Political Truth.

From: Essays on the Principles of Morality, and on the Private and Political Rights and Obligations of Mankind (1834).
Author: Jonathan Dymond
Published: Harper & Brothers 1834 Philadelphia


  THE fundamental principles which are deducible from the law of nature and from Christianity, respecting political affairs, appear to be these:

  1. Political Power is rightly possessed only when it is possessed by, consent of the community:—

  2. It is rightly exercised only when it subserves the welfare of the community;—

  3. And only when it subserves this purpose by means which the moral law permits.



  Perfect liberty is desirable if it were consistent with the greatest degree of happiness. But it is not. Men find that by giving up a part of their liberty, they are more happy than by retaining, or attempting to retain, the whole. Government, whatever be its form, is the agent by which the inexpedient portion of individual liberty is taken away. Men institute government for their own advantage, and because they find they are more happy with it than without it. This is the sole reason, in principle, how little soever it be adverted to in practice. Governors therefore are the officers of the public, in the proper sense of the word: not the slave of the public; for if they do not incline to conform to the public will, they are at liberty, like other officers, to give up their office. They are servants in the same manner, and for the same purpose, as a solicitor is the servant of his client, and the physician of his patient. These are employed by the patient or the client voluntarily for his own advantage, and for nothing else. A nation (not an individual, but a nation) is under no other obligation to obedience than that which arises from the conviction that obedience is good for itself:—or rather, in more proper language, a nation is under no obligation to obedience at all. Obedience is voluntary. If they do not think it proper to obey,—that is, if they are not satisfied with their officers,—they are at liberty to discontinue their obedience, and to appoint other officers instead.

  That which is thus true as a universal proposition is asserted with respect to this country by the present king:—“The powers and prerogatives of the crown are vested there as a trust for the benefit of the people; and they are sacred only as they are necessary to the preservation of that poise and balance of the constitution which experience has proved to be the best security of the liberty of the subject.”1

  It is incidental to the office of the first public servants, that they should exercise authority over those by whom they are selected; and hence, probably, it has happened that the terms “public officer;” “public servant,” have excited such strange controversies in the world. Men have not maintained sufficient discrimination of ideas. Seeing that governors are great and authoritative, a man imagines it cannot be proper to say they are servants. Seeing that it is necessary and right that individuals should obey, he cannot entertain the notion that they are the servants of those whom they govern. The truth is, that governors are not the servants of individuals but of the community. They are the masters of individuals, the servants of the public; and if this simple distinction had been sufficiently home in mind, much perhaps of the vehement contention upon these matters had been avoided.

  But the idea of being a servant of the public is quite consistent with the idea of exercising authority over them. The common language of a patient is founded upon similar grounds. He sends for a physician:—the physician comes at his desire,—is paid for his services,—and then the patient says, I am ordered to adopt a regimen, I am ordered to Italy; and he obeys, not because he may not refuse to obey if he chooses, but because he confides in the judgment of the physician, and thinks that it is more to his benefit to be guided by the physician’s judgment than by his own. But it will be said, the physician cannot enforce his orders upon the patient against his will: neither I answer can the governor enforce his upon the public against theirs. No doubt governors do sometimes so enforce them. What they do, however, and what they rightfully do, are separate considerations, and our business is only with the latter.

  Grotius argues that sovereign power may be possessed by governors, so that it shall not rightfully belong to the community. He says, “From the Jewish as well as the Roman law it appears, that any one might engage himself in private servitude to whom he pleased. Now if an individual may do so, why may not a whole people, for the benefit of better government and more certain protection, completely transfer their sovereign rights to one or more persons without reserving any portion to themselves?”2—I answer, No individual may do this: and, if he might, it would not serve the doctrine in the case of nations.—It never can be right for a man to resign the absolute direction of his conduct to another, because he must then do actions good or bad as that other might command,—he must lie, or rob, or assassinate; and of this common sense would pronounce the impropriety, if the moral law did not. And if you say a man ought not so to resign himself to another, then I answer, he does not transfer sovereign power but retains it himself,—which, is truth, ends the argument.

  But if the doctrine were sound for the individual, it is unsound for a community. What is meant by the “transfer of their sovereign rights by a whole people?” Is every man, woman, and child in the country formally to sign the transfer? If not, how shall a whole people transfer it? At any rate, if they did, their resignation could not bind their children or successors. Besides, there is the same objection to this transfer of the sovereign power on the part of a nation as on the part of an individual. The thing is absurd in reason, and criminal in morals.

  Grotius illustrates his argument by “that authority to which a woman submits when she gives herself to her husband.” But she does not submit to sovereign authority. He says again, “some powers are conferred for the sake of the governor, as the right of a master over a slave.” Bui such powers are never justly conferred.

  After all, these arguments do but establish, in reality, the fundamental position. They assume that a people can resign the sovereign power; which is the same thing as to acknowledge that they rightfully possess it. Grotius himself says, “A state is a perfect body of freemen, united together in order to enjoy common rights and advantages.”3

  It gives some anxiety to the mind of the writer, lest the reader should identify his principles with those of many who have asserted the “sovereignty of the people.” This doctrine has been insisted upon by persons who have mingled with it, or deduced from it, principles which the writer not merely rejects, but abhors. A doctrine is not unsound because it has been advocated or perverted by bad men; and it is neither rational nor honest to reprobate a truth because it has been viciously associated. Gifford, in his Life of Pitt, complains of Fox, who by “a strange perversion of terms and a confusion of intellect that would have disgraced even a schoolboy, called his sovereign the servant of the people. This,” says Gifford, “was a servile imitation of the French regicides, and a direct encouragement to all the theoretical reveries of all the disaffected in England.” This is the species of association which I would deprecate: French regicides taught the doctrine, and disaffected theorists taught it. I am sorry that a truth should be so connected; but it is not the less a truth. The “confusion of intellect” of which Gifford speaks probably subsisted more in the writer than in Fox,—for reasons which the reader has just seen, and because the biographer had probably confounded the doctrine with the conduct of some who supported it. The reader should practise a little of the power of abstraction, and detach accidental associations from truth itself.

  In reality, it cannot be asserted that the people do not rightfully possess the supreme power, without asserting that governors may do what they will, and be as tyrannical as they will. Who may prevent them? The people? Then the people hold the sovereign power.

  Many political constitutions have existed in which the governor was held to be absolutely the supreme power. The antiquity of such constitutions, or the regular succession of the existing governor, does not make his pretensions to this power just, because the principles on which it is ascertained that the people are supreme, are antecedent to all questions of usage and superior to them. No injustice, therefore, is done,—nothing wrong is done,—in diminishing or taking away the power of an absolute monarch, notwithstanding the regularity of his pretensions to it. Yet other principles have been held: and it was said of Louis the Sixteenth, that as he “was the sole maker and executor of the laws,” and as this power “had been exercised by him and by his ancestors for centuries without question or control, it was not in the power of the states to deprive him of any portion of it without his own consent.” So that we are told that many millions of persona ought to be subject for ever to the vices or caprices of one man, in compliment to the fact that their predecessors had been subject before them.4 He who maintains such doctrine surely forgets for what purpose government is instituted at all.

  The rule that “political power is rightly possessed only when it is possessed by consent of the community,” necessarily applies to the choice of the person who is to exercise it. No man, and no set of men, rightly govern, unless they are preferred by the public to others. It is of no consequence that a people should formally select a president or a king. They continually act upon the principle without this. A people who are satisfied with their governor make, day by day, the choice of which we speak. They prefer him to all others; they choose to be served by him rather than by any other; and he, therefore, is virtually, though not formally, selected by the public. But, when we speak of the right of a particular person or family to govern a people, we speak, as of all other rights, in conditional language. The right consists in the preference which is given to him; and exists no longer than that preference exists. If any governor were fully conscious that the community preferred another man or another kind of government, he ought to regard himself in the light of a usurper if he nevertheless continues to retain his power. Not that every government ought to dissolve itself, or every governor to abdicate his office, because there is a general but temporary clamour against it. This is one thing,—the steady deliberate judgment of the people is another.—Is it too much to hope that the time may come when governments will so habitually refer to the purposes of government, and be regulated by them, that they will not even wish to hold the reins longer than the people desire it; and that nothing more will be needed for a quiet alteration, than that the public judgment should be quietly expressed?

  Political revolutions are not always favourable to the accurate illustration of political truth; because such is the moral condition of mankind, that they have seldom acted in conformity with it. Revolutions have commonly been the effect of the triumph of a party, or of the successes of physical power. Yet, if the illustration of these principles has not been accurate, the general position of the right of the people to select their own rulers has often been illustrated. In our own country, when James II. left the throne, the people filled it with another person, whose real title consisted in the choice of the people, James continued to talk of his rights to the crown; but if William was preferred by the public, James was, what his son was afterward called, a Pretender. The non-jurors appear to have acted upon erroneous principles—(except indeed on the score of former oaths to James; which however ought never to have been taken).—If we acquit them of motives of party, they will appear to have entertained some notions of the rights of governors independently of the wishes of the people. At William’s death the nation preferred James’s daughter to his son; thus again elevating their judgments above all considerations of what the Pretender called his rights. Anne had then a right to the throne, and her brother had not. At the death of Anne, or rather in contemplation of her death; the public had again to select their governor; and they chose, not the immediate representative of the old family, but the Elector of Hanover: and it is in virtue of the same choice, tacitly expressed at the present hour, that the heir of the elector now fills the throne.

  [The habitual consciousness on the part of a legislature, that its authority is possessed in order to make it an efficient guardian and promoter of the general welfare and the general satisfaction, would induce a mon mild and conciliating system of internal policy than that which frequently obtains. Whether it has arisen from habit resulting from the violent and imperious character of international policy,—or from that tendency to unkindness and overbearing which the consciousness of power induces—it cannot be doubted that measures of governments are frequently adopted and conducted with such a high hand as impairs the satisfaction of the governed, and diminishes, by example, that considerate attention to the claims of others, upon which much of the harmony, and therefore the happiness, of society consists. Governments are too much afraid of conciliation. They too habitually suppose that mildness or concession indicates want of courage or want of power,—that it invites unreasonable demands, and encourages encroachment and violence on the part of the governed.—Man is not so intractable a being, or so insensible of the influence of candour and justice. In private life, he does not the most easily guide the conduct of his neighbours who assumes an imperious, but he who assumes a temperate and mild demeanour. The best mode of governing, and the most powerful mode too, is to recommend state measures to the judgment and the affections of a people. If this had been sufficiently done in periods of tranquillity, some of those conflicts which have arisen between governments and the people had doubtless been prevented; and governments had been spared the mortification of conceding that to violence which they refused to concede in periods of quiet. We should not wait for times of agitation to do that which Fox advised even at such a time,—because at other periods it may be done with greater advantage, and with a better grace. “It may be asked,” said Fox, “what I would propose to do in times of agitation like the present? I will answer openly:—If there is a tendency in the dissenters to discontent, what should I do? I would instantly repeal the corporation and test acts, and take from them thereby all cause of complaint. If there were any persons tinctured with a republican spirit, I would endeavor to amend the representation of the commons, and to prove that the House of Commons, though not chosen by all, should have no other interest than to prove itself the representative of all, If men were dissatisfied on account of disabilities or exemptions, &c., I would repeal the penal statutes, which are a disgrace to our law-books. If there were other complaints of grievance, I would redress them where they were really proved: but above all, I would constantly, cheerfully, patiently listen: I would make it known that if any man felt, or thought he felt, a grievance, be might come freely to the bar of this House and bring his proofs. And it should be made manifest to all the world, that where they did exist they should be redressed; where not, it should be made manifest.”5

  We need not consider the particular examples and measures which the statesman instanced. The temper and spirit is the thing. A government should do that of which every person would see the propriety in a private man:—if misconduct was charged upon him, show that the charge was unfounded; or, being substantiated, amend his conduct.].

1 Letter when Prince of Wales, to Wm. Pitt. Gifford’s Life of Pitt, vol. ii.
2 Rights of War and Peace.
3 Rights of War and Peace.
4 We do not here defend the conduct of the states, or censure that of Louis: we speak merely of the political truth. That atrocious course of wickedness, the French Revolution, was occasioned by the abuses of the old government and its ramifications. The French people, unhappily, had neither virtue enough nor political knowledge enough to reform these abuses by proper means. A revolution of some kind, and at some period, awaits I doubt not, every despotic government in Europe and in the world. Happy will it be for those rulers who timely and wisely regard the irresistible progress of public opinion! And happy for those communities which endeavour reformation only by virtuous means!
5 Fell’s Memoirs of the Public Life of C.J. Fox.

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