Dissertation on First Principles of Government
There is no subject more interesting to every man than the subject
of government. His security, be he rich or poor, and in a great
measure his prosperity, are connected therewith; it is therefore his
interest as well as his duty to make himself acquainted with its
principles, and what the practise ought to be.
Every art and science, however imperfectly known at first, has
been studied, improved and brought to what we call perfection by the
progressive labors of succeeding generations; but the science of
government has stood still. No improvement has been made in the
principle and scarcely any in the practise till the American
Revolution began. In all the countries of Europe (except in France)
the same forms and systems that were erected in the remote ages of
ignorance still continue, and their antiquity is put in the place of
principle; it is forbidden to investigate their orgin, or by what
right they exist. If it be asked how has this happened, the answer
is easy: they are established on a principle that is false, and they
employ their power to prevent detection.
Notwithstanding the mystery with which the science of government
has been enveloped, for the purpose of enslaving, plundering and
imposing upon mankind, it is of all things the least mysterious and
the most easy to be understood. The meanest capacity cannot be at a
loss, if it begins its inquiries at the right point. Every art and
science has some point, or alphabet, at which the study of that art
or science begins, and by the assistance of which the progress is
facilitated. The same method ought to be observed with respect to
the science of government.
Instead then of embarrassing the subject in the outset with the
numerous subdivisions under which different forms of government have
been classed, such as aristocracy, democracy, oligarchy, monarchy,
etc., the better method will be to begin with what may be called
primary divisions, or those under which all the several subdivisions
will be comprehended.
The primary divisions are but two:
First, government by election and representation.
Secondly, government by hereditary succession.
All the several forms and systems of government, however numerous
or diversified, class themselves under one or other of those primary
divisions; for either they are on the system of representation, or
on that of hereditary succession. As to that equivocal thing called
mixed government, such as the late Government of Holland, and the
present Government of England, it does not make an exception to the
general rule, because the parts separately considered are either
representative or hereditary.
Beginning then our inquiries at this point, we have first to
examine into the nature of those two primary divisions. If they are
equally right in principle, it is mere matter of opinion which we
prefer. If the one be demonstratively better than the other that
difference directs our choice; but if one of them should be so
absolutely false as not to have a right of existence the matter
settles itself at once; because a negative proved on one thing,
where two only are offered, and one must be accepted, amounts to an
affirmative on the other.
The revolutions that are now spreading themselves in the world
have their origin in this state of the case, and the present war is
a conflict between the representative system founded on the rights
of the people, and the hereditary system founded in usurpation. As
to what are called monarchy, royalty and aristocracy, they do not,
either as things or as terms, sufficiently describe the hereditary
system; they are but secondary things or signs of the hereditary
system, and which fall of themselves if that system has not a right
Were there no such terms as monarchy, royalty and aristocracy, or
were others terms substituted in their place, the hereditary system,
if it continued, would not be altered thereby. It would be the same
system under any other titulary name as it is now.
The character therefore of the revolutions of the present day
distinguishes itself most definitively by grounding itself on the
system of representative government, in opposition to the
hereditary. No other distinction reaches the whole of the principle.
Having thus opened the case generally, I proceed, in the first
place, to examine the hereditary system because it has the priority
in point of time. The representative system is the invention of the
modern world; and, that no doubt may arise as to my own opinion, I
declare it beforehand, which is, that there is not a problem in
Euclid more mathematically true than that hereditary government has
not a right to exist. When therefore we take from any man the
exercise of hereditary power we take away that which he never had
the right to possess, and which no law or custom could, or ever can,
give him a title to.
The arguments that have hitherto been employed against the
hereditary system have been chiefly founded upon the absurdity of
it, and its incompetency to the purpose of good government. Nothing
can present to our judgment, or to our imagination, a figure of
greater absurdity, than that of seeing the government of a nation
fall, as it frequently does, into the hands of a lad necessarily
destitute of experience, and often little better than a fool. It is
an insult to every man of years, of character, and of talents, in a
The moment we begin to reason upon the hereditary system, it falls
into derision; let but a single idea begin and a thousand will soon
follow. Insignificance, imbecility, childhood, dotage, want of moral
character; in fine, every defect, serious or laughable, unite to
hold up the hereditary system as a figure of ridicule. Leaving,
however, the ridiculousness of the thing to the reflections of the
reader, I proceed to the more important part of the question,
namely, whether such a system has a right to exist.
To be satisfied of the right of a thing to exist, we must be
satisfied that it had a right to begin. If it had not a right to
begin, it has not the right to continue. By what right then did the
hereditary system begin? Let a man but ask himself this question,
and he will find that he cannot satisfy himself with an answer.
The right which any man or any family had to set itself up at
first to govern a nation, and to establish itself hereditarily, was
no other than the right which Robespierre had to do the same thing
in France. If he had none, they had none. If they had any, he has as
much; for it is impossible to discover superiority of right in any
family, by virtue of which hereditary government could begin. The
Capets, the Guelphs, the Robespierres, the Marats, are all on the
same standing as to the question of right. It belongs exclusively to
It is one step toward liberty to perceive that hereditary
government could not begin as an exclusive right in any family. The
next point will be whether, having once begun, it could grow into a
right by the influence of time.
This would be supposing an absurdity; for either it is putting
time in the place of principle, or making it superior to principle;
whereas time has no more connection with, or influence upon
principle, than principle has upon time. The wrong which began a
thousand years ago is as much a wrong as if it began to- day; and
the right which originates to-day is as much a right as if it had
the sanction of a thousand years.
Time with respect to principles is an eternal NOW: it has no
operation upon them: it changes nothing of their nature and
qualities. But what have we to do with a thousand years? Our
lifetime is but a short portion of that period, and if we find the
wrong in existence as soon as we begin to live, that is the point of
time at which it begins to us; and our right to resist it is the
same as if it never existed before.
As hereditary government could not begin as a natural right in any
family, nor derive after its commencement any right from time, we
have only to examine whether there exist in a nation a right to set
it up, and establish it by what is called law, as has been done in
England. I answer NO; and that any law or any constitution made for
that purpose is an act of treason against the right of every minor
in the nation, at the time it is made, and against the rights of all
I shall speak upon each of those cases. First, of the minor at the
time such law is made. Secondly, of the generations that are to
A nation, in a collective sense, comprehends all the individuals
of whatever age, from just born to just dying. Of these, one part
will be minors and the other aged. The average of life is not
exactly the same in every climate and country, but in general the
minority in years are the majority in numbers; that is, the number
of persons under twenty- one years, is greater than the number of
persons above that age.
This difference in number is not necessary to the establishment of
the principle I mean to lay down, but it serves to show the justice
of it more strongly. The principle would be equally as good if the
majority in years were also the majority in numbers.
The rights of minors are as sacred as the rights of the aged. The
difference is altogether in the different age of the two parties,
and nothing in the nature of the rights; the rights are the same
rights; and are to be preserved inviolate for the inheritance of the
minors when they shall come of age. During the minority of minors
their rights are under the sacred guardianship of the aged.
The minor cannot surrender them; the guardian cannot dispossess
him; consequently, the aged part of a nation, who are the law-
makers for the time being, and who, in the march of life are but a
few years ahead of those who are yet minors, and to whom they must
shortly give place, have not and cannot have the right to make a law
to set up and establish hereditary government, or, to speak more
distinctly, an hereditary succession of governors; because it is an
attempt to deprive every minor in the nation, at the time such a law
is made, of his inheritance of rights when he shall come of age, and
to subjugate him to a system of government to which, during his
minority, he could neither consent nor object.
If a person who is a minor at the time such a law is proposed, had
happened to have been born a few years sooner, so as to be of the
age of twenty-one years at the time of proposing it, his right to
have objected against it, to have exposed the injustice and
tyrannical principles of it and to have voted against it, will be
admitted on all sides.
If, therefore, the law operates to prevent his exercising the same
rights after he comes of age as he would have had a right to
exercise had he been of age at the time, it is undeniably a law to
take away and annul the rights of every person in the nation who
shall be a minor at the time of making such a law, and consequently
the right to make it cannot exist.
I come now to speak of government by hereditary succession, as it
applies to succeeding generations; and to show that in this case, as
in the case of minors, there does not exist in a nation a right to
set it up.
A nation, though continually existing, is continually in a state
of renewal and succession. It is never stationary. Every day
produces new births, carries minors forward to maturity, and old
persons from the stage. In this ever running flood of generations
there is no part superior in authority to another. Could we conceive
an idea of superiority in any, at what point of time, or in what
century of the world, are we to fix it? To what cause are we to
ascribe it? By what evidence are we to prove it? By what criterion
are we to know it?
A single reflection will teach us that our ancestors, like
ourselves, were but tenants for life in the great freehold of
rights. The fee- absolute was not in them, it is not in us, it
belongs to the whole family of man through all ages. If we think
otherwise than this we think either as slaves or as tyrants. As
slaves, if we think that any former generation had a right to bind
us; as tyrants, if we think that we have authority to bind the
generations that are to follow.
It may not be inapplicable to the subject, to endeavor to define
what is to be understood by a generation in the sense the word is
As a natural term its meaning is sufficiently clear. The father,
the son, the grandson, are so many distinct generations. But when we
speak of a generation as describing the persons in whom legal
authority resides, as distinct from another generation of the same
description who are to succeed them, it comprehends all those who
are above the age of twenty-one years, at the time that we count
from; and a generation of this kind will continue in authority
between fourteen and twenty-one years, that is, until the number of
minors, who shall have arrived at age, shall be greater than the
number of persons remaining of the former stock.
For example: If France, at this or any other moment, contains
twenty-four millions of souls, twelve millions will be males, and
twelve females. Of the twelve millions of males, six millions will
be of the age of twenty-one years, and six will be under, and the
authority to govern will reside in the first six.
But every day will make some alteration, and in twenty-one years
every one of those minors who survives will have arrived at age, and
the greater part of the former stock will be gone: the majority of
persons then living, in whom the legal authority resides, will be
composed of those who, twenty-one years before, had no legal
existence. Those will be fathers and grandfathers in their turn,
and, in the next twenty-one years (or less) another race of minors,
arrived at age, will succeed them, and so on.
As this is ever the case, and as every generation is equal in
rights to another, it consequently follows, that there cannot be a
right in any to establish government by hereditary succession,
because it would be supposing itself possessed of a right superior
to the rest, namely, that of commanding by its own authority how the
world shall be hereafter governed, and who shall govern it.
Every age and generation is, and must be (as a matter of right),
as free to act for itself in all cases, as the age and generation
that preceded it. The vanity and presumption of governing beyond the
grave is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies. Man has
no property in man, neither has one generation a property in the
generations that are to follow.
In the first part of the "Rights of Man" I have spoken
of government by hereditary succession; and I will here close the
subject with an extract from that work, which states it under the
two following heads.
First, The right of a particular family to establish itself.
Secondly, The right of a nation to establish a particular family.
"With respect to the first of these heads, that of a family
establishing itself with hereditary powers on its own authority, and
independent of the consent of a nation, all men will concur in
calling it despotism; and it would be trespassing on their
understanding to attempt to prove it.
But the second head, that of a nation establishing a particular
family with hereditary powers, does not present itself as despotism
on the first reflection; but if men will permit a second reflection
to take place, and carry that reflection forward but one remove out
of their own persons to that of their offspring, they will then see
that hereditary succession becomes in its consequences the same
despotism to others, which they reprobated for themselves. It
operates to preclude the consent of the succeeding generations; and
the preclusion of consent is despotism.
When the person who at any time shall be in possession of a
government, or those who stand in succession to him, shall say to a
nation, I hold this power in 'contempt' of you, it signifies not on
what authority he pretends to say it. It is no relief, but an
aggravation to a person in slavery, to reflect that he was sold by
his parent; and as that which heightens the criminality of an act
cannot be produced to prove the legality of it, hereditary
succession cannot be established as a legal thing.
In order to arrive to a more perfect decision on this head, it
will be proper to consider the generation which undertakes to
establish a family with hereditary powers, apart and separate from
the generations which are to follow; and also to consider the
character in which the first generation acts with respect to
The generation which first selects a person, and puts him at the
head of its government, either with the title of king, or any other
distinction, acts its own choice, be it wise or foolish, as a free
agent for itself. The person so set up is not hereditary, but
selected and appointed; and the generation who sets him up, does not
live under an hereditary government, but under a government of its
own choice and establishment. Were the generation who sets him up,
and the person so set up, to live for ever, it never could become
hereditary succession; and of consequence, hereditary succession can
only follow on the death of the first parties.
As therefore hereditary succession is out of the question with
respect to the first generation, we have now to consider the
character in which that generation acts with respect to the
commencing generation, and to all succeeding ones.
It assumes a character, to which it has neither right nor title.
It changes itself from a legislator to a testator, and affects to
make its will, which is to have operation after the demise of the
makers, to bequeath the government; and it not only attempts to
bequeath, but to establish on the succeeding generation, a new and
different form of government under which itself lived
Itself, as is already observed, lived not under an hereditary
government, but under a government of its own choice and
establishment; and it now attempts, by virtue of a will and
testament, (which it has not authority to make), to take from the
commencing generation, and all future ones, the rights and free
agency by which itself acted.
But, exclusive of the right which any generation has to act
collectively as a testator, the objects to which it applies itself
in this case, are not within the compass of any law, or of any will
The rights of men in society are neither devisable, nor
transferable, nor annihilable, but are descendible only; and it is
not in the power of any generation to intercept finally and cut off
the descent. If the present generation, or any other, are disposed
to be slaves, it does not lessen the right of the succeeding
generation to be free: wrongs cannot have a legal descent. When Mr.
Burke attempts to maintain, that the English nation did at the
Revolution of 1688, most solemnly renounce and abdicate their rights
for themselves, and for all their posterity for ever; he speaks a
language that merits not reply, and which can only excite contempt
for his prostitute principles, or pity for his ignorance.
In whatever light hereditary succession, as growing out of the
will and testament of some former generation, presents itself, it is
an absurdity. A cannot make a will to take from B the property of B,
and give it to C; yet this is the manner in which (what is called)
hereditary succession by law operates.
A certain former generation made a will, to take away the rights
of the commencing generation, and all future ones, and to convey
those rights to a third person, who afterwards comes forward, and
tells them, in Mr. Burke's language, that they have no rights, that
their rights are already bequeathed to him, and that he will govern
in contempt of them. From such principles, and such ignorance, Good
Lord deliver the world!"
The history of the English Parliament furnishes an example of this
kind; and which merits to be recorded as being the greatest instance
of legislative ignorance and want of principle that is to be found
in any country. The case is as follows:
The English Parliament of 1688, imported a man and his wife from
Holland, William and Mary, and made them King and Queen of England.
Having done this, the said Parliament made a law to convey the
government of the country to the heirs of William and Mary, in the
following words: "We, the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and
Commons, do, in the name of the people of England, most humbly and
faithfully submit ourselves, our heirs and posterities, to William
and Mary, their heirs and posterities, forever." And in a
subsequent law, as quoted by Edmund Burke, the said Parliament, in
the name of the people of England then living, binds the said
people, their heirs and posterities, to William and Mary, their
heirs and posterities, to the end of time.
It is not sufficient that we laugh at the ignorance of such
law-makers; it is necessary that we reprobate their want of
principle. The Constituent Assembly of France, 1789, fell into the
same vice as the Parliament of England had done, and assumed to
establish an hereditary succession in the family of the Capets as an
act of the Constitution of that year.
That every nation, for the time being, has a right to govern
itself as it pleases, must always be admitted; but government by
hereditary succession is government for another race of people, and
not for itself; and as those on whom it is to operate are not yet in
existence, or are minors, so neither is the right in existence to
set up for them, and to assume such a right is treason against the
right of posterity.
I here close the arguments on the first head, that of government
by hereditary succession; and proceed to the second, that of
government by election and representation; or, as it may be
concisely expressed, representative government, in contradistinction
to hereditary government.
Reasoning by exclusion, if hereditary government has not a right
to exist, and that it has not is provable, representative government
is admitted of course. In contemplating government by election and
representation, we amuse not ourselves in inquiring when or how, or
by what right, it began. Its origin is ever in view. Man is himself
the origin and the evidence of the right. It appertains to him in
right of his existence, and his person is the title deed.
Alexander Hamilton wrote, in 1775: "The sacred rights of
mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty
records. They are written as with a sunbeam in the whole volume of
human nature by the hand of Divinity itself, and can never be erased
or obscured by mortal power."
The true and only true basis of representative government is
equality of rights. Every man has a right to one vote, and no more
in the choice of representatives. The rich have no more right to
exclude the poor from the right of voting, or of electing and being
elected, than the poor have to exclude the rich; and wherever it is
attempted, or proposed, on either side, it is a question of force
and not of right. Who is he that would exclude another? That other
has a right to exclude him.
That which is now called aristocracy implies an inequality of
rights; but who are the persons that have a right to establish this
inequality? Will the rich exclude themselves? No. Will the poor
exclude themselves? No. By what right then can any be excluded? It
would be a question, if any man or class of men have a right to
exclude themselves; but, be this as it may, they cannot have the
right to exclude another. The poor will not delegate such a right to
the rich, nor the rich to the poor, and to assume it is not only to
assume arbitrary power, but to assume a right to commit robbery.
Personal rights, of which the right of voting for representatives
is one, are a species of property of the most sacred kind: and he
that would employ his pecuniary property, or presume upon the
influence it gives him, to dispossess or rob another of his property
or rights, uses that pecuniary property as he would use fire-arms,
and merits to have it taken from him.
Inequality of rights is created by a combination in one part of
the community to exclude another part from its rights. Whenever it
be made an article of a constitution, or a law, that the right of
voting, or of electing and being elected, shall appertain
exclusively to persons possessing a certain quantity of property, be
it little or much, it is a combination of the persons possessing
that quantity to exclude those who do not possess the same quantity.
It is investing themselves with powers as a self-created part of
society, to the exclusion of the rest.
It is always to be taken for granted, that those who oppose an
equality of rights never mean the exclusion should take place on
themselves; and in this view of the case, pardoning the vanity of
the thing, aristocracy is a subject of laughter. This self-soothing
vanity is encouraged by another idea not less selfish, which is that
the opposers conceive they are playing a safe game, in which there
is a chance to gain and none to lose; that at any rate the doctrine
of equality includes them, and that if they cannot get more rights
than those whom they oppose and would exclude they shall not have
This opinion has already been fatal to thousands, who, not
contented with equal rights, have sought more till they lost all,
and experienced in themselves the degrading inequality they
endeavored to fix upon others.
In any view of the case it is dangerous and impolitic, sometimes
ridiculous, and always unjust to make property the criterion of the
right of voting. If the sum or value of the property upon which the
right is to take place be considerable it will exclude a majority of
the people and unite them in a common interest against the
government and against those who support it; and as the power is
always with the majority, they can overturn such a government and
its supporters whenever they please.
If, in order to avoid this danger, a small quantity of property be
fixed, as the criterion of the right, it exhibits liberty in
disgrace, by putting it in competition with accident and
insignificance. When a brood-mare shall fortunately produce a foal
or a mule that, by being worth the sum in question, shall convey to
its owner the right of voting, or by its death take it from him, in
whom does the origin of such a right exist? Is it in the man, or in
the mule? When we consider how many ways property may be acquired
without merit, and lost without crime, we ought to spurn the idea of
making it a criterion of rights.
But the offensive part of the case is that this exclusion from the
right of voting implies a stigma on the moral character of the
persons excluded; and this is what no part of the community has a
right to pronounce upon another part. No external circumstance can
justify it: wealth is no proof of moral character; nor poverty of
the want of it.
On the contrary, wealth is often the presumptive evidence of
dishonesty; and poverty the negative evidence of innocence. If
therefore property, whether little or much, be made a criterion, the
means by which that property has been acquired ought to be made a
The only ground upon which exclusion from the right of voting is
consistent with justice would be to inflict it as a punishment for a
certain time upon those who should propose to take away that right
from others. The right of voting for representatives is the primary
right by which other rights are protected.
To take away this right is to reduce a man to slavery, for slavery
consists in being subject to the will of another, and he that has
not a vote in the election of representatives is in this case. The
proposal therefore to disfranchise any class of men is as criminal
as the proposal to take away property.
When we speak of right we ought always to unite with it the idea
of duties: rights become duties by reciprocity. The right which I
enjoy becomes my duty to guarantee it to another, and he to me; and
those who violate the duty justly incur a forfeiture of the right.
In a political view of the case, the strength and permanent
security of government is in proportion to the number of people
interested in supporting it. The true policy therefore is to
interest the whole by an equality of rights, for the danger arises
from exclusions. It is possible to exclude men from the right of
voting, but it is impossible to exclude them from the right of
rebelling against that exclusion; and when all other rights are
taken away the right of rebellion is made perfect.
While men could be persuaded they had no rights, or that rights
appertained only to a certain class of men, or that government was a
thing existing in right of itself, it was not difficult to govern
them authoritatively. The ignorance in which they were held, and the
superstition in which they were instructed, furnished the means of
But when the ignorance is gone, and the superstition with it; when
they perceive the imposition that has been acted upon them; when
they reflect that the cultivator and the manufacturer are the
primary means of all the wealth that exists in the world, beyond
what nature spontaneously produces; when they begin to feel their
consequence by their usefulness, and their right as members of
society, it is then no longer possible to govern them as before. The
fraud once detected cannot be re-acted. To attempt it is to provoke
derision, or invite destruction.
That property will ever be unequal is certain. Industry,
superiority of talents, dexterity of management, extreme frugality,
fortunate opportunities, or the opposite, or the means of those
things, will ever produce that effect, without having recourse to
the harsh, ill-sounding names of avarice and oppression; and besides
this there are some men who, though they do not despise wealth, will
not stoop to the drudgery or the means of acquiring it, nor will be
troubled with it beyond their wants or their independence; while in
others there is an avidity to obtain it by every means not
punishable; it makes the sole business of their lives, and they
follow it as a religion. All that is required with respect to
property is to obtain it honestly, and not employ it criminally; but
it is always criminally employed when it is made a criterion for
In institutions that are purely pecuniary, such as that of a bank
or a commercial company, the rights of the members composing that
company are wholly created by the property they invest therein; and
no other rights are represented in the government of that company
than what arise out of that property; neither has that government
cognizance of anything but property.
But the case is totally different with respect to the institution
of civil government, organized on the system of representation. Such
a government has cognizance of everything, and of every man as a
member of the national society, whether he has property or not; and,
therefore, the principle requires that every man, and every kind of
right, be represented, of which the right to acquire and to hold
property is but one, and that not of the most essential kind.
The protection of a man's person is more sacred than the
protection of property; and besides this, the faculty of performing
any kind of work or services by which he acquires a livelihood, or
maintaining his family, is of the nature of property. It is property
to him; he has acquired it; and it is as much the object of his
protection as exterior property, possessed without that faculty, can
be the object of protection in another person.
I have always believed that the best security for property, be it
much or little, is to remove from every part of the community, as
far as can possibly be done, every cause of complaint, and every
motive to violence; and this can only be done by an equality of
rights. When rights are secure, property is secure in consequence.
But when property is made a pretense for unequal or exclusive
rights, it weakens the right to hold the property, and provokes
indignation and tumult; for it is unnatural to believe that property
can be secure under the guarantee of a society injured in its rights
by the influence of that property.
Next to the injustice and ill-policy of making property a pretense
for exclusive rights, is the unaccountable absurdity of giving to
mere sound the idea of property, and annexing to it certain rights;
for what else is a title but sound? Nature is often giving to the
world some extraordinary men who arrive at fame by merit and
universal consent, such as Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, etc. They
were truly great or noble. But when government sets up a manufactory
of nobles, it is as absurd as if she undertook to manufacture wise
men. Her nobles are all counterfeits.
This wax-work order has assumed the name of aristocracy; and the
disgrace of it would be lessened if it could be considered only as
childish imbecility. We pardon foppery because of its
insignificance, and on the same ground we might pardon the foppery
of titles. But the origin of aristocracy was worse than foppery. It
was robbery. The first aristocrats in all countries were brigands.
Those of later times, sycophants.
It is very well known that in England (and the same will be found
in other countries), the great landed estates now held in descent
were plundered from the quiet inhabitants at the Conquest. The
possibility did not exist of acquiring such estates honestly. If it
be asked how they could have been acquired, no answer but that of
robbery can be given. That they were not acquired by trade, by
commerce, by manufactures, by agriculture, or by any reputable
employment, is certain.
How then were they acquired? Blush, aristocracy, to hear your
origin, for your progenitors were thieves. They were the
Robespierres and the Jacobins of that day. When they had committed
the robbery, they endeavored to lose the disgrace of it by sinking
their real names under fictitious ones, which they called titles. It
is ever the practise of felons to act in this manner. They never
pass by their real names.
As property, honestly obtained, is best secured by an equality of
rights, so ill-gotten property depends for protection on a monopoly
of rights. He who has robbed another of his property, will next
endeavor to disarm him of his rights, to secure that property; for
when the robber becomes the legislator he believes himself secure.
That part of the Government of England that is called the House of
Lords, was originally composed of persons who had committed the
robberies of which I have been speaking. It was an association for
the protection of the property they had stolen.
But besides the criminality of the origin of aristocracy, it has
an injurious effect on the moral and physical character of man. Like
slavery it debilitates the human faculties; for as the mind bowed
down by slavery loses in silence its elastic powers, so, in the
contrary extreme, when it is buoyed up by folly, it becomes
incapable of exerting them, and dwindles into imbecility. It is
impossible that a mind employed upon ribands and titles can ever be
great. The childishness of the objects consumes the man.
It is at all times necessary, and more particularly so during the
progress of a revolution, and until right ideas confirm themselves
by habit, that we frequently refresh our patriotism by reference to
first principles. It is by tracing things to their origin that we
learn to understand them: and it is by keeping that line and that
origin always in view that we never forget them.
An inquiry into the origin of rights will demonstrate to us that
rights are not gifts from one man to another, nor from one class of
men to another; for who is he who could be the first giver, or by
what principle, or on what authority, could he possess the right of
A declaration of rights is not a creation of them, nor a donation
of them. It is a manifest of the principle by which they exist,
followed by a detail of what the rights are; for every civil right
has a natural right for its foundation, and it includes the
principle of a reciprocal guarantee of those rights from man to man.
As, therefore, it is impossible to discover any origin of rights
otherwise than in the origin of man, it consequently follows, that
rights appertain to man in right of his existence only, and must
therefore be equal to every man.
The principle of an equality of rights is clear and simple. Every
man can understand it, and it is by understanding his rights that he
learns his duties; for where the rights of men are equal, every man
must finally see the necessity of protecting the rights of others as
the most effectual security for his own.
But if, in the formation of a constitution, we depart from the
principle of equal rights, or attempt any modification of it, we
plunge into a labyrinth of difficulties from which there is no way
out but by retreating. Where are we to stop? Or by what principle
are we to find out the point to stop at, that shall discriminate
between men of the same country, part of whom shall be free, and the
If property is to be made the criterion, it is a total departure
from every moral principle of liberty, because it is attaching
rights to mere matter, and making man the agent of that matter. It
is, moreover, holding up property as an apple of discord, and not
only exciting but justifying war against it; for I maintain the
principle, that when property is used as an instrument to take away
the rights of those who may happen not to possess property, it is
used to an unlawful purpose, as fire-arms would be in a similar
In a state of nature all men are equal in rights, but they are not
equal in power; the weak cannot protect themselves against the
strong. This being the case, the institution of civil society is for
the purpose of making an equalization of powers that shall be
parallel to, and a guarantee of, the equality of rights. The laws of
a country, when properly constructed, apply to this purpose.
Every man takes the arm of the law for his protection as more
effectual than his own; and therefore every man has an equal right
in the formation of the government, and of the laws by which he is
to be governed and judged. In extensive countries and societies,
such as America and France, this right in the individual can only be
exercised by delegation, that is, by election and representation;
and hence it is that the institution of representative government
Hitherto, I have confined myself to matters of principle only.
First, that hereditary government has not a right to exist; that it
cannot be established on any principle of right; and that it is a
violation of all principle. Secondly, that government by election
and representation has its origin in the natural and eternal rights
of man; for whether a man be his own lawgiver, as he would be in a
state of nature; or whether he exercises his portion of legislative
sovereignty in his own person, as might be the case in small
democracies where all could assemble for the formation of the laws
by which they were to be governed; or whether he exercises it in the
choice of persons to represent him in a national assembly of
representatives, the origin of the right is the same in all cases.
The first, as is before observed, is defective in power; the second,
is practicable only in democracies of small extent; the third, is
the greatest scale upon which human government can be instituted.
Next to matters of principle are matters of opinion, and it is
necessary to distinguish between the two. Whether the rights of men
shall be equal is not a matter of opinion but of right, and
consequently of principle; for men do not hold their rights as
grants from each other, but each one in right of himself. Society is
the guardian but not the giver. And as in extensive societies, such
as America and France, the right of the individual in matters of
government cannot be exercised but by election and representation,
it consequently follows that the only system of government
consistent with principle, where simple democracy is impracticable,
is the representative system.
But as to the organical part, or the manner in which the several
parts of government shall be arranged and composed, it is altogether
matter of opinion. It is necessary that all the parts be conformable
with the principle of equal rights; and so long as this principle be
religiously adhered to, no very material error can take place,
neither can any error continue long in that part which falls within
the province of opinion.
In all matters of opinion, the social compact, or the principle by
which society is held together, requires that the majority of
opinions becomes the rule for the whole, and that the minority
yields practical obedience thereto. This is perfectly conformable to
the principle of equal rights: for, in the first place, every man
has a right to give an opinion but no man has a right that his
opinion should govern the rest. In the second place, it is not
supposed to be known beforehand on which side of any question,
whether for or against, any man's opinion will fall. He may happen
to be in a majority upon some questions, and in a minority upon
others; and by the same rule that he expects obedience in the one
case, he must yield it in the other.
All the disorders that have arisen in France during the progress
of the Revolution have had their origin, not in the principle of
equal rights, but in the violation of that principle. The principle
of equal rights has been repeatedly violated, and that not by the
majority but by the minority, and that minority has been composed of
men possessing property, as well as of men without property;
property, therefore, even upon the experience already had, is no
more a criterion of character than it is of rights.
It will sometimes happen that the minority are right, and the
majority are wrong, but as soon as experience proves this to be the
case, the minority will increase to a majority, and the error will
reform itself by the tranquil operation of freedom of opinion and
equality of rights. Nothing, therefore, can justify an insurrection,
neither can it ever be necessary where rights are equal and opinions
Taking then the principle of equal rights as the foundation of the
Revolution, and consequently of the Constitution, the organical
part, or the manner in which the several parts of the Government
shall be arranged in the Constitution, will, as is already said,
fall within the province of opinion.
Various methods will present themselves upon a question of this
kind, and though experience is yet wanting to determine which is the
best, it has, I think, sufficiently decided which is the worst. That
is the worst, which in its deliberations and decisions is subject to
the precipitancy and passion of an individual; and when the whole
legislature is crowded into one body it is an individual in mass. In
all cases of deliberation it is necessary to have a corps of
reserve, and it would be better to divide the representation by lot
into two parts, and let them revise and correct each other, than
that the whole should sit together, and debate at once.
Representative government is not necessarily confined to any one
particular form. The principle is the same in all the forms under
which it can be arranged. The equal rights of the people is the root
from which the whole springs, and the branches may be arranged as
present opinion or future experience shall best direct. As to that
hospital of incurables (as Chesterfield calls it), the British House
of Peers, it is an excrescence growing out of corruption; and there
is no more affinity or resemblance between any of the branches of a
legislative body originating from the right of the people, and the
aforesaid House of Peers, than between a regular member of the human
body and an ulcerated wen.
As to that part of government that is called the executive, it is
necessary in the first place to fix a precise meaning to the word.
There are but two divisions into which power can be arranged. First,
that of willing or decreeing the laws; secondly, that of executing
or putting them in practise. The former corresponds to the
intellectual faculties of the human mind which reasons and
determines what shall be done; the second, to the mechanical powers
of the human body that puts that determination into practise.
If the former decides, and the latter does not perform, it is a
state of imbecility; and if the latter acts without the
predetermination of the former, it is a state of lunacy. The
executive department therefore is official, and is subordinate to
the legislative, as the body is to the mind in a state of health;
for it is impossible to conceive the idea of two sovereignties, a
sovereignty to will and a sovereignty to act.
The executive is not invested with the power of deliberating
whether it shall act or not; it has no discretionary authority in
the case; for it can act no other thing than what the laws decree,
and it is obliged to act conformably thereto; and in this view of
the case the executive is made up of all the official departments
that execute the laws, of which that which is called the judiciary
is the chief.
But mankind have conceived an idea that some kind of authority is
necessary to superintend the execution of the laws and to see that
they are faithfully performed; and it is by confounding this
superintending authority with the official execution that we get
embarrassed about the term executive power. All the parts in the
governments of the United States of America that are called the
executive, are no other than authorities to superintend the
execution of the laws; and they are so far independent of the
legislative that they know the legislative only through the laws,
and cannot be controlled or directed by it through any other medium.
In what manner this superintending authority shall be appointed,
or composed, is a matter that falls within the province of opinion.
Some may prefer one method and some another; and in all cases, where
opinion only and not principle is concerned, the majority of
opinions forms the rule for all.
There are however some things deducible from reason, and evidenced
by experience, that serve to guide our decision upon the case. The
one is never to invest any individual with extraordinary power; for
besides his being tempted to misuse it, it will excite contention
and commotion in the nation for the office. Secondly, never to
invest power long in the hands of any number of individuals. The
inconveniences that may be supposed to accompany frequent changes
are less to be feared than the danger that arises from long
I shall conclude this discourse with offering some observations on
the means of preserving liberty; for it is not only necessary that
we establish it, but that we preserve it.
It is, in the first place, necessary that we distinguish between
the means made use of to overthrow despotism, in order to prepare
the way for the establishment of liberty, and the means to be used
after the despotism is overthrown.
The means made use of in the first case are justified by
necessity. Those means are, in general, insurrections; for while the
established government of despotism continues in any country it is
scarcely possible that any other means can be used. It is also
certain that in the commencement of a revolution, the revolutionary
party permit to themselves a discretionary exercise of power
regulated more by circumstances than by principle, which, were the
practise to continue, liberty would never be established, or if
established would soon be overthrown. It is never to be expected in
a revolution that every man is to change his opinion at the same
There never yet was any truth or any principle so irresistibly
obvious that all men believed it at once. Time and reason must
cooperate with each other to the final establishment of any
principle; and therefore those who may happen to be first convinced
have not a right to persecute others, on whom conviction operates
more slowly. The moral principle of revolutions it to instruct, not
Had a constitution been established two years ago (as ought to
have been done), the violences that have since desolated France and
injured the character of the Revolution, would, in my opinion, have
been prevented. The nation would then have had a bond of union, and
every individual would have known the line of conduct he was to
follow. But, instead of this, a revolutionary government, a thing
without either principle or authority, was substituted in its place;
virtue and crime depended upon accident; and that which was
patriotism one day became treason the next.
All these things have followed from the want of a constitution;
for it is the nature and intention of a constitution to prevent
governing by party, by establishing a common principle that shall
limit and control the power and impulse of party, and that says to
all parties, thus far shalt thou go and no further. But in the
absence of a constitution, men look entirely to party; and instead
of principle governing party, party governs principle.
An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty. It leads men
to stretch, to misinterpret, and to misapply even the best of laws.
He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy
from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a
precedent that will reach to himself.
Thomas Paine Paris: July, 1795.