Standing Up to Autocracy:

An American Value

    Autocrats are often unelected officials who want total control and display idols of themselves for the people to worship.  Often arrogant, autocrats have a tendency to unjustly impose their will on the people, even peoples' civil and religious rights and liberties, through intimidation tactics, and even to the point of saying falsehoods about the people.

    (As Lord Acton once said: "Absolute power corrupts absolutely.")

    The intimidation tactics of autocrats are, unfortunately, often experienced first-hand by Christians worldwide, since, as Jesus noted, the world inevitably discriminates against His people that are not the world's own.  Since many Christians worldwide may benefit from a reminder about a brave hero, a man of God, who stood up to autocracy (and that was his glory), it may be helpful to read a description of the story of Daniel, who stood up to one of history's greatest autocrats, the King of ancient Babylon.

    Fittingly, the description of Daniel chosen to be quoted here was written by an eighteenth-century American, President Aaron Burr of Princeton College (1715/16-1757), who prefaced his biography of American Colonial Governor Jonathan Belcher (1682-1757) with the story of Daniel.  (For Burr's biography of Governor Belcher, see The First Biography of Jonathan Belcher.)  Comparing Governor Belcher to Daniel, because both stood up for freedom and stood up to autocratic rulers, Burr provided an early example of what can be called an American as well as a Christian value: Standing up to autocracy.

    The following is from Burr's work, originally titled A Servant of God (1757):

    I am in the first place, to take notice of the character of the person to whom the words of our text [Daniel 12] were spoken, and explain them as they were applied to him.  And here:

    I.    The words were directed to that eminent servant and prophet of the Lord, DANIEL, who was carried captive to Babylon, when he was very young, in the reign of Jehoiakim, King of Judah.  He was early chosen with his three companions, to continue in Nebuchadnezzar's court, where they were instructed in all the knowledge of the Chaldeans.  DANIEL soon gave such discoveries of an extraordinary genius, and rare qualifications, as distinguished him above the rest, and raised him to places of greatest power and trust in that widely extended Empire.  And it was very remarkable, that he continued in high favor at court, under several succeeding monarchs, viz. Nebuchadnezzar, Evil-Merodach, Belshazzar, Darius the Mede, and Cyrus the Persian.  These princes loaded him with honors, and trusted him with the most weighty concerns of the state, notwithstanding he opposed the corrupt idolatrous religion established by law, refused to bow down to their idols, and openly worshipped and prayed to the God of Israel, though he was strictly commanded to pray to none other deity but the king himself, by a severe edict, that was stupidly published, and as stupidly obeyed, by the rest of the people.  DANIEL was full in the generous principles of religious liberty, and well knew that no authority short of Heaven can bind the consciences of men, and that a corrupt and false religion is never a whit the truer, or better, for being established by depraved and fallible men.

    Without taking notice of him in his extraordinary character as a prophet, unto whom God gave much clearer discoveries of His designs relating to the world and the church than to any of the other prophets, I would just remark on his character.

    1st, THAT he was truly and eminently pious; he discovered and recommended true religion in the whole of his conduct.  He maintained a supreme regard to the blessed God and studied in all His ways to approve himself to the Divine acceptance.  The love and fear of God were the ruling principles in his heart, and they were so powerful as not to be overcome by the flatteries or frowns of the world.  He preserved integrity and resolutely maintained religion in a most corrupt and wicked time, and that in a place where vice prevailed and rode triumphant, under the strongest temptations to violate the one, and renounce the other.

    The favor and friendship of God was what he valued, above the favor of the whole world, and His displeasure he dreaded more than death itself. 

[* * * * *]

    (* It is plain [...] from DANIEL's known character as a determined adherent to and devout worshipper of the true God, that he would not fail of joining his illustrious companions in their heroic remonstrance and opposition against the prevailing idolatry [....])

How noble and exalted a character is this!  Especially when preserved in the midst of the grandeur, honors, and temptations of a corrupt court.   This, my brethren, is the honor which comes from God.  How much greater and more illustrious than that which comes from men!

    2nd, He was eminent for his wisdom and knowledge: not only that "which is from above, that is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, easy to be intreated" ** (** James 3:17), but he had a great insight into the times and seasons, the affairs of states and kingdoms.  Though Babylon at that time was the most remarkable place for learning in the world, and was full of wise men, yet there was none among them comparable to DANIEL.

An American Value

   Standing up to autocracy can be called the major theme of the American Revolution.  And underlying that act was a political philosophy expressed in the Declaration of Independence: That "all men are created equal", "endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights".   That philosophy derives from the acknowledgment that there is a sovereign power higher than the autocrat--a power to Whom all rulers and officials are ultimately held accountable.  That Higher Power is, of course, God.  The United States of America (unlike the former Soviet Union) was built on the idea that there is a power higher than the State (the collective government as a whole, often an autocracy comprised of unelected officials or dominated by a certain party, as was the Soviet Union dominated by the Communist Party).  This concept of a Higher Law was and is a key cornerstone of democracy as a political philosophy.  The United States can stand for "liberty and justice for all" (as the Pledge of Allegiance phrases it) because the United States acknowledges that justice, for instance, is a natural right derived from the English constitutional idea of "the rule of law, not of men" (expressed by seventeenth-century English constitutional scholar Sir Edward Coke as "a government of laws, and not of men").  This was the idea that human laws derived their authority from higher natural law, and that even rulers were subject to the higher concept of justice.   Thus, even autocrats couldn't abuse their power or misuse the laws to suit their own selfish political aims and whims. "A government of laws, and not of men" is the basic distinction between Anglo-American representative government (as expressed in the United States Constitution) as opposed to tyrannies and autocracies.   Autocrats may persecute people, for instance, because of the autocrats' own political motivations; but the truly just ruler upholds true justice, untainted by political motivations.

    (For further discussion of the values implicit in the Pledge of Allegiance, including "a government of laws, and not of men") see the Belcher Foundation Christian Law Library article Prayer or Patriotism.)

    The basic principle that American government officials cannot deprive the citizen of his rights as opposed to the officials' own political motivations (or, officials harass people from political motives) found expression in the earliest days of United States history.  When United States Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall rendered his famous decision in Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137 (Cranch) (1803), Chief Justice Marshall said in that opinion with regard to representative government: "The government of the United States has been emphatically termed a government of laws, and not of men."  Previously in that opinion, the Chief Justice had implied that government officials, including the President of the United States, could not act like absolutist monarchs and follow their own whims as opposed to the rights of the individual citizen: "The [plaintiff's] commission [as justice of the peace] being signed, the subsequent duty of the secretary of state is prescribed by law, and not to be guided by the will of the president.  He is to affix the seal of the United States to the commission, and is to record it."  Thus upheld the principle once and for all in American history that autocracy is not an American value.

    But standing up to autocracy, when it tries to misuse laws and abuse political power for political ends, is an American value, as it is also a Christian value--extending all the way back to the day when the prophet Daniel stood up to the King of Babylon and basically told him, "You are wrong."

For further reading:

Prayer or Patriotism (in the Belcher Foundation Christian Law Library)

From Nationalism to Internationalism: European Union and the Trilateral Center

The Character of a Good Ruler

Government the Pillar of the Earth

The Honors of Christ Demanded of the Magistrate

The Government of Christ


The reader may also like to read these other essays:

Jesus Is the Light of the World (includes more information about Aaron Burr, Sr. and his friends)

The Cornerstone

Quiet Glory

Bells of Good Cheer



    The First Biography of Jonathan Belcher

    Jonathan Belcher: Christian Governor

    President Aaron Burr of Princeton College

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