The writing of Thomas Paine: On France and England


I NOW proceed to draw some comparisons between the French constitution and the governmental usages in England.

The French constitution says that every man who pays a tax of sixty sous per annum (2s. 6d. English) is an elector. What will Mr. Burke place against this ? Can anything be more limited, and at the same time more capricious, than the qualifications of electors are in England ?

The French constitution says that the National Assembly shall be elected every two years. What will Mr. Burke place against this ? Why, that the nation has no right at all in the case, and that the government is perfectly arbitrary with respect to this point.

The French constitution says that the right of war and peace is in the nation. Where else should it reside but in those who are to pay the expense ? In England this right is said to reside in a metaphor shown at the Tower for sixpence or a shilling a head.

It may with reason be said that in the manner the English nation is represented it signifies not where the right resides, whether in the crown or in the parliament. War is the common harvest of all those who participate in the division and expenditure of public money in all countries. In reviewing the history of the English government, an impartial bystander would declare that taxes were not raised to carry on wars, but that wars were raised to carry on taxes.

The French constitution says, 'There shall be no titles'; and, of consequence, 'nobility' is done away, and the peer is exalted unto man.

Titles are but nicknames, and every nickname is a title. The thing is perfectly harmless in itself, but it marks a sort of foppery in the human character which degrades it. If no mischief had annexed itself to the folly of titles, they would not have been worth a serious and formal destruction. Let us examine the grounds upon which the French constitution has resolved against having a house of peers.

Because, in the first place, aristocracy is kept up by family tyranny and injustice, due to the unnatural and iniquitous law of primogeniture.

Secondly, because the idea of hereditary legislators is as inconsistent as that of hereditary judges or hereditary juries; and as absurd as an hereditary mathematician, or an hereditary wise man; and as ridiculous as an hereditary poet-laureate.

Thirdly, because a body of men, holding themselves accountable to nobody, ought not to be trusted by anybody.

Fourthly, because it is continuing the uncivilized principle of government founded on conquest, and the base idea of man having property in man and governing him by personal right.

The French constitution hath abolished or renounced toleration and intolerance also, and hath established universal right of conscience. Toleration is not the opposite of intolerance, but is the counterfeit of it. Both are despotisms. The one assumes to itself the right of withholding liberty of conscience, and the other of granting it. Who art thou, vain dust and ashes ! by whatever name thou art called, whether a king, a bishop, a church, a state, or a parliament, or anything else, that obtrudest thine insignificance between the soul of man and its Maker ? Mind thine own concerns. If he believes not as thous believest, it is a proof that thou believest not as he believes and there is no earthly power can determine between you.

THE opinions of men with respect to government are changing fast in all countries. The revolutions of America and France have thrown a beam of light over the world, which reaches into men. Ignorance is of a peculiar nature; once dispelled, it is impossible to reestablish it. It is not originally a thing of itself, but is only the absence of knowledge; and though man may be kept ignorant, he cannot be made ignorant.

When we survey the wretched condition of man under the monarchical and hereditary systems of government, dragged from his home by one power, or driven by another, and impoverished by taxes more than by enemies, it becomes evident that these systems are bad and that a general revolution in the principle and construction of governments is necessary.

And it is not difficult to perceive, from the enlightened state of mankind, that hereditary governments are verging to their decline, and that revolutions on the broad basis of national sovereignty and government by representation are making their way in Europe; it would be wisdom to anticipate their approach and produce revolutions by reason and accommodation rather than commit them to the issue of convulsions.


THE danger to which the success of revolutions is most exposed is in attempting them before the principles on which they proceed, and the advantages to result from them, are sufficiently understood. Almost everything appertaining to the circumstances of a nation has been absorbed and confounded under the general and mysterious word 'government.' It may, therefore, be of use in this day of revolutions to discriminate between those things which are the effect of government and those which are not.

A great part of that order which reigns among mankind is not the effect of government. It has its origin in the principles of society and the natural constitution of man. The mutual dependence and reciprocal interest which man has upon man, and all parts of civilized community upon each other, create that chain of connexion which holds it together.

The more perfect civilization is, the less occasion has it for government, because the more does it regulate its own affairs and govern itself. All the great laws of society are laws of nature. They are followed and obeyed because it is the interest of the parties to do so, and not on account of any formal laws their governments may impose. But how often is the natural propensity to society disturbed or destroyed by the operations of government !

It is impossible that such governments as have hitherto existed in the world would have commenced by any other means than a total violation of every principle, sacred and moral. The obscurity in which the origin of all the present old governments is buried implies the iniquity and disgrace with which they began.

Government on the old system is an assumption of power for the aggrandizement of itself; on the new, a delegation of power for the common benefit of society. The one now called the old is hereditary, either in whole or in part, and the new is entirely representative. It rejects all hereditary government: first as being an imposition on mankind; secondly, as inadequate to the purposes for which government is necessary.

All hereditary government is in its nature tyranny. To inherit a government is to inherit the people, as if they were flocks and herds. Kings succeed each other, not as rationals, but as animals. It signifies not what their mental or moral characters are. Monarchical government appears under all the various characters of childhood, decrepitude, dotage; a thing at nurse, in leading-strings, or on crutches. In short, we cannot conceive a more ridiculous figure of government than hereditary succession.

The representative system takes society and civilization for its basis; nature, reason and experience for its guide. The original simple democracy was society governing itself without the aid of secondary means. By ingrafting representation upon democracy we arrive at a system of government capable of embracing and confederating all the various interests and every extent of territory and population; and with advantages as much superior to hereditary government as the republic of letters is to hereditary literature.

CONSIDERING government in the only light in which it should be considered, that of a National Association, it ought to be so constructed as not to be disordered by any accident happening among the parts, and, therefore, no extraordinary power should be lodged in the hands of any individual. Monarchy would not have continued so many ages in the world had it not been for the abuses it protects. It is the master-fraud, which shelters all others. By admitting a participation of the spoil, it makes itself friends; and when it ceases to do this it will cease to be the idol of courtiers.

One of the greatest improvements that have been made for the perpetual security and progress of constitutional liberty is the provision which the new constitutions make for occasionally revising, altering and amending them. The best constitutions that could now be devised may be far short of that excellence which a few years may afford. There is a morning of reason rising upon man on the subject of governments that has not appeared before.

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