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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
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
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
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
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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