The Basics of Constitutionalism

I recently learned about constitutionalism as an important feature in the fabric of Western Civilization.  I had heard of the US Constitution as a document, but I now realize I was mostly ignorant of the underlying principles and historical basis that influenced the Founding Fathers. Tom Woods helped me understand that any “fundamental power that limits government powers” (RPC lecture no. 33) is the essence of constitutionalism.It is much broader than a written document because it does not necessarily have to be formalized in writing to be effective (although most cases are written into a ‘constitution’).  Simply put, constitutionalism is the idea that laws limiting a government’s power can and should be deliberately contracted by the people with their government.  There are two key tenants that I will present below.  First, governments should only exercise power in ways that are traditionally or previously accepted by the people.  Second, people always retain certain rights they are inalienably entitled to.  Finally, I will share the story of Juan de Mariana, a 16th Century scholar, who argued that, under constitutionalism, it was not only acceptable but also noble for anyone to assassinate a king or a ruler who was violating their contract with the people.

Traditionally held powers

Today governments, even constitutional governments, always tend to increase their powers.  This is certainly the case here in America.  Government should have very little influence and only have the authority to control very few governmental powers.  Some examples from the U.S. Constitution are — collecting taxes to provide for the general welfare of the United States of America and managing commerce with other countries, states and even with Indian tribes!

The government is only supposed to be in charge of small number of powers.  The rest is reserved for the people.  Constitutionalism argues limited government because — not just one person or leader is making decisions, the people can decide for themselves what is best for them and this is also the appropriate order of sovereignty.

People’s entitled rights

Constitutionalism is a higher law because the people are the source of the government’s power.  Murray Rothbard said, the people necessarily reserved important rights to themselves; in addition to the right to reclaim sovereignty, they retained such powers as taxation, the right to veto laws and the right to determine succession if the king has no heir.”  — The Learned Extremist: Juan de Mariana

One of the rights listed was a reclaim to sovereignty which means if the people are the source of the government’s power, but government is unfair or exercising too much power, the people have the right to become sovereign from government laws and make their own decisions.  If the government begins to encroach upon the people’s rights, the people can take control of it. Although claiming sovereignty seems a little radical, it can become even more so.

Extreme case of constitutionalism

Normally, when people acting as sovereigns affect change in their government, we usually think of repealing and vetoing unfair laws.  However, a man named Juan de Mariana took the constitutionalism concept to a whole new level.  He believed that constitutionalism also gave people the right to use extreme measures so that they could protect their rights, including assassination!   Mariana believed that if the ruler or King was ignoring the people’s rights and exercising to much power, the people had the right to kill him.

Juan was a Spanish scholastic during the 16th century.  He was against the tyrannical concept of absolutism and “…might be called the forebear of John Locke’s theory of popular consent and continuing superiority of the people to the government.”   —John Laures, The Political Economy of Juan de Mariana 

Juan, and his belief of killing tyrants, known as tyrannicide, even went so far as to claim that anyone could assassinate a tyrannical ruler.

Henry IV, or Henry of Navarre, died of tyrannicide.  In 1610, after Henry IV became King of France, having converted from Protestantism to Catholicism in order to become king, he was assassinated by a catholic frenchman by the name of Ravaillac.  Henry was killed on terms of being absolutist in rule, and the enforcement of religious centrism on the Protestant Huguenots.  Henry was violating the constitutional law of enforcing to much authority and religious freedom and was acting like a tyrant.  So, the assassination was valid and not against the constitution, even though Ravaillac was executed anyway.  It had been rumored that Ravaillac had been inspired by Mariana’s work on tyrannicide, so before the French government killed him, they asked if he had, in fact, been motivated by Mariana to assassinate the king.  Ravaillac replied that he’d never heard of the man.  So, it was all just rumors, but whether Ravaillac knew it or not, he was defending his rights! Even if it was in the most extreme way possible.

As serious as tyrannicide sounds, Mariana cautioned to not take it lightly.  He recommended that the people meet and discuss their options before killing the monarch.   However, Mariana also made it clear that discussion was not required.  As tyrannicide is a constitutional right, and as a right, it is part of a higher law and every human being is entitled to it, anyone at anytime can kill a ruler or leader who is violating the people’s rights with or without discussion.

Constitutionalism is a very broad topic and there is plenty more to learn about it, but here are the three aspects I explained: First, excessive government power is against constitutional law.  Second, people have inherent, reserved rights as sovereigns.  Third, rights are as extreme as the right to assassinate tyrants, liberty is that important!

Along with it being a broad topic, it is also a misunderstood one, as well.  The American people claim that U.S. government needs to go back to the Constitution, but are not aware that they have the power to decide and act for themselves.  The U.S. Constitution is good but it doesn’t account for the your’s and the people’s constitutional rights.  You, the people, have the power to dictate your standards and stand for your rights which should include defending them from tyrannical leaders!  That is your responsibility, not the U.S. Constitution’s!  This is what defines constitutionalism.  Perhaps now this is more obvious to you.

Quinn Palmer

RPC Student


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