Sense (Part I)
(With absolutely no apologies to Thomas Paine)
by Edgar J. Steele
December 26, 2002
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.
---Thomas Paine, "Common Sense" (Feb 1776)
There are a remarkable number of parallels between prerevolutionary America and the America of today. It is downright spooky how, in their writings of that time, our founding fathers might have been speaking directly to this generation of Americans. Then again, I do not believe in coincidence so perhaps, in a sense, they were.
How appropriate that those of us who advocate a return to the ideals of those days are called "patriots," a word which has taken on as derisive a meaning when mouthed by government agents today as those uttered about our forebears by King George's men during the first American revolution.
Nor is it coincidence that those of us labeled as "patriots" wear the mark with respect and honor. I count myself proudly among their number and pray only that my work be worthy of inclusion.
It takes a little work to update the founding fathers' works to modern forms of language and phrasing, but the result is nothing short of amazing, particularly when we replace "England" with "Federal Government" and "King George" with "The President."
I have presumed to do just that with Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" in this series, a four-part work written and published in early 1776 as part of a broad effort to convince the American settlers to declare independence from England.
In several places, I have retained Paine's wording intact, where it has particular impact in its original form. In others, I have edited and rephrased mercilessly, while trying to hew to the apparent intent of his argument.
I do not suggest that this is an improvement upon what Thomas Paine had to say. I believe only that this is how he might have said it, were he alive today and speaking of the grotesquerie that our government has become.
As you read this section, you might find it useful to compare it with its counterpart in the original "Common Sense." One of many on-line sources for Thomas Paine's "Common Sense": http://www.bartleby.com/133/ . I have maintained the original's organization and structure in this rewrite, in order to facilitate direct comparison.
Inhabitants of America
on the following interesting subjects
I. Of the origin and design of government in general, with concise remarks on the
American Constitution. (12/24/02)
II. Of the imperial presidency and hereditary succession. (to be released)
III. Thoughts on the present state of American affairs. (to be released)
IV. Of the present ability of America, with some miscellaneous reflections. (to be released)
Part I: Of the origin and design of government in general, with concise remarks on the American Constitution.
Virtually all Americans have so confused society with government, as to leave little distinction between them, though they are different and have different origins.
Society is produced by our wants; government by our wantonness. Society promotes our happiness; government restrains our vices. Society is our patron; government is our punisher.
Society is our blessing, while government is but a necessary evil. At its worst, a government is intolerable because we provide it the very means by which it oppresses us.
Since man is not guided always by the finer dictates of conscience, some form of government is necessary. Thus, we choose to give up a portion of our wealth to sustain government, though that decision must involve selection of the least among evils.
Security being the purpose of government, we prefer that which provides it at the least cost, with the greatest benefit.
To gain a clear idea of the purpose of government, imagine a small number of people settling in a distant land, with no connection to any others. In this natural state, society will be their first thought, since a division of labor among them will produce the greatest common and individual good. Each member of the society will do that for which he or she is best suited, with the whole providing protection and producing far more than the sum of its parts.
But, as the base necessities of life are ensured, human nature being what it is, a group discussion of problems will ensue. Initially, rules will be informal and their violation met with mere group disapproval. Each member of society, naturally, will be heard at first.
As the group's members increase, so will the problems, as will the distance members must travel to discuss the problems. It will become convenient to select a few of the group's members, who have the same concerns as those selecting them, and who will act as the whole group would, if assembled. As the society grows ever larger, it will be necessary to add to the select governing group, so as to ensure representation of all the interests present in the burgeoning society.
To ensure that the members elected to the governing body not form interests separate from those electing them, prudence dictates frequent elections, with the members elected returning to general society. Because the elected return in a short time to become a part of the governed, the fidelity of the government is assured and the support of the people guaranteed. This is the basis for the strength of government and the happiness of the governed.
Thus, government is seen to be necessary due to the failure of moral virtue to govern. The purpose of government also is clear: freedom and security.
Clear reason shows all else concerning government merely to be contrived.
Nature shows us that the simplest things are least likely to fail, yet are easily repaired when they do fail. This maxim illustrates my idea of government and provides the basis for a few remarks on the American Constitution.
The American Constitution was noble for its time, and provided much-needed respite from a world overrun with tyranny and disorder. But, that it is imperfect, subject to misinterpretation and incapable of producing what it seems to promise, is easy to see.
Totalitarian governments have the advantage of simplicity; if the people suffer, they know who to blame, what to do and are not confused by discussions of causes and cures.
But the American Constitution has brought forth a body of federal and state laws so complex that the nation has suffered for years with nobody able to say in which part the fault lies. Some say in one portion and some in another, and every political physician prescribes a different medicine.
Though it may be difficult to get over old prejudices, if we examine the component parts of the American Constitution, we shall find it to contain the remains of two ancient tyrannies, together with some new republican ills.
First, the remains of monarchical tyranny in the person of the President.
Second, the remains of aristocratical tyranny in the persons of the judiciary.
Third, the new republican ills in the persons of the legislatures, at all levels of government.
The first two, though originally derived from popular support and selected from the people, now have become independent of the people. In a constitutional sense, they contribute nothing toward the freedom of America.
To say that the Constitution is a union of three branches, reciprocally checking one another, is nonsense.
To say that the Congress is a check upon the President presupposes two things: First, that the President is not to be trusted or, in other words, that a thirst for absolute power is the natural disease of those elected President. Second, that Congressmen, being elected to check upon the President, are either wiser or more worthy of confidence than the President.
But, as the same Constitution gives Congress power to stymie the President by withholding spending power, it gives the President power to stymie Congress by empowering him to veto their bills. Thus, the Constitution supposes the President wiser than those it has already supposed to be wiser than he, a patent absurdity.
There is something ridiculous about the composition of the Presidency: the man is excluded from information concerning common society, yet empowered to act in cases requiring the highest judgment. The state of the office shuts its occupant off from the world, yet its business requires him to know it thoroughly.
How did the Presidency come 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 Constitution supposes such a power to exist.
But the Constitution is unequal to the task; the means will not accomplish the end. 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. Though the other powers may slow its motion, so long as they cannot stop it, they will be ineffectual. The first moving power will at last have its way, and what it wants in speed will be supplied by time.
That the Presidency is the overbearing part in the American Constitution needs not be mentioned, and that it derives its power from being the giver of positions and wager of war is self evident. Though we have been wise enough to lock the door against absolute monarchy, we have been foolish enough to deliver the key to the President.
The prejudice of Americans, in favor of their own government by executive, legislative and judicial branches, arises as much or more from national pride than reason. Individuals are undoubtedly safer in America than in some other countries, but the will of the President is as much the law of the land in America as was the King's in old England, with but one difference: Instead of always proceeding directly from his mouth by fiat or Executive Order, it is handed to the people under the guise of an act of Congress. The fate of kings of old has made their modern counterparts only more subtle - not more just.
Laying aside all national pride and prejudice, the plain truth is that, wholly owing to the constitution of the people, and not to the Constitution of America, the Presidency is not as oppressive in America as in, say, Iraq or Zimbabwe.
An inquiry into the constitutional errors in the American form of government is necessary. As we are incapable of meting out justice to others while we labor under the influence of partiality, neither are we capable of critiquing ourselves while our judgment is clouded by prejudice. As a man taken with a mistress is unfit to judge his wife, so any predilection for a rotten constitution will disable us from discerning a good one.
Future installments to be released in this series:
Part II: Of the imperial presidency and hereditary succession.
Part III: Thoughts on the present state of American affairs.
Part IV: Of the present ability of America, with some miscellaneous reflections.
- an idea whose time has come.
"I didn't say it would be easy. I just said it
would be the truth."
Copyright ©2002, Edgar J. Steele
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