Four Letters on Interesting Subjects
A selection of four letters written by Thomas Paine in 1776. Subjects of the letters are: criticism of colonial Tories; unity among the colonies; criticism of the charter granted to William Penn by Charles II; the characteristics of a good constitution.
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Four Letters on Interesting Subjects - Thomas Paine 1776
NOTE: Subjects of the letters are: criticism of colonial Tories; unity among the colonies; criticism of the charter granted to William Penn by Charles II; the characteristics of a good constitution.
Every man who acts beyond the line of private life, must expect to pass through two severe examinations. First, as to his motives; secondly, as to his conduct: On the former of these depends his character for honesty; on the latter for wisdom. The question is, how are we to know a man's motives? I answer, by tracing his conduct back on himself, as you would a stream to the fountain-head, and comparing the measures he pursues with his own private interest and dependencies; and the conclusion will be, that if no visible connexion appears between them, we are obliged, on the grounds of justice and generosity, to believe that such a man acts from reason and principle, for if this criterion be taken away, there is no other general one to know men by. On the other hand, if on examining from a man's conduct back to the man himself, we find a place of an hundred or a thousand a year at the bottom, or some advantage equivalent thereto, and find likewise that all his measures have been continually and invariably directed to support the party in thing which supports him in his place or office, we may, without hesitation, set that man down for an interested time-serving tool.
We used to feel a mighty indignity at hearing a king's custom-house officer, of forty or fifty pounds a year, bawling out in support of every measure of his employers; and the cause of this dislike in us was, because his motives had the appearance of selfishness; yet we have every reason to believe that the same servile principle produced the late Remonstrance, and drew together the whole tribe of crown and Proprietary dependants to give it countenance; who, by fermenting the prejudices of some, and working on the weakness of others, endeavoured to render themselves formidable by a party.
Why is it, that every governor, and almost every officer under them, throughout the continent, have uniformly trodden in the same steps? but because that One slavish mercenary principle has governed all. Scarcely a man amongst them have had either honesty or fortitude enough, to ask his conscience or his judgment a question. Did men reason with themselves ever so little, they would soon conclude, that the King and his Ministers could not be for ever right, nor the opposition, either in England or America, for ever wrong. Wisdom cannot be all on one side, nor ignorance all on the other; yet this levee of dependents have never dared to doubt any thing, but obeyed as implicitly as is their employers had been divine, and travelled on through thick and thin, without once enquiring into the cause, or reflecting on the consequence. The case was, that their places were at stake, and that all commanding thought superseded every other.
Reason and conscience seem unnecessary endowments to men in such stations; for as they use them not, they need them not, and their chiefest excellence consists in a kind of magnetical obedience, which, having no choice of its own, is governed implicitly by the influence of some other. However degrading this servile character may seem, it is nevertheless a just description of almost every man who held an office under George the Third; and the misfortune to these ″middle provinces″ has been, that the circle of duplicity was considerably enlarged therein by the addition of the Proprietary interest to that of the crown. Did those persons see themselves in the same light which others view them in, their confidence would fail to support them in the measures they have been pursuing. The indecency of meddling and making in political matters is the same in them, as in the lowest custom-house officer under the crown; neither does it answer their purpose; for their motives being known, their opinion passes for nothing, and their credit sinks by the very means they take to prop it up.
To the impertinence of office there have been added in this province an affectation of rank: The Proprietary party, who headed the opposers of independence, set out under the assumed distinction of ″men of consequence″, although it happens very unfortunately for them, that in the line of extraction they are much beneath the generality of the other inhabitants. No reflection ought to be made on any man on account of birth, provided that his manners rises decently with his circumstances, and that he affects not to forget the level he came from; when he does, he ought to be led back and shewn the mortifying picture of originality. Riches in a new country are unavoidable to the descendants of the early settlers, because the lands at that time were purchased for a trifle, and rendered valuable afterwards by the addition and industry of new-comers: A capital of ten pounds well laid out in land a century ago, would, without either care or genius either in the heir or the owner, been by this time an estate; and perhaps it is owing to this accidental manner of becoming rich, that wealth does not obtain the same degree of influence here, which it does in old countries. Rank, at present, in America is derived more from qualification than property; a sound moral character, amiable manners and firmness in principle constitute the first class, and will continue to do so till the origin of families be forgotten, and the proud follies of the old world over-run the simplicity of the new.
But to return. There is a more principal consequence for such men to contemplate than bare disappointment and disgrace. A contest for government is not to be considered as an election. The whole affair is now taking a most serious turn. The transition from Toryism to treason is nearly effected, and the rude custom of Tarring and Feathering will soon give way to the severer punishment of the gibbet. Disaffection and treachery have only received strength and encouragement from former lenity; and, until an example be made of some leading ones, the evil will continue increasing. It may perhaps be asked, what sort of people are we now to call Tories?
I answer, every one who contends or argues for the supremacy of the king of England over the colonies. We have at this time but two general denominations of persons, Independents and Tories, or, is you please, Traitors; for to endeavour now either by words or ways to unite America to the crown and government of Britain, is the same kind of crime as it would be for a citizen of London to propose uniting England to the crown and government of France. This is plain doctrine, but it may perhaps save some man or other from the gallows; and, however it be relished by many, it is nevertheless a duty due to society to shew such men their danger fully, and warn them of the consequences. If, after that, they fall, their blood be upon their own head.
But the circumstance which most affects a generous mind is, that those men generally draw into their party a number of unwary, unsuspicious persons, by false and fraudulent pretences. There are men at this time who are base enough to give out that Britain wants to be reconciled - that we may make matters up if we will - and that it is our own fault if we do not - and, after painting a horrid picture of war, charge the whole guilt thereof upon the continent. It was partly by artifices of this kind that the promoters of the Remonstrance procured signers thereto: Therefore, for the sake of such deceived persons, I'll state the case truly, and leave it to their reflection. Have not every mode for reconciliation been tried? - Have a stone been left unturned that could possibly effect it? - Have not petition after petition been sent and rejected? - Have not the petition from the Assembly of New-York met with the same fate with those of the Congress? - Have not every petition of the city of London and other parts of England been indignantly disregarded, and the petitioners, in some cases, accused of aiding a rebellion? - Have not every conciliatory plan, proposed by our friends in either house of parliament, failed even without a chance? - Is there now one untried method left to proceed upon, or a single hope left to stand upon? - Have not the British court amused us with commissioners while at the same time she was privately negociating for foreign troops? - Have she not now cut off every possibility of an accommodation by first declaring us rebels, and then declaring that rebels must be subdued before they can be treated with? Is this the case, or is it not? You that sculk into holes and corners, and exclaim against independency, can you disprove these things, or even bring the truth of them into suspicion? If you can not, the case will be, that those whom ye deceive will soon turn your accusers.
If a general review be taken of the conduct of Britain, it will confirm the suspicion which many discerning men, both on this and the other side the water, had at first, which was, that the British court wished from the beginning of this dispute to come to an open rupture with the continent, that she might have a colourable pretence to possess herself of the whole. The long and scandalous list of placemen and pensioners, and the general profligacy and prodigality of the present reign, exceed the annual supplies. England is drained by taxes, and Ireland impoverished to almost the last farthing, yet the farce of state must be kept up, every thing must give way to the wants and vices of a court. America was the only remaining spot to which their oppression and extortion had not fully reached; and they considered her as a fallow field, from which a large income might be drawn, if politically broken up; but the experiment of the stamp-act had taught them to know that they must not hope to effect it by taxation. It is generally believed that Mr. Grenville had nothing more in view in getting the stamp-act passed than the raising a revenue in America quietly; and it is fully believed by many, that the present king and ministry had no revenue in view in passing the tea-act , their object was a quarrel, by which they expected to accomplish the whole at once, and taxation was only the bone to quarrel about. To see America in arms is probably the very thing they wished for - the unpardonable sin which they wanted her to commit; because it furnished them with a pretence for declaring us rebels; and persons conquered under that character forfeit their all, be it where it will, or what it will, to the crown. And as Britain had no apprehension of the military strength of the continent, nor any doubt of easily subduing it, the would, from motives of political avarice, prefer conquest to any mode of accomodation whatsoever; and it is on this ground only that the continued obstinacy of her conduct can be accounted for.
Some, perhaps, will object to the harshness of this supposition, and endeavour to disprove it by referring to Lord North's conciliatory plan of the 20th of February, 1775, wherein the colonies are left to tax themselves: To which I reply, that that scheme, instead of weakening, corroborates the suspicion; for, there is strong reason to believe, that the British court never wished to have even that plan, bad as it was, adopted by the colonies; and this is presumptively proved by her beginning on hostilities between the time of passing that resolve and the time of the different assemblies meeting to deliberate thereon. Had no private orders been given to General Gage, he undoubtedly would have avoided any new aggravation in the interim. He was acquainted with the resolve of the 20th of February upwards of three weeks before his famous expedition to Lexington and Concord, and knew likewise that no assembly had at that time met on the business. Truly has it been said that the tender mercies of the-wicked are cruel; and when all the circumstances attending this resolve are compared, they amount to a strong presumption that it was only hung out to amuse the English while an effectual military method was taken to aggravate the colonies to reject it, till, by driving them to hostilities, she might crush them with arms in their hands, and make them glad to compound for their lives with the surrender of their property. That ″nothing but a good battle would do″ was very common language two years ago in many companies in London; and what has happened since shews that such a scheme was in real contemplation.
A few weak or wicked men among ourselves, for the sake of keeping up a division, may talk of reconciliation; but Britain has no such thought; the amazing expence she has put herself to is a sufficient proof against it: Her aim is to get or lose the whole, and repay the millions she has expended, either by laying on us a heavy yearly tribute, if she can or by immediately seizing our property. We have now no middle-line; and none but an idiot or villain would endeavour to spread such notions. That it is the design of Britain to set up military governments throughout the provinces, if ever they come into her hands again, is doubted by no man of sense and reflection; and likewise, that we have no other mercy to expect from her but a repetition of all those savage and hellish oppressions and cruelties which she so unrelentingly inflicted on the wretched inhabitants of the East-Indies. Thank GOD! we have had a long warning given us to prepare; and, when every disadvantage which we had to encounter, from the want both of materials and experiencc, be considered, together with the opposition from the ignorant and disaffected among us, it is nearly a miracle that we are so well prepared.
The king and his ministers in all their speeches and harangues have constantly held out that the Americans were aiming at independence. Pity but we could have taken the hint sooner! for all our present distresses, arising from a scarcity of goods, are owing to our not thinking of independence soon enough. Our non-importation agreement ought to have ceased immediately on the breaking-out of hostilities, and instead thereof we ought to have doubled or tripled our imports; and this would have been the case, had it not been for the absurd and destructive doctrine of reconciliation: because, the moment we had adopted the plan of separation we should have seen the necessity of laying in an additional stock. In short, reconciliation is a doctrine which has driven us to the edge of ruin, and the man that hereafter mentions it as a plan, ought to be considered and treated as a traitor to his country.
The interest of the Provinces, like that of individuals, is two-fold, public and private; for in the same rank which an individual stands in to the public, do the provinces stand in to the continent; and he who in the present affairs looks no farther than the province he lives in, is moved thereto by the same spirit which inclines a selfish man to look no farther than himself, and in the same manner in which private interest undermines a community, does a narrow provincial spirit sap the continental welfare: An open generous hearted man, and an open generous hearted province, are characters on the same line. A number of misers trading constantly with one another, would grow poor by their covetousness, and the same circumstance would happen with the colonies were they to adopt a miserly provincial spirit. The happiness of individuals is secured to them by the community, and the happiness of the separate colonies can only be secured by the continent; and as the former yields up a part for that purpose, so must the latter. In the future regulations of trade there will undoubtedly happen instances in which some one or more provinces, like some one or more individuals, may wish it were otherwise; but as the same restrictions may happen to all in their turn, the reasonableness of submitting to them will appear to all.
The more any one province may flourish, the better it will be for the rest, and it matters not where riches begin at, because the commerce carried on between the colonies will spread it through all; and that province which receives it first, either from Europe or the West-Indies, is only in the state of the Spaniards, who first dig it. There.is but very little probability that jealousy between the colonies on account of trade can ever happen, because most of their principal articles of commerce differ from each other, and will continue to do so while the difference of soil and situation remain; and the communication being by this natural necessity always kept open, it will happen, that no one can grow rich without communicating a share of that riches to the rest, and in the like manner, no province can grow poor without communicating a part of its poverty to others; and on these grounds it is as much our interest, as it is our duty, to promote the happiness of other provinces as of our own. Were Spain, Portugal, and other nations, with whom Britain trades, to grow poor, Britain would grow poor in the same proportion; and the argument is much stronger respecting the colonies, because they have a common national debt between them, for the payment of which they are reciprocally securities. Countries at war are obliquely benefited by each other's poverty, because inability is equal to a defeat, but the contrary is true in commerce. In short, the number of commercial reasons, which might be produced to shew the advantages flowing from a perfect harmony and union of the colonies, sufficiently proves likewise that nothing but poverty and destruction can attend their separation,
Besides, as none of the Colonies separately are able to repel the force of Great-Britain, and as it is impossible that she can make an attack on all at once, or were she to do so, her strength would be so divided as to be comparatively less than that of any single province; therefore our preservation, as a people, depends upon our Union. Were Britain to attack the continent in three places at once, each attack might be repulsed with a proportion of strength equal to four provinces; if in four places, with a force equal to three; if in six, with the force of two, exclusive of the thirteenth: And the knowledge of being thus supported and assisted by each other, is a comfortable and encouraging reflection to men under arms. But the condition of our affairs now is such, that the union must be supported, and any colony that should revolt therefrom, would instantly become a seat of war. The whole must go together, and it would be treason in any one province to act separately from the rest. Were Pennsylvania, Maryland, New-York, or the Jersies, to attempt such a thing, they would instantly be invaded by the adjoining ones, and perhaps the far greater part of their own inhabitants would assist in subduing the revolters. What safety would there be for this city, if the Jersey shore were possessed by the enemy? or what safety would the Jersies be in, were the Pennsylvania shore occupied in the same manner? and so on for the rest. Neither can the neutrality of any province be admitted, because it would enable Britain to bring a larger detachment against the resisting ones. A great part of our strength lies in the variety of objects which a coast so extensive as ours produces to an enemy; while she is meditating a stroke in one quarter, her attention, by some new circumstance, is called away to another. The part she has to act is likewise infinitely greater than ours: Her object is conquest, ours only to keep possession, She is conquered in not conquering us, whether we defeat her or not; and would be obliged to quit the continent on the same principle that she quitted Boston, could we embarrass her in the same manner. While her force is small she may sculk about the coast, and pick up a living, but when her whole expedition arrives, the matter will be short with her; she must either conquer or depart; and if we can but prevent the first, the latter must follow. In short, we may conquer without a battle, but she cannot.
I shall conclude this letter with remarking, that the Tories have been exceedingly fond of impressing us with the necessity of what they call a perfect union, and that we cannot hope to succeed unless we are all in one mind. For my part I am quite of a different opinion, and think that a disunion is now the thing necessary: Every province either has or must undergo a purgation; it is the lot of all. Whigs and Tories cannot unite; they must separate; and the sooner the separation takes place the better. Those who are Tories now, mean never to be otherwise; therefore it is needless to wait for them. The Proprietary have the honour of standing out to the last; they have distinguished themselves as much by their folly as their obstinacy, and on our part we have this consolation, that a union with them would only have weakened us, and produced the same kind of peaceable destruction in the political constitution which opium does in the natural one.
The Charter, called, the Royal Charter for this province, was granted by Charles the Second, king of England, and dated at Westminster, the 4th day of March, 1681.
Interest and Time have an amazing influence over the understanding of mankind, and reconcile them to almost every species of absurdity and injustice. We have, with little or no hesitation, accustomed ourselves to look on these Crown grants as if the givers of them had really a right so to do; yet what was this right of theirs founded on? I answer, on the most villainous injustice. Had the kings of England first entered into treaty with the Indians for any part of their lands, and purchased them at ever so small a consideration, they would then have had a fair right either to have granted or disposed of them: But the case was otherwise, and the claims of the Crown was founded only on the poor pretence of sailing by, and looking at them; or, what is rather worse, because some distressed adventurous navigator was invited on shore, and civilly treated by the gaping gazing natives. This putting foot upon land was called ″taking possession of it in the king's name;″ and is that which gives him, forsooth, a right to give away the whole country. Suppose the Indian chiefs had taken it in their heads to have disposed of England in the same manner, we certainly should have laughed at their folly; but had they been able to have established their claim, we should have moved heaven and earth to have chastised their imposition: Yet the right of the one was equally as good as the other.
Any individual has a natural privilege to settle in any part of the world that suits him, and this custom all nations agree in; an Indian may settle in England, or elsewhere, purchase and occupy lands, and an European may settle in America for the same purposes, without injustice in either case: but for the kings of one country to assume a right to give away the lands in another, which they never were in possession of, either by treaty or purchase, is no better than qualified robbery, and downright arbitrary power. No man arguing from the reasonableness of things, could ever view a king's Charter granting away lands which were at that time in the possession of the natives, in any other light, than as an obligation, which the crown bound itself under, not to disturb the adventurers in whatever settlements they might make, or in whatever possessions they might afterwards acquire in America. And William Penn, by entering into treaty with the Indians for the sale of the lands contained within the Charter from Charles the Second, seemed by that procedure to question Charles's right to grant such a Charter, and that his own title under that Charter only was not sufficiently good; and is the ground-work be defective, it of course renders the whole so. In any case, the granting Charters with such extensive privileges to individuals is incompatible with the spirit of freedom, and would in time extinguish it; but in this case it interfered with property, by obliging the emigrants to purchase lands of William Penn, for his particular emolument, and at just what price he pleased to set thereon; when they might have purchased the same of the natives at three or four thousand times less price. At the time that the Proprietaries bought of the Indians at the high rate, as it was called, of Two-pence Half-penny per Hundred acres; they sold them again for fifteen pounds per Hundred acres, and one Half-penny Sterling per acre quit-rent. Perhaps no country in Europe can furnish greater instances of imposition and extortion than is to be found in the conduct of the Proprietaries of Pennsylvania.
The above Charter is contained in twenty-three sections. A striking absurdity appears in the first of them, which is, that William Penn, one of the first and most principal of the people called Quakers, and who held even the bearing of arms to be sinful, should, nevertheless, accept from Charles the Second the grant of the province of Pennsylvania, as a reward. To William Penn, therefore, this province was the price of blood. If it was, as some say, for wages due to his father as an Admiral, he is the more guilty under that excuse, because, in that case, he took the pay of a soldier, though in any case he gave, contrary to his principles, an oblique approbation of war, and exhibited a striking instance of a convenient conscience. The first, second and third sections treat wholly of the soil, and speak of William Penn as proprietor only, no mention being made in either of them respecting the government.
By the fourth section Charles the Second hath endeavoured to grant and bestow on William Penn and his Heirs a power which no man or monarch on earth ever had or can have a right to give, viz, that of appointing him and his heirs the perpetual and absolute governors of Pennsylvania. Where there are no people, there can be no government; it is the people that constitute the government; and to give away a government is giving away the people, in the same manner that giving the proprietaryship was giving the soil. What right could Charles the Second, a deceased tyrant of the last century, have to appoint a governor for the present generation, or declare that the heirs of William Penn should be the Lords and Masters of persons to be born a thousand years hence? Are the inhabitants of the earth to be conveyed or transferred away, by virtue of a scrap of paper, from generation to generation, like so many head of cattle, or so many acres of land? Is such a thought, or such an act, consistent with human rights? Yet William Penn, regardless of every sacred privilege of freedom, carried the principle of tyranny higher than any of the Stuart family ever did; for by his Will he directed the government of Pennsylvania to be SOLD. However some may endeavour to refine or explain away the sense of words I know not, but this I know that there is no difference between selling a government and selling the people, because it is obliging them, like horses, to take for their master and rider anyone who has money enough to come up to the sellers price.
Neither in this part, nor in any other part of the will, is there any exception respecting the purchaser. The only condition is, the ″best advantage and profit.″ He might be of any denomination of religion, or of none; a man of reputation, or not; a gentleman, or a gambler; if he could but raise the money, that was all. In short, the will of William Penn is as great a violation of the rights of nature as ever appeared upon a christian record. When governments are put up for sale, farewell liberty: It is time, and high time, that the Being of man should be extinct, when such articles appear at public market. By what pretence the government of this province hath remained in the Proprietary family since doth not appear; whether they inherit under the Charter, or by purchase under the will: However, neither is good; the first being a nullity, and the second an infamous traffic.
The Charter of Charles the Second says, ″William Penn and his heirs″ generally, by which it should seem that if any of them have any right, all of them have the same: A joint heirship, male and female. Had they been a prolific family, we might have had four or five hundred governors by this time, all of them claiming under the Charter; quarrelling, and perhaps fighting for superiority with each other; and Cato, like the vicar of Bray, the unprincipled chaplain of every conqueror; the purchases made by the inhabitants from one proprietor and governor disputed by another, or invalidated by a successor, till no body knew from whom to purchase. In fine, the evils and confusion occasioned by the obscurity of succession in the Proprietary family, would have been so great in a little time, and is even now so embarrassing, that is the present dissolution and suppression of all governments under the Crown of England had not fortunately happened, something must have been done in this province to have regulated the concerns thereof, and secured the purchasers in their possessions; otherwise we might have had heirs and lords coming from every part of Europe, ″whose fathers were the Lord knows who.″
William Penn, having obtained the Royal Charter, as it is called, acted very humbly under it for some little time; his first system of government is modestly entitled. By this the governor was to have three votes in passing or rejecting any bill, but not a negative upon the whole; but Mr. Penn, in less than one year, found means to get that agreement abolished, and in the forming of what he calls a Charter, managed matters so artfully, as to obtain a negative, in lieu of three votes; for which he was severely reprimanded by a future Assembly in 1704. It ought to be remembered, that, according to Charles the Second's Charter, William Penn was only empowered to make laws with the Consent of Freemen: But this was not sufficiently lordly; and he soon took on himself, in imitation of his benefactor Charles, to issue out his Charter likewise, in the proud and arbitrary stile of ″I do Grant and Declare,″ &c. Whenever a person undertakes to grant a thing, it implies that the thing which he grants was once his own. William Penn, in this sense, might grant his land, but that be should assume to himself the Popish power of granting liberty of conscience, and undertake to define, by a single act of his own, called a Charter, what degree of personal and political privilege we shall enjoy as freemen, is truly ridiculous.
Liberty and liberty of conscience both would have a poor foundation indeed, were they to be received as privileges granted to us by William Penn. Every man who understands the true value of them will disdain to say he receives them in such a narrow line. We hold them immediately from GOD; and though it is our reciprocal duty to guarantee them to each other, we cannot be the givers of them. All Charters, which are the acts of a single man, are a species of tyranny; because they substitute the will of One as a law for ALL. They ought to have no Being in a free country; and no country can be free that has them. William Penn, in his Charter, called the Charter of privileges, has very arrogantly undertaken to lay down what shall be the law of this land. Is this be not a species of arbitrary power, I know not what is. The people had certainly as good a right to have made a Charter for him as he for them: And it matters not what the Charter contains; the thing is, that he had no authority for that purpose, any more than he had to have granted a passport to heaven. All constitutions should be contained in some written Charter; but that Charter should be the act of all and not of one man. Magna Charta was not a grant from the Crown, but only agreed or acceded to by the Crown, being first drawn up and framed by the people.
Charters, as has been already observed, when granted by individuals, are not only a species of tyranny, but of the worse kind of tyranny; because the granters of them undertake, by an act of their own, to fix what the constitution of a country shall be; which is a higher authority than the giving out temporary laws. Perhaps there was not an inhabitant of this province who would have suffered William Penn to have made a law of his own mere accord, or would have looked upon such an act of his as a law: Yet, that they should suffer him to form a Charter of his own mere accord, describing the perpetual mode of government for this province, taking to himself, and giving to them, just what proportions he pleased, was very extraordinary! But he allowed them to sit on their own adjournments. - Mighty condescension, truly! The case was, he had no right either to tell them they should, or they should not, the whole of his authority being confined to the making of ″laws with the consent of the freemen;″ and all beyond that was arrogance and arbitrary power.
But, having assumed the prerogative of granting a Charter, he soon after assumed the right of explaining it in such manner as best suited his purpose: first, by claiming to himself the authority of proroguing and dissolving the assembly at pleasure, and summoning them by writs; and secondly, that he should have a negative on the laws palled in this province, whether he acted as governor or not, ″saving always,″ says he in his instructions to deputy-governor Evans, ″to me and my heirs, our final assent to al1 such bills ″as thou shalt pass.″ But in both these he miscarried. The contentions which have arisen between the governors of this province and the people, since the time of its first settlement, are various and numerous, and can only be attributed to that astonishing absurdity of having the proprietaryship and governorship invested in one person. The composition is as impolitic and unnatural as it would be to leave a man to determine his own wager, or sit as judge in his own cause. The interest of the proprietor and the people, being like that of buyer and seller, it was impossible but that they would sometimes disagree, and in that case, the proprietor, being likewise governor, with the power of appointing judges, disposing of all offices, and having a negative upon all laws, was quite an over-match for the people; and of this the assembly in deputy-governor Morris's administration seemed fully sensible. ″If we are thus,″ say they, ″to be driven from bill to bill, without one solid reason afforded us, and can raise no money for the relief and security of our country until we shall fortunately hit on the only bill the governor is allowed to pass, or till we consent to make such as the governor or proprietaries direct us to make, we see little use of assemblies in this particular; and we think we might as well leave it to the governor or proprietaries to make for us what laws they please, and save ourselves and the province the expence and trouble. All debates and reasonings are vain, where proprietary instrusions, just or unjust, right or wrong, must inviolably be observed. We have only to find out, is we can, what they are, and then submit and obey.″
The Charter of privileges was accompanied with another, called ″The Charter for the City of Philadelphia,″ from which the corporation derives aIl their authority. In the preamble William Penn says, ″I have, by virtue of the King's letters patent, under the great seal of England, erected the said town into a borough, and do, by these presents, erect the said town and borough into a City.″ What William Penn meant by erecting the town and borough into a City, I am wholly at a loss to know, as that name particularly signifies an Episcopal Town, or place where the bishop's See is held. See - Seety - or City. All towns in England are thus distinguished, and never otherwise, except Westminster, which was once a See - as See or city of Canterbury - See or city of York -See or city of London, of Bath and Wells - of Bristol - of Salisbury, &c. &c. &c. and no place is called a city which has not a bishop's See: Wherefore William Penn's Charter, establishing a corporation for the See or city of Philadelphia, is a sort of nullity in itself.
As to corporations themselves, they are without exception so many badges of kingly tyranny, and tend, like every other species of useless pomp, to the oppression and impoverishment of the place, without one single advantage arising from them. They keep up a perpetual spirit of distinction and faction, engross emoluments and advantages to themselves, which ought to be employed to better purposes, and generally get into quarrels and lawsuits with the other part of the inhabitants. They diminish the freedom of every place where they exist. The most flourishing towns in England, as, Birmingham, Sheffield, Manchester, have no corporations. A sufficient number of justices and a jury annually chosen, which shall regularly account with their successors for the monies which they may receive or pay in the year, are found to answer every good purpose much better. But of all corporations that of Philadelphia is the most obnoxious, its power resembling that of an hermaphrodite, or is at least a kind of aristocratical corporation made hereditary by adoption.
Among the many publications which have appeared on the subject of political constitutions, none, that I have seen, have properly defined what is meant by a constitution, that word having been bandied about without any determinate sense being affixed thereto. A constitution, and a form of government, are frequently confounded together, and spoken of as synonimous things; whereas they are not only different, but are established for different purposes: All countries have some form of government, but few, or perhaps none, have truly a constitution. The form of government in England is by a king, lords and commons; but if you ask an Englishman what he means when he speaks of the English constitution, he is unable to give you any answer. The truth is, the English have no fixed constitution. The prerogative of the crown, it is true, is under several restrictions, but the legislative power, which includes king, lords and commons, is under none; and whatever acts they pass, are laws, be they ever so oppressive or arbitrary. England is likewise defective in constitution in three other material points, viz. The crown, by virtue of a patent from itself, can increase the number of the lords (one of the legislative branches) at his pleasure, Queen Ann created six in one day, for the purpose of making a majority for carrying a bill then passing, who were afterwards distinguished by the name of the six occasional lords. Lord Bathurst, the father of the present chancellor, is the only surviving one.
The crown can likewise, by a patent, incorporate any town or village, small or great, and empower it to send members to the house of commons, and fix what the precise number of the electors shall be. And an act of the legislative power; that is, an act of king, lords, and commons, can again diminish the house of commons to what number they please, by disenfranchising any county, city or town.
It is easy to perceive that individuals by agreeing to erect forms of government, (for the better security of themselves) must give up some part of their liberty for that purpose; and it is the particular business of a constitution to mark out how much they shall give up. In this sense it is easy to see that the English have no constitution, because they have given up every thing;, their legislative power being unlimited without either condition or controul, except in the single instance of trial by Juries. No country can be called free which is governed by an absolute power; and it matters not whether it be an absolute royal power or an absolute legislative power, as the consequences will be the same to the people. That England is governed by the latter, no man can deny, there being, as is said before, no constitution in that country which says to the legislative powers, ″Thus far shalt thou go, and no farther.″ There is nothing to prevent them passing a law which shall exempt themselves from the payment of taxes, or which shall give the house of commons power to sit for life, or to fill up the vacancies by appointing others, like the corporation of Philadelphia. In short, an act of parliament, to use a court phrase, can do any thing but make a man a woman.
A constitution, when completed, resolves the two following questions: first, What shall the form of government be? And secondly, What shall be its power? And the last of these two is far more material than the first. The constitution ought likewise to make provision in those cases where it does not empower the legislature to act.
The forms of government are numerous, and perhaps the simplest is the best. The notion of checking by having different houses, has but little weight with it, when inquired into, and in all cases it tends to embarrass and prolong business; besides, what kind of checking is it that one house is to receive from another? or which is the house that is most to be trusted to? They may fall out about forms and precedence, and check one another's honour and tempers, and thereby produce petulances and ill-will, which a more simple form of government would have prevented. That some kind of convenience might now and then arise from having two houses, is granted, and the same may be said of twenty houses; but the question is, whether such a mode would not produce more hurt than good. The more houses the more parties; and perhaps the ill consequence to this country would be, that the landed interest would get into one house, and the commercial interest into the other; and by that means a perpetual and dangerous opposition would be kept up, and no business be got through: Whereas, were there a large, equal and annual representation in one house only, the different parties, by being thus blended together, would hear each others arguments, which advantage they cannot have is they sit in different houses. To say, there ought to be two houses, because there are two sorts of interest, is the very reason why there ought to be but one, and that one to consist of every sort. The lords and commons in England formerly made but one house; and it is evident, that by separating men you lessen the quantity of knowledge, and increase the difficulties of business, However, let the form of government be what it may, in this, or other provinces, so long as it answers the purpose of the people, and they approve it, they will be happy under it. That which suits one part of the continent may not in every thing suit another; and when each is pleased, however variously, the matter is ended. No man is a true republican, or worthy of the name, that will not give up his single voice to that of the public: his private opinion he may retain, it is obedience only that is his duty.
The chief convenience arising from two houses is, that the second may sometimes amend small imperfections which would otherwise pass, yet, there is nearly as much chance of their making alterations for the worse as the better; and the supposition that a single house may become arbitrary, can with more reason be said of two; because their strength is greater. Besides, when all the supposed advantages adding from two houses are put together, they do not appear to balance the disadvantage. A division in one house will not retard business, but serves rather to illustrate, but a difference between two houses may produce serious consequences. In queen Ann's reign a quarrel arose between the upper and lower house, which was carried to such a pitch that the nation was under very terrifying apprehensions, and the house of commons was dissolved to prevent worse mischief. A like instance was nearly happening about six years ago, when the members of each house very affrontingly turned one another by force out of doors: The two best bills in the last sessions in England were entirely lost by having two houses, the bill for encreasing liberty of conscience, by taking off the necessity of subscription to the thirty-nine articles, Athanasian creed, &c. after passing the lower house by a very great majority, was thrown out by the upper one; and at the time that the nation was starving with the high price of corn, the bill for regulating the importation and exportation of grain, after passing the lower house, was lost by a difference between the two, and when returned from the upper one was thrown on the floor by the commons, and indignantly trampled under foot. - Perhaps most of the colonies will have two houses, and it will probably be of benefit to have some little difference in the forms of government, as those which do not like one, may reside in another, and by trying different experiments, the best form will the sooner be found out, as the preference at present rests on conjecture.
Government is generally distinguished into three parts, Executive, Legislative and Judicial; but this is more a distinction of words than things. Every king or governor in giving his assent to laws acts legislatively, and not executively: The house of lords in England is both a legislative and judicial body. In short, the distinction is perplexing, and however we may refine and define, there is no more than two powers in any government, viz, the power to make laws, and the power to execute them; for the judicial power is only a branch of the executive, the chief of every country being the first magistrate.
A Constitution should lay down some permanent ratio, by which the representation should afterwards encrease or decrease with the number of inhabitants; for the right of representation, which is a natural one, ought not to depend upon the will and pleasure of future legislatures. And for the same reason perfect liberty of conscience; security of person against unjust imprisonments, similar to what is called the Habeas Corpus act; the mode of trial in all law and criminal cases; in short, all the great rights which man never mean, nor ever ought, to lose, should be guaranteed, not granted, by the constitution, for at the forming a constitution we ought to have in mind, that whatever is left to be secured by law only, may be altered by another law. That Juries ought to be judges of law, as well as fact, should be clearly described; for though in some instances Juries may err, it is generally from tenderness, and on the right side. A man cannot be guilty of a good action, yet if the fact only is to be proved (which is Lord Mansfield's doctrine) and the Jury not empowered to determine in their own minds, whether the fact proved to be done is a crime or not, a man may hereafter be found guilty of going to church or meeting.
There is one circumstance respecting trial by Juries which seems to deserve attention, which is, whether a Jury of Twelve persons, which cannot bring in a verdict unless they are all of one mind, or appear so; or, whether a Jury of not less than Twenty-five, a majority of which shall make a verdict, is the safest to be trusted to? The objections against an Jury of Twelve are, that the necessity of being unanimous prevents the freedom of speech, and causes men sometimes to conceal their own opinions, and follow that of others; that it is a kind of terrifying men into a verdict, and that a strong hearty obstinate man who can bear starving twenty-four or forty-eight hours, will distress the rest into a compliance; that there is no difference, in effect, between hunger and the point of a bayonet, and that under such circumstances a Jury is not, nor can be free. In favour of the latter it is said, that the least majority is thirteen; that the dread of the consequences of disagreeing being removed, men will speak freer, and that justice will thereby have a fairer chance.
It is the part of a constitution to fix the manner in which the officers of government shall be chosen, and determine the principal outlines of their power, their time of duration, manner of commissioning them, &c. The line so far as respects their election, seems easy, which is, by the representatives of the people; provincial officers can be chosen no other way, because the whole province cannot be convened, any more than the whole of the Associators could be convened for choosing generals. Civil officers for towns and countries may easily be chosen by election. The mode of choosing delegates for congress deserves consideration, as they are not officers but legislators. Positive provincial instructions have a tendency to disunion, and, is admitted, will one day or other rend the continent of America. A continental Constitution, when fixed, will be the best boundaries of congressional power, and in matters for the general good, they ought to be as free as assemblies. The notion, which some have, of excluding the military from the legislature is unwise, because it has a tendency to make them form a distinct party of their own. Annual elections, strengthened by some kind of periodical exclusion, seem the best guard against the encroachments of power; suppose the exclusion was triennial, that is, that no person should be returned a member of assembly for more than three succeeding years, nor be capable of being returned again till he had been absent three years. Such a mode would greatly encrease the circle of knowledge, make men cautious how they acted, and prevent the disagreeableness of giving offence, by removing some, to make room for others of equal, or perhaps superior, merit. Something of the same kind may be practised respecting Presidents or Governors, not to be eligible after a certain number of returns; and as no person, after filling that rank, can, consistent with character, descend to any other office or employment; and as it may not always happen that the most wealthy are the most capable, some decent provision therefore should he made for them in their retirement, because it is a retirement from the world. Whoever reflects on this, will see many good advantages arising from it.
Modest and decent honorary titles, so as they be neither hereditary, nor convey legislative authority, are of use in a state; they are, when properly conferred, the badges of merit. The love of the public is the chief reward which a generous man seeks; and, surely! if that be an honour, the mode of conferring it must be so likewise.
Next to the forming a good constitution, is the means of perserving it. If once the legislative power breaks in upon it, the effect will be the same as if a kingly power did it. The constitution, in either case, will receive its death wound, and ″the outward and visible sign,″ or mere form of government only will remain. The means here pointed out for preserving a constitution are easy, and some article in the constitution may provide, that at the expiration of every seven or any other number of years a Provincial Jury shall be elected, to enquire if any inroads have been made in the constitution, and to have power to remove them; but not to make alterations, unless a clear majority of all the inhabitants shall so direct. Farther observations were intended to have been offered in these letters, but the sudden turn of military affairs hath prevented them; I shall therefore conclude with remarking, that perfection in government, like perfection in all other earthly things, is not to be hoped for. A single house, or a duplication of them, will alike have their evils; and the defect is incurable, being founded in the nature of man, and the instability of things.
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