Letter to Thomas Jefferson

On The Theory of Government

Thomas Paine


Introduction by Sherwood V. Smith

The history of this letter, written by Thomas Paine before or during 1789 (the date on page one is not in Paine's hand), illustrates one of the most interesting characteristics of the historic biographer. That is, the bias that almost all biographers demonstrate in favor of their subject.

Gilbert Chinard, in his biography of Thomas Jefferson, thinking that Jefferson was the author, declared the theory presented in this letter the "key" to Democracy. He also thought it original with Jefferson and that it presented a new, original approach to the science of government. That was before it was pointed out, by others, that this letter was authored by Thomas Paine. After his mistake was discovered, Professor Chinard changed his position and attributed all the ideas contained in this letter to almost every man of renown that ever existed.

What the letter really does is present the theory of government as a logical system. Paine's ideas can be presented graphically as Venn Diagrams, which is one way of describing, graphically, the basics of set and logic theory. Let's see how this works. This letter describes rights in two ways: Natural Rights and Civil Rights in which Civil Rights are a subset of Natural Rights. Also it's important to point out that the power of the civil authority should reach no lurther than that necessary for protection or enforcement of those Civil Rights.

Another point that I like to make concerning this letter is that Paine makes references only to "persons." This word selection shows that he was inclusive in that he was using a word that included women and children. Paine does not make reference to "20 white men," "20 masters," "20 gentlemen," or "20 plantation owners." This is consistent with all of Paine's other works which are also inclusive.

Jefferson would have used "men" in the exclusive sense. We know this because he said elsewhere that: "Were our state a pure democracy there would still be excluded from our deliberations women, who, to prevent depravation of morals and ambiguity of issues, should not mix promiscuously in gatherings of men."

To: Thomas Jefferson * 1789 * Theory of Government

After I got home, being alone and wanting amusement I sat Down to explain to myself (for there is such a thing) my ideas of natural and civil rights and the distinction between them -- I send them to you to see how nearly we agree.

Suppose 20 persons, strangers to each other, to meet in a Country not before inhabited. Each would be a Sovereign in his own Natural right. His will would be his Law, but his power, in many cases, inadequate to his right and the consequences would be that each might be exposed, not only to each other, but to the other nineteen.

It would then occur to them that their condition would be much improved, if a way could be Devised to exchange that quantity of Danger into so much protection, so that each individual Should possess the strength of the whole Number.

As all their rights, in the first case, are natural rights, and the exercise of these rights supported only by their own natural individual power, they would begin by distinguishing between those rights they could individually exercise fully and perfectly and those they could not.

Of the first kind are the rights of thinking, speaking, forming and giving opinions, and perhaps all those which can be fully exercised by the individual without the aid of exterior assistance or in other words, rights of personal competency. Of the second kind are those of personal protection, of acquiring and possessing property, in the exercise of which the individual natural power is less than the natural right.

Having drawn this line they agree to retain individually the first Class of Rights or those of personal Competency; and to detach from their personal possession the second Class, or those of defective power and to accept in lieu thereof a right to the whole power produced by a condensation of all the parts. These I conceive to be civil rights or rights of Compact, and see distinguishable from Natural rights, because in the one we act wholly in our own person, in the other we agree not to do so, but are under the guarantee of society.

It therefore follows that the more of those imperfect natural rights, or rights of imperfect power we give up and thus exchange the more security we possess, and as the word liberty is often mistakenly put for security Mr. Wilson has confused his Argument by confounding the terms.

But ft does not follow that the more natural rights of every kind we resign the more security we possess, -- because if we resign those of the first class we may suffer much by the exchange, for where the right and the power are equal with each other in the individual naturally they ought to rest there.

Mr. Wilson must have some allusion to this distinction or his position would be subject to the inference you Draw from him.

I consider the individual sovereignty of the States retained under the Act of Confederation to be of the second Class of rights. It becomes dangerous because it is defective in the power necessary to support it. It answers the pride and purpose of a few Men in each State -- but the State collectively is injured by it.