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Contents > Author > Thomas Paine > Common Sense I 1737- 1809
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Thomas Paine
Common Sense I
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I. OF THE ORIGIN AND DESIGN OF GOVERNMENT IN GENERAL,
WITH CONCISE REMARKS ON THE ENGLISH CONSTITUTION.

Some writers have so confounded society with government, as
to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are
not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced
by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former
promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the
latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages
intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron,
the last a punisher.
Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its
best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable
one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by
a government, which we might expect in a country without
government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish
the means by which we suffer. Government, like dress, is the badge
of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built on the ruins of the
bowers of paradise. For were the impulses of conscience clear,
uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver;
but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up
a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest;
and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every
other case advises him out of two evils to choose the least.
Wherefore, security being the true design and end of government,
it unanswerably follows that whatever form thereof appears most
likely to ensure it to us, with the least expence and greatest benefit,
is preferable to all others.
In order to gain a clear and just idea of the design and end of
government, let us suppose a small number of persons settled in
some sequestered part of the earth, unconnected with the rest,
they will then represent the first peopling of any country, or of the
world. In this state of natural liberty, society will be their first
thought. A thousand motives will excite them thereto, the strength
of one man is so unequal to his wants, and his mind so unfitted for
perpetual solitude, that he is soon obliged to seek assistance and
relief of another, who in his turn requires the same. Four or five
united would be able to raise a tolerable dwelling in the midst of the
wilderness, but one man might labour out the common period of life
without accomplishing any thing; when he had felled his timber he
could not remove it, nor erect it after it was removed; hunger in the
mean time would urge him from his work, and every different want
call him a different way. Disease, nay even misfortune would be
death, for though neither might be mortal, yet either would disable
him from living and reduce him to a state in which he might rather
be said to perish than to die.
Thus necessity, like a gravitating power, would soon form our
newly arrived emigrants into society, the reciprocal blessing of
which, would supersede, and render the obligations of law and
government unnecessary while they remained perfectly just to
each other; but as nothing but heaven is impregnable to vice, it
will unavoidably happen, that in proportion as they surmount the
first difficulties of emigration which bound them together in a
common cause, they will begin to relax in their duty and
attachment to each other; and this remissness will point out the
necessity of establishing some form of government to supply the
defect of moral virtue.
Some convenient tree will afford them a State-House, under
the branches of which, the whole colony may assemble to
deliberate on public matters. It is more than probable that their
first laws will have the title only of REGULATIONS, and be enforced
by no other penalty than public disesteem. In this first parliament
every man, by natural right, will have a seat.
But as the colony increases, the public concerns will increase
likewise, and the distance at which the members may be
separated, will render it too inconvenient for all of them to meet
on every occasion as at first, when their number was small, their
habitations near, and the public concerns few and trifling. This
will point out the convenience of their consenting to leave the
legislative part to be managed by a select number chosen from
the whole body, who are supposed to have the same concerns
at stake, which those have who appointed them, and who will
act in the same manner as the whole body would act were they
present. If the colony continues increasing, it will become
necessary to augment the number of the representatives, and
that the interest of every part of the colony may be attended to,
it will be found best to divide the whole into convenient parts,
each part sending its proper number; and that the elected might
never form to themselves an interest separate from the electors,
prudence will point out the propriety of having elections often;
because as the elected might by that means return and mix
again with the general body of the electors in a few months,
their fidelity to the public will be secured by the prudent reflexion
of not making a rod for themselves. And as this frequent
interchange will establish a common interest with every part of
the community, they will mutually and naturally support each
other, and on this (not on the unmeaning name of king) depends
the strength of government, and the happiness of the governed.
Here then is the origin and rise of government; namely, a
mode rendered necessary by the inability of moral virtue to
govern the world; here too is the design and end of government,
viz. freedom and security. And however our eyes may be dazzled
with snow, or our ears deceived by sound; however prejudice
may warp our wills, or interest darken our understanding, the
simple voice of nature and of reason will say, it is right.
I draw my idea of the form of government from a principle in
nature, which no art can overturn, viz. that the more simple any
thing is, the less liable it is to be disordered, and the easier
repaired when disordered; and with this maxim in view, I offer
a few remarks on the so much boasted constitution of England.
That it was noble for the dark and slavish times in which it was
erected, is granted. When the world was over-run with tyranny
the least remove therefrom was a glorious rescue. But that it is
imperfect, subject to convulsions, and incapable of producing
what it seems to promise, is easily demonstrated.
Absolute governments (tho' the disgrace of human nature)
have this advantage with them, that they are simple; if the
people suffer, they know the head from which their suffering
springs, know likewise the remedy, and are not bewildered by
a variety of causes and cures. But the constitution of England
is so exceedingly complex, that the nation may suffer for years
together without being able to discover in which part the fault
lies, some will say in one and some in another, and every
political physician will advise a different medicine.
I know it is difficult to get over local or long standing
prejudices, yet if we will suffer ourselves to examine the
component parts of the English constitution, we shall find them
to be the base remains of two ancient tyrannies, compounded
with some new republican materials.
First.?The remains of monarchical tyranny in the person of
the king.
Secondly.?The remains of aristocratical tyranny in the
persons of the peers.
Thirdly.?The new republican materials, in the persons of the
commons, on whose virtue depends the freedom of England.
The two first, by being hereditary, are independent of the
people; wherefore in a constitutional sense they contribute
nothing towards the freedom of the state.
To say that the constitution of England is a union of three
powers reciprocally checking each other, is farcical, either the
words have no meaning, or they are flat contradictions.
To say that the commons is a check upon the king,
presupposes two things.
First.?That the king is not to be trusted without being
looked after, or in other words, that a thirst for absolute power
is the natural disease of monarchy.
Secondly.?That the commons, by being appointed for that
purpose, are either wiser or more worthy of confidence than the
crown.
But as the same constitution which gives the commons a
power to check the king by withholding the supplies, gives
afterwards the king a power to check the commons, by
empowering him to reject their other bills; it again supposes
that the king is wiser than those whom it has already supposed
to be wiser than him. A mere absurdity!
There is something exceedingly ridiculous in the composition
of monarchy; it first excludes a man from the means of information,
yet empowers him to act in cases where the highest judgment is
required. The state of a king shuts him from the world, yet the
business of a king requires him to know it thoroughly; wherefore
the different parts, unnaturally opposing and destroying each
other, prove the whole character to be absurd and useless.
Some writers have explained the English constitution thus;
the king, say they, is one, the people another; the peers are an
house in behalf of the king; the commons in behalf of the people;
but this hath all the distinctions of an house divided against itself;
and though the expressions be pleasantly arranged, yet when
examined they appear idle and ambiguous; and it will always
happen, that the nicest construction that words are capable of,
when applied to the description of some thing which either cannot
exist, or is too incomprehensible to be within the compass of
description, will be words of sound only, and though they may
amuse the ear, they cannot inform the mind, for this explanation
includes a previous question, viz. How came the king by a power
which the people are afraid to trust, and always obliged to check?
Such a power could not be the gift of a wise people, neither can
any power, which needs checking, be from God; yet the provision,
which the constitution makes, supposes such a power to exist.
But the provision is unequal to the task; the means either
cannot or will not accomplish the end, and the whole affair is a
felo de se; for as the greater weight will always carry up the less,
and as all the wheels of a machine are put in motion by one, it
only remains to know which power in the constitution has the
most weight, for that will govern; and though the others, or a
part of them, may clog, or, as the phrase is, check the rapidity,
of its motion, yet so long as they cannot stop it, their endeavours
will be ineffectual; the first moving power will at last have its way,
and what it wants in speed is supplied by time.
That the crown is this overbearing part in the English
constitution needs not be mentioned, and that it derives its whole
consequence merely from being the giver of places and pensions
is self-evident; wherefore, though we have been wise enough to
shut and lock a door against absolute monarchy, we at the same
time have been foolish enough to put the crown in possession of
the key.
The prejudice of Englishmen, in favour of their own government
by king, lords and commons, arises as much or more from national
pride than reason. Individuals are undoubtedly safer in England
than in some other countries, but the will of the king is as much
the law of the land in Britain as in France, with this difference,
that instead of proceeding directly from his mouth, it is handed to
the people under the most formidable shape of an act of Parliament.
For the fate of Charles the First, hath only made kings more subtle
?not more just.
Wherefore, laying aside all national pride and prejudice in
favour of modes and forms, the plain truth is, that it is wholly owing
to the constitution of the people, and not to the constitution of the
government that the crown is not as oppressive in England as in
Turkey.
An inquiry into the constitutional errors in the English form of
government is at this time highly necessary; for as we are never in
a proper condition of doing justice to others, while we continue
under the influence of some leading partiality, so neither are we
capable of doing it to ourselves while we remain fettered by any
obstinate prejudice. And as a man, who is attached to a prostitute,
is unfitted to choose or judge of a wife, so any prepossession in
favour of a rotten constitution of government will disable us from
discerning a good one.

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Read by: Jeff Kiok
 

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