My Positive Liberty co-blogger Jim Babka has encouraged me to explore further the Calvinist doctrine of "interposition" and the claim of right to revolt based on the Declaration of Independence. Here's how I understand the issue:
What the American Founders did DOESN’T at all fit with Calvin's understanding of Romans 13 or of interposition. However, there were some later Calvinists, Samuel Rutherford most notably, who enlarged Calvin's position on interposition as something close to but still not exactly what America's Founders later argued in principle and did in fact. Think of what Rutherford et al. argued in this sense as "living Calvinism." Systems of thought “live” and “evolve” much like the common law did. On my radio appearance with Jim and Herb Titus, Herb mentioned how Calvin/Calvinism, "planted a seed" that later bore its fruition in the American Revolution/Founding. I noted this could be true, but the idea of "planting a seed" was dangerous or contentious for those who want to argue their case from the right ("original intent"/"strict construction" or what have you).
Though I didn't have time to explain exactly what I meant in detail. I will here:
Sometimes ideas "grow" in ways that the Founders of such ideas would have neither expected nor supported. I noted, accurately, the Founding Fathers as "living Lockeans" in this sense. Jefferson's Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom and Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance were quintessentially Lockean documents. Yet, Locke was clear that neither Roman Catholics nor atheists "fit" into his vision of religious toleration. Jefferson and Madison on the other hand explicitly argued that religious rights belong to ALL. They were aware that they were extending Locke's ideas further than he personally planned. As Jefferson noted: "Where he [Locke] stopped short, we may go on."
So indeed the whole idea of "planting a seed" and seeing where ideas grow arguably could justify what some might term the "living Constitution" or at the very least results that contradict the Founders' intention of how the ideas were to be applied. Various scholars [many of whom quite conservative] blame the phenomenon of "the living Constitution" on the fact that America is broadly founded on ideals of liberty and equality and that America's founding courts inherited a judicial system where judges had long "made up the law" in their roles as common law deciders of cases and controversies.
Why Calvin would have been a Tory and Thought the American Revolution a Sin
What America's Founders did in declaring revolt was AGAINST what Calvin himself posited: Calvin's original Institutes Of The Christian Religion, Book Four, Chapter 20 can be found here. Calvin makes clear he thought that one must ALWAYS submit to government no matter who they are, or how tyrannical. There IS no right to revolt against tyranny. Dr. Gregg Frazer of The Masters College summed up his research on Calvin's original writings for the following article at WorldNetDaily. I am going to quote Frazer offering proof quotations that not only properly understand the context of Calvin's writings, but that cannot be "explained away" by "context" either:
Calvin said: "We are to be subject not only to the authority of those princes who do their duty towards us as they should, and uprightly, but to all of them, however they came by their office,even if the very last thing they do is act like [true] princes." And "we must honour [even] the worst tyrant in the office in which the Lord has seen fit to set him" and "if you go on to infer that only just governments are to be repaid by obedience, your reasoning is stupid." He warned, "Make no mistake: it is impossible to resist the magistrate without also resisting God." One more from Calvin: "And even if the punishment of unbridled tyranny is the Lord's vengeance [on tyrants], we are not to imagine that it is we ourselves who have been called upon to inflict it. All that has been assigned to us is to obey and suffer."...(Book IV, Chapter 20 of Calvin's "Institutes of the Christian Religion")
Frazer's Understanding of Calvin's Notion of Interposition
John Calvin does allow for a "lesser magistrate exception." Let's look at the original text (please forgive me if this translation of Calvin is slightly different than the one Frazer was citing; I don't know where to find that one online; ultimately I don't believe the translation affects the meaning):
For when popular magistrates have been appointed to curb the tyranny of kings, (as the Ephori, who were opposed to kings among the Spartans, or Tribunes of the people to consuls among the Romans, or Demarchs to the senate among the Athenians; and, perhaps, there is something similar to this in the power exercised in each kingdom by the three orders, when they hold their primary diets.) So far am I from forbidding these officially to check the undue license of kings, that if they connive at kings when they tyrannise and insult over the humbler of the people, I affirm that their dissimulation is not free from nefarious perfidy, because they fraudulently betray the liberty of the people, while knowing that, by the ordinance of God, they are its appointed guardians.
Frazer's comments from his PhD thesis:
So that he would not be misinterpreted, Calvin gave historical examples of officials who were part of their respective governmental systems and were expressly given authority to restrain rulers. He never uses any form of the word "rebel" or "revolt," however. Their actions were legal and a recognized part of the system of government -- akin to the power of the Congress to impeach and remove the American president. pp. 360-61.
In other words, the authority to resist the King MUST preexist in the governing positive law. Now, one could indeed make a case that what the American Founders DID was in accord with existing English positive law. And they acted as "intermediate magistrates." (It's a bit of a stretch, but one COULD, I think, make this case).
However, that's what they DID, not what they SAID. What they SAID is in the Declaration of Independence. Let's, again, look at the governing text:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Now this has absolutely nothing to do with what John Calvin wrote in his Institutes of the Christian Religion regarding "interposition." Indeed, this is a clarion call for rebellion or revolt if governments don't meet certain "ends." This rhetoric cares nothing about the existing positive law or the status of the "resisters" as constitutional magistrates. If the existing positive law doesn't meet the natural ends of government, the theory goes, "the people" may "alter or to abolish it,..." In other words, they may revolt.
And when it came to discovering those "natural ends" of government, the Declaration does not turn to the Bible or John Calvin but "self evident" Truths discovered in "nature" or from "man's reason." Some have argued that "the laws of nature and nature's God" really refer to what's written in the Bible. But I don't see ANYWHERE in the Bible (other than that which might be derived from a sophistical reading of the good book) that clearly teaches:
that...men are...endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it,...
So when it came to "discovering" those "unalienable rights" in "nature" chiefly from "man's reason," the Founders turned to John Locke's doctrines as a proxy. And Locke never cited Calvin OR the subsequent Calvinists like Rutherford or interposition. And though Locke (a secret unitarian) claimed to be a Christian, believed Jesus the "Messiah," and often cited the Bible, his groundbreaking notions of "state of nature" and "unalienable rights" were still not at all biblical [that is found within the Bible's text] or even part of the classical Aristotelian understanding of politics. Rather, they were something modern.
Finally, regarding the preachers and pulpits who argued on behalf of revolt. You can read them here in Ellis Sandoz's Founding era collection of sermons. Sandoz's collection is not exhaustive. And the contents are not monolithic. But, overall, (especially when one concentrates on 1750 onwards) Locke, not Calvin, not Rutherford or any other Calvinist DOMINATES the pro-revolt sermons. And even when they read the Bible, they do so through a Lockean lens that takes Locke's a-biblical ideas that God grants men inalienable rights to life, political liberty, property, equality and "happiness" as "self-evident" givens, discoverable in "nature" -- without the assistance of the Bible. And those a-biblical "discoveries" from natural reason are given at LEAST the very same "Truth" status as that which is revealed in the Bible.
And also note, it's not just unitarians who elevated the discoveries of man's unaided reason in nature to the same level as scripture. It was also orthodox Trinitarians who did this, for instance, John Witherspoon, whom many folks are surprised to learn was a Locke imbibed philosophical rationalist.