Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Paine's Vision of Representative Government

Among the thinkers and writers who shaped the independence movement which established the United States as a sovereign nation, the understanding of representative government was central. This established a sharp contrast between them and, for example, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

The government was to be the instrument and extension of the expressed will of the citizens. The government was not to lead, rule, or reign over the people.

The will of the citizens is not, in this sense, some vague and metaphysical notion like Rousseau’s ‘general will,’ but rather a concrete, empirical, and quantifiable result of balloting - a Lockean understanding of majority rule.

In fact, words like ‘lead’ or ‘rule’ or ‘reign’ are scarce in the writings of the revolutionaries who sought political independence for the thirteen colonies. When those words do occur, it is often in a disapproving description of the British monarchy.

A study of the U.S. Constitution reveals that the words ‘lead’ and ‘reign’ do not occur in it at all. The word ‘rule’ appears only as a noun and not as a verb. The word ‘government’ occurs several times, but the verb ‘govern’ occurs only once: the militia is to be governed in that clause, not the citizens.

The word ‘represent’ (along with ‘representative’ and other forms) occurs forty times.

Instead, the residents of North America sought to establish a republic with freely-elected representatives. The citizens neither wanted nor needed a government to lead them; rather, they arranged for a government to which they would delegate the practical matters of operating a post office or standardizing weights and measures.

For Thomas Paine, the essence of government is representation. He expressed this in a letter to Abbe Sieyes in July 1791. Paine had been, at first, an enthusiastic observer of the French Revolution. He hoped that its outcome would be similar to that of the American Revolution. He would be bitterly disappointed when the French Revolution descended into tyrannical oligarchy, denying the very freedoms it had originally claimed to seek, and executed thousands of innocent civilians.

The Abbe Sieyes was a leader within the French Revolution, and politically wily enough that he was one of a very few such leaders who managed to escape being executed by his fellow revolutionaries. Paine wrote to him:

By republicanism, I do not understand what the name signifies in Holland, and in some parts of Italy. I understand simply a government by representation.

More two hundred years after Paine’s letter, modern political discourse in the United States is full of calls for “leadership,” for someone to “lead the nation,” and for someone to “lead the American people.”

By contrast, two centuries ago, the vision of the founders was for a government to represent, not lead, the citizens. The president was to lead, not the people, but the government as it carried out the will of the electorate.

Approximately a year after this letter to Abbe Sieyes, Thomas Paine again had occasion to express himself regarding forms of government. In May 1792, the British government issued a royal proclamation against seditious writings. The proclamation was triggered largely, almost exclusively, by the popularity of Paine’s book, the Rights of Man.

The book, written while Paine was still a supporter of the French Revolution, was popular in England. It echoed many of the arguments against monarchy, and for representative government, found in Paine’s other writings. But its popularity, and the fact it directed these arguments to events in nearby France instead of faraway America, made the British authorities view it as more dangerous.

The overthrow of the French monarchy raised the fear among English aristocrats that something similar could happen in Britain. The brisk sales of Paine’s book frightened them.

In response to the proclamation, Paine wrote:

I have, as an individual, given my opinion upon what I believe to be not only the best, but the true system of Government, which is the representative system, and I have given reasons for that opinion.

Largely summarizing from Rights of Man, Paine outlines four points against monarchy and for a representative republic. He argues that concentrating power in one person makes war more likely, that monarchs rule in the inexperience of youth and in the senility of dotage, that monarchies have no mechanism for removing incompetent kings, and that both the alleged constitutional structure of, and the legislation issuing from, a monarchy are arbitrary and merely by fiat:

First, Because, in the representative system, no office of very extraordinary power, or extravagant pay, is attached to any individual; and consequently, there is nothing to excite those national contentions and civil wars, with which countries under monarchical governments, are frequently convulsed, and of which the History of England exhibits such numerous instances.
Secondly, Because the representative is a system of Government always in maturity; whereas monarchical government fluctuates through all the stages, from non-age to dotage.
Thirdly, Because the representative system admits of none but men, properly qualified, into the Government, or removes them if they prove to be otherwise. Whereas, in the hereditary system, a nation may be encumbered with a knave or an idiot, for a whole life-time, and not be benefited by a successor.
Fourthly, Because there does not exist a right to establish hereditary government, or in other words, hereditary successors, because hereditary government always means a government yet to come, and the case always is, that those who are to live afterwards have always the same right to establish government for themselves, as the people had who lived before them; and, therefore, all laws attempting to establish hereditary government, are founded on assumption and political fiction.

Having outlined his argument, Paine asserts that the royal proclamation against his book is damaging to the well-being of the people, keeping them in intellectual and political darkness:

If these positions be truths, and I challenge any man to prove the contrary; if they tend to instruct and enlighten mankind, and to free them from error, oppression, and political superstition, which are the objects I have in view, in publishing them, that Jury would commit an act of injustice to their country and to me, if not a act of perjury, that should call them false, wicked, and malicious.

Despite Thomas Paine’s vigorous response to the royal proclamation - or perhaps because of it - his book was seen as criminal by the British government. Paine himself narrowly escaped arrest, and those who printed and published his book faced legal action. Philip Foner writes:

What began as a defense of the French Revolution evolved into an analysis of the basic reasons for discontent in European society and a remedy for the evils of arbitrary government, poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, and war. Paine spoke out effectively in favour of republicanism as against monarchy and went on to outline a plan for popular education, relief of the poor, pensions for aged people, and public works for the unemployed, all to be financed by the levying of a progressive income tax. To the ruling class Paine’s proposals spelled “bloody revolution,” and the government ordered the book banned and the publisher jailed. Paine himself was indicted for treason, and an order went out for his arrest. But he was en route to France, having been elected to a seat in the National Convention, before the order for his arrest could be delivered. Paine was tried in absentia, found guilty of seditious libel, and declared an outlaw, and Rights of Man was ordered permanently suppressed.

Paine’s writing was largely polemic, not systematic. Because he wrote regarding specific situations - now America, now France - he was not attempting to construct a philosophy of government or politics, and did not maintain the internal consistency in which writing which one would expect if he were designing a system of concepts intended for universal application.

British philosopher A.J. Ayer notes some of the resulting internal tensions in Paine’s texts:

Very often, Paine writes as if there were only two systems of government, the hereditary and the representative. In one passage, as we have seen, he mentions three, the governments of priestcraft, conquerors, and reason; apparently placing them in historical order and identifying reason with representation and conquerors with monarchs. Sometimes he remembers that some monarchies have been elective, and in the second part of Rights of Man, he sharply dissents from the opinion of his friend, Abbe Sieyes, that while both forms of monarchy are bad, the elective is worse. Shortly afterwards, continuing to ignore the government of priestcraft, he nevertheless increases the total number of forms of government to four, ‘the democratical, the aristocratical, the monarchical, and what is now called the representative.’ He explains that he does not include republicanism among them, for what is indeed the good reason, that republicanism is not a particular form of government but being ‘wholly characteristical of the purport, manner, or object for which government ought to be instituted, and on which it is to be employed’, that is, the public good, it signifies the rejection of monarchy. He goes on to question the right of Poland, ‘an hereditary aristocracy, with what is called an elective monarchy’, and of Holland, ‘which is chiefly aristocratical, with an hereditary stadtholdership’, to style themselves republics, thereby leaving himself free to conclude that ‘the government of America, which is wholly on the system of representation, is the only real republic in character and in practice, that now exists’. One must bear in mind that both parts of Rights of Man were written before the deposition of Louis XVI.

Paine argued that a representative government is not only morally superior, but historically more durable. Paine’s assertion that a representative form of government outlasts other forms carries his line of thought deeply into the realm of propositions which are empirically verifiable.

Reading sympathetically, we may take Paine’s thesis as a generalization liable to individual exceptions. Otherwise, his thesis might be quickly demolished by a nod to the Roman Empire or one of several Chinese dynasties. Summarizing, A.J. Ayer states:

It could be argued that Paine’s four types of government strictly amounted once again to three, since the representative type is depicted by him as an extension of the democratical. He does not invariably claim that the democratic type was historically prior to all the others, and would indeed have been mistaken if he did. Historical priority must surely be granted to associations, the government of which, while one may not choose to call it monarchic, was at least patriarchal or possibly matriarchal. There is, however, one passage in which he allows himself to assert that departures from democracy, other than its development into representative government, were not only a moral and political but also an historical decline.

The passage which Ayer then cites is one in which Paine notes that direct democracies, in some form, were known in the ancient world. But these democracies, Paine reports, disappear when they grow too large, victims of their own success: they either become monarchies or are swallowed up by monarchies. If these ancient democracies had possessed the insight to institute a representative system, Paine argues, they would have maintained their liberty while growing. In his book, the Rights of Man, Paine writes:

Representation was a thing unknown in the ancient democracies. In those the mass of the people met and enacted laws (grammatically speaking) in the first person. Simple democracy was no other than the common hall of the ancients. It signifies the form, as well as the public principle of the government. As those democracies increased in population, and the territory extended, the simple democratical form became unwieldy and impracticable; and as the system of representation was not known, the consequence was, they either degenerated convulsively into monarchies, or became absorbed into such as then existed. Had the system of representation been then understood, as it now is, there is no reason to believe that those forms of government, now called monarchical or aristocratical, would ever have taken place. It was the want of some method to consolidate the parts of society, after it became too populous, and too extensive for the simple democratical form, and also the lax and solitary condition of shepherds and herdsmen in other parts of the world, that afforded opportunities to those unnatural modes of government to begin.

Despite Paine’s internal inconsistencies on the abstract conceptual level, he is consistent on the concrete matter of arguing for a system of freely elected representatives - a ‘republic’ in his understanding of the word. In this, he was thoroughly in the company of those who led the movement for independence in the second half of the eighteenth century in North America.