Thoughts on Paine’s Common Sense: Part 3

Last time, we covered most of Paine’s Common Sense understanding of the need for/origin of basic government. We shall now continue with his conclusions in that vein:

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 reason will say, ’tis right.

Ahh, “freedom and security.” The “design and end of government.” One could do worse than to see this as the dynamic tension provided by a properly limited government. Of course, Paine defers to “nature and reason” but we can forgive him that since history has shown us that reason, in particular, is insufficient to trump the lust for power intrinsic to the human heart.

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 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.

Though he does not put it in quite so many words, Paine is subscribing to the KISS rule of government. He realizes that there was benefit to the constitution of England, but that it has suffered over time and as he puts it “subject to convulsions.”  I find it interesting to draw parallels here, not with the US Constitution as such, but with the body of law which has been built upon it (and in many cases, along side it). Those laws tend to more and more complexity.

Absolute governments, (tho’ the disgrace of human nature) have this advantage with them, 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.

This part rings remarkably true with regard to the recent economic difficulties. The laws governing financial institutions, transactions and taxation thereof have become so complicated that every “political physician” advises a different medicine for the current economic ailments, with some advocating bleeding and others feeding. It would seem as though the troubles which existed in Paine’s time were not confined to that time, at least in regard to the nature of a government to increase its complexity beyond any practical usefulness.

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.

It is likely that Paine himself was one of those who needed to get over “long standing prejudices” with respect to the flaws in the structure of the English government. He, with many others, would have been taught the supremacy of the English way of doing things from his childhood. After all, this was still during the time when people were imprisoned or killed for objecting to the actions of monarchs–regardless of how accurate those objections might have been.

To say that the constitution of England is an UNION of three powers, reciprocally CHECKING each other, is farcical; either the words have no meaning, or they are flat contradictions.

First. — That the King it 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!

Paine is stating that power corrupts–and that this weakness (or as he puts it, “disease”) is natural to a monarchy. It would seem that England had tried a system of checks and balances, as we understand the terms today, but Paine is putting forth the argument that while such might have been the goal–the reality a rather different thing.


Thoughts on Paine’s Common Sense: Part 1, Part 2