Meet the Jesuit Priest Who Fought Authoritarianism and Inspiring America's Revolutionaries

For stating that 'natural law is morally superior to the force of the state,' Juan de Mariana was brought before the Inquisition and charged with treason.

With the official end of the Christmas season on Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, behind us, freedom seekers everywhere would do well to remember Juan de Mariana, a tenacious 16th-century college professor who was hauled before the Inquisition and fought treason charges during Spain's 1609-1610 holiday celebrations.

Men stormed into the retired, 73-year-old college professor's Jesuit convent in Toledo, Spain, on September 8, 1609, and charged him with thirteen crimes, including treason. Mariana had only been summoned before authorities of the Inquisition eleven days prior to face tough questions regarding his latest work, On the Alteration of Money.
What is his alleged crime? Writing a new book that was not well received by King Phillip III of Spain.

The new book might have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back, given the septuagenarian's well-known support for individual liberty and deep distrust of governmental solutions. Mariana had gone too far this time in the eyes of the monarch and his government—a fair judgment, considering that his thoughts would eventually make their way into the battle cries of the American Revolution and the foundation articles of the United States.

Though the origins of the classical liberalism that led to the American Revolution may be traced back to Aristotle's works through early Judeo-Christian literature, Mariana and other like-minded thinkers defined many of liberalism's core ideas during Spain's Golden Age in the 16th century. Of fact, Mariana's new book did more than simply decry the government's currency manipulation and blame it for the country's suffering price inflation—though that was surely enough to earn an arrest warrant in those days. The professor further said that rulers do not possess their subjects' private property and that any king "tramples everything underfoot and believes everything belongs to him" is nothing more than a tyrant.

Mariana even contended that countries do not have the right to tax individuals without their agreement, because imposing unapproved taxes amounted to taking what was rightfully theirs—all of which foreshadows one of the great political slogans of the American Revolution, "No taxation without representation!"

Indeed, Mariana's new book expanded on the concepts he first presented in his older, much more controversial book, On Kings and Royalty. Mariana had made the even more bold argument in that 1598 tome that the people had the right to remove their rulers anytime they curtailed their freedom of expression and assembly, illegally seized their property, or imposed taxes without their agreement.

Mariana – who would be widely read in England during his final years and after his death – thus anticipated John Locke's (1632-1704) theory of popular consent and the superiority of the people over their government, as economist and economic historian Murray Rothbard points out in his book Economic Thought Before Adam Smith. He was also the forerunner of the renowned English philosopher John Locke's statement that men form governments to safeguard their natural rights. Mariana concluded that it was prudent for rulers to worry that any royal slip into tyranny would lead to insurrection, in words that foreshadowed Locke's and the Declaration of Independence's justifications of the right to revolt.

After being released into the world of the late 1500s, these ideas were blamed for the assassinations of the French tyrant kings Henry III and Henry IV, and the book was banned and burned in Paris following an order issued by the Paris Parliament on the ironic date of July 4, 1610 – Mariana's first experience with government censorship.

"All Mariana did was carry an idea—that natural law is ethically superior to the force of the state—to its logical conclusion," says current Spanish economist Huerta de Soto.

Indeed, another Spanish scholar, Francisco de Vitoria, who is credited with inventing the area of international law, had earlier created the concept (1483-1546). Vitoria had used the same rationale to condemn the conquest and maltreatment of America's aboriginal inhabitants years before Mariana had reached his views.

Mariana's impact in this area did not stop on the British mainland: Thomas Jefferson found Mariana and even donated copies of one of his books to friends; and America's second president, John Adams, had at least two of Mariana's works in his collection, including On Kings and Royalty.
Mariana was well aware that by pursuing another facet of regal injustice in his latest book, he would soon find himself in hot water with the authorities. But he went on with his monetary scheme regardless, saying at the time that "one must exercise the pen in the most severe and scabrous matters."

Mariana presented the truth regarding monetary debasement, or what is now known as "money printing," in her new book. Debasement back then meant reducing the precious metal content of coins so that they might be used by the king and his administration. Mariana had witnessed how this approach had harmed citizens and harmed trade, causing widespread dissatisfaction. As he watched the financial chaos unfold, he compared the policy to outright theft: "Would it be permissible for a prince to break into his subjects' granaries, take half of the grain stored there for himself, and then allow the owners to sell the remainder at the same price as the original whole?" he asked. I don't believe anyone would be so ridiculous as to condone such an act."

He went on to say that generating money was "like giving wine to a sick man at the wrong moment, which at first refreshes him, but in the end just worsens his condition and intensifies his pain," a remark that may be addressed at today's Federal Reserve.This sort of rant was radical—even treasonous—in 1609, regardless of its economic viability.

In both Madrid and Rome, where Pope Paul V prohibited his book, the 73-year-old professor was arrested and remanded in detention. Mariana's prior explanations for overthrowing and executing dictatorial kings had been a more serious danger to the establishment than writing about the origins and repercussions of the nation's economic predicament.

Mariana was arrested and imprisoned in Madrid, where he was allowed to prepare for an ostensibly hopeless trial in which he would have to defend himself against the allegation of lèse-majesté, or treason – a defense the professor chose to mount on his own. Mariana refused to back down despite being abandoned by weak-kneed friends and his own Jesuit order. On November 3, he responded in writing to the charges, reaffirming his belief that the king had no right to debase the currency without the people's consent, and that inflation was akin to an illegitimate tax — all while adamantly defending his freedom of speech.

When the oral arguments finally took place in the early days of Christmas, 1609, the professor's witnesses were reluctant to testify (one didn't even show up), while his accusers were vehement in their condemnation—many of them even claiming that the king could do whatever he wanted with the people's money and property.

Finally, on the day after the Day of the Three Kings in 1610, the government rested its case, while the Jesuit professor concluded his by defiantly stating that he only answered to God-given, natural laws—not those of the kingdom, especially when they contradicted God’s laws. On that note, the case was promptly set for sentencing several days later.

What happened next was a Christmas miracle of sorts. At the last moment, the pope weighed in on the case, refusing to consent to the septuagenarian’s punishment. Given the still-powerful influence of the Catholic Church in early 17th century Spain, the king’s government was left with little choice: It ended the trial without a sentence, and Mariana, now 74, was free to return home to Toledo.

Of course, this did not stop the Spanish king's servants from burning every copy of Mariana's book they could find—a job that the Inquisition would finish in the days after Mariana's death in 1624. Without a doubt, the professor had learned one of the most painful lessons of his life: when facing governmental power in defense of human liberty, one should expect to be abandoned by a large number of friends and associates—as Mariana had been left undefended by the Jesuits.

Between Mariana's time and 1776, however, the classical liberalism he helped to formulate was augmented by John Locke and others, and adopted by America's revolutionaries, resulting in the first nation to proclaim that all men are created equal, that sovereignty resides in the people, and that government power should be limited.

Mariana, in a nutshell, had made his imprint and altered the course of history. And his narrative may motivate and re-energize the efforts of everyone who desire true liberalism and freedom in today's society.

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