Thoughts on Paine’s Common Sense: Part 4

Today we’ll be wrapping up the section entitled: “Of the Origin and Design of Government in General, with Concise Remarks on the English Constitution.” We continue from where we were–discussing the monarchy:

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.

Paine is speaking here of the English monarchy, which was far from absolute. In earlier times, the king was much closer to an absolute ruler or dictator. However, over time, the  government had been altered to a more republican form, broadly speaking, yet with the king still on his throne.

Some writers have explained the English constitution thus: the King, say they, is one, the people another; the Peers are a house in behalf of the King, the commons in behalf of the people; but this hath all the distinctions of a 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.

On the face of it, this argument is worth considering. However, the truth of the matter is that every power held by human hand needs checking (or restraining). The power of the king has no less need for restraint than the power of a president or any other head of state. The fundamental issue is not wheter power must be restrained, but rather by what means is it most proper and efficient to do so.

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 tho’ 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 endeavours will be ineffectual: The first moving power will at last have its way, and what it wants in speed is supplied by time.

Paine claims that the organization of the English government will lead to felo de se (suicide) because the government is not truly balanced or restrained by its several parts. Rather, he believes that whoever first gains advantage will continue until the other influences are diminished and overruled in their entirety.

We can see this to some extent within our own system of government at the federal level. Increasing, there are those within the Executive who believe that they can act in the interests of the nation (as they see it) without regard to the support or lack thereof within constitution. In fact, when one of the other branches disagrees with the Executive (as was recently the case with Citizens United) the Executive seems to believe that the constitutional basis for that decision is of no consequence. Our constitution (unlike the English one) provides for a much more even balance of power amongst the branches, but that balance is increasingly hard to keep.

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 formidable shape of an act of parliament. For the fate of Charles the First hath only made kings more subtle — not more just.

The “giver of pensions and places.” It would seem as though, once again, we have a modern parallel. The rapid increase in positions within the federal government (particularly in the Executive branch) is more than a little troubling. This trend is hardly new with the current administration, but the current administration is not content to continue from where things were.

I would add that the “fate of Charles the first” has tended make all rulers more subtle–as only a change of heart would serve to make them 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 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.

Unfortunately, it would seem that, as our own government departs from the Constitution, the “constitution of the people” is indeed holding back the oppression of the government. The Tea Party phenomena are ample evidence of this truth. The party which (by and large) finds the constitution to be as binding as the Ten Suggestions instead of the Ten Commandments is in charge of the Executive, the Legislative, and stands at rough parity in the Judicial. Yet despite all of this, the agenda for “change” is moving forward but slowly, held back by voices of common citizens with common sense.

I’m thinking Paine would be pleased at the response–though pained that we have regressed so far as to necessitate such a response.

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.

Sometimes it is necessary to start over. Paine calls for his readers to put aside their prejudices and see if what he is saying adds up. Once again, he is appealing to reason, though we find that insufficient motivation. His parallel between a good wife and a good constitution is not only interesting–it is useful to us today. Much as one would care for a wife (in the sense of take car of, provide for, etc) one should care for one’s constitution–assuming that one has a good one.


Thoughts on Paine’s Common Sense: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3