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Juan de Mariana: The 17th Century Spanish Scholastic Who Inspired the Founding Fathers (Part II)

Mariana, juan, padres fundadores, estados unidos,

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Let us remember that Mariana maintained that kings, even if they were originally legitimate, “if by their mistakes and evils they put the state in danger, if they despise the national religion and become totally incorrigible (…) we must dethrone them” because in the end, it is in “The people where the royal power has its origin (…) if the circumstances demand it, not only has the power to call the king by right, but also to strip him of the crown if he refuses to correct his faults.”

The people have transmitted their power to him, but a greater power has been reserved for him. Thus, to impose taxes or to change the fundamental laws, his consent is always indispensable (…) new taxes can only be established and laws promulgated with the will of the people (…) moreover, the right to the crown, even hereditary, is only confirmed in the successor by the oath of that same people.”

To make it clear that it is tyranny, Mariana, after describing it as a result of the abuses of tyrants, he clarifies that “the people and (…) the Roman Senate when they approved a decree declaring that the laws did not bind Augustus (…) with that same decree made him a tyrant.”

“He was Augustus (…), benign, merciful and generous, but (…) a tyrant (…) because a tyrant is one who commands against the will of his subjects (…) represses with arms the freedoms of the people (…) does not attend to the usefulness of the people, but (…) the aggrandizement of power he has usurped (…) what Caesar and Augustus did.” He admits that Augustus did not abuse unlimited power too much, but that it would have been granted, even with the people and the Senate’s agreement, making him a tyrant. And he sentences that, for giving such power to Augustus, Romans suffered terrible tyrants from his successors.

Making clear what is a legitimate ruler and what is a tyrant, Mariana warns that by overthrowing tyrants, “greater evils are often provoked, for it is not easy to overthrow a government without great upheavals, of which often the same ones who promote them are the victims (…) What good was the death of Domitius Nero to Rome if not for Otto and Vitellius, two tyrants as harmful as he was to the health of the republic?”

So, he prudently points out that “… if the prince had ascended the throne by hereditary right or by the will of the people (…) he must be suffered, despite his lightness and his vices, as long as he does not disregard the laws of duty and honor to which he is subject because of his office”.

But he warns that there are limits to the patience of the people. He says this about the rulers “it is not possible to ignore their evil when they upset the whole community, take possession of the riches of all, despise the laws and religion of the kingdom (…) the prince must be warned and called to reason and right (…) if he leaves no room for hope, it must begin by declaring publicly that he is not recognized as king (…) will necessarily provoke a war (…) and if the people are oppressed by tyranny (…) because they cannot be reunited (…) there must be no lack of will to overthrow the tyrant.”

But death or overthrowning the tyrant “…the people’s uprisings must be avoided so that with the joy of having deposed the tyrant, excesses do not occur (…) and such a serious decision becomes sterile or vain.”


The point is that for Mariana, taxes without representation are tyranny because “the king cannot impose taxes without the consent of the people’s representatives. It is the limits to power that make it legitimate and all unlimited power is tyranny.”

Mariana affirmed that “there is no more serious issue in a political community than that of increasing or decreasing the authority of the ruler (…) it has been established by the consent of the citizens (…) limited by laws or norms (…) necessary so that power does not go beyond its limits (…) the king cannot impose tributes without the consent of the representatives of the people. (…) the same can be said of the sanctioning of laws”.

Mariana’s voice is that of the American colonies that first tried with patience and attachment to the ways “to admonish the prince and call him to reason and right” conscious that “changing the prince often causes greater evils, because it is not easy to overthrow a government without great upheavals” but having endured the growing tyranny they finally had to resist it. And with their weapons in hand – those which the tyranny intended to take from them, as the tyrants of yesterday and today always claim – they stood up to the muskets of their own government, which opened fire on them again and again.

And having exhausted their reason and prudence, they declared before the world that they no longer suffered from the tyranny which denied them their rights, trampled on their laws, took their property and treated loyal subjects like slaves. They put their lives and property at risk for the most sacred right of free men. They resisted tyranny with their weapons until they threw it out of their homeland. Because homeland, for the Founding Fathers as for Mariana, is the land where by their own uses and customs and under the God of their fathers, free men can remain free in peace.

For Mariana, men are free only under the rule of law. And whether it is the government of the multitude, of the few or of the one, when the government of men replaces that of the laws, it is tyranny that reigns. This is as true today as it was then. Whether we like it or not.

Guillermo Rodríguez is a professor of Political Economy in the extension area of the Faculty of Economic and Administrative Sciences at Universidad Monteávila, in Caracas. A researcher at the Juan de Mariana Center and author of several books // Guillermo es profesor de Economía Política en el área de extensión de la Facultad de Ciencias Económicas y Administrativas de la Universidad Monteávila, en Caracas, investigador en el Centro Juan de Mariana y autor de varios libros

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