Common Sense, By Thomas Paine, January 10, 1776, Edited by Stanley L.
by Thomas Paine
January 10, 1777
edited by Stanley L. Klos March 1, 2000
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 objects. 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 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
anything; 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 to 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 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 show, 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
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 is it to be 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 remove
there from was a glorious rescue. But that it is imperfect, subject to
convulsions, and incapable of producing what it seemed to promise is easily
Absolute governments, (though 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.
remains of Monarchical tyranny in the person of the King.
remains of Aristocratical tyranny in the persons of the Peers.
—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
they contribute nothing towards the freedom of the
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 are a check upon the King, presupposes two things.
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.
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 issomething 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 by
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 (Editor’s note: Latin for "felon of
himself"); 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 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 will be 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 lock the 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 more
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 Government that the Crown is not as oppressive in England as in Turkey.
An enquiry 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.
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