Six Innovations on the Road to the Revolution: Innovation 1--Putting Kings in their Proper Place. Thoughts by August Glen-James

Six Innovations on the Road to the Revolution: Innovation 1--Putting Kings in their Proper Place. Thoughts by August Glen-James
Photo by Dan Mall / Unsplash

It was widely held in monarchical Europe that God had chosen certain people to rule nations. Known as the divine right of kings, this political doctrine defended monarchical absolutism by asserting that kings, having derived their authority from God, could not, as a consequence, be held accountable for their actions by any earthly authority such as a parliament. King James I was a staunch proponent of this doctrine; hence, the American colonies began under this idea. The American Revolution (1775–83), the French Revolution (1789), and the Napoleonic wars deprived the doctrine of most of its remaining credibility.[1]

Two relevant sources of American history contributed to “dethroning” the divine right of kings:

A. English colonists in North American started to rethink the divine right doctrine. This is notably seen in a sermon about St. Paul’s doctrine, delivered on January 30, 1750, by Reverend Jonathan Mayhew wherein he addressed submission to rulers.[2] John Adams was impressed by Jonathan Mayhew and called him a “transcendent genius.”

In his sermon, Mayhew claimed, as he channeled the teachings of St. Paul, that the “sole end” of civil government was the happiness and good of the society over which it governed. All rulers, furthermore, whether monarchical, aristocratic, or republican ruled by God’s permission and it was a “heinous offense” for citizens to defy them. Hence, Mayhew supported divine right in a way, but not in a way that left rulers unaccountable to their citizens.

For instance, Mayhew noted that some believed it “warrantable” to disobey and resist an oppressive government when peaceful supplication for redress of grievances had failed in order to break “the yoke of tyranny” and free “themselves and posterity from inglorious servitude and ruin.” Mayhew agreed saying that rulers who “use all their power to hurt and injure the public . . . such as do not take care of, and attend upon, the public interests, but their own, to the ruin of the public” are due neither allegiance nor obedience as they have lost their right to rule for not pursuing the “sole end” of civil government, i.e., the happiness and good of society.

Mayhew further expounds:

Thus, upon a careful review of the apostle’s reasoning . . . it appears that his arguments to enforce submission are of such a nature as to conclude only in favor of submission to such rulers as he himself describes; i.e., such as rule for the good of society, which is the only end of their institution. Common tyrants and public oppressors are not entitled to obedience from their subjects by virtue of anything here laid down by the inspired apostle.

Hence, the divine right theory was beginning to be seen in qualified terms rather than absolute dictates.

B. Another severe blow to the status and utility of kings and their “divine right” came from Thomas Paine’s revolutionary pamphlet, Common Sense,[3] which was tremendously influential in the colonies.

About monarchy, Paine wrote that government “by kings was first introduced into the world by the Heathens, from whom the children of Israel copied the custom. The heathen paid divine honours to their deceased kings, and the Christian world hath improved on the plan by doing the same to their living ones. How impious is the title of sacred majesty applied to a worm, who in the midst of his splendor is crumbling into dust!”

In contradistinction to the divine right theory, Paine wrote that “exalting one man so greatly above the rest, cannot be justified on the equal rights of nature, so neither can it be defended on the authority of scripture; for the will of the Almighty as declared by Gideon, and the prophet Samuel, expressly disapproves of government by kings. All anti-monarchical parts of Scripture, have been very smoothly glossed over in monarchical governments, but they undoubtedly merit the attention of countries, which have their governments yet to form.” Moreover, Paine goes on to quote portions of Samuel (Old Testament) wherein asking for a king is characterized as sinful. “That the Almighty,” wrote Paine, “hath here entered his protest against monarchical government is true, or the scripture is false.”

Thus, the concept of divine right is neither justified by scripture nor the “equal rights of nature” and came to the Christian world via heathens. Consequently, there would be no harm, it may be deduced, from defying a monarch’s rule.

The foregoing are samples of writings against divine right and even the very institution of monarchy. A consequence of the anti-divine right thinking is found in the United States Constitution:

Article 1, Section 9, Clause 8. No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince or foreign State. Thus, putting kings in their proper place was an important innovation in the minds and politics of the English colonists that helped pave the way to the American Revolution.

[1] Summarized from the Encyclopedia Britannica. (2018). Divine right of kings | political doctrine. [online] Available at: [Accessed 4 Dec. 2018].

[2] A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to The Higher Powers, etc., etc., Boston, 1750. [Found in The Annals of America, Vol. 1 1493-1754, Discovering a New World. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. Chicago . . ., pp. 481-488.]

[3] Paine, T. (1995). Common Sense. New York: Barnes and Noble. (Work originally published in 1776.)