1. In his earlier De Maria Scotorum Regina (printed 1571), the Scots Humanist George Buchanan [1506 - 1582] had sought to justify the imprisonment and enforced abdication of Mary Queen of Scots by demonstrating that she had behaved tyrannically toward the people of Scotland. The bill of particulars he offered is sometimes dismissed as no more than scurillous calumny. For example, in her biography of the Queen, taking her cue from Mary’s inveterate apologist William Camden (Annales anno 1567), Lady Antonia Fraser dismissed Buchanan’s attack as nothing but toadying to his patron, the Earl of Moray, Mary’s brother, who had for all intents and purposes gained control of Scotland after her deposition. But it is very much to be doubted that Buchanan’s motivation can be written off so lightly. More likely his allegation that the way Mary and Bothwell rode roughshod over Scots law, trampling underfoot the ancient rights of the Scottish people by frustrating judicial inquiries into the murder of Lord Darnley, Mary’s consort and King of Scotland, and then by stifling criticism of their action, was meant seriously. For the present dialogue shows that his outspoken detestation of Mary was grounded in serious political beliefs, as well of course as in his Protestant faith.
2. By itself, De Maria Scotorum Regina fails to present a convincing case. In that work, Buchanan demonstrated (at least to his satisfaction, and to that of readers prepared to give it a sympathetic hearing) that Mary was a tyrant. Yet that conclusion raises an obvious question: does the fact that a ruler is a tyrant provide his subjects with an ipso facto justification for deposing him? In the first work, the question goes unaddressed. Within the framework of contemporary political thought, one could respond with the argument (based on the scriptural account of God’s appointment of a king for Israel in I Samuel) that sovereigns are created by God, and therefore answerable exclusively to Him and not to their subjects. This was of course the view of Queen Elizabeth, as well as of Buchanan’s royal pupil, James Stuart. Thus, for example, we have the following telling passage from Matthew Gwinne’s tragedy Nero (1603) 1241ff.:
Princeps, seu bonus est, seu malus, a Iove:
In paenam malus est, in pretium bonus:
Patris dextra bonus, laeva manus malus.
Ornes, si bonus est; sin malus est, feras.
Curae sunt superis, et bonus, et malus.
Non fert insidias Iupiter in bonum;
Defendit similem, nec iuvat in malum:
Nam non est hominum, sed Iovis ultio.
[“A ruler, whether good or bad, is sent us by Jove. The bad is sent for chastisement, the good as a reward. Our Father’s right hand is good, his left bad. Praise him if good, tolerate him if bad. For both the good and the bad are under Gods’ special protection. Jupiter tolerates no scheming against the good, for he defends him who is like himself. Nor does he aid us against the bad, for revenge belongs to Jove, not to mankind.”]
3. According to this theory of kingship, therefore, the mere fact that Mary was a tyrant would scarcely justify her treatment at the hands of her subjects. Indeed, the argument could be made that Mary had been inflicted on the Scottish people by God as punishment for their transgressions, so that any attempt to overthrow her was an act of rebellion against divine will (Buchanan explicitly confronts this argument in paragraph 57). To legitimize her removal, therefore, a very different view of sovereignty, and of the sovereign’s relationship to his subjects, clearly needed to be advanced. Hence the present dialogue. Although it was published considerably later, its dramatic date was some unspecified time between Mary’s imprisonment at Lochleven in June 1567 and her escape the following December, and R. A. Mason and M. S. Smith argued that it was written in this same time-frame (see below). It is designed to provide a theoretical justification for her rough treatment at the hands of her Protestant subjects. (In view of the peroration addressing foreign critics beginning in 75, one suspects that Buchanan was largely writing for a French audience, as Mary’s removal was especially resented in France).
4. The main thread of Buchanan’s argument is this. The king is created for the benefit of the people, not the people for the king’s (9). Indeed, sovereignty resides in the people, who therefore have the right to choose their king (11). Laws are created by the people (14), as embodied by the national Parliament (24), and the king is obliged to subject himself to the law; indeed, the purpose of the law is to impose restraint on the king, so that he will not act cruelly or capriciously (24). A tyrant, on the other hand, is not to be defined as a ruler who has taken power by force, since once in power he may govern according to law (74), but rather as a ruler who acts illegally according to his own unrestrained will. By doing such, he breaks his contract with his people, thereby rendering it null and void, at which his subjects are released from their obligation of obedience (71). He indeed becomes a public enemy, and it is the moral duty of his former subjects, both collectively and individually, to resist and, if possible, kill him (72). Furthermore, the right of the sovereign people to depose a tyrannical ruler is amply established by historical precedent. (59). For these reasons, because she had governed in a tyrannical manner (as demonstrated in his previous treatise) Mary’s removal was a legitimate exercise of the sovereign power of people of Scotland.
5. The application of these high-minded principles to the immediate case is greatly problematical, and only serves to illustrate Thomas Maitland’s anxiety that, put in practice, they could serve as an easy pretext for mischief-making (73). Mary was not deposed as the result of any parliamentary impeachment or legal action, but rather imprisoned by a confederation of powerful nobles (as James III had been before her), and forced to sign an abdication document under extreme duress. Great danger to the Scottish commonwealth is implicit in Buchanan’s facile assumption that the action of a cabal of lords (to an appreciable extent motivated by ambition, self-interest, and personal grudges), imposing their will by violence, could be regarded as a legitimate exercise of the sovereign will of the people of Scotland. Furthermore, neither here nor in De Maria Scotorum Regina does Buchanan honestly acknowledge the chief thing that made Mary intolerable to many of her subjects, her Catholicism. Does a sovereign’s profession of a religion uncongenial to many or even most of his subjects count as tyranny? If so, Buchanan’s argument bears within it the seed of a Protestant counterpart to the notorious one advanced by Cardinal Allen, used to justify the assassinations of the Prince of Orange and Henri IV, and the various attempts against the lives of Elizabeth and James. Certainly, Buchanan’s failure to acknowledge the underlying religious dispute seems disingenuous; at minimum, it begs the question whether tyrannical behavior is more easily discerned in the government of a sovereign whose religion one does not like, than in that of a coreligionist.
6. In the present dialogue, Buchanan nonetheless sets forth a powerful political argument, with a long future ahead of it. Although the title page states (possibly not without a deliberate touch of irony) that his dialogue was printed with the royal privilege, James VI suppressed it as soon as he was old enough (by procuring an Act of Parliament, in 1584). Nevertheless its subsequent printing history eloquently expresses the longevity of Buchanan’s ideas and the deep interest men took in them: besides numerous Latin reprints, a Dutch translation in 1610, English ones in 1680, 1799, and 1846, and a German one in 1796. Of this work, W. A. Gatherer wrote: NOTE 1
In the long controversies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Buchanan was regarded as a primary exponent of the principles of anti-monarchism. The De iure regni laid down the theory of government by Rex subject to Lex, and of the subjects’ right to depose an unfit sovereign, which formed the basis of anti-royalist belief throughout this period. Though there was little in Buchanan’s pamphlet which was philosophically new — he was not an original thinker — he expressed his views so cogently that even as late as the mid-nineteenth century his treatise was called ‘the very primer…of constitutional liberty.’ NOTE 2
Buchanan may or may not have been an original political thinker, but in any event the power and eloquence with which he expresses these ideas, together, of course, with his masterly syle as a Latinist and his prestige as a leading Humanist, went far towards popularizing them and injecting them into the intellectual discourse of the Anglo-Saxon world.
8. In the fulness of time they would become translated into action and prevail as basic ideas of modern political thought. Dryden’s well-known accusation that Milton incorporated Buchanan’s political thinking in his Defence of the People of England perhaps deserves a fresh look. And the possibility of his influence on the Founding Fathers of the United States is well worth consideration. In the catalogue of the personal library of Thomas Jefferson are included copies of both Buchanan’s Rerum Scoticarum Historia and of his Collected Works. NOTE 3 John Adams’ copy of Rerum Scoticarum Historia is in the Adams Collection of the Boston Public Library (a digitized reproduction of this copy can be seen here). And a printing of the “Philalethes” translation of the present work (described in the following paragraph) was issued by the printer Andrew Steuart at Philadelphia in 1766. It is commonly pointed out that Buchanan’s theories of kingship had been anticipated by other writers, such as John of Salisbury in his Policraticus. True as this may be, Buchanan may well have served as a conduit by which men like Jefferson and Adams were introduced to the legal theories of government that provided basis for the American Revolution in general and the Declaration of Indepence in particular. NOTE 4
9. De Iure Regni Apud Scotos is cast as a dialogue between Buchanan and Thomas Maitland, a scion of an ancient Scots clan, the Maitlands of Lethingon in East Lothian, newly returned from pursuing his studies overseas. NOTE 5 As noted above, the fictitious date of the dialogue is during the period of Mary’s imprisonment in 1567. According to the dedicatory epistle addressed to James VI, it was written “a number of years” prior to its publication in 1579, but the actual date of composition is unknown. It was printed by John Ross for Henry Charteris at Edinburgh, 1579. The Bodleian Library copy has been the subject of a modern photographic reprint. NOTE 6 A modern English translation (by Duncan H. MacNeill) is available here. The translation I have selected for the present edition is the one by “Philalethes” printed in 1680 (Short Title Catalogue B5275, Early English Books series II, reel 271), although the style in which it is written perhaps warrants the suspicion it was made earlier. It is probably a mark of the still-controversial nature of Buchanan’s dialogue that neither the translator nor the printer cared or dared to put his name on the title page.
10. Since the original appearance of this edition in The Philological Museum, R. A. Mason and M. S. Smith have published A Dialogue on the Law of Kingship among the Scots: A Critical Edition and Translation of George Buchanan’s De Iure Regni apud Scotos Dialogus (Aldershot, 2004), in which they have argued (pp. xxvii - xxix) that the book was indeed written in the last months of 1567, i. e., that the fictive date of the dialogue is for all intents and purposes the same as the date of its composition. They further argue that the reason it was not immediately published was because of the dramatically changed political situation after Mary escaped from Lochleven and fled to England. At that point, it became vital to the Protestant party that had deposed Mary to retain Elizabeth’s good will, and nothing could have been calculated to alienate her more than the publication of the ideas about monarchy set forth in this dialogue, which might have driven her to the point of lending her support to Mary’s restoration. Hence in point of fact this dialogue was written before, not after, De Maria Scotorum Regina. Nevertheless, I believe what I have written above may still stand: the Dialogus may still be discussed as if it comes after that work, in the sense that it logically carries forward Buchanan’s defense of Mary’s deposition by presenting a necessary political and legal justificaction for that act. The case is then completed by Rerum Scoticarum Historia, which describes a number of instances in which Scottish kings (in truth, mythical early ones) were removed from power for malfeasances, with the intention of justifying the legal case set forth in the Dialogus by legal precedents.
NOTE 1 W. A. Gatherer, The Tyrannous Reign of Mary Stewart (Edinburgh, 1958), p. 4. Although this study is primarily devoted to Buchanan’s treatment of Queen Mary in his subsequent Rerum Scoticarum Historia, the discussion of his political thought in the Introduction has a decided bearing on De Iure Regni apud Scotos. Cf. also Duncan H. MacNeill, “The Historical Background to Buchanan’s De Jure Regni apud Scotos,” which may be read in electronic format here, and I. D. McFarlane, Buchanan (London, 1981), Chapter Twelve.
NOTE 2 Quoting Charles Kingsley, Health and Education (London, 1874) p. 348.
NOTE 3 James Gilreath and Douglas L. Wilson, Thomas Jefferson’s Library: A Catalogue with the Entries in His Own Order (Library of Congress, 1989), Chapter 3 nrs. 59 and 103 respectively.
NOTE 4 Buchanan figures prominently in David W. Hall, Genevan Reformation and the American Founding (Lanham, Maryland, 2005).
NOTE 5 Probably to be identified as Thomas Maitland, fifth son of Richard Maitland and Mary Cranstoun [b. 1540]. See the family genealogy here.
NOTE 6 Reprinted Amsterdam, 1969 (The English Experience series, no. 80).