Forms of Government.

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


  THERE is one great cause which prevents the political moralist from describing, absolutely, what form of government is preferable to all others,—which is, that the superiority of a form depends, like the proper degree of civil liberty, upon the existing condition of a community. Other doctrine has indeed been held: “Wherever men are competent to look the first duties of humanity in the face, and to provide for their defence against the invasions of hunger and the inclemencies of the sky, there they will, out of all doubt, be found equally capable of every other exertion that may be necessary to their security and welfare. Present to them a constitution which shall put them into a simple and intelligible method of directing their own affairs, adjudging their contests among themselves and cherishing in their bosoms a manly sense of dignity, equality, and independence, and you need not doubt that prosperity and virtue will be the result.1

  There is need to doubt and to disbelieve it,—unless it can be shown from experience that uncultivated and vicious men require nothing more to make them wise and good than to be told the way. “Present to them a constitution.” Who shall present it? Some foreign intelligence, manifestly; and if this foreign intelligence is necessary to devise a constitution, it will be necessary, to keep it in operation and in order. But when this is granted, it is in effect granted that an uncultivated and vicious people are not “capable of every exertion that may be necessary to their security and welfare.”

  But if certain forms cannot be specified which shall be beat for the adoption of every state, there are general principles to direct us.

  It is manifest that the form of government, like the administration of power, should be conformable to the public wish. In a certain sense, and in a sense of no trifling import, that form is beat for a people which the people themselves prefer: and this rule applies, even although the form may not be intrinsically the best; for public welfare and satisfaction are the objects of government, and this satisfaction may sometimes be ensured by a form which die public prefer, more effectually than by a form essentially better which they dislike. Besides, a nation is likely to prefer that form which accords beat with what is called the national genius; and thus there may be a real adaptation of a form to a people which is yet not abstractedly the best, nor the best for their neighbours. But when it is said that that form of government ought to be adopted for a people which they themselves prefer, it is not to be forgotten that their preference is often founded upon their weaknesses or their ignorance. Men adhere to an established form because they think little of a better. Long prescription gives to even bad systems an obscure sanctity among unthinking men. No reasonable man can suppose that the government of Louis the Fourteenth was good for the French people, or that that form could be good which enabled him &o trifle with or to injure the public welfare. And yet, when his ambition and tyranny had reduced the French to poverty and to wretchedness, they still clung to their oppressor, and made wonderful sacrifices to support his power.—Now, though it might have been both improper and unjust to give a new constitution to the French when they preferred the old, yet such examples indicate the sense, in which only it is true that the form which a people prefer is the best for them; and they indicate, too, most powerfully, the duty of every citizen and of every legislator to diffuse just notions of political truth. The nature of a government contributes powerfully no doubt to the formation of this national genius; and thus an imperfect form sometimes contributes to its own duration.

  In the present condition of mankind, it is probable that some species of monarchy is best for the greater part of the world. Republicanism opens more wide the gates of ambition. He who knows that the utmost extent of attainable power is to be the servant of a prince is not likely to be fired by those boundless schemes of ambition which may animate the republican leader. The virtue of the generality of mankind is not sufficiently powerful to prompt them to political moderation without the application of an external curb; and thus it happens that the order and stability of a government is more efficiently secured by die indisputable supremacy of one man. Now, order and stability are among the first requisites of a good constitution, for the objects of political institutions cannot be secured without them.

  I accept the word monarchy in a large sense. It is not necessary to the security of these advantages, even in the existing state of human virtue, that the monarch should possess what we call kingly power. By monarchy I mean a form of government in which one man is invested with power greatly surpassing that of every other. The peculiar means by which this power is possessed do not enter necessarily into the account. The individual may have the power of a sultan, or a czar, or a king, or a president: that is, he may possess various degrees of power, and yet the essential principle of monarchy and its practical tendencies may be the same in all,—the same to repress violence by extent of power, the same to discountenance ambition by the hopelessness of gratifying unlimited desire.

  It is usual to insist, as one of the advantages of monarchy, upon its secrecy and despatch: which secrecy and despatch, it is to be observed, would be of comparatively little importance in a more advanced state of human virtue. Where diplomatic chicanery and hostile exertions are employed, despatch and secrecy are doubtless very subservient to success; but take away the hostility and chicanery,—take away, that is, such wickedness from among men, and secrecy and despatch would be of little interest or importance. We love darkness rather than light, because our deeds are evil. Thus it is that unnumbered usages and institutions find advocacy, rather in the immoral condition of mankind than in the direct evidences of their excellence.

“An hereditary monarchy is universally to be preferred to an elective monarchy. The confession of every writer on the subject of civil government, the experience of ages, the example of Poland and of the papal dominions, seem to place this among the few indubitable maxims which the science of politics admits of.”2 But, without attempting to decide upon the preferableness of hereditary or elective monarchy, it may be questions whether this formidable array of opinion has not been founded upon the mischiefs which actually have resulted from electing princes, rather than from those which are inseparable from the election. The election of the kings of Poland convulsed that unhappy country, and sometimes embroiled Europe. The election of popes has produced similar effects; but this is no evidence that popes and kings cannot be elected by pacific means: cardinals and lords may embroil a nation, when other electors would not.

  I call the President of the United States a monarch. He is not called, indeed, an emperor, or a king, or a duke, but he exercises much of regal power. Yet he is elected; and where is the mischief! The United States are not convulsed: civil war is not waged: foreign princes do not support with armies the pretensions of one candidate or another:—and yet he is elected. Who then will say that other monarchs might not be elected too? It will not be easy to show that the being invested with greater power than the President of America necessarily precludes the peaceable election of a prince. The power of the President differs, I believe, less from that of the King of England, than the power of the king differs from that of the Russian emperor. No man can define the maximum of power which might be conferred without public mischief by the election of the public. Yet I am attempting so elucidate a political truth, and not recommending a practice. It is, indeed, possible, that when the genius of a people and the whole mass of their political institutions are favourable to an election of the supreme magistrate, election would be preferable to hereditary succession. But election is not without its disadvantages, especially if the appointment be for a short time. When there are several candidates, and when the inclinations of the community are consequently divided, he who actually assumes the rein, is the sovereign of the choice of only a portion of the people. The rest prefer another: which circumstance is not only likely to animate the hostilities of faction, but to make the elected party regard one portion of the people as his enemies and the other as his friends. But he should be the parent of all the people.

  Fox observed, with respect to the British constitution, that “the safety of the whole depends on the jealousy which each retains against the others, not on the patriotism of any one branch of the legislature.”3 This is doubtless true; yet surely it is a melancholy truth. It is a melancholy consideration that, in constructing a constitution, it is found necessary, not to encourage virtue, but to repress vice, and to contrive mutual curbs upon ambition and licentiousness. It is a tacit, but a most emphatical acknowledgment, how much private inclination triumphs over public virtue, and how little legislators are disposed to keep in the right political path, unless they are restrained from deviation by walls and spikes.

  Yet it is upon this lamentable acknowledgment that the great institutions of free states are frequently founded. A balance of interests and passions is contrived, something like the balance of power of which we hear so much among the nations of Europe,—a balance of which the necessity (if it be necessary) consists in the wickedness, the ambition, and the violence of mankind. If nations did not viciously desire to encroach upon one another, this balance of power would be forgotten; and in a purer state of human virtue, the jealousies of the different branches of a legislature will not need to be balanced against each other. Until the period of this advanced state of human excellence shall arrive, I know not how this balance can be dispensed with. It may still be needful to oppose power to power, to restrain one class of interests by the counteraction of others, and to procure general quiet to the whole by annexing inevitable evils to the encroachments of the separate parts. Thus, again, it happens that constitutions which are not abstractedly the best, or even good, may be the best for a nation now.

  Whatever be the form of a government, one quality appears to be essential to practical excellence,—that it should be susceptible of peaceable change. The science of government, like other sciences, acquires a constant accession of light. The intellectual condition of the world is advancing with onward strides. And both these considerations intimate that forms of government should be capable of admitting, without disturbance, those improvements which experience may dictate or the advancing condition of a community may require. To reject improvement is absurd: to incapacitate ourselves for adopting it is absurd also. It surely is no unreasonable sacrifice of vanity to admit, that those who succeed us may be better judges of what is good for themselves than we can be for them.

  Upon these grounds, no constitution should be regarded as absolutely and sacredly fixed, so that none ought and none have a right to alter it. The question of right is easily settled. It is inherent in the community, or in the legislature as their agents. It would be strange, indeed, if our predecessors five or six centuries ago had a right to make a constitution for us, which we have no right to alter for ourselves. Such checks ought, no doubt, to be opposed to alterations, that they may not be lightly and crudely made. The exercise of political wisdom is to discover that point in which sufficient obstacles are opposed to hasty innovation, and in which sufficient facility is afforded for real improvement by virtuous means. The common disquisitions about the value of stability in governments, like those about the sacredness of forms, are frequently founded in inaccurate views. What confusion, it is exclaimed, and what anarchy and commotions would follow, if we were at liberty continually to alter political constitutions! But it is forgotten that these calamities result from the circumstance that constitutions are not made easily alterable. The interests which so many have in keeping up the present state of things make them struggle against an alteration; and it is this struggle which induces the calamities, rather than any thing necessarily incidental to the alteration itself. Take away these interests, take away the motives to these struggles, and improvements may be peacefully made. Yet it must be acknowledged that to take away these interests is no light task. We must once again refer to “the present condition of mankind,” and confess that it may be doubted whether any community would possess a stable or an efficient government, if no interests bound its officers to exertion. To such a government patronage is probably at present indispensable. They who possess patronage, and they who are enriched or exalted by its exercise, array themselves against those propositions of change which would diminish their eminence or their wealth. And I perceive no means by which the existence of these interests and their consequent operation can be avoided, except by that elevation of the moral character of our race which would bring with it adequate motives to serve the public without regard to honours or rewards.—It is however indisputably true, that these interests should be as much as is practicable diminished; and in whatever degree this is effected, in the same degree there will be ·a willingness to admit those improvements in the form of governments which prudence and wisdom may prescribe.

  “Let no new practice in politics be introduced, and no old one anxiously superseded, till called for by the public voice.”4 The same advice may be given respecting the alteration of forms; because alterations which are not so called for may probably fail of a good effect from the want of a congenial temper in the people,—and because, as the public wish is the natural measure of sound political institutions, even beneficial changes ought not to be forced upon them against their own consent. The public mind, however, should be enlightened by a government. The legislator who perceives that another form of government is better for his country, does not do all his duty if he declares himself willing to concur in the alteration when the country desires it: he should create that desire by showing its reasonableness.—Unhappily there is a vis inertiæ in governments of which the tendency is opposite to this. The interests which prompt men to maintain things as they are, and dread of innovation, and sluggishness, and indifference, occasion governments to be among the last portion of the community to diffuse knowledge respecting political truth. But when the public mind has by any means become enlightened, so that the public voice demands an alteration of an existing form, it is one of the plainest as well as one of the greatest duties of a government to make the alteration: not reluctantly but joyfully, not urging the prescription of ages, and what is called “the wisdom of our ancestors,” but philosophically, yet soberly, accommodating present institutions to the present state of mankind.

  If, then, it is asked by what general rule forms of government should be regulated, I would say,—Accommodate the form to the opinion of the community, whatever that community may prefer: and, adopt institutions such as will facilitate the peaceable admission of alterations as greater light and knowledge become diffused. I would not say to the sultan, Adopt the constitution of England to-morrow; because the sudden transition would probably effect, for a long time, more evil than good. I would not say to the King of France, Descend from the throne and establish a democracy; because I do not think, and experience does not teach us to think, that democracy, even if it were theoretically best, is best for France at the present day.

  Turning, indeed, to the probable future condition of the world, there is reason to think that the popular branches of all governments will progressively increase in influence, and perhaps eventually predominate. This appears to be the natural consequence of the increasing power of public opinion. The public judgment is not only the proper, but almost the necessary, eventual measure of political institutions; and it appears evident that as that judgment becomes enlightened, it will be exercised, and that, as it is exercised, it will prevail. The expression of public opinion upon political affairs, and consequently the influence of that opinion, partakes obviously of the principles of popular government. If public opinion governs, it must govern by some agency by which public opinion is expressed; and this expression can in no way so naturally be effected as by some modification of popular authority. These considerations, which appear obvious to reasoning, are enforced by experience. There is a manifest tendency in the world to the increase of the power of the public voice; and the effect is seen in the new constitutions which have been established in the New World and in the Old. Few permanent revolutions are effected in which the community do not acquire additional influence in governing themselves.

  It will not perhaps be disputed, that if the world were wise and good, the beat form of government would be that of democracy in a very simple state, Nothing would be wanting but to ascertain the general wish and to collect the general wisdom. If, therefore, the present propriety of other forms of government results from the present condition of mankind, there is reason to suppose that they may gradually lapse away, as that condition, moral and intellectual, is improved. Whether mankind are thus improving readers may differently decide; and their various decisions will lead to various conclusions respecting the future predominance of the public voice: the writer of these pages is one who thinks that the world is improving, that virtue as well as knowledge is extending its power; and therefore that, as ages roll along, every form of government but that which consists in some organ of the general mind will gradually pass away. It may be hoped, too, that this gradual lapse will be occasioned, without solicitude on the part of those who then possess privileges or power, to retain either to themselves. That same state of virtue and excellence which enabled the people almost immediately to govern themselves would prevent others from wishing to retain the reins. Purer motives than the love of greatness, of power, or of wealth would influence them in the choice of their political conduct. They might have no motive so powerful as the promotion of the general weal.

  As no limit can be assigned to that degree of excellence which it may please the Universal Parent eventually to diffuse through the world,—so none can be assigned to the simplicity and purity of the form in which government shall be carried on. In truth, the mind, as it passes onward and still onward in its anticipations of purity, stops not until it arrives at that period when all government shall cease; when there shall be no wickedness to require the repressing arm of power; when terror to the evil-doers and praise to them that do well, shall no longer be needed, because none will do evil though there be no ruler to punish, and all will do well from higher and better motives than the praise of man.


  In speaking of political constitutions, it is not sufficiently remembered in how great a degree good government depends upon the character and the virtue of those who shall conduct it. There is much of truth in the political maxim that “whatever is best administered is best.” But how shall good administration be secured except by the good dispositions of the administrators? The great present concern of mankind, in the selection of their legislators, respects their political opinions rather than their moral and Christian character. This exclusive reference to political biases is surely unwise-because it leaves the passions and interests to operate without that control which individual virtue only can impart. Thus we are obliged to contrive reins and curbs for the public servants, as the charioteer contrives them for an unruly horse; too much forgetting that the best means of securing the safety of the vehicle of state are found in the good dispositions of those who move it onward. Political tendencies are important, but they are not the most important point: moral tendencies are the first and the greatest. The question in England should be, less, “ministerialist or oppositionist?” in America, less, “federalist or republican?” than in both, “a good or a bad man?” Rectitude of intention is the primary requisite; and whatever preference I might give to superiority of talents and to political principles, above all, and before all, I should prefer the enlightened Christian: knowing that his character is the best pledge of political uprightness, and that political uprightness is the best security of good government.

1 Godwin’s Enq. Pol. Jut. vol. i., p. 69.
2 Paley: Mor. and Pol. Phil. p.3, b.6, c. 6.
3 Speech on the Regency Question.
4 Godwin: Pol. Just. v. ii. p. 503. This doctrine is adverse to that which is quoted in the first page of this chapter, where to be able to provide for mere physical wants is stated to be a sufficient qualification for the reception of an entirely new system of politics.

All Sub-Works of Essays on the Principles of Morality, and on the Private and Political Rights and Obligations of Mankind (1834).:
PDF Sub-Works open in a new tab. Close the tab when done viewing to return here.