Public Virtue and Political Protest: The Case of William Samuel Johnson

Author: Robert F. Cuervo, Ph.D.

Public Virtue and Political Protest: The Case of William Samuel Johnson

Robert F. Cuervo, Ph.D.

William Samuel Johnson (1727-1819) was a major figure in Connecticut politics both before and after American independence, and he was one of his state's delegates to the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 which drafted the United States Constitution. He was the son of the Reverend Samuel Johnson (1696-1772), a convert to Anglicanism who entered the Anglican clergy and worked as a missionary in largely Congregationalist Connecticut. The elder Johnson became a vocal advocate of Episcopacy, the movement to have Anglican bishops appointed for and residing in the American colonies.1

Episcopacy was an unpopular position in Calvinist Connecticut. Thus, it was surprising that William Samuel Johnson, a practicing Anglican who also believed in Episcopacy, had such a successful political career in that colony. That his career also survived his Loyalism during the American Revolution is even more surprising.

I believe that Johnson's career and its significance for the Constitutional bicentennial and the contemporary Catholic Church can best be evaluated by comparing his career with the Thomistic theory of resistance to tyranny. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) counselled that violent resistance to a tyrannical government was unwise. In his , St. Thomas first says that tyranny should be prevented by choosing kings of good character and by structuring the government so that royal power is limited rather than absolute.2

If a lawfully chosen ruler becomes tyrannical, he should be tolerated if his tyranny is bearable and "not excessive." Violent resistance will "only succeed in rousing the tyrant to greater savagery" if the rebellion fails. If it succeeds, there may be "factious strife and grave discord among the populace" over the form of the new government. This strife can lead to a new tyrant who is worse than the old.3

Even an unbearable tyrant should be resisted by non-violent means. These means include the depositions of an elected tyrant by the community that elected him, the removal of a local tyrant by a superior (if he has one), and, as a last resort, prayer and repentance by the community in the hope that God will deliver the people from tyrannical rule. St. Thomas argues that tyrannicide by private initiative is very dangerous for a community. It is also contrary to Apostolic teaching on submission to government and contrary to the example of the martyrs, who "suffered death for Christ with great courage and resignation" rather than overthrow the civil order.4

In assessing whether to obey specific unjust laws, St. Thomas distinguished between laws that are merely unjust or unfair and laws which command a person to do something immoral and contrary to Divine goodness. While the latter type of unjust law be disobeyed, the former type, though unjust, might be observed in order to avoid scandal or disorder.5 This distinction is relevant on issues faced by William Samuel Johnson. For instance, is the payment of an unconstitutional tax something that might be rightly evaded or resisted? The Thomistic theory might approve of such resistance, so long as public order is not endangered.

It is unlikely that Johnson was intimately acquainted with St. Thomas' theory. However, he might have been familiar with similar warnings about revolution voiced by David Hume (1711-1776), whose writings were widely read during the eighteenth century. In his essays "Of the Original Contract" and "Of Passive Obedience," Hume admitted that resistance to a tyrant may be justified in "extraordinary circumstances" and should only be "the last refuge in desperate cases, when the public is in the highest danger from violence and tyranny."6

But for Hume, as for St. Thomas, violent resistance to tyranny invites greater tyranny. "Thus the or assassination, approved of by ancient maxims, instead of keeping tyrants and usurpers in awe, made them ten times more fierce and unrelenting."7 Though Hume's philosophical doctrines are far different from those of St. Thomas, they were in agreement on this point.


In analyzing William Samuel Johnson's political thought and career, I will keep the Thomistic model in mind. Johnson staunchly and vocally opposed British taxes on the American colonists, taxes like the Stamp Act and the Townshend duties. He felt that they violated the British Constitution, and he resisted the idea of Parliamentary legislative supremacy over the colonies that the tax laws implied.

However, when the question of declaring independence from Britain was raised, Johnson was skeptical. He thought that an independent America would quickly factionalize and become the easy victim of foreign invaders who would become our new tyrants. Accordingly, Johnson became a Loyalist during the first three years of the Revolution. He was rehabilitated, somewhat involuntarily, in 1779, when he was forced to take an oath of allegiance to the independent state of Connecticut.

The Articles of Confederation period verified for Johnson the Thomistic theory that overthrowing a tyrant leads to factionalism about the new form of government. Rivalries and jealousies among the states, their refusal to set up an adequate national government, and events like Shays' Rebellion were obvious examples of this factionalism. The Constitutional Convention, for Johnson, was an attempt to repair the damage done by independence without going to the opposite extreme of the Articles, i.e., the intense nationalism of Alexander Hamilton. A consolidated government dominated by ambitious politicians from the larger states would be the "worse tyranny" that could result from the factionalism following the Revolution.

Let us now examine how Johnson approached these events. First of all, Johnson was a lawyer rather than a "theorizer." Most of his arguments during the pre-Revolutionary period are framed in constitutional terms, not in natural rights rhetoric. According to his most recent biographer, Elizabeth P. McCaughey, "Johnson was not given to systematic theorizing on a grand scale." He wanted the British Parliament to unequivocally abdicate its claimed power to tax the American colonies, but he seemed to have no overall theory of Parliamentary-colonial relations.8

Johnson was also a very prudent and cautious man who abhorred open conflict and violence. Though his legal background led him to favor peaceful solutions to disputes, his religious situation may have been a more influential factor. Johnson was a member of an embattled religious minority; he was an Anglican in Calvinist, Congregational Connecticut.

This religious minority status led Johnson to work quietly and amicably for his principles. By quiet diplomacy, he had become part of Connecticut's political elite. "He had quickly realized that to guard his political opportunities from the ravages of sectarian warfare he must shun public debate and pursue his objectives only when quiet methods could be used."9 Yet Johnson was not a mindless compromiser; his religious position also taught him to maintain his principles against overwhelming majority opinion when quiet methods were not available.

Johnson's positions against British actions on the eve of the Revolution include (1) his belief that Parliamentary taxation of the colonies was completely unconstitutional, (2) that resistance to the British must be quiet and prudent lest they become even more tyrannical, (3) that the colonial trade boycott against Britain should not end until Parliament repealed of its taxes, (4) that British actions against the colonies were not a conspiracy by the British government but the result of British partisanship and ignorance about colonial affairs, and (5) that American independence would be the wrong solution to the colonial problem.

Johnson was an active member of the Stamp Act Congress. Even though at one point he considered becoming a stamp distributor himself, he always referred to the Stamp Act as "chains and shackles." In the Congress, he, like others, questioned the justice of the taxes and called them violations of the rights of Englishmen.10

A few years later, as Connecticut's colonial agent in London, Johnson questioned the constitutionality of the Townshend Acts, a package of taxes on the colonies. When the colonial agents were debating whether to call the duties unconstitutional or merely to petition for their repeal, Johnson "acted as an ideologue" and demanded that "the petition include the constitutional arguments."11

In Thomistic fashion, however, Johnson urged the colonies to avoid rash actions that would make the British even more oppressive. In 1768, as a colonial agent, he wrote to Connecticut officials, urging them to avoid "Ill Judged Outrages & Tumults & Acts of Violence which forge the weapons of our enemies."12 Earlier, he had warned Americans "to conduct themselves quietly and prudently lest any additional provocation [such as riots or non-compliance with laws] inflame Parliament and arm Townshend and Grenville still more."13

Johnson's solution to Parliament's interference with colonial liberties was strict adherence to the colonial trade boycott against British goods. Despite any hardship, colonial merchants should not import British products, and colonial consumers should not buy them. Peaceful, virtuous frugality would defeat British oppression.

Accordingly, Johnson was bitterly disappointed in 1770, when the colonies relaxed the boycott after Parliament repealed all taxes except the tax on tea. American merchants allowed themselves to be seduced by a repeal which still asserted Parliament's right to tax the colonies. Further problems would inevitably follow.14

Johnson resisted the colonists' suspicions that Parliament's actions were part of a ministerial plot to enslave America. This conspiracy theory was rampant by 1769. Johnson felt that Parliament's hostility was mainly due to domestic partisanship and ignorance in Britain about colonial affairs.

British political parties in the eighteenth century were split into hostile factions that hysterically attacked each other about how to solve the problems of the day. Exaggerated reports of colonial rebelliousness resulted in calls for quick, dramatic solutions, just as wars on terrorism, drugs, or homelessness are demanded today. Often, decisions based on ignorance or partisan passions were the outcome. Thus, actions against the colonies were not a conspiracy, and Johnson cautioned his countrymen to avoid rash actions based on a conspiracy theory.15

As early as 1769, Johnson reflected on the potential dangers of American independence. In a letter to Benjamin Gale written on April 10 of that year, Johnson expressed his fears.

If we were wise and could form some system of free government upon just principles, we might be very happy without any connection with this country [Great Britain]. But should we ever agree upon anything of that nature, should we not more probably fall into factions and parties amongst ourselves, destroy one another and become at length the easy prey [and] property of the first invaders?16

Again, the Thomistic fear of discord and new tyranny after a successful rebellion becomes an element in Johnson's thinking.

As the War of Independence drew near, Johnson made his choice. He evaded appointment to bodies like the First Continental Congress, and he gradually resigned from his numerous high offices in Connecticut. These positions included a seat on the Governor's Council, a judgeship on the Superior Court, and a commission in the colony's militia.17 In 1777, he reluctantly gave up his law practice when Connecticut passed its Oath of Fidelity Act, which required lawyers who practiced in courts to swear loyalty to the newly independent state government.18

Johnson's loyalism was a passive resistance based on his belief in peace and order; he never defended the right of Parliament to tax the American people or deprive them of their liberties. Indeed, he had always opposed these Parliamentary claims. His loyalism, however, was short-lived. In 1779, Johnson reluctantly agreed to negotiate with British officers in an effort to spare his home town of Stratford from invasion. American military leaders misinterpreted his motives and arrested him.

Connecticut's Council on Safety voted to release Johnson but required him to swear an oath to the state government. After much soul-searching, Johnson complied and was completely rehabilitated. He resumed his law practice, and in 1785, he was named as one of Connecticut's delegates to the Articles of Confederation's Congress.19


William Samuel Johnson's service in the Confederation Congress verified most of his fears about the perils of an independent America. He witnessed first hand the sectional jealousies of the states and their refusal to grant adequate powers and financial resources to the central government. Johnson served on several Congressional committees which tried to increase national powers and urge the states to honor their financial obligations to Congress.

Johnson first expressed fear that the proposed Philadelphia Convention of 1787 would make matters worse by giving antinationalists a forum. But once the convention was decided upon, Johnson saw it as the country's last hope for unity and accepted appointment to the Connecticut delegation.20

Johnson's fears were also verified by the events known as Shays' Rebellion. As historians remind us, Shays' Rebellion was not one isolated episode but a series of armed risings which prevented courts from sitting. In this century, given the Beard thesis and Jefferson's maxim about "little rebellions" being healthy for the body politic, we are inclined to dismiss Shays' Rebellion as a lovers' quarrel. But it seems to have been the very kind of disorder that Johnson feared would happen in independent America.21

Though Johnson was a nationalist and would be a Hamiltonian Federalist during his brief career in the United States Senate, he served as an advocate of the smaller states' interests in the convention. Thus, while favoring the extension of Federal authority, he vehemently opposed schemes to "consolidate" or abolish the states in favor of a unitary national government.

In his speech before the convention on June 21, 1787, Johnson made these sentiments clear. He spoke warmly of the New Jersey Plan of representation, which would preserve the equality and individuality of the states in Congress. He also rebuked Alexander Hamilton for proposing the "abolition" of state governments in the latter's candid speech of June 18. Johnson's remarks on June 21 were reported in Madison's

On a comparison of the two plans which had been proposed from Virginia and New Jersey, it appeared that the peculiarity which characterized the latter was its being calculated to preserve the individuality of the States. The plan from Virginia did not profess to destroy this individuality altogether, but was charged with such a tendency. One Gentleman alone (Col. Hamilton) in his animadversions to the plan of New Jersey, boldly and decisively contended for an abolition of State Governments.22

Johnson joined his fellow Connecticut delegates, Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth, in preparing the Great or Connecticut Compromise. Under this arrangement, one house of the new Congress would be national, i.e., apportioned among the states on the basis of population. The other house, the Senate, would be appointed by state legislatures and would maintain the older principle of equality of the states. Johnson regarded the Senate as the guarantor of federalism and the continued existence of the states.23 Andrew McLaughlin claims that "Johnson was to all appearances, not greatly interested in the controversy between large states and small, but in the danger that nationalism would entirely submerge the states."24

Johnson's parallels with the Thomistic theory of resistance are still at work here. If a successful revolution leads to factionalism over the new form of government, a new tyranny might be established. Hamilton's unitary government, with its president for life and virtual abolition of state governments, might have been such a "new tyranny" in Johnson's mind.

Johnson felt strongly about preserving the states as well as the Union. He even carried this conviction to the point of compromising with Southern delegates who demanded that slaves be counted as population when apportioning the House of Representatives. Johnson defended this Southern demand, even though he had to oppose fellow Northerners like Rufus King and Gouveneur Morris on the issue.25

Johnson went on to support ratification of the new Constitution by Connecticut. He was one of the state's U.S. Senators when the First Congress convened in 1789. He retired from the Senate in 1791 to devote himself to his duties as president of New York's Columbia College.


I believe that our comparison of William Samuel Johnson's career with the Thomistic theory of resistance to tyranny raises two sets of questions for contemporary Catholicism. One involves how the Church should react to international revolutionary movements; the other involves how to deal with serious injustices within our own country, injustices like abortion on demand.

I think it is safe to say that mainstream Christian leaders, including mainstream Catholic leaders, generally favor (or at least accept) revolutionary movements that raise the prospect of establishing liberal democracies, "modernizing" traditional societies, or establishing social justice in poor countries.

This is not to say that mainstream Catholics are mindless supporters of revolution. As far as I know, Catholic organizations do not donate funds to Marxist guerrillas as some other Christian groups have done. But I think there would be a low propensity among American Catholic spokesmen to accept a theory like the one found in Jeane Kirkpatrick's , which suggests that right-wing dictatorships and traditional societies are less harsh than the Marxist dictatorships that are their likely replacements. As such, Kirkpatrick indicates, these "authoritarian" regimes may deserve American support.26

I believe that Johnson's approach urges us to be cautious about supporting revolutionary movements. Issues are often more complex than they appear, and a change of government may be a change for the worse.

Another area related to Johnson's experience is how to deal with serious injustices within one's own society, especially those policies which raise moral questions that are not amenable to compromise. The obvious example in America today is abortion.

At this point, I think it is highly unlikely that our government would ever a woman to undergo an abortion, with all of the agonizing implications for allegiance such a policy would raise among pro-life citizens. What I believe is more likely is that pro-life citizens may reach a point where they are convinced that "the system" will never reverse the decision. Two terms of a pro-life President have not reversed that policy, nor have that President's many judicial appointments. Indeed, one of the Rehnquist Court's first decisions upheld abortion rights. Likewise, Congress seems unlikely to propose a pro-life Constitutional amendment in the foreseeable future.

If pro-life citizens despair that the legal system can end abortion on demand, there may be pressure on the pro-life movement to resort to extra-legal means. These could include non-payment of that percentage of taxes that governments spend on Medicaid abortions. Civil disobedience at abortion clinics or government offices would also be a possibility. On the fringes of the anti- abortion movement, violence against abortion facilities may become more common.

Some years ago, I remember reading an article that suggested that those who were unwilling to engage in civil disobedience at abortion clinics were not truly pro-life. I believe, especially in light of Johnson, that these remarks are simplistic and unfair. Preserving an orderly society is a key toward ending an injustice. Also, civil disobedience is unlikely to work if the conscience of the community is too callous toward the unborn to be aroused by demonstrations.

Further, I believe that the bombing of clinics has been the worst blow to the pro-life movement since the decision. These actions have, to use Johnson's language, served to enrage the tyrant further _ the tyrant in this case being those pro-abortion groups that are now seeking injunctions against the freedom of assembly of pro-life groups.

William Samuel Johnson was not a saint. He was a politician with a politician's faults. Some of his decisions were courageous, while others seemed timid or self-serving. His caution about an independent America may seem too pessimistic in the light of later history. But it nonetheless provides a guide for future history. Johnson and the Founders arrested the anarchy of the revolutionary process and created a free republic. Not all revolutionary movements have been that fortunate.


1 For brief biographies of both Johnsons, see , 1937 ed., s. v. "Johnson, Samuel," by James Truslow Adams and s. v. "Johnson, William Samuel," by Evarts B. Greene.

2 St. Thomas Aquinas De 1. 6. in , ed. A. P. D'Entreves (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1959), p. 29.

3 .

4 ., pp. 31-33. St. Thomas is less stringent about obedience to usurpers, who occupy sovereignty unlawfully. He even hints in the 2. 44 in ., p. 185 that killing a usurper is a praiseworthy act.

5 1-2. 96 in ., p. 137.

6 David Hume, , ed. Eugene F. Miller (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1985), p. 490.

7 .

8 Elizabeth P. McCaughey, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), pp. 116-117.

9 ., p. 165.

10 ., pp. 54 and 58.

11 ., p. 102.

12 ., p. 106.

13 ., p. 85.

14 ., pp. 98 and 133.

15 ., pp. 106-107. Hume, in the , pp. 54-72 and 493-501, indicates that the partisanship of eighteenth century Britain had given political parties a bad name. Our own Founders, like Hume, also regarded parties as factions and did not make specific provisions for them in the Constitution. Often with the British experience and its effects on America in mind, the Founders attacked the very notion of party, as George Washington did in his famous of 1797 (Washington: United States Senate, 1979), p. 13.

16 McCaughey, p. 123. Cf. p. 182.

17 ., p. 149.

18 ., p. 184.

19 ., pp. 187-189 and 194-195.

20 Johnson's service in the Confederation Congress is discussed in ., ch. 13.

21 McCaughey says little about Johnson's reaction to the rebellion. On the extent of Shays' Rebellion, see Page Smith, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1980), ch. 1 and 2 and Andrew C. McLaughlin, (New York: Collier Books, 1962), ch. 10. Of Jefferson's reaction to the rebellion, McLaughlin says on p. 123, "He was still toying with liberty after it had degenerated into license."

22 Charles Callan Tansill, ed., (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1927), p. 249. Cf. the notes of Johnson's speech by Robert Yates on pp. 791-792 and by Rufus King on p. 862.

23 See Tansill, pp. 297 and 822.

24 McLaughlin, (New York: D. Appleton-Century Co., 1935), p. 173.

25 McCaughey, pp. 220-221.

26 Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, (New York: American Enterprise Institute/Simon and Schuster, 1982), ch. 1 and 2.

This article was taken from the Summer 1987 issue of "Faith & Reason". Subscriptions available from Christendom Press, 2101 Shenandoah Shores Road, Ft. Royal, VA 22630, 703-636-2900, Fax 703-636-1655. Published quarterly at $20.00 per year.

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