Are You a Sovereign Citizen?

"Free Born" John Lilburne

A student asked me whether I had heard of a loosely organized group of people calling themselves “Sovereign Citizens.” I had not. It turns out that 60 Minutes recently did a story on them (available here), in which they come off largely as deranged people looking for an excuse to engage in violence.

The 60 Minutes piece interviews one person, a roofer, sympathetic to the movement who seems somewhat more in touch with reality. Though still a bit unnerving, he does manage to suggest grounds for his position. What is interesting is that his grounds are close to principles John Locke articulated in his 1690 Second Treatise of Government. In describing the “State of Nature,” for example, Locke writes that it is:

A State also of Equality, wherein all the Power and Jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another: there being nothing more evident, than that Creatures of the same species and rank promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without Subordination or Subjection, unless the Lord and Master of them all, should by any manifest Declaration of his Will set one above another, and confer on him by an evident and clear appointment an undoubted Right to Dominion and Sovereignty. (chap. 2, sect. 4; Locke’s emphasis)

Locke argues in this chapter that the state of nature is also “a State of Perfect Freedom to order their Actions, and dispose of their Possessions, and Persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the Law of Nature, without asking leave, or depending on the Will of any other Man.”

Note that Locke claims that people have the freedom to dispose of their persons and possessions within the bounds of the law of nature, not within the bounds of human-made law. This is a deliberate and important part of his argument. These two features—“freedom” and “equality”—are aspects of human nature Locke argues people possess prior to and independent of any human or government action. They therefore become the bounds and limits of justifiable human, and thus government, action.

I think the proper way to understand the “equality” to which Locke refers here is as equal jurisdiction. That is, each of us, by nature (or by God’s will, but in any case antecedent to government), possesses rightful authority or jurisdiction over the same scope—namely, over ourselves. No one of us has any natural rightful jurisdiction over any other. This gives Locke a clear argument to oppose slavery, which he articulates in chapter 4 of the Second Treatise: Slavery is the illegitimate extension of one person’s jurisdiction over another.

It is important for Locke’s position that only God, not other human beings, can grant anyone “an undoubted Right to Dominion and Sovereignty.”

Locke did not invent this position. Indeed, both its form and substance had been articulated earlier in the century, during the time of the English Civil War, by a group of Englishmen known as the “Levellers.” That name is misleading now, because it can suggest, and has been taken to mean, that they were interested in equalizing, or “levelling,” people’s holdings, objecting to the great inequalities in wealth present in seventeenth-century England. But that was not their aim. (It was closer to the aim of another group with whom they are often, though incorrectly, associated, called the “Diggers.”*) Their aim was instead to ‘level’ people’s natural, God-given status. They argued that everyone was, regardless of rank or class, equally entitled to profess his own religion in his own way, and to order his life in accordance with his religious principles without correction or review from his alleged superiors. Before God, they argued, every man was equally free and thus equally accountable, and this equality preceded and therefore superseded any claimed authority by any human being or human institution.

But the Levellers too were drawing on a much older tradition, one that traces back at least to the 1215 Magna Carta and the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath. In the latter, Scottish nobles declared and asserted their sovereign right to determine for themselves who would rule them, denying the English king’s claimed jurisdiction over them on the grounds that they had not consented to his authority.

That is the background that informs Locke’s argument. It is also, therefore, via Locke, the background that informs some of the motivation behind the American Declaration of Independence and the American founding. Locke goes on to claim that our natural equality of freedom can even justify revolt, and he uses language that is eerily familiar:

Revolutions happen not upon every little mismanagement in publick affairs. Great mistakes in the ruling part, many wrong and inconvenieng Laws, and all the slips of humane frailty will be born by the People, without mutiny or murmur. But if a long train of Abuses, Prevarications, and Artifices, all tending the same way, make the design visible to the People, and they cannot but feel, what they lie under, and see, whither they are going; ’tis not to be wonder’d, that they should then rouze themselves, and endeavour to put the rule into such hands, which may secure to them the ends for which Government was at first erected. (chap. 19, sect. 225; Locke’s emphasis)

Where have I heard that before?

Whether any of the latter-day “Sovereign Citizens” base their positions on this tradition, or whether they use it only as cover for vicious and violent activity, I do not know. The tradition itself is, however, a venerable one, and it has given rise to some of the freest and most prosperous human societies on earth.

*For a wide selection of readings from the Levellers, as well as some discussion of the relevant historical context, see my edited collection, The Levellers: Walwyn, Overton, and Lilburne, 5 vols. (Thoemmes Continuum, 2003).

4 thoughts on “Are You a Sovereign Citizen?

  1. Fantastic piece. I think you’ve pretty much nailed the concept, as I see it, completely and concisely.

    I think one of my favorite expositions on “equality” and “freedom” that I’ve seen, in the same vein, is this article/talk by Roderick Long (http://mises.org/daily/804).

    Long is so under-recognized/under-utilized on the libertarian front that it’s almost shameful.

    1. That was an excellent article. Mises.org is a goldmine. I keep downloading things from their servers and printing them just to have in case the apocalypse comes.

      1. Yeah, I’d venture to say I’m among a not-so-small crowd of people that came to liberty in recent years, at least in part, because of the content of great sites like Mises.org. Robert Murphy and Roderick Long I enjoy in particular. My hope is that Pileus becomes an important cornerstone in the libertarian blogosphere – I keep coming back for pieces by Sorens and Otteson; almost always great food for thought.

  2. Dr. Otteson,

    Very interesting and informative post about Locke’s ideas and the long intellectual pedigree of self-ownership and its implications. I have to cringe a bit at your leading-in with a reference to the Sovereign Citizen movement, though, as the implied connection lends it an undeserved air of legitimacy. I did not see the 60 Minutes segment, but from what you mention I must imagine it was one of the most benign descriptions of that movement ever publicly aired.

    I could see the movement having its roots (or at least inspiration) in actual serious thought at some point in its history, but the more prevalent current iterations of this mindset are borderline psychotic. Sovereign Citizens are notorious for spouting convoluted and often simply incoherent legal theories as justifications for their denials of lawful authority by virtually any government entity whatsoever. I very occasionally encounter one in court, and their fanciful ramblings about the “straw man”, their birth certificates being unsigned and unaccepted contracts, supposedly secret bank accounts the government keeps on their behalf, etc. are very reminiscent of the nonsense peddled by the income tax denial crowd. The SC movement has long been associated with such things as filing fraudulent tax forms to claim enormous refunds (an order of magnitude or more greater than total income) or filing bogus liens against government property or the property of government officials.

    Not that I would generally recommend it as a font of unbiased information, but at least with regards to the SC movement, the SPLC actually has a fairly succinct description on its website.

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