tyrannyThe word “tyranny” has a long history in American political discourse. Since at least the American Revolution, Americans have used the word to describe political actions they find distasteful. But what is tyranny? Some have defined tyranny to be identical with monarchy; others identify it with any form of government which is not democratic, or at least republican. But are these sufficient? For the sake of rhetoric, perhaps, imprecision in discourse is permissible. This, however, becomes problematic when considering which actions to take. That is, in order to know prudentially what actions are legitimate in a given situation, the nature of the situation must be accurately ascertained. Chief among these, I would suggest, is tyranny, given that tyranny is that which illegitimates political regimes.

Aristotle’s famous discussion of political regimes in Book 8, Chapter 10 of the Nichomachean Ethics notes that there are three basic kinds of constitution, and an equal number of corruptions of them. The best of the six regimes, he says, is kingship, but the worst corruption of a regime is what he calls “tyranny”. The tyrant, he says, rules “for his own advantage,” while the king “looks to [the advantage] of those who are ruled”.[1] The same change is noted when each other regime is corrupted–aristocracy into oligarchy, and timocracy into democracy. It would seem that the common principle of corruption for Aristotle is the move from the consideration of the welfare of the ruled to that of the ruler. If, then, the term “tyranny” may be applied more broadly as a synonym for corrupted government (a meaning it has taken on in modern times), from this analysis, tyranny would seem to be any government which rules for the sake of the ruler(s), rather than for the sake of the ruled. Some definitions would also include the further qualification that tyranny consists in government which rules arbitrarily, that is, in contradistinction to the “rule of law,” whereby the governing is predictable and equitable for those who are ruled.

Given this, it seems that tyranny is not a wholly absolute term—that is, it is, at least in part, historically contingent.

First, this is because tyranny is not identical with any particular form of regime. Rather, if Aristotle is correct, it consists of the corruption of regimes, which ostensibly are capable of being legitimate, at least in principle.

This point is often lost in American political discourse, given the “Augustinianism” of the Founders, that is, the view that human nature is inherently flawed and not perfectible, and thereby needs to be checked from amassing too much power–a point which Russell Kirk drew on, and included as number six in his Ten Conservative Principles. On this view, Aristotle’s king is impossible, because of the limitations of human nature, and therefore, legitimate government must begin with ensuring that tyranny is guarded against, rather than with contemplation of the “best” regime. Nevertheless, the point remains that tyranny represents a corruption rather than a type of regime. It is, in other words, a negation of good government, but does not possess positive existence of its own.

Second, while justice transcends the city, and is not dependent on or identical to historical contingency – this would result in Thrasymachus’ definition of justice as nothing but “the benefit of the stronger”[2] – law remains partially dependent on historical development. Though just positive laws must align with the transcendent standard of justice, still, positive laws develop out of particular historical circumstances. Therefore, if the rule of law is the antithesis of tyranny, and law is developed from historical particularities, than it seems that “tyranny” may obtain in a variety of historical contexts—it does not always look the same.

In his book The Radicalism of the American Revolution, historian Gordon S. Wood argues that the American Revolution was a radical phenomenon—but in a very particular way. He states that “The English thought they were a republicanized monarchy—and they were right…far from being the traditional sort of power-hungry monarchs, the English kings were ‘the Scourges of Tyrants, and the Assertors of Liberty,’”[3] quoting New Jersey governor and signer of the Constitution William Livingston. It seems, then, that as in Aristotle, monarchy was not considered to be identical with tyranny. Rather, tyranny seems to have been considered to have developed from the British Crown only when the Crown began to deny the American colonists their rights as Englishmen—that is, when the Crown ceased to be an “Assertor of Liberty” with regard to the Colonists.

Thus, it seems that the American Revolution was precipitated, in large part at least, not through appeals to the abstract reasoning of Jacobin revolutionaries, but through conservative appeals to English common law and the traditional rights of Englishmen, to Judeo-Christian morality and to the classical republicanism of Rome and Greece. Of course, there were elements of Enlightenment rationalism which crept in to the justifications of the Revolution, with Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson being examples. Nevertheless, John Adams, the man who Russell Kirk called “the founder of true conservatism in America,”[4] described the American Revolution thus:

 “…what do we mean by the American Revolution?… The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties obligations. While the king, and all in authority under him, were believed to govern in justice and mercy, according to the laws and constitution derived to them from the God of nature and transmitted to them by their ancestors, they thought themselves bound to pray for the king and queen and all the royal family, and all in authority under them, as ministers ordained of God for their good; but when they saw those powers renouncing all the principles of authority, and bent upon the destruction of all the securities of their lives, liberties, and properties, they thought it their duty to pray for the continental congress and all the thirteen State congresses, &c.”[5]

Here again it is seen that it was not the common sentiment that tyranny was identical with monarchy—or any particular form of government. Rather, tyranny was obtained when the government failed to “govern in justice and mercy, according to the laws and constitution derived to them from the God of nature and transmitted to them by their ancestors”—a very conservative justification for revolution, if ever there was any it seems. For Adams, it seems that a government which rules in a way which is incommensurate with the rule of law and, it should be noted, not just any law as legal positivists would assert, but “true” law, or the law of the “God of nature…transmitted…by [our] ancestors”—is illegitimate and can be justly changed.

If tyranny, then, is identical with arbitrary rule, and if the remedy to arbitrary rule is the rule of law, then law—true law—is essential to the ordering of any society. As Bruce Frohnen has stated “…we instinctively understand that there is a kind of prescriptive moral legitimacy to all law because it is, in fact, necessary to establish order, the first need of all.”[6] This does not, of course, mean that laws are just simply because they exist. But law, rightly understood, will derive its legitimacy from its cultural moorings. Frohnen continues: “Law tends to rule, and justice to be done, when culturally rooted, rational expectations are upheld.”[7] “At its root, the rule of law recognizes reciprocity between rulers and ruled.”[8] The rule of law, then, limits the ability of rulers to be arbitrary, particularly in a self-serving manner.

How, then, does this apply to American political discourse? Since 2009, the so-called “Tea Party” movement has once again thrust the term—and concept—“tyranny” into the national dialogue. Beginning as a reaction to the TARP bank bailouts, the movement gained momentum exponentially with the implementation of the Keynes-inspired economic stimulus package and the debate leading up to the passage of the Affordable Care Act, better known as “Obamacare”. The rhetoric centered on the idea that these two governmental actions—and the Obama administration generally—represented a new tyrannical threat to liberty. And the debate continues. The ever-tightening regulatory state, coupled with an explosion in government spending and public debt are, at least in their minds, clear-cut examples of rising tyranny. But are they correct?

Alexis de Tocqueville famously argued against what has been termed “soft despotism”. This is contrasted with “hard despotism” by its characteristic apparent benignity—benevolence even—which results in the withering of the human spirit at the hands of numerous arbitrary regulations foisted upon the people through an increasingly powerful government attending to the every need of the people. He describes “democratic despotism” thus:

After taking each individual in its power hands and kneading him as it likes, the sovereign extends its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd.[9]

Though Tocqueville is not explicit on this point, it does not seem to be a stretch to suggest that that the “rules” being applied in this form of despotism are arbitrary in nature. They are imposed, he says, for the sake of egalitarian leveling, in order to keep the strongest of minds and souls from surpassing the masses. This restricts the natural inequalities which exist, leveling individuals to an arbitrary standard, rather than allowing each to fulfill his or her natural ends, using the abilities they possess. Further, the regulations promulgated for the purpose of this leveling, rather than being based in the rule of law, tend to be arbitrary in nature. Hence the rise of legislation that cedes the undue discretionary power to the executive branch—which governs by fiat—leaving the legislative branch to play a role in oversight, rather than making true law.

Has tyranny come to the United States, then? There is, it seems, a strong case to be made that we are at least creeping ever closer. For if the rule of law is undermined, political rule will then be, by definition, tyrannical.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.


  1. Sach’s Translation, p. 155-156.
  2. The Republic of Plato, 338c translated by Allan Bloom, 15
  3. Wood, 98.
  4. The Conservative Mind, Seventh Revised Edition, 70.
  5. Letter to H. Niles, Feb. 13, 1818.
  6. Lawless America: What Happened to the Rule of Law, Humanitas, Vol. XXIV, Nos. 1 & 2, 2011, 9.
  7. Ibid., 10.
  8. Ibid., 14.
  9. Democracy in America, Vol. 2, Part 4, Ch. 6, Mansfield/Winthrop translation, Chicago, 2000, 663.

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