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Common Sense Essay, Research Paper

PERHAPS the sentiments contained in the following pages, are not yet

sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favor; a long habit of not thinking a

thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a

formidable outcry in defence of custom. But tumult soon subsides. Time makes

more converts than reason.

As a long and violent abuse of power is generally the means of calling the right

of it in question, (and in matters too which might never have been thought of, had

not the sufferers been aggravated into the inquiry,) and as the king of England hath

undertaken in his own right, to support the parliament in what he calls theirs, and as

the good people of this country are grievously oppressed by the combination, they

have an undoubted privilege to inquire into the pretensions of both, and equally to

reject the usurpations of either.

In the following sheets, the author hath studiously avoided every thing which

is personal among ourselves. Compliments as well as censure to individuals make

no part thereof. The wise and the worthy need not the triumph of a pamphlet; and

those whose sentiments are injudicious or unfriendly, will cease of themselves,

unless too much pains is bestowed upon their conversion.

The cause of America is, in a great measure, the cause of all mankind. Many

circumstances have, and will arise, which are not local, but universal, and through

which the principles of all lovers of mankind are affected, and in the event of

which, their affections are interested. The laying a country desolate with fire and

sword, declaring war against the natural rights of all mankind, and extirpating the

defenders thereof from the face of the earth, is the concern of every man to whom

nature hath given the power of feeling; of which class, regardless of party censure,

is THE AUTHOR Philadelphia, Feb. 14, 1776.

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 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 (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.

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

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 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 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 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



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