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READ STUDY GUIDE: Of The Origin and Design of Government in General

Section 1:

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 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 a 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.
This 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
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
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
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
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, 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 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,
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 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 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 favour
of modes and forms, the plain truth is, that IT IS WHOLLY OWING TO
GOVERNMENT that the crown is not as oppressive in England as in
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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