Liberty Defense League Timothy Baldwin Romans 13

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The Lesser Evil Principle: A Choice Inside and Outside the Political System

I have shown that Natural Law creates the lesser evil principle (hereinafter “LEP”) and that the Founders, philosophers and statesmen of yesteryear applied it in politics. The LEP simply states, where a person must choose between an evil and a greater evil, he must choose the lesser. The way one applies this principle depends on the circumstances, which is a philosophical study of its own. In a political context, there are, generally speaking, two main circumstances where the LEP applies. The first is inside the system, and the second is outside the system. Until circumstances bring about the necessity of working outside the system, the people must work within the system. In both cases, the LEP applies.

Let’s get a clearer picture of what this means.

The LEP manifests itself most clearly when extreme conditions force our choice. For example, the Jews who were captured and enslaved by Hitler’s regime had to choose between submission or resistance to tyrants. For most of them, submitting to evil was less evil than having scores, hundreds and thousands of Jews mercilessly and immediately killed for resisting or disobeying. So Ecclesiastes 9:4 says, “a living dog is better than a dead lion.”

Change the circumstances to those who are under the threat of absolute slavery but still have a chance of resisting. Extreme conditions encourage them to proclaim, “Give me liberty or give me death!” Revolution becomes blaringly ripe at some point, so the lesser evil is potentially dying in the fight against tyranny and the greater evil is not resisting absolute slavery. So Ecclesiastes 4:2 says, “I praised the dead which are already dead more than the living which are yet alive.”

We hear a lot of people say that Americans are already enslaved, the system is completely corrupted, unelected foreign elites control our elected leaders and the like. They describe our situation as the last extremity when Revolution becomes ripe. But is it true? No.

Despite rhetoric to the contrary, Americans (including the most conspiratorial among us) live as though our political situation is not life-or-death. They continue to use, expect and even demand all of the norms, conveniences and luxuries of our society, all with the protection of the system.

Thus, America’s circumstances suggest that the greater evil is destroying the system because we haven’t reached the “last extremity” of Revolution. This means that people must use the LEP to prevent greater evils in the system and help create momentum that pushes the ship of State in the right direction.

Let’s put this in context of a republican form of government.

Extremities are hardly the case in a Republic where self-government is inherent in the system. Even during bad times, Republics offer hope because they are based on the principle that “the people can never wilfully betray their own interests” (Madison, FP 63) and provide methods of changing government peacefully and systematically.

Plus, Republics are designed to prevent drastic and sudden changes—changes that can be precarious because a Republic is a complex system that diffuses responsibility among the various branches of government—and ultimately to the people, who have the finality of correcting fundamental problems by amending the Constitution.

Those who are “given to change” (Proverbs 24:21) actually create greater problems for society. They believe or act as though not preventing greater evils in the system will hasten a new day created outside the system. The Federalists called these groups factions and described them as dangerous to a Republic. James Madison recognized the evil of government instability and cited it as one of the main reasons for the States calling a Constitutional Convention. He said in Federalist Paper 10, “our governments are too unstable.” They had to fix this.

Let’s understand the Constitution’s role in providing stability and change

So, the Constitution was designed to prevent instability caused by factions. The Founders had the task of creating an “institution that w[ould] blend stability with liberty” (Madison, FP 63). Madison noted the difficulty of doing this, saying,

Among the difficulties encountered by the convention, a very important one must have lain in combining the requisite stability and energy in government, with the inviolable attention due to liberty and to the republican form (FP 37).

Needing a much firmer and centralized union, they created what they believed balanced STABILITY with CHANGE. Alexander Hamilton highlighted them:

This right [of the people to change their form of government] would remain undiminished [under the Constitution.] The guaranty [of a Republican form of government] could only operate against changes to be effected by violence.

Towards the preventions of calamities of this kind, too many checks cannot be provided. The peace of society and the stability of government depend absolutely on the efficacy of the precautions adopted on this head.

Where the whole power of the government is in the hands of the people, there is the less pretense for the use of violent remedies in partial or occasional distempers of the State. The natural cure for an ill-administration, in a popular or representative constitution, is a change of men (FP 21).

The Constitution was designed to prevent changes through violence, and the balance of stability and change was founded on this principle: “From this change of men must proceed a change of opinions; and from a change of opinions, a change of measures” (Madison, FP 62).

Expressly stated, the Founders designed a Republic that had two primary methods of changing government: voting and amending the Constitution. Using these methods, “we need not be apprehensive that there will be too much stability, while there is even the option of changing” (Hamilton, FP 72).

It is true that a system can become corrupted, due to its weight and mechanics as much as to its politicians. So, some generation may try creating a new political paradigm, setting a whole new course for the future.  But there are generally two ways of doing this: (1) in the system (i.e. voting, constitutional amendments) or (2) out of the system (i.e. dissolution of the compact, revolution).

Since 1787 (with exception of the secession movement of 1860), America has used the system to effect change. Realistically, no one should expect paradigm-shifting candidates to be viable at every election. Why?—because Republics are designed to prevent paradigm shifts and allow changes to be made like a slow-moving current underground, only to be revealed after the seeds have been planted, watered and matured with the right conditions. Don’t blame the people for this; blame the Constitution.

Let’s get some historical perspective

Most critiques against candidates (and about our condition) that are allegedly evil are exaggerated, taken out of context or not entirely true. For example, take the following critique of a well-known constitutionalist, State-rights, limited-government politician and journalist:

We have reached that critical period in the life of republics, when men of the first order of talents, genius, and moral worth, high-minded, patriotic, and accomplished statesmen, can no longer be elected to offices of the highest trust, but must give way to second and third rate men, who, instead of giving tone, character, and direction to part, are but too proud to lose themselves in its irresponsibilities, and to be its mere “hired servants.”

It shows that a lust for office and its spoils has taken the place of civil virtue, and that [political] party managers have ceased to aim at the good of the country, and have come to consult only their ambition and selfishness…

This is a fearful state of things, and threatens the most fatal consequences….Corruption has extended much further than to the mere party themselves…They are afraid to take a firm and manly stand against corruption, lest they be read out of the party…

We forgot the injuries we had received from [this candidate]; we forgot all the wrongs we and our country had suffered, the moment we saw a prospect open of bringing the government back to the principles of the constitution, and of putting it on the right track….

To be able to bring [this candidate] forward, they must abandon the avowed principles of the party, and make success of party take the place of success of principle. They commenced their game by attempting, as much as possible, to obliterate the lines of party difference.[1]

We hear it a lot: the country has reached its end; we need a dramatic, sudden change; and if that change is not made NOW, all is lost. It sounds like something a conservative might say about Barack Obama, or a Ron Paul supporter might say about Mitt Romney or John McCain. Right?  

But these were the words of Orestes Brownson in 1844. He wrote them because he thought the Democrat Party was going to nominate Martin Van Buren as its Presidential candidate. Brownson thought that the Democrat Party should nominate John Calhoun instead—the kind of “Ron Paul” of 1844. Brownson followed his “conscience.” Fine. But did it lead to better or worse results for America?

Consider that Van Buren later admitted that Brownson was the reason he did not get the Democrat Party presidential nomination.[2] Instead, James Polk did, who later won the presidential election against Henry Clay of the Whig Party.

So, what did Polk do as President? Polk:

  • supported slavery’s westward expansion;
  • declared war on Mexico (over Texas’ annexation);
  • conquered Western territories;
  • grabbed public lands away from the States through his creation of the Department of Interior; and
  • appointed United States Supreme Court Justice, Robert Grier, who was accused of political corruption, ruled in the infamous Dred Scott decision that blacks are “separate but equal” persons, and ruled that Lincoln’s blockade of Southern ports during the Civil War was constitutional.

In short, Polk tremendously grew the federal government. Van Buren, on the other hand, was much more moderate on those issues and would not have taken such strong federal action.

Therefore, were it not for Brownson’s outcry against Van Buren, Polk likely would not have been the Democrat candidate. Van Buren would have, and would have been elected as President (given the political climate in favor of Democrats). In short, the United States would have looked much different. And though Van Buren may have supported some “evils” in his administration, he would not have grown the federal government and expanded slavery as Polk did.

To get more perspective on the effect Brownson had, look at the three main national issues in 1844: (1) national banks, (2) protective tariffs and (3) expanding slavery in the West. Calhoun (Brownson’s preferred candidate) was strongly against national banks and protective tariffs (good, right?) but was strongly in favor of slavery (blatantly evil, right?).

In short, Brownson was willing to sacrifice a very great evil (i.e. slavery) for the sake of defeating two greater evils (i.e. national banks and protective tariffs). To Brownson, this was a life-or-death situation for America, and despite following his conscience, Calhoun-conservatives got much worse than Van Buren—because of Brownson. Consequently, tyranny took a greater leap forward (using Calhoun-conservative standards).

Let’s learn from Brownson

Seeing Brownson’s actions should make us wiser today. Despite Brownson’s prediction that America was on the brink of destruction, the truth is, America wasn’t—even with Polk (the “greater of evils”) becoming President. And despite Brownson’s belief that his loose rhetoric was good for the nation, the elections proved otherwise.

Human nature tends to exaggerate the evils people find greater than other evils; but in reality, the perceived evil (while evil in some respects) does not reach the kind of evil that contradicts human nature in political society. John Stuart Mill recognized this tendency:

[Englishmen] have seen so many changes made, from which, while only in prospect, vast expectations were entertained, both of evil and of good, while the results of either kind that actually followed seemed far short of what had been predicted…The predictions were often erroneous as to the suddenness of the effects, and sometimes even as to the kind of effect.[3]

In reality, America continued very strongly from 1844 despite Brownson’s doomsday prophecy. One could even say that America’s stronger days came well after 1844 even though “evils” (according to Calhoun-conservatives) became the norm for America, such as national banks and tariffs, along with many other “evils” patriots of yesteryear found “insupportable.” In other words, Experience disproved the vehement attacks of the Calhoun-conservatives.

Let’s be clear minded about which arena we are operating in

Have we reached the point of “last extremity” where revolution becomes ripe? No. Even if revolution is somehow “ripe,” the weight of evidence proving this must be equivalent to Revolution’s weight; it must be brought to the forefront; and the people in large must render a verdict accordingly.

Those who claim revolution is ripe (meaning our political remedies exist outside the system) have the burden of proving with the “highest evidence” that revolution is not only ripe but also necessary to prevent the greater evils that take place from the system. Those who claim that we should not use voting and amending the Constitution to effect positive change in our society have the heavy burden of proving that we should abandon these constitutional remedies and follow them into the darkness of revolution. In short, they must use the LEP because it is the only way to motivate people to join a revolution.

To my knowledge, no one has met such a heavy burden. As such, we should act reasonably and continue using the system to make changes for our improvement. This means voting responsibly and amending the Constitution when voting cannot change the rule of law. These two methods of political remedy are what the Founders expressly implanted into our Republic to promote stability and change and prevent violence.

For those who think the LEP is evil, think again. It is the root of most political decisions that seek to improve and better mankind, inside and outside the system.


[1] Brownson, Orestes, The Works of Orestes A Brownson, From Brownson’s Quarterly Review for April 1844, Collected by Henry F. Brownson (Detroit ,Thorndike Nourse, 1884) 475.

[2] See,

[3] John Stuart Mill, On Socialism and Utilitarianism, (Chicago, Morrill, Higgins, 1892), 9.


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