Commonwealth Universe, Age 3: Volume 6: Fever

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The English nation, for their improvements in the theory of government, has, at least, more merit with the human race than any other among the moderns.

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The late most beautiful and liberal speculations of many writers, in various parts of Europe, are manifestly derived from English sources. Americans, too, ought for ever to acknowledge their obligations to English writers, or rather have as good a right to indulge a pride in the recollection of them as the inhabitants of the three kingdoms. The original plantation of our country was occasioned, her continual growth has been promoted, and her present liberties have been established by these generous theories.

There have been three periods in the history of England, in which the principles of government have been anxiously studied, Edition: current; Page: [ 4 ] and very valuable productions published, which, at this day, if they are not wholly forgotten in their native country, are perhaps more frequently read abroad than at home.

The first of these periods was that of the Reformation, as early as the writings of Machiavel himself, who is called the great restorer of the true politics. This writer is clearly for a mixed government, in three equiponderant branches, as appears by these words:—. And these diverse kyndes of states, or policies, had their distincte names; as where one ruled, a monarchie; where many of the best, aristocratie; and where the multitude, democratie; and where all together, that is a king, the nobilitie, and commons, a mixte state; and which men by long continuance have judged to be the best sort of all.

For where that mixte state was exercised, there did the commonwealthe longest continue.

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The second period was the Interregnum, and indeed the whole interval between and The third period was the Revolution in , which produced Sidney, Locke, Hoadley, Trenchard, Gordon, Plato Redivivus, who is also clear for three equipollent branches in the mixture, and others without number. The discourses of Sidney were indeed written before, but the same causes produced his writings and the Revolution. Americans should make collections of all these speculations, to be preserved as the most precious relics of antiquity, both for curiosity and use. There is one indispensable rule to be observed in the perusal of all of them; and that is, to consider the period Edition: current; Page: [ 5 ] in which they were written, the circumstances of the times, and the personal character as well as the political situation of the writer.

Among whom was Hobbes, a man, however unhappy in his temper, or detestable for his principles, equal in genius and learning to any of his contemporaries. Others were employed in ridiculing the doctrine, that laws, and not men, should govern.

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That the government is not in the law, but in the person whose will gives a being to that law. They felt the Edition: current; Page: [ 6 ] necessity of leaving the monarchical and aristocratical orders out of their schemes of government, because all the friends of those orders were their enemies, and of addressing themselves wholly to the democratical party, because they alone were their friends; at least there appears no other hypothesis on which to account for the crude conceptions of Milton and Nedham.

Let such be offended still; it is not for their sake that I publish this ensuing treatise, but for your sakes that have been noble patriots, fellow soldiers; and sufferers for the liberties and freedoms of your country. Here is a confusion both of words and ideas, which, though it may pass with the generality of readers in a fugitive pamphlet, or with a majority of auditors in a popular harangue, ought, for that very reason, to be as carefully avoided in politics as it is in philosophy or mathematics. If by the people is meant the whole Edition: current; Page: [ 7 ] body of a great nation, it should never be forgotten, that they can never act, consult, or reason together, because they cannot march five hundred miles, nor spare the time, nor find a space to meet; and, therefore, the proposition, that they are the best keepers of their own liberties, is not true.

They are the worst conceivable; they are no keepers at all. They can neither act, judge, think, or will, as a body politic or corporation. If by the people is meant all the inhabitants of a single city, they are not in a general assembly, at all times, the best keepers of their own liberties, nor perhaps at any time, unless you separate from them the executive and judicial power, and temper their authority in legislation with the maturer counsels of the one and the few.

They would invade the liberties of the people, at least the majority of them would invade the liberties of the minority, sooner and oftener than an absolute monarchy, such as that of France, Spain, or Russia, or than a well-checked aristocracy, like Venice, Bern, or Holland. If it should be admitted that a people will not unanimously agree to oppress themselves, it is as much as is ever, and more than is always, true.


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All kinds of experience show, that great numbers of individuals do oppress great numbers of other individuals; that parties often, if not always, oppress other parties; and majorities almost universally minorities. All that this observation can mean then, consistently with any color of fact, is, that the people will never unanimously agree to oppress themselves.

But if one party agrees to oppress another, or the majority the minority, the people still oppress themselves, for one part of them oppress another. What can this mean?

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But if the people never, jointly nor severally, think of usurping the rights of others, what occasion can there be for any government at all? Are there no robberies, burglaries, murders, adulteries, thefts, nor cheats? There are some few, indeed, whose whole lives and conversations show that, in every thought, word, and action, they conscientiously respect the rights of others. There is a larger body still, who, in the general tenor of their thoughts and actions, discover similar principles and feelings, yet frequently err.

If we should extend our candor so far as to own, that the majority of men are generally under the dominion of benevolence and good intentions, yet, it must be confessed, that a vast majority frequently transgress; and, what is more directly to the point, not only a majority, but almost all, confine their benevolence to their families, relations, personal friends, parish, village, city, county, province, and that very few, indeed, extend it impartially to the whole community. Now, grant but this truth, and the question is decided.

If a majority are capable of preferring their own private interest, or that of their families, counties, and party, to that of the nation collectively, some provision must be made in the constitution, in favor of justice, to compel all to respect the common right, the public good, the universal law, in preference to all private and partial considerations. The proposition of our author, then, should be reversed, and it should have been said, that they mind so much their own, that they never think enough of others.

Suppose a nation, rich and poor, high and low, ten millions in number, all assembled together; not more than one or two millions will have lands, houses, or any personal property; if we take into the account the women and children, or even if we leave them out of the question, a great majority of every nation is wholly destitute of property, except a small quantity of clothes, and a few trifles of other movables. Would Mr. Nedham be responsible that, if all were to be decided by a vote of the majority, the eight or nine millions who have no property, would not think of usurping over the rights of the one or two millions who have?

Property is surely Edition: current; Page: [ 9 ] a right of mankind as really as liberty.


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  • Perhaps, at first, prejudice, habit, shame or fear, principle or religion, would restrain the poor from attacking the rich, and the idle from usurping on the industrious; but the time would not be long before courage and enterprise would come, and pretexts be invented by degrees, to countenance the majority in dividing all the property among them, or at least, in sharing it equally with its present possessors. Debts would be abolished first; taxes laid heavy on the rich, and not at all on the others; and at last a downright equal division of every thing be demanded, and voted.

    What would be the consequence of this? The idle, the vicious, the intemperate, would rush into the utmost extravagance of debauchery, sell and spend all their share, and then demand a new division of those who purchased from them. The moment the idea is admitted into society, that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. There is in every nation and people under heaven a large proportion of persons who take no rational and prudent precautions to preserve what they have, much less to acquire more.

    Indolence is the natural character of man, to such a degree that nothing but the necessities of hunger, thirst, and other wants equally pressing, can stimulate him to action, until education is introduced in civilized societies, and the strongest motives of ambition to excel in arts, trades, and professions, are established in the minds of all men. Until this emulation is introduced, the lazy savage holds property in too little estimation to give himself trouble for the preservation or acquisition of it.

    In societies the most cultivated and polished, vanity, fashion, and folly prevail over every thought of ways to preserve their own. They seem rather to study what means of luxury, dissipation, and extravagance they can invent to get rid of it. It is very easy to flatter the democratical portion of society, by making such distinctions between them and the monarchical and aristocratical; but flattery is as base an artifice, and as pernicious a vice, when offered to the people, as when given to the others. There is no reason to believe the one much honester or wiser than the other; they are all of the same clay; their minds and bodies are alike.

    The two latter have more knowledge and sagacity, derived from education, and more advantages for acquiring wisdom and virtue. No wise man will trust either with an opportunity; and every judicious legislator will set all three to watch and control each other. We may appeal to every page of history we have hitherto turned over, for proofs irrefragable, that the people, when they have been unchecked, have been as unjust, tyrannical, brutal, barbarous, and cruel, as any king or senate possessed of uncontrollable power. The majority has eternally, and without one exception, usurped over the rights of the minority.

    When writers on legislation have recourse to poetry, their images may be beautiful, but they prove nothing. This, however, has neither the merit of a brilliant figure, nor of a convincing argument. The populace, the rabble, the canaille, move as naturally in the circle of domination, whenever they dare, as the nobles or a king; nay, although it may give pain, truth and experience force us to add, that even the middling people, when uncontrolled, have moved in the same circle; and have not only tyrannized over all above and all below, but the majority among themselves has tyrannized over the minority.

    Declamatory flourishes, although they may furnish a mob with watchwords, afford no reasonable conviction to the understanding. What is meant by braving it? In the history of Holland you will see the people braving it over the De Witts; and in that Edition: current; Page: [ 11 ] of Florence, Siena, Bologna, Pistoia, and the rest, over many others.

    But this example, among innumerable others, is very apposite to our purpose. It happens universally, when the people in a body, or by a single representative assembly, attempt to exercise all the powers of government, they always create three or four idols, who make a bargain with each other first, to do nothing which shall displease any one; these hold this agreement, until one thinks himself able to disembarrass himself of the other two; then they quarrel, and the strongest becomes single tyrant.

    But why is the name of Pompey omitted, who was the third of this triumvirate? Can you find a people who will never be divided in opinion? The people of Rome were divided, as all other people ever have been, and will be, into a variety of parties and factions. Their divisions strengthened the senate and its friends, and furnished means and opportunities of defeating many of their ambitious designs.

    He separately represented the advantage which their enemies derived from their misunderstandings, and the ease with which, if united, they might concert among themselves all affairs of the republic, gratify every friend, and disappoint every Edition: current; Page: [ 12 ] enemy. The senate was now annihilated, many of them murdered. Augustus, Lepidus, and Antony were popular demagogues, who agreed together to fleece the flock between them, until the most cunning of the three destroyed the other two, fleeced the sheep alone, and transmitted the shears to a line of tyrants.

    Every man lived safe, only while the senate remained as a check and balance to the people; the moment that control was destroyed, no man was safe. While the government remained untouched in the various orders, the consuls, senate, and people, mutually balancing each other, it might be said, with some truth, that no man could be undone, unless a true and satisfactory reason was rendered to the world for his destruction.

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    The second argument to prove that the people, in their successive single assemblies, are the best keepers of their own liberties, is,—. The happy consequence whereof is this, that none but honest, generous, and public spirits will then desire to be in authority, and that only for the common good.

    Hence it was that, in the infancy of the Roman liberty, there was no canvassing of voices; Edition: current; Page: [ 13 ] but single and plain-hearted men were called, entreated, and, in a manner, forced with importunity to the helm of government, in regard of that great trouble and pains that followed the employment. Thus Cincinnatus was fetched out of the field from his plough, and placed much against his will in the sublime dignity of dictator. So the noble Camillus, and Fabius, and Curius, were, with much ado, drawn from the recreation of gardening to the trouble of governing; and, the consul-year being over, they returned with much gladness again to their private employment.

    The first question which would arise in the mind of an intelligent and attentive reader would be, whether this were burlesque, and a republic travesty? But as the principle of this second reason is very pleasing to a large body of narrow spirits in every society, and as it has been adopted by some respectable authorities, without sufficient consideration, it may be proper to give it a serious investigation.

    The people have, in some countries and seasons, made their services irksome, and it is popular with some to make authority a burden. But what has been the consequence to the people?

    CONTENTS OF VOLUME VI.

    Their service has been deserted, and they have been betrayed. Those very persons who have flattered the meanness of the stingy, by offering to serve them gratis, and by purchasing their suffrages, have carried the liberties and properties of their constituents to market, and sold them for very handsome private profit to the monarchical and aristocratical portions of society. And so long as the rule of making their service a burthen is persisted in, so long will the people be served with the same kind of address and fidelity, by hypocritical pretences to disinterested benevolence and patriotism, until their confidence is gained, their affections secured, and their enthusiasm excited, and by knavish bargain and sale of their cause and interest afterwards.