Mr. Wesley on Power

Wesley produced two tracts– one on ‘The Origin of Power’ and another on ‘Liberty’. Wesley ultimately uses both essays to lay precepts against the circumstances of the American Revolution. In ‘Thoughts concerning the Origin of Power’ (1772), Wesley mainly tackles the notion if ‘power is derived from the people’, ridiculing the idea of ‘popular consent’ or democracy generating governing authority. Rather, “there is no power but from God”. However, this doesn’t make Wesley altogether anti-Republican. Instead, Wesley (can be read) as wanting political claims to be based upon right Reason. And, even if he is, more often than not, an non-egalitarian, Wesley is finally of the benevolent sort. In this series we will look his tract “On Liberty” later along with other Letters, but all the above need to be read together.

After providing a sketch various forms of historical government, with democracy being rare if not extremely fleeting kind of polity, Wesley nuancedly asks, “But the grand question is, not in whom this power is lodged but from whom it is ultimately derived” (p. 126, Misc. Works, V.3) . Of course, for Wesley, the source of power is God, Rom xiii.1, and all earthly power is ordained by Heavenly Will. But, Wesley’s scruple bears less upon who wields powered, but from whence its source. And, once the latter is established, then some of the particular claims of radical Whigs– like ‘free consent’– collapse, ‘by the very principle upon which they stand’. Wesley presents the more popular notion of Whiggery thusly:

ibid, p. 127

Wesley plays out the absurdity of Republican logic, noting it an error ‘generally practiced’ or believed, easily answered. Wesley’s goes about this by considering ‘who are the people’ and, second, if indeed they freely give their own consent to government. If such people be naturally equal, then for Wesley these same persons must also be the master of their actions– a nay or yay in the matter of freedom. According to this criteria, a limited enfranchisement excludes large swaths of the population, especially women and minors, in effect, “depriving half of the human species of their natural right for want of a beard” without any deliberation on their part (p.127).

But if this be true, women and minors have been deprived of consent either by their inherent weakness in capacity or by their relative social passivity. In circumstances of bodily weakness, it transpires midst the superior strength, or mental prowess, of men. Wesley discusses passivity elsewhere, but for now assume it refers to a customary or generational deference between classes of men. Regardless, Wesley is suggesting distinction by inequality. Again, this inequality isn’t necessarily a brute kind, but may also include an intelligence like ‘wisdom’. Anyway, Wesley says, in almost a Hobbesian fashion, the alienation of a natural right occurs “by might overcoming right, by main strength; (for it is sure, that we [men] are stronger than they; I mean that we have stronger limbs, if we have not stronger reason)”…

p. 127

But this principle of “might over right” is not confined to either minors or women, but other classes of men, namely, those without property or suffer a ‘want of money’ (p.127). When all is said and done under limited enfranchisement (after gender, age, and wealth are calculated) there is a small fraction of people who actually give consent. So, by the power of the people, ironically, “they mean scarcely a tenth part of them” (p.128).

After ridiculing what Enlightened men actually believe as to what makes the ‘people’, Wesley explores England’s own history, showing no instance where the whole of the ‘people’, universally speaking, ever elected or compelled their rulers. Wesley pokes at the examples of Charles II and William III (perhaps Whiggery’s best example), showing hardly a majority:

p. 129

Given England’s best examples of democratic power, the number of freemen has always relatively small, rendering any claim of free consent a fantasy. Indeed, Wesley ridicules the examples of such fictional wishes while the reality is typically a rising oligarchy or other absolutism:

p. 126

Wesley’s main point is radical Whig arguments fail the test of both history and Reason. Overall, Wesley seems rather contemptuous of equality. This suspicion carries over into his pamphlet, written three years later, called ‘A Calm Address to American Colonialists’. Here we find an answer to so-called passive consent, as in the example of minors born under existing laws. But the matter also has bearing upon persons represented by others, yet done so without vote or responsibility. This situation would apply naturally to women as well as the propertyless. Without such ability, the disenfranchised are, at best, vicariously attached to polity , “And those who are not electors, who are by far the greater part, stand by, helpless and idle, spectators”. Yet even among the smaller enfranchised people, there is always a party which disagrees with outcome, especially “when they are nearly equally divided, almost half of them must be governed, not only without, but even against their own consent” (p.131). So, passive consent is a bit oxymoronic and no authentic freedom at all.

Wesley finishes his examination by noting those who are disenfranchised have an appeal to innate rights since their ancestors either surrendered such or never possessed them. There is no original or, at least, native freedom. Even for Englishmen there is little to invoke since their condition as freemen was such, “If you ancestors were subjects, they acknowledged a Sovereign: if they had a right to English privileges, they were accountable to English laws, and had ceded to the King and Parliament, the power of disposing without their consent, of both their lives, liberties, and properties” (p.132). Nor did this subordination change upon crossing the Atlantic:

p. 132

We may assume those disqualified by lack of strength, even wisdom, suffer circumstances of birth or otherwise beyond their control. Maybe such conditions are better ascribed to Providence or perhaps even a kind of divine Election. Again, there is no power but of God.

Surely, by this reading, Wesley easily comes off an ardent anti-egalitarian. For grounds I hope to explore later, I don’t think anti-egalitarianism inconsistent to professed Arminianism. Wesley was intelligent enough not plainly contradict his theological convictions by his political opinion. If anything, like a good jurist, he stops his tongue before committing himself to anything enormous. That said, Wesley isn’t prescribing any particular form of Government. His primary concern is how power is lodged or invested and how de jure privileges are correctly worked-out. Of course, Wesley, like a true minister of the English Church, is decidedly opposed to Rebellion since it against God’s ordination.

Where he departs from Republicanism is not by arbitrary enfranchisement, but when it credits power to the wrong font. Indeed, Republicanism might be digestible if openly aristocratic & organic to the past. However, in so far as it insists “power is derived from the consent of the people”, not of God, it’s based on an ill-framed logic, liable to exaggerated injustice, and ultimately chaotic in nature– giving way to either mob rule or abject tyranny. Again, even the best democracy is quickly swallowed up by despotic or elitist forces. Not surprisingly Wesley’s ‘Calm Address’ returns us to sentiments expressed in ‘Origin of Power’:

p. 134

There’s a couple judgements I am comfortable making. First, Wesley generally sees civil polity indifferent unless it rests on false premises and expectations which excite rebellion or instability. This is the case with radical Whiggery. Wesley’s foremost concern is how invested power is understood, and, if it comes from God, then more likely than not the long-standing institution of polity should stand. Theoretically Republicanism is possible if it has correct precepts & conscious claims to the past. But the English have little to project aside rights their Crown granted after ancestors long surrendered liberty– ‘rights’ subsequent to fealty being fantastical.

Second, we can see American patriot suspicion toward Methodism given Wesley’s rather public rejection of Whig axioms. Consequently, even Asbury was suspect of bloody Loyalism, spending a good part of the Revolution in hiding while dodging American zealots. I personally find the illiberal acknowledgement that my forbearers had no rights or privileges to confer as potentially liberating. Thus, I am mostly irresponsible in legislation as well as policy. Instead, I have my private charge, “the happiness of being protected by laws, and the duty of obeying them” (p. 132). Of course, there’s much more to consider, and we have yet to examine Wesley’s private Letters where he speaks more freely, enabling us to learn something of his latitude, if any.


One thought on “Mr. Wesley on Power

  1. Ecclesiology can implicate polity in general? “As long as I live the people shall have no share in choosing either stewards or leaders among the Methodists. We have not and never had any such custom. We are no republicans, and never intend to be.”– Wesley’s Letter Jan. 13th 1790 To John Mason

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