Of the Origin and Design of Government in General. With concise
Remarks on the English Constitution.
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
in tolerable 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 calamities 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
expense 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 a wilderness,
but one man might labor 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 blessings
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 continue 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 reflection 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 overrun
with tyranny the least 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
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
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 something 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 endeavors will be ineffectual; the first moving power
will at last have its way, and what it wants in speed is supplied
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 pensions is self-evident,
wherefore, though we have and 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 favor 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
favor 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 governement 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 favor of a rotten constitution
of government will disable us from discerning a good one.