continuing through the pages of Paine
All right. So in my last blog I began my attempt to both summarize and respond to Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. And now, in case you hadn’t guessed already, comes part two of this exciting event!
Last time, I stopped just as Paine had finished demonstrating the development of a representative government by using the example of a hypothetical colony. He finished by noting specifically that frequent interaction between the citizenry and the representatives/government “... will establish a common interest with every part of the community, they will mutually and naturally support each other, and on this...depends the STRENGTH OF GOVERNMENT, AND THE HAPPINESS OF THE GOVERNED.” I noted that Paine is adamant (he even uses all caps!) about what causes this desire result of strength and happiness--it is mutual and natural support. This, of course, is generally at odds with the idea prevalent in some circles (on both sides of the aisle, it is true) that government should be distrusted. Paine’s remarks would lead one to believe he would find this a very unhealthy idea for a citizen to hold.
Paine continues, now extrapolating on his ideas regarding the need for government and the purpose behind government. It is a consistently offered and defended thesis for Paine that government arises naturally to address “the inability of moral virtue to govern the world.” For him, government is a natural organization because it is natural that when unity is not required for survival, humans will often be self-serving to the point of abandoning their moral duties to their neighbors. He repeats here, as well, his idea of the purpose behind government: “...here too is the design and end of government, viz. freedom and security.” Now, it is not only security that he emphasizes, but freedom as well. This is the reason for government: ensuring freedom and security for its citizens because there will be moral lapse. (1)
From here, Paine continues with his point that government is natural with the following natural premise: “...that the more simple any thing is, the less liable it is to be disordered; and the easier repaired when disordered;...”(2) He uses this natural maxim to “offer a few remarks on the so much boasted constitution of England.” Those remarks point out that though the beginnings of this constitution were, of course, noble considering their time (viewed now, the Magna Carta is obviously not the best granter of rights to the average Englishman; but at the time, it was a comparatively radical move to lesson the power of the king, which would lead the way for further reforms in the future.), the English constitution is extremely complex, leading to a situation wherein “the nation may suffer for years together without being able to discover in which par the fault lies.” This being in contrast to the absolute monarchy: when the nation suffers, it’s a simple matter to discover the fault.(3) A small aside here, because it is relevant at this point in the original text: Paine is a master at recognizing when his audience is going to have difficulty having an open mind and addressing it. Here he takes a moment to assure his readers that he knows “it is difficult to get over local or long standing prejudices” because he understands that his readers are British subjects. He knows that despite much turmoil in the decade previous to his pamphlet, his readers naturally still have an affection and patriotism for their mother country and all that entails. But he also knows that his readers must be critically minded towards those institutions, etc., if they are to begin thinking about splitting from England as he feels they should. Realizing this, he moves to break down the complexity of the constitution of England into 3 basic foundations: 1--”The remains of monarchial tyranny in the person of the king.” 2--”The remains of aristocratical tyranny in the persons of the peers.” 3--”The new republican materials in the persons of the commons, on whose virtue depends the freedom of England.(4)
Paine now works to disabuse his readers of the notion that the constitution of England presents a true balance of powers. He needs to point out this fundamental flaw in order show his readers that their loyalty to the constitution of England is misplaced. Only then will they be able to analyze their colonial relationship with England with a critical eye. In this bit and the bit after it, Paine seems to be pointing out the hypocrisy of the constitutional nature of the monarchy. On the one hand, the king’s power is supposed to be derived of God; but on the other hand, checks and balances are added to that power by giving the people their own representatives. And he does point out that even that check/balance is hamstrung by the fact that the king has the ultimate and unassailable power to permanently veto any bills he doesn’t like. He, quite loudly, asks, “HOW CAME THE KING BY A POWER WHICH THE PEOPLE ARE AFRAID TO TRUST, AND ALWAYS OBLIGED TO CHECK?” The answer, of course, is a thought problem: kings have such great power without it being bestowed by the people, yet there is an obvious need for accountability to those people. If the justification for monarchy is divine right, why the need for accountability? Now, the thing is that Paine never quite states this well in this section. I’ll willing to give him a pass under the consideration that the notion of monarchial authority being given by God was undoubtedly far more present in Paine’s day than now. His readers would likely have woven together his loose connections much more quickly than I did. Still, the development of that argument is lacking in depth and clarity. He makes some assumptions that his readers will pick up on his meaning and does not explain himself thoroughly throughout this section. Paine’s examination of the flaws of the constitution of England comes to these conclusions, from what I can tell: 1--the constitution is flawed because it continues to grant governing power based solely on heredity. 2--even in trying to check that power, it fails because how can elected representatives check the power of hereditary representatives. 3--if the claims the constitution offers of hereditary merit for governance are true, then what need is there of a check, anyway? In all, the constitution of England is not only overly complex, it is tainted by the very nature of two of the three parties of government. (I really hope all the made sense. It was a belabored bit of writing to convey).
That said, within this section, Paine offers a very simple and direct insight into why a hereditary monarchy and aristocracy will always struggle to meet the needs of the people. He writes, “The state of a king shuts him from the world, yet the business of a king requires him to know it thoroughly.” This reality is certainly less true today than it was in Paine’s time, but even that can be largely attributed to the proactivity of the current members of the royal family. Even then, it is obvious that they, along with the majority of the peerage, are far more insulated from the “world” than the majority of wealthy people in America even. The very nature of heredity position places them in a tier above everyone else. Hereditary monarchs and peers are separate by their very nature in a way that mere wealth could never accomplish. Even today, a peer of relatively modest means is far more likely to have access to power, opportunity, and royals than any number of very wealthy yet untitled commoners. In Paine’s day, the distinction would have been far more divisive. This division that is the very nature of the hereditary monarch’s like and position is the greatest hinderance he has to actually understanding how he must govern for the best of his people. He cannot know them. (5) His hereditary position prevents him. This, for the record, is going to be one of Paine’s strongest arguments against hereditary monarchy. Paine does note that England’s monarchs are not so oppressive as some in other nations, but this is not the result of the law or the constitution. As he notes, “the WILL of the kind is as much LAW of the land in Britain as in France.” It is a more formidable tool than an act of parliament that keeps the people safer: “the fate of Charles the first hath only made kings more subtle--not more just.” Of course, France would soon learn to use that tool soon enough. Paine’s point is strong, though. “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.” He is certainly getting his audience to think about what the monarchy means to them; and what it’s meant in the past.
Having briefly expounded on a fundamental flaw in the constitution of England in the form of hereditary monarchy, Paine concludes this section by reminding his readers why this disabusing is vital. It is necessary to to examine “the CONSTITUTIONAL ERRORS in the English for of government” now, he writes, because as long as his readers continue “fettered by any obstinate prejudice” they will be unable to do justice to themselves by discerning good government.(6)
With that, Paine ends the first section of his pamphlet. And thus I end the second part of my response.
(1) As before, the question then becomes how we envision those two things. What does it mean to ensure freedom and security? Is it merely making sure we can say what we will while unrelatedly knowing our property won’t be stolen with impunity? Can someone in poverty be said to have freedom and security? But here, as elsewhere, Paine offers no specifics. It was not important enough to his point to do so. I find that telling. Were he set on a specific vision of what those things meant in every context, I would expect him, in this very purposeful discussion of the development and role of government, to have pointed it out. Yet, he is silent, leaving his readers then and now to make their own applications. Interesting.
(2) This is true. Things that are simple are often more ordered (when humans are involved) than things which are complex. However, we must beware of conflating “simple” with “small.” These descriptors, and the ideas they represent, are not the same nor are they interchangeable. Further, he uses this statement as a preface for the examination of the English constitution, not the size of their government or holdings. This is an important context to remember.
(3) At this point, you may be saying, “Constitution of England? There is such a thing? And how can a constitution be complicated to that degree?” Here I will point out the very odd-to-us-and-many-others nature of the constitution of England: it is not one document, but a collection of systemic laws and codes governing the nation. Complex? Slightly. You certainly could not, for good or ill, open a session of Parliament by reading it.
(4) Here, I would like to point out that the second part is a much larger and deeper issue than it first appears. The continued influence and governing power of the peers, based solely on their born ranks and titles, is a current political issue and struggle in England today. The power and influence of the aristocracy has had a much more long-standing effect on English politics that even Paine may have expected, and an effect that is arguably more central to political development and reform in England than the monarchy in the last hundred years or so. I point this out because it is interesting to the discussion, but also because I find it equally interesting that Paine spends much of his pamphlet arguing against the hereditary monarchy, but not so much against the aristocracy. I suspect this is due to a power-center shift as more republican materials have entered the constitution since the late 18th century. Or perhaps he knew his audience placed more authoritative weight and more loyalty on the crown.
(5) It is this, of course, that is the essence of The Prince and the Pauper. Before the switch, the prince (Edward VI) was completely oblivious to the world around him. He lived a life sheltered from the very things he ought to know in order provide the type of governmental answer to moral lapses that is (in Paine’s mind) the very purpose of the government he’s about to run. It is his stint in the barefoot world of the pauper, Tom Canty, that shows him how naive he truly is. In his world, all was right and just. In England, however, oppression and injustice were rampant. Had not a strange accident occurred, the prince would have known nothing of the realm he was to govern. Twain’s choice of the topic and its treatment was certainly no accident, either. Twain was an opinionated writer with his politics often on his sleeve. It would seem he and Paine were of one mind: the very nature of hereditary monarchy cripples the ability of the monarch to govern in knowledge. This is the benefit of an elected leader. Even a wealthy citizen still has a better grasp of the needs of average citizens and the nature of life in the nation than a monarch separated and elevated by heredity alone.
6) This does raise a very interesting point. Paine equates good government with justice. And he states that having a preconceived prejudice towards a “rotten constitution of government” will prevent his readers from being able to discern good government. This is a thought-provoking point. Paine doesn’t seek to address the myriad of statutes and the application of statutes in addressing good or rotten government. To him, the telling point here is the barest basics of its constitution. Who has the power to govern, and how did they derive it? This, for him, is the marker of basic governmental justice, and, I think, and interesting point on the merits of a constitution that establishes a republic, free of hereditary power.