In his Second Treatise of Civil Government, eminent political philosopher John Locke argued that when all other political and individual methods of resisting tyranny are exhausted, only an “appeal to heaven” remains.
In Chapter 14 of the famous work, Locke explained that his reasoning was based upon an extension of his own natural rights theory:
“And where the body of the people, or any single man, is deprived of their right, or is under the exercise of a power without right, and have no appeal on earth, then they have a liberty to appeal to heaven, whenever they judge the cause of sufficient moment. And therefore, though the people cannot be judge, so as to have, by the constitution of that society, any superior power, to determine and give effective sentence in the case; yet they have, by a law antecedent and paramount to all positive laws of men, reserved that ultimate determination to themselves which belongs to all mankind, where there lies no appeal on earth, viz. to judge, whether they have just cause to make their appeal to heaven.”
In summary, Locke’s contention was that no man had inherent power to regulate or restrict divine arbitration in civil affairs. Even in dire circumstances, he alleged, natural rights transcended the political process.
The “appeal to heaven” motto was even fashioned into a famous patriot flag, sometimes known as the “Pine Tree Flag.” The flag flew over a squadron of six cruisers under George Washington. Additionally, it was adopted in an official capacity by Massachusetts, where the flag adorned both state and private naval vessels. Although overshadowed by the more famous Gadsden Flag and the 1777 Flag of the United States, I think the symbol and the underlying notion behind are deserving of a massive resuscitation campaign.
A study of the time frame makes it clear the American patriots saw this message as more than a mere motto. In their time, the writs of assistance, Sugar Act, Stamp Act, Tea Act, Quartering Acts, and the dissolution of the colonial assemblies all caused the American patriots great alarm. Beyond the negative impact, many argued that such policies disrupted the equilibrium of Britain’s constitutional system.
Even acts of political reconciliation seemed fruitless at times. The repeal of the Stamp Act, for instance, was negated by the adoption of the Declaratory Act the same day, which held that Parliamentary policy was binding upon the American colonies “in all ways whatsoever.” The colonists had sought the remediation of King George III to intervene in their squabble with British Parliament, asking him to refuse his royal assent and loosen enforcement of the most controversial laws.
For those who believe that “God governs in the affairs of men,” as Benjamin Franklin eloquently suggested in the Philadelphia Convention, Locke’s motto gives us great hope and assurance even today. Outside of the theistic connotations, the maxim goes far deeper by inspiring a tireless, alert citizenry to work until the bitter end to achieve a remedy.
In fact, his general viewpoint can be applied to almost any and every situation under the sun. Whether one’s health care costs rise to extraordinary levels, a family business suffers from new regulations or additional taxes, or an undesirable candidate is elected president, the theory applies similarly. Simply put, if we don’t get our political way, it is up to us to resist and overcome. Instead of a cause for despair, it should be a spark of inspiration.
Far from calling for an abandonment of political recourse, Locke believed the outlook should stand as a rallying cry for the spread of public virtue and diligent political resistance against the unsavory deeds of government. According to Locke, an appeal to heaven in no way “lays a perpetual foundation for disorder; for this operates not, till the inconveniency is so great, that the majority feel it, and are weary of it,” he insisted. Until the bitter end, citizens should remain diligent in their opposition to egregious acts through political action. Rather than a tactic of last resort, Locke’s appeal to heaven was a warning sign.
While we all may disagree on which policies of government are so malignant, those of all political persuasions can take something from Locke’s perspective. Though it is often overlooked, the appeal to heaven was a focal point of Lockean thought. As a timeless principle, I think its foundation is hardly antiquated or obsolete. Whether such a strategy bears fruit, however, is up to all of us to determine.