Sir John Spelman

Certain considerations upon the duties both of prince and people
Written by a gentleman of quality, a well-wisher both to the King and Parliament





Among many intemperances that minister disturbance to church and state, we have those whose supine affectation of flattery has grown to that impudence as that they have not only for learning's sake disputed, but in the name of the word of God and at the time and place when we should expect no other than the lively oracles of God, delivered that the persons and fortunes of all subjects are absolutely at the will and command of the prince, to dispose according to his will and pleasure. To such licentiousness we need give no other answer than only to demand that the maintainers of such doctrine would put us a case wherein (those opinions being admitted) a prince can commit any injustice. And that they would show us wherein lies the justice that the Scripture commands princes to execute, and which it affirms to be the establishment of their thrones and the violation of it to be their adversity or subversion (Proverbs 29.4).

We have on the other side those who finding it written that governors are for the good of the people pursue it with sophistry:  That the people are the end of princes' and governors' beings and that therefore as their government is for or against the good of the people, so may they be continued or deposed by them. To that end also there are opinions set on foot, that all government first came from the people and that all authority does in the last place reside in them; that in every kingdom the whole body of the people must of necessity contain all power and authority whatsoever either is or may be erected in it;  so as that all the people or the greater part of them (which amounts to all) may by their votes reassume all power into their own hands, abrogate all ordinances, annul the forms of present government, and new mould the state into such forms and institutions as best liketh them. These are falsities which yet lay hold upon reasons and prevail over the judgments of many that are understanding men, and which have no evil affection toward government. And these are of that consequence as that they subvert the stability of all kind of government whatsoever.

But were we shy of Jesuitism as well of Popery, we would not with so little examination receive opinions, which we know had their first hatching in the school of the Jesuit. …

And first we are to consider that the original of kingdoms is of three sorts - to wit, natural (which we may call civil), violent (or if you will martial), or mixed of these two. The first was of parents over their children, children's children, and servants bought or born unto them. In this, the person of the governor was before the being of the subject, and his authority before ever the subject consented or had power to obey or disobey. … And this sovereignty was not inherent to the person of the father only, but from him descended by right of primogeniture to the eldest son, to whose rule we see that God subjected the younger (Genesis 4.7).

The second sort of kingdoms was wholly founded by the sword over people that were subjugated by usurpers and invaders, such as followed the way of Nimrod, who being potent in his natural dominion used his power to the oppression of his neighbours, and changed the state of government into tyranny. I say not the state of liberty (as if till then men had lived in absolute liberty) but changed the natural government into that which is tyrannical.

The third sort had much what the same original with the second: where people surcharged at home and forced abroad - men in division, in distress, in fear, exiles and fugitives - distrusting their present condition, served themselves on the wit, spirit, and courage of some notable man, to whose command they (with such limitation of his power as they could agree on) subjected themselves. And then falling into action prospered even into a kingdom. From hence spring our modern kingdoms, more novel and various in their frame, and many of them so qualified as not properly to be called kingdoms, but rather republics under regal styles, with princes elective, much circumscribed in authority and obnoxious to deposing.

Now in the first and second sort, apparently the people never had anything to do with the institution and limitation of sovereign power; and though in the third sort they had more to do therewith, yet not alike in all of that sort, nor had they the whole and sole power of instituting scarce in any of that sort. So as we must rectify that misapprehension that in all kingdoms the first derivation of authority was from the people.


For men having lost his original righteousness or justice, and consequently the right of governing himself, and being thereby necessarily subjected to the government of some justice without himself, it was necessary for his own good and safety, that he should not only be subject to that justice in things that concerned the well-governing himself towards others, but likewise in those things that concerned his safety and defense from the violence of others misgoverning themselves toward him. And that necessarily brings in empire. So that (unless we can imagine some kingdom to consist of people sprung of themselves in perfection of righteousness, not  obliging or depending to God or nature, nor obnoxious to those conditions to which the Fall of man has subjected all men) we cannot devise how men should naturally be free from subjection to government. And less how (being subject) private men in any state should in their natural capacity meddle with anything concerning government, or so much as go about the making, changing or annulling of ordinances, or to compel their governors to do them, without being criminally culpable, not only against the positive laws of the land, but even against conscience pressed within the bonds of natural, moral and also divine law.


Now if the king be supreme, then is there in no kingdom any superintending power or authority that may lawfully call the king to account: for that power only is the supreme over which there is not any other to take account. So high and sacred is the authority of them whom God has made nursing fathers and nursing mothers to his church.


The means that belongs to private men to use for reforming of kingdoms is that which the Apostle shows, Let prayers (saith he) and supplications be made for kings and all that are in authority that we may lead a godly life (1 Timothy 2.1). The people must not with impatience and puffed-up minds invade God's peculiar right of calling kings to account, but every man betaking himself to the reformation of himself and to prayers unto God, must seek of him that hath the hearts of kings in his hand (Proverbs 21.1) to dispose the King's heart to the desired reformation.


To conclude, we may consider the unlawfulness of popular animadversion into the manners and government of princes (especially of princes that are lawful Christian monarchs) even in this alone, that there are no received nor known bounds of limitation, how far people may walk in the way of questioning and reforming the errors of princes. But that if anything at all be lawful for them to do therein, then may they without restraint proceed so far as to depose princes and deprive them of their lives, if (according to the doctrine of the Jesuit) they find it for the good reformation of the church and commonwealth, which how well it is warranted by the word of God, we may see plainly enough in the case between Saul and David.
Saul was King but misgoverning himself and the kingdom, became as bad as excommunicate and was deposed. For he was rejected of God and David, by God's express command, anointed to be king. All which notwithstanding, neither David nor the people ever sought to depose him, to renounce obedience unto him, to combine against him, question his government, or so much as meddle with ordering any of the affairs that belonged to the King. Nay, Saul after this persecuted David unjustly; and in the midst of his hostile and unjust persecution was delivered into David's hand, and it was of necessity that David should take advantage and kill him, for he could not otherwise have any assurance of his own life. David did then but even cut the skirt of Saul's garment - to the end it might witness his faithful loyalty because it made it manifest that he could as easily have cut the thread of his life. And even for this his heart smote him, as that he cries out, The Lord forbid that I should do this thing to my Master, the Lord's anointed, to stretch forth my hand against him (I Samuel 24:5).


But error in this point has made such impressions in the minds of many, as that they will never be persuaded but that they may disobey and resist authority, if ever they find it faulty of the commands thereof not agreeing with their consciences. They will grant that they may not disobey authority in the lawful commands thereof, neither do evil that good may come thereon, but then they themselves will be the judges what commands are lawful and what not, what things good and what evil. And so they make obedience arbitrary and government (by pretending conscience) at the discretion of the subject. Yea, though the things whereat they take check be of their own nature indifferent or doubtful (and therefore not matters of faith), yet will not they submit themselves nor their opinions unto any. No, not to the judgment of the church they live in; no, not to the judgment of the church catholic nor to the authority of it, even in the purest times thereof. But they from the authority of their own opinions or from the authority of such teachers as they themselves have chosen to be their guides, they will both censure, condemn, disobey and revile the ordinances of their church and the governors thereof. So secure in opposing imaginary - or at least unproven - superstition, as they will not see how incompatible self-will, presumption, disobedience, arrogance and railing are with true religion…


We deny not but that authority may command things that by no means at all ought to be done, and that then we must not do them. But those things are such as are manifestly contrary to the express word of God and principles of religion. And even then we are only simply to refuse the doing of the evil commanded, without any actual resistance otherwise; and so doing, our not obeying is not to be counted disobedience, because it being necessary obedience to the express word of God (the primitive sovereign of all authority) it can never be disobedience to the derivative.


We might in this place remember also what infinite doubts and questions (perpetually ensnaring and wounding the consciences of private men, and with continual disturbance and division threatening the ruin of the state) do follow the admitting of this one opinion:  that, when other remedies fail, subjects in case of necessity may levy arms and defend their laws, liberties and religion against the oppressors of them. For what shall be sufficient necessity? and who shall be judge of it? What way and how far may subjects so proceed? Who shall command? &c.


Tyranny (as we have touched) began first in Eastern parts and thence it dispersed itself throughout the world. And being from the beginning grievous and incomportable, in time it discovered itself to be be but weak. Withal it was supposed that the grievousness of it consisted in the monarchal form, for remedy of which they instituted, in some places aristocratical, in some places popular government. But in the use of them, they all also were discerned to be but other faces of the same tyranny. And men found plainly that the absolute government of either people or nobles was as well obnoxious unto tyranny as the sole government of the prince. And that in which of the three soever the government resided, the government was both tyrannical and infirm. And that in every of them the comportableness and stability depended only on the well regulating of the sovereign power, by a reasonable interposition of some power committed into the hands of the two other potent limbs. So it became an experimented principle among statists, that the composite form (wherein every of the three potent limbs, for the surer support of the instituted state had such apportioned influence and power as was proper for the frame of government) was the only firm and durable form. And that of the three powers - regal, aristocratical or popular - any of them prevailing so far as to be wholly free from being qualified or tempered by some operation of the other two, corrupted the legitimate form into a tyrannical, and made a prognostic of the state declining into ruin.
This principle of state is not impeached by any instance of long continuance of the old Assyrian or present Turkish empire, because the Assyrian had a peculiar advantage of continuance by the simplicity and unactiveness of the age it was in. And the Turks to work their security and continuance have wholly put out the light of knowledge from among their people, and have subdued them to a false religion, that has in itself no other end nor office than only to keep men in subjection. So that they, having deprived themselves of the principle of all conditions of humanity and made themselves (in a manner) an empire of beasts, the success of their affairs determines nothing of the event of theirs that aim to live as men - much less of theirs who are to live the lives of supernatural men, that is to say, of Christians.



[Spelling and punctuation modernized]


Sir John Spelman (1594-1643) was the son of the historian, Sir Henry Spelman, and himself wrote a life of Alfred the Great. He was educated at Cambridge, traveled on the Continent, and was knighted by Charles I.

obnoxious  = susceptible

nursing fathers - Isaiah 49:23 "And kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and their queens thy nursing mothers: they shall bow down to thee with their face toward the earth, and lick up the dust of thy feet; and thou shalt know that I am the LORD: for they shall not be ashamed that wait for me"

Neither do evil ... = Romans 3:8

statists = political scientists

made a prognostic of = predicted, foretold