind require, not their removal, but their confirmation. All morality proceeds upon the assumption of something evident and true, will grow and expand in proportion as these indications are more clear and unequivocal, and could not exist for a moment, if they were destroyed.