A fragment on government/Chapter 1

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CHAPTER I

Formation of Government

1. The first object which our Author seems to have proposed to himself in the dissertation we are about to examine, is to give us an idea of the manner in which Governments were formed. This occupies the first paragraph, together with part of the second: for the typographical division does not seem to quadrate very exactly with the intellectual. As the examination of this passage will unavoidably turn in great measure upon the words, it will be proper the reader should have it under his eye.

2. `The only true and natural foundations of society,' (says our Author)[1] `are the wants and the fears of individuals. Not that we can believe, with some theoretical writers, that there ever was a time when there was no such thing as society; and that, from the impulse of reason, and through a sense of their wants and weaknesses, individuals met together in a large plain, entered into an original contract, and chose the tallest man present to be their governor. This notion of an actually existing unconnected state of nature, is too wild to be seriously admitted; and besides, it is plainly contradictory to the revealed accounts of the primitive origin of mankind, and their preservation two thousand years afterwards; both which were effected by the means of single families. These formed the first society, among themselves; which every day extended its limits, and when it grew too large to subsist with convenience in that pastoral state, wherein the Patriarchs appear to have lived, it necessarily subdivided itself by various migrations into more. Afterwards, as agriculture increased, which employs and can maintain a much greater number of hands, migrations became less frequent; and various tribes which had formerly separated, re-united again; sometimes by compulsion and conquest, sometimes by accident, and sometimes perhaps by com pact. But though society had not its formal beginning from any convention of individuals, actuated by their wants and their fears; yet it is the sense of their weakness and imperfection that keeps mankind together; that demonstrates the necessity of this union; and that therefore is the solid and natural foundation, as well as the cement of society: And this is what we mean by the original contract of society; which, though perhaps in no instance it has ever been formally expressed at the first institution of a state, yet in nature and reason must always be understood and implied, in the very act of associating together: namely, that the whole should protect all its parts, and that every part should pay obedience to the will of the whole; or, in other words, that the community should guard the rights of each individual member, and that (in return for this protection) each individual should submit to the laws of the community; without which submission of all it was impossible that protection could be certainly extended to any.

`For when society is once formed, government results of course, as necessary to preserve and to keep that society in order. Unless some superior were constituted, whose commands and decisions all the members are bound to obey, they would still remain as in a state of nature, without any judge upon earth to define their several rights, and redress their several wrongs.' Thus far our Author.

3. When leading terms are made to chop and change their several significations; sometimes meaning one thing, sometimes another, at the upshot perhaps nothing; and this in the compass of a paragraph; one may judge what will be the complexion of the whole context. This, we shall see, is the case with the chief of those we have been reading: for instance, with the words `Society','State of nature', original contract',not to tire the reader with any more. `Society', in one place means the same thing as `a state of nature' does: in another place it means the same as `Government'. Here, we are required to believe there never was such a state as a state of nature: there we are given to understand there has been. In like manner with respect to an original contract we are given to understand that such a thing never existed; that the notion of it is ridiculous: at the same time that there is no speaking nor stirring without supposing there was one.

4. 1st, Society means a state of nature. For if by `a state of nature' a man means any thing, it is the state, I take it, men are in or supposed to be in, before they are under government: the state men quit when they enter into a state of government; and in which were it not for government they would remain. But by the word `society' it is plain at one time that he means that state. First, according to him, comes society; then afterwards comes government. `For when society', says our Author, `is once formed, government results of course; as necessary to preserve and keep that society in order.'[2] And again, immediately afterwards,'A state in which a superior has been constituted, whose commands and decisions all the members are bound to obey', he puts as an explanation (nor is it an inapt one) of a state of `government': and `unless' men were in a state of that description, they would still remain', he says, `as in a state of nature'. By society, therefore, he means, once more, the same as by a `state of nature': he opposes it to government. And he speaks of it as a state which, in this sense, has actually existed.

5. 2dly, This is what he tells us in the beginning of the second of the two paragraphs: but all the time the first paragraph lasted, society meant the same as government. In shifting then from one paragraph to another, it has changed its nature. `Tis `the foundations of society',[3] that he first began to speak of, and immediately he goes on to explain to us, after his manner of explaining, the foundations of government. `Tis of a `formal beginning' of 'Society',[4] that he speaks soon after; and by this formal beginning, he tells us immediately, that he means, `the original contract of society',[5] which contract entered into, `a state',[6] he gives us to understand, is thereby `instituted', and men have undertaken to `submit to Laws'.[7] So long then as this first paragraph lasts, `society', I think, it is plain cannot but have been meaning the same as `government'.

6. 3dly, All this while too, this same `state of nature' to which we have seen `Society' (a state spoken of as existing) put synonymous, and in which were it not for government, men, he informs us, in the next page, would `remain',[8] is a state in which they never were. So he expressly tells us. This `notion', says he, `of an actually existing unconnected state of nature'; (that is, as he explains himself afterwards,[9] `a state in which men have no judge to define their rights, and redress their wrongs), is too wild to be seriously admitted'.[10] When he admits it then himself, as he does in his next page, we are to understand, it seems, that he is bantering us: and that the next paragraph is (what one should not otherwise have taken if for) a piece of pleasantry.

7. 4thly, The original contract is a thing, we are to understand, that never had existence; perhaps not in any state: certainly therefore not in all. `Perhaps, in no instance', says our Author, `has it ever been formally expressed at the first institution of a state.'[11]

8. 5thly, Notwithstanding all this, we must suppose, it seems, that it had in every state: `yet in nature and reason', (says our Author) `it must always be understood and implied'.[12] Growing bolder in the compass of four or five pages, where he is speaking of our own Government, he asserts roundly,[13] that such a Contract was actually made at the first formation of it. `The legislature would be changed', he says, `from that which was originally set up by the general consent and fundamental act of the society.'

9. Let us try whether it be not possible for something to be done towards drawing the import of these terms out of the mist in which our Author has involved them. The word `Society', I think it appears, is used by him, and that without notice, in two senses that are opposite. In the one, SOCIETY, or a STATE of SOCIETY, is put synonymous to a STATE of NATURE; and stands opposed to GOVERNMENT, or a STATE OF GOVERNMENT: in this sense, it maybe styled, as it commonly is, natural SOCIETY. In the other, it is put synonymous to GOVERNMENT, or a STATE OF GOVERNMENT; and stands opposed to a STATE OF NATURE. In this sense it may be styled, as it commonly is, political SOCIETY. Of the difference between these two states, a tolerably distinct idea,. I take it, may be given in a word or two.

10. The idea of a natural society is a negative one. The idea of a political society is a positive one. `Tis with the latter, therefore, we should begin.

When a number of persons (whom we may style subjects) are supposed to be in the habit of paying obedience to a person, or an assemblage of persons, of a known and certain description (whom we may call governor or governors) such persons altogether (subjects and governors) are said to be in a state of political SOCIETY.

11. The idea of a state of natural SOCIETY is, as we have said, a negative one. When a number of persons are supposed to be in the habit of conversing with each other, at the same time that they are not in any such habit as mentioned above, they are said to be in a state of natural SOCIETY.

12. If we reflect a little, we shall perceive, that, between these two states, there is not that explicit separation which these names, and these definitions might teach one, at first sight, to expect. It is with them as with light and darkness: however distinct the ideas may be, that are, at first mention, suggested by those names, the things themselves have no determinate bound to separate them. The circumstance that has been spoken of as constituting the difference between these two states, is the presence or absence of an habit of obedience. This habit, accordingly, has been spoken of simply as present (that is as being perfectly present) or, in other words, we have spoken as if there were a perfect habit of obedience, in the one case: it has been spoken of simply as absent (that is, as being perfectly absent) or, in other words, we have spoken as if there were no habit of obedience at all, in the other. But neither of these manners of speaking, perhaps, is strictly just. Few, in fact, if any, are the instances of this habit being perfectly absent; certainly none at all, of its being perfectly present. Governments accordingly, in proportion as the habit of obedience is more perfect, recede from, in proportion as it is less perfect, approach to, a state of nature: and instances may present themselves in which it shall be difficult to say whether a habit, perfect, in the degree in which, to constitute a government, it is deemed necessary it should be perfect, does subsist or not.[14]

13. On these considerations, the supposition of a perfect state of nature, or, as it may be termed, a state of society perfectly natural, may, perhaps, be justly pronounced, what our Author for the moment seemed to think it, an extravagant supposition: but then that of a government in this sense perfect; or, as it may be termed, a state of society perfectly political, a state of perfect political union, a state of perfect submission in the subject, of perfect authority in the governor, is no less so.[15]

14. A remark there is, which, for the more thoroughly clearing up of our notions on this subject, it may be proper here to make. To some ears, the phrases, `state of nature,' `state of political society,' may carry the appearance of being absolute in their signification: as if the condition of a man, or a company of men, in one of these states, or in the other, were a matter that depended altogether upon themselves. But this is not the case. To the expression `state of nature,' no more than to the expression `state of political society,' can any precise meaning be annexed, without reference to a party different from that one who is spoken of as being in the state in question. This will readily be perceived. The difference between the two states lies, as we have observed, in the habit of obedience. With respect then to a habit of obedience, it can neither be understood as subsisting in any person, nor as not subsisting in any person, but with reference to some other person. For one party to obey, there must be another party that is obeyed. But this party who is obeyed, may at different times be different. Hence may one and the same party be conceived to obey and not to obey at the same time, so as it be with respect to different persons, or as we may say, to different objects of obedience. Hence it is, then, that one and the same party may be said to be in a state of nature, and not to be in a state of nature, and that at one and the same time, according as it is this or that party that is taken for the other object of comparison. The case is, that in common speech, when no particular object of comparison is specified, all persons in general are intended: so that when a number of persons are said simply to be in a state of nature, what is understood is, that they are so as well with reference to one another, as to all the world.

15. In the same manner we may understand, how the same man, who is governor with respect to one man or set of men, may be subject with respect to another: how among governors some may be in a perfect state of nature, with respect to each other: as the KINGS of FRANCE and SPAIN: others, again, in a state of perfect subjection, as the HOSPODARS OF WALACHIA and MOLDAVIA with respect to the GRAND SIGNIOR: others, again, in a state of manifest but imperfect subjection, as the GERMAN States with respect to the EMPEROR: others, again, in such a state in which it may be difficult to determine whether they are in a state of imperfect subjection or in a perfect state of nature: as the KING of NAPLES with respect to the POPE.[16]

16. In the same manner, also, it may be conceived, without entering into details, how any single person, born, as all persons are, into a state of perfect subjection to his parents, that is into a state of perfect political society with respect to his parents, may from thence pass into a perfect state of nature; and from thence successively into any number of different states of political society more or less perfect, by passing into different societies.

17. In the same manner also it may be conceived how, in any political society, the same man may, with respect to the same individuals, be, at different periods, and on different occasions, alternately, in the state of governor and subject: to-day concurring, perhaps active, in the business of issuing a general command for the observance of the whole society, amongst the rest of another man in quality of Judge: to-morrow, punished, perhaps, by a particular command of that same Judge for not obeying the general command which he himself (I mean the person acting in character of governor) had issued. I need scarce remind the reader how happily this alternate state of authority and submission is exemplified among ourselves.

18. Here might be a place to state the different shares which different persons may have in the issuing of the same command: to explain the nature of corporate action: to enumerate and distinguish half a dozen or more different modes in which subordination between the same parties may subsist: to distinguish and explain the different senses of the words, `consent', `representation', and others of connected import: consent and representation, those interesting but perplexing words, sources of so much debate: and sources or pretexts of so much animosity. But the limits of the present design will by no means admit of such protracted and intricate discussions.

19. In the same manner, also, it may be conceived, how the same set of men considered among themselves, may at one time be in a state of nature, at another time in a state of government. For the habit of obedience, in whatever degree of perfection it be necessary it should subsist in order to constitute a government, may be conceived, it is plain, to suffer interruptions. At different junctures it may take place and cease.

20. Instances of this state of things appear not to be unfrequent. The sort of society that has been observed to subsist among the AMERICAN INDIANS may afford us one. According to the accounts we have of those people, in most of their tribes, if not in all, the habit we are speaking of appears to be taken up only in time of war. It ceases again in time of peace. The necessity of acting in concert against a common enemy, subjects a whole tribe to the orders of a common Chief. On the return of peace each warrior resumes his pristine independence.

21. One difficulty there is that still sticks by us. It has been started indeed, but not solved.This is to find a note of distinction,a characteristic mark, whereby to distinguish a society in which there is a habit of obedience, and that at the degree of perfection which is necessary to constitute a state of government, from a society in which there is not: a mark, I mean, which shall have a visible determinate commencement; insomuch that the instant of its first appearance shall be distinguishable from the last at which it had not as yet appeared. `Tis only by the help of such a mark that we can be in a condition to determine, at any given time, whether any given society is in a state of government, or in a state of nature. I can find no such mark, I must confess, any where, unless it be this; the establishment of names of office: the appearance of a certain man, or set of men, with a certain name, serving to mark them out as objects of obedience: such as King, Sachem, Cacique, Senator, Burgomaster, and the like.' This, I think, may serve tolerably well to distinguish a set of men in a state of political union among themselves from the same set of men not yet in such a state.

22. But suppose an incontestable political society, and that a large one, formed; and from that a smaller body to break off: by this breach the smaller body ceases to be in a state of political union with respect to the larger: and has thereby placed itself, with respect to that larger body, in a state of nature What means shall we find of ascertaining the precise juncture at which this change took place? What shall be taken for the characteristic mark in this case? The appointment, it may be said, of new governors with new names. But no such appointment, suppose, takes place. The subordinate governors, from whom alone the people at large were in use to receive their commands under the old government, are the same from whom they receive them under the new one. The habit of obedience which these subordinate governors were in with respect to that single person, we will say, who was the supreme governor of the whole, is broken off insensibly and by degrees. The old names by which these subordinate governors were characterized, while they were subordinate, are continued now they are supreme. In this case it seems rather difficult to answer.

23. If an example be required, we may take that of the DUTCH provinces with respect to SPAIN. These provinces were once branches of the Spanish monarchy. They have now, for a long time, been universally spoken of as independent states: independent as well of that of Spain as of every other. They are now in a state of nature with respect to Spain. They were once in a state of political union with respect to Spain: namely, in a state of subjection to a single governor, a King, who was King of Spain. At what precise juncture did the dissolution of this political union take place? At what precise time did these provinces cease to be subject to the King of Spain? This, I doubt, will be rather difficult to agree upon.[17]

24. Suppose the defection to have begun, not by entire provinces, as in the instance just mentioned, but by a handful of fugitives, this augmented by the accession of other fugitives, and so, by degrees, to a body of men too strong to be reduced, the difficulty will be increased still farther. At what precise juncture was it that ancient ROME, or that modern VENICE, became an independent state?

25. In general then, at what precise juncture is it, that persons subject to a government, become, by disobedience, with respect to that government, in a state of nature? When is it, in short, that a revolt shall be deemed to have taken place; and when, again, is it, that that revolt shall be deemed to such a degree successful, as to have settled into independence?

26. As it is the obedience of individuals that constitutes a state of submission, so is it their disobedience that must constitute a state of revolt. Is it then every act of disobedience that will do as much? The affirmative, certainly, is what can never be maintained: for then would there be no such thing as government to be found any where. Here then a distinction or two obviously presents itself. Disobedience may be distinguished into conscious or unconscious: and that, with respect as well to the law as to the fact.[18] Disobedience that is unconscious with respect to either, will readily, I suppose, be acknowledged not to be a revolt. Disobedience again that is conscious with respect to both, may be distinguished into secret and open; or, in other words, into fraudulent and forcible.[19] Disobedience that is only fraudulent, will likewise, I suppose, be readily acknowledged not to amount to a revolt.

27. The difficulty that will remain will concern such disobedience only as is both conscious, (and that as well with respect to law as fact,) and forcible. This disobedience, it should seem, is to be determined neither by numbers altogether (that is of the persons supposed to be disobedient) nor by acts, nor by intentions: all three may be fit to be taken into consideration. But having brought the difficulty to this point, at this point I must be content to leave it. To proceed any farther in the endeavour to solve it, would be to enter into a discussion of particular local jurisprudence. It would be entering upon the definition of Treason, as distinguished from Murder, Robbery, Riot, and other such crimes, as, in comparison with Treason, are spoken of as being of a more private nature. Suppose the definition of Treason settled, and the commission of an act of Treason is, as far as regards the person committing it, the characteristic mark we are in search of.

28. These remarks it were easy to extend to a much greater length. Indeed, it is what would be necessary, in order to give them a proper fulness, and method, and precision. But that could not be done without exceeding the limits of the present design. As they are, they may serve as hints to such as shall be disposed to give the subject a more exact and regular examination.

29. From what has been said, however, we may judge what truth there is in our Author's observation, that `when society' (understand natural society) `is once formed, government' (that is political society) (whatever quantity or degree of Obedience is necessary to constitute political society) `results of course; as necessary to preserve and to keep that society in order.' By the words, `of course,' is meant, I suppose, constantly and immediately: at least constantly. According to this, political society, in any sense of it, ought long ago to have been established all the world over. Whether this be the case, let any one judge from the instances of the Hottentots, of the Patagonians, and of so many other barbarous tribes, of which we hear from travellers and navigators.

30. It may be, after all, we have misunderstood his meaning. We have been supposing him to have been meaning to assert a matter of fact, and to have written, or at least begun, this sentence in the character of an historical observer; whereas, all he meant by it, perhaps, was to speak in the character of a Censor, and on a case supposed, to express a sentiment of approbation. In short, what he meant, perhaps, to persuade us of, was not that `government' does actually `result' from natural `society'; but that it were better that it should, to wit, as being necessary to `preserve and keep' men `in that state of order', in which it is of advantage to them that they should be. Which of the above mentioned characters he meant to speak in, is a problem I must leave to be determined. The distinction, perhaps, is what never so much as occurred to him; and indeed the shifting insensibly, and without warning, from one of those characters to the other, is a failing that seems inveterate in our Author; and of which we shall probably have more instances than one to notice.

31. To consider the whole paragraph (with its appendage) together, something, it may be seen our Author struggles to over throw, and something to establish. But how it is he would overthrow, or what it is he would establish, are questions I must confess myself unable to resolve. `The preservation of mankind', he observes, `was effected by single families.' This is what upon the authority of the Holy Scriptures, he assumes; and from this it is that he would have us conclude the notion of an original contract (the same notion which he afterwards adopts) to be ridiculous. The force of this conclusion, I must own, I do not see. Mankind was preserved by single families Be it so. What is there in this to hinder `individuals' of those families, or of families descended from those families, from meeting together `afterwards, in a large plain', or any where else, `entering into an original contract', or any other contract, `and choosing the tallest man', or any other man, `present', or absent, to be their Governor? The `flat contradiction' our Author finds between this supposed transaction and the `preservation of mankind by single families', is what I must own myself unable to discover. As to the `actually existing unconnected state of nature' he speaks of, `the notion of which', he says, `is too wild to be seriously admitted', whether this be the case with it, is what, as he has given us no notion of it at all, I cannot judge of.

32. Something positive, however, in one place, we seem to have. These `single families,' by which the preservation of mankind was effected; these single families, he gives us to understand, `formed the first society.' This is something to proceed upon. A society then of the one kind or the other; a natural society, or else a political society, was formed. I would here then put a case, and then propose a question. In this society we will say no contract had as yet been entered into; no habit of obedience as yet formed. Was this then a natural society merely, or was it a political one? For my part, according to my notion of the two kinds of society as above explained, I can have no difficulty. It was a merely natural one. But, according to our Author's notion, which was it? If it was already a political one, what notion would he give us of such an one as shall have been a natural one; and by what change should such precedent natural one have turned into this political one? If this was not a political one, then what sort of a society are we to understand any one to be which is political? By what mark are we to distinguish it from a natural one? To this, it is plain, our Author has not given any answer. At the same time, that to give an answer to it, was, if any thing, the professed purpose of the long paragraph before us.

33. It is time this passage of our Author were dismissed As among the expressions of it are some of the most striking of those which the vocabulary of the subject furnishes, and these ranged in the most harmonious order, on a distant glance nothing can look fairer: a prettier piece of tinsel-work one shall seldom see exhibited from the shew-glass of political erudition. Step close to it, and the delusion vanishes. It is then seen to consist partly of self-evident observations, and partly of contradictions; partly of what every one knows already and partly of what no one can understand at all.

34. Throughout the whole of it, what distresses me is, not the meeting with any positions, such as, thinking them false, I find a difficulty in proving so: but the not meeting with any positions, true, or false, (unless it be here and there a self-evident one,) that I can find a meaning for. If I can find nothing positive to accede to, no more can I to contradict. Of this latter kind of work, indeed, there is the less to do for any one else, our Author himself having executed it, as we have seen, so amply.

The whole of it is, I must confess, to me a riddle: more acute, by far, than I am, must be the Oedipus that can solve it. Happily it is not necessary, on account of any thing that follows, that it should be solved. Nothing is concluded from it. For aught I can find, it has in itself no use, and none is made of it. There it is, and as well might it be any where else, or no where.

35. Were it then possible, there would be no use in its being solved: but being, as I take it, really unsolvable, it were of use it should be seen to be so. Peace may by this means be restored to the breast of many a desponding student, who, now prepossessed with the hopes of a rich harvest of instruction, makes a crime to himself of his inability to reap what, in truth, his Author has not sown.

36. As to the Original Contract, by turns embraced and ridiculed by our Author, a few pages, perhaps, may not be ill bestowed in endeavouring to come to a precise notion about its reality and use. The stress laid on it formerly, and still, perhaps, by some, is such as renders it an object not undeserving of attention. I was in hopes, however, till I observed the notice taken of it by our author, that this chimera had been effectually demolished by Mr HUME.[20] I think we hear not so much of it now as formerly. The indestructible prerogatives of mankind have no need to be supported upon the sandy foundation of a fiction.

37. With respect to this, and other fictions, there was once a time, perhaps, when they had their use. With instruments of this temper, I will not deny but that some political work may have been done, and that useful work, which, under the then circumstances of things, could hardly have been done with any other. But the season of Fiction is now over: insomuch, that what formerly might have been tolerated and countenanced under that name, would, if now attempted to be set on foot, be censured and stigmatized under the harsher appellations of incroachment or imposture. To attempt to introduce any new one, would be now a crime: for which reason there is much danger, without any use, in vaunting and propagating such as have been introduced already. In point of political discernment, the universal spread of learning has raised mankind in a manner to a level with each other, in comparison of what they have been in any former time: nor is any man now so far elevated above his fellows, as that he should be indulged in the dangerous licence of cheating them for their good.

38. As to the fiction now before us, in the character of an argumentum ad hominem coming when it did, and managed as it was, it succeeded to admiration.

That compacts, by whomsoever entered into, ought to be kept; that men are bound by compacts, are propositions which men, without knowing or enquiring why, were disposed universally to accede to. The observance of promises they had been accustomed to see pretty constantly enforced. They had been accustomed to see Kings, as well as others, behave themselves as if bound by them. This proposition, then, `that men are bound by compacts;' and this other, `that, if one party performs not his part, the other is released from his,' being propositions which no man disputed, were propositions which no man had any call to prove. In theory they were assumed for axioms: and in practice they were observed as rules.[21] If, on any occasion, it was thought proper to make a shew of proving them, it was rather for form's sake than for any thing else: and that, rather in the way of memento or instruction to acquiescing auditors, than in the way of proof against opponents. On such an occasion the common place retinue of phrases was at hand; Justice, Right Reason required it, the Law of Nature commanded it, and so forth; all which are but so many ways of intimating that a man is firmly persuaded of the truth of this or that moral proposition, though he either thinks he need not, or finds he can't, tell why. Men were too obviously and too generally interested in the observance of these rules to entertain doubts concerning the force of any arguments they saw employed in their support It is an old observation how Interest smooths the road to Faith.

39. A compact, then, it was said, was made by the King and People: the terms of it were to this effect. The People, on their part, promised to the King a general obedience. The King, on his part, promised to govern the people in such a particular manner always, as should be subservient to their happiness. I insist not on the words: I undertake only for the sense; as far as an imaginary engagement, so loosely and so variously worded by those who have imagined it, is capable of any decided signification. Assuming then, as a general rule, that promises, when made, ought to be observed; and, as a point of fact, that a promise to this effect in particular had been made by the party in question, men were more ready to deem themselves qualified to judge when it was such a promise was broken, than to decide directly and avowedly on the delicate question, when it was that a King acted so far in opposition to the happiness of his people, that it were better no longer to obey him.

40. It is manifest, on a very little consideration, that nothing was gained by this manoeuvre after all: no difficulty removed by it. It was still necessary, and that as much as ever, that the question men studied to avoid should be determined, in order to determine the question they thought to substitute in its room. It was still necessary to determine, whether the King in question had, or had not acted so far in opposition to the happiness of his people, that it were better no longer to obey him; in order to determine, whether the promise he was supposed to have made, had, or had not been broken. For what was the supposed purport of this promise? It was no other than what has just been mentioned.

41. Let it be said, that part at least of this promise was to govern m subservience to Law: that hereby a more precise rule was laid down for his conduct, by means of this supposal of a promise, than that other loose and general rule to govern in subservience to the happiness of his people: and that, by this means, it is the letter of the Law that forms the tenor of the rule.

Now true it is, that the governing in opposition to Law, is one way of governing in opposition to the happiness of the people: the natural effect of such a contempt of the Law being, if not actually to destroy, at least to threaten with destruction, all those rights and privileges that are founded on it: rights and privileges on the enjoyment of which that happiness depends. But still it is not this that can be safely taken for the entire purport of the promise here in question: and that for several reasons. First, Because the most mischievous, and under certain constitutions the most feasible, method of governing in opposition to the happiness of the people, is, by setting the Law itself in opposition to their happiness. Secondly, Because it is a case very conceivable, that a King may, to a great degree, impair the happiness of his people without violating the letter of any single Law. Thirdly, Because extraordinary occasions may now and then occur, in which the happiness of the people may be better promoted by acting, for the moment, in opposition to the Law, than in subservience to it. Fourthly, Because it is not any single violation of the Law, as such, that can properly be taken for a breach of his part of the contract, so as to be understood to have released the people from the obligation of performing theirs. For, to quit the fiction, and resume the language of plain truth, it is scarce ever any single violation of the Law that, by being submitted to, can produce so much mischief as shall surpass the probable mischief of resisting it. If every single instance whatever of such a violation were to be deemed an entire dissolution of the contract, a man who reflects at all would scarce find any-where, I believe, under the sun, that Government which he could allow to subsist for twenty years together. It is plain, therefore, that to pass any sound decision upon the question which the inventors of this fiction substituted instead of the true one, the latter was still necessary to be decided. All they gained by their contrivance was, the convenience of deciding it obliquely, as it were, and by a side wind that is, in a crude and hasty way, without any direct and steady examination.

42. But, after all, for what reason is it, that men ought to keep their promises? The moment any intelligible reason is given, it is this: that it is for the advantage of society they should keep them; and if they do not, that, as far as punishment will go, they should be made to keep them. It is for the advantage of the whole number that the promises of each individual should be kept: and, rather than they should not be kept, that such individuals as fail to keep them should be punished. If it be asked, how this appears? the answer is at hand: Such is the benefit to gain, and mischief to avoid, by keeping them, as much more than compensates the mischief of so much punishment as is requisite to oblige men to it. Whether the dependence of benefit and mischief (that is, of pleasure and pain) upon men's conduct in this behalf, be as here stated, is a question of fact, to be decided, in the same manner that all other questions of fact are to be decided, by testimony, observation, and experience.[22]

43. This then, and no other, being the reason why men should be made to keep their promises, viz, that it is for the advantage of society that they should, is a reason that may as well be given at once, why Kings, on the one hand, in governing, should in general keep within established Laws, and (to speak universally) abstain from all such measures as tend to the unhappiness of their subjects: and, on the other hand, why subjects should obey Kings as long as they so conduct themselves, and no longer; why they should obey in short so long as the probable mischiefs of obedience are less than the probable mischiefs of resistance: why, in a word, taking the whole body together, it is their duty to obey, just so long as it is their interest, and no longer. This being the case, what need of saying of the one, that he PROMISED so to govern; of the other, that they PROMISED so to obey, when the fact is otherwise?

44. True it is, that, in this country, according to ancient forms, some sort of vague promise of good government is made by Kings at the ceremony of their coronation: and let the acclamations, perhaps given, perhaps not given, by chance persons out of the surrounding multitude, be construed into a promise of obedience on the part of the whole multitude: that whole multitude itself, a small drop collected together by chance out of the ocean of the state: and let the two promises thus made be deemed to have formed a perfect compact: not that either of them is declared to be the consideration of the other.

45. Make the most of this concession, one experiment there is, by which every reflecting man may satisfy himself, I think, beyond a doubt, that it is the consideration of utility, and no other, that, secretly but unavoidably, has governed his judgment upon all these matters. The experiment is easy and decisive. It is but to reverse, in supposition, in the first place the import of the particular promise thus feigned; in the next place, the effect in point of utility of the observance of promises in general. Suppose the King to promise that he would govern his subjects not according to Law; not in the view to promote their happiness: would this be binding upon him? Suppose the people to promise they would obey him at all events, let him govern as he will; let him govern to their destruction. Would this be binding upon them? Suppose the constant and universal effect of an observance of promises were to produce mischief would it then be men's duty to observe them? Would it then be right to make Laws, and apply punishment to oblige men to observe them?

46. `No;' (it may perhaps be replied) `but for this reason; among promises, some there are that, as every one allows, are void: now these you have been supposing, are unquestionably of the number. A promise that is in itself void, cannot, it is true, create any obligation. But allow the promise to be valid, and it is the promise itself that creates the obligation, and nothing else.' The fallacy of this argument it is easy to perceive. For what is it then that the promise depends on for its validity? what is it that being present makes it valid? what is it that being wanting makes it void? To acknowledge that any one promise may be void, is to acknowledge that if any other is binding, it is not merely because it is a promise. That circumstance then, whatever it be, on which the validity of a promise depends, that circumstance, I say, and not the promise itself must, it is plain, be the cause of the obligation which a promise is apt in general to carry with it.

47. But farther. Allow, for argument's sake, what we have dis proved: allow that the obligation of a promise is independent of every other: allow that a promise is binding propriâ vi Binding then on whom? On him certainly who makes it. Admit this: For what reason is the same individual promise to be binding on those who never made it? The King, fifty years ago, promised my Great-Grandfather to govern him according to Law: my Great-Grandfather, fifty years ago, promised the King to obey him according to Law. The King, just now, promised my neighbour to govern him according to Law: my neighbour, just now, promised the King to obey him according to Law Be it so What are these promises, all or any of them, to me? To make answer to this question, some other principle, it is manifest, must be resorted to, than that of the intrinsic obligation of promises upon those who make them.

48. Now this other principle that still recurs upon us, what other can it be than the principle of UTILITY?[23] The principle which furnishes us with that reason, which alone depends not upon any higher reason, but which is itself the sole and all-sufficient reason for every point of practice whatsoever.


  1. 1 Comm. p.47.
  2. v. supra p. 426.
  3. 1 Comm. p.47.
  4. 1 Comm. p.47. supra p. 426.
  5. 1 Comm. p.47. supra p.425.
  6. 1 Comm. p.47. supra p. 425.
  7. 1 Comm. p.48. supra p. 426.
  8. Comm. p.48. supra p.426.
  9. 1 Comm. p.48. supra p.425.
  10. 1 Comm. p.47. supra p.425.
  11. 1 Comm. p. 46. supra p.426.
  12. 1 Comm. p.46. supra p.426.
  13. 1 Comm. p.52.
  14. 1. A habit is but an assemblage of acts: under which name I would also include, for the present, voluntary forebearances. 2. A habit of obedience then is an assemblage of acts of obedience. 3. An act of obedience is any act done in pursuance of an expression of will on the part of some superior. 4. An act of POLITICAL obedience (which is what is here meant) is any act done in pursuance of an expression of will on the part of a person governing. 5. An expression of will is either parole or tacit. 6. A parole expression of wilt is that which is conveyed by the signs called words. 7. A tacit expression of will is that which is conveyed by any other signs whatsoever: among which none are so efficacious as acts of punishment annexed in time past, to the non-performance of acts of the same sort with those that are the objects of the will that is in question. 8. A parole expression of the will of a superior is a command. 9. When a tacit expression of the will of a superior is supposed to have been uttered, it may be styled a fictitious command. 10. Were we at liberty to coin words after the manner of the Roman lawyers, we night say a quasi-command. 11. The STATUTE LAW is composed of commands. The COMMON LAW, of quasi-commands. 12. An act which is the object of a command actual or fictitious; such an act, considered before it is performed, is styled a duty, or a point of duty. 13. These definitions premised, we are now in a condition to give such an idea, of what is meant by the perfection or imperfection of a habit of obedience in a society as may prove tolerably precise. 14. A period in the duration of the society; the number of persons it is composed of during that period; and the number of points of duty incumbent on each person being given;the habit of obedience will be more or less perfect' in the ratio of the number of acts of obedience to those of disobedience. 15. The habit of obedience in this country appears to have been more perfect in the time of the Saxons than in that of the Britons: unquestionably it is more so now than in the time of the Saxons. It is not yet so perfect, as well contrived and well digested laws its time, it is to be hoped, may render it. But absolutely perfect, till man ceases to be man, it never can be. A very ingenious and instructive view of the progress of nations, from the least perfect states of political union to that highly perfect state of it in which we live, may be found in Load Kaims's Historical Law Tracts. 16. For the convenience and accuracy of discourse it may be of use, in this place to settle the signification of a few other expressions relative to the same subject. Persons who, with respect to each other, are ins state of political society, may be said also to be in a state of political union or connection. 17. Such of them as are subjects may, accordingly, be said to be in a state of submission, or of subjection, with respect to governors: such as are governors in a state of authority with respect to subjects. 18. When the subordination is considered as resulting originally from the will, or (it maybe more proper to say) the pleasure of the party governed, we rather use the word `submission:' when from that of the party governing, the word `subjection.' On this account it is, that the term can scarcely be used without apology, unless with a note of disapprobation: especially in this country, where the habit of considering the consent of the persons governed as being in some sense or other involved in the notion of all lawful, that is, all commendable government, has gained so firm a ground. It is on this account, then, that the term `subjection,' excluding as it does, or, at least, not including such consent, is used commonly in what is called a BAD sense: that is, in such a sense as, together with the idea of the object in question, conveys the accessary idea of disapprobation. This accessary idea, however, annexed as it is to the abstract term `subjection,' does not extend itself to the concrete term `subjects'a kind of inconsistency of which there are many instances in language.
  15. It is true that every person must, for sometime, at least, after hjs birth, necessarily be in a state of subjection with respect to his parents, or those who stand in the place of parents to him; and that a perfect one, or at least as near to being a perfect one, as any that we see. But for all this, the sort of society that is constituted by a state of subjection thus circumstanced, does not come up to the idea that, I believe, is generally entertained by those who speak of a political society. To constitute what is meant in general by that phrase, a greater number of members is required, or, at least, a duration capable of a longer continuance. Indeed, for this purpose nothing less, I take it, than an indefinite duration is required. A society, to come within the notion of what is originally meant by a political one, must be such as, in its nature, is not incapable of continuing for ever in virtue of the principles which gave it birth. This, it is plain, is not the case with such a family society, of which a parent, or a pair of parents are at the head. In such a society, the only principle of union which is certain and uniform in its operation, is the natural weakness of those of its members that are in a state of subjection; that is, the children; a principle which has but a short and limited continuance. I question whether it be the case even with a family society, subsisting in virtue of collateral consanguinity; and that for the like reason. Not but that even in this case a habit of obedience, as perfect as any we see examples of, may subsist for a time; to wit, in virtue of the same moral principles which may protract a habit of filial obedience bcyond the continuance of the physical ones which gave birth so it: I mean affection, gratitude, awe, the force of habit, and the like. But it is not long, even in this case, before the bond of connection must either become imperceptible or lose its influence by being too extended. These considerations, therefore, it will be proper to bear in mind in applying the definition of political society above given (in par. 10) and in order to reconcile it with what is said further on (in par. 17).
  16. The Kingdom of Naples is feudatory to the Papal See: and in token of fealty, the King, at his accession, presents the Holy Father with a white horse. The Royal vassal sometimes treats his Lord but cavalierly: but always sends him his white horse.
  17. Upon recollection, I have some doubt whether this example would be found historically exact. If not, that of the defection of the Nabobs of Hindostan may answer the purpose. My first choice fell upon the former; supposing it to be rather better known.
  18. # Disobedience may be said to be unconscious with respect to the fact, when the party is ignorant either of his having done the act itself, which is forbidden by the law, or else of his having done it in those circumstances, in which alone it is forbidden.
    1. Disobedience may be said to be unconscious, with respect to the law; when although he may know of his having done the act that is in reality forbidden, and that, under the circumstances in which it is forbidden, he knows not of its being forbidden in these circumstances.
    2. So long as the business of spreading abroad the knowledge of the law continues to lie in the neglect in which it has lain hitherto, instances of disobedience unconscious with respect to the law, can never be otherwise than abundant.
  19. If examples be thought necessary, Theft may serve for an example of fraudulent disobedience; Robbery of forcible. In Theft, the person of the disobedient party, and the act of disobedience, are both endeavoured to be kept secret. In Robbery, the act of disobedience, at least, if not the person of him who disobeys, is manifest and avowed.
  20. 1. In the third Volume of his TREATISE on HUMAN NATURE. Our Author, one would think, had never so much as opened that celebrated book: of which the criminality in the eyes of some, and the merits in the eyes of others, have since been almost effaced by the splendour of more recent productions of the same pen. The magnanimity of our Author scorned, perhaps, or his circumspection feared, to derive instruction from an enemy: or, what is still more probable, he knew not that the subject had been so much as touched upon by that penetrating and acute metaphysician, whose works lie so much out of the beaten track of Academic reading. But here, as it happens, there is no matter for such fears. Those men, who are most alarmed at the dangers of a free enquiry; those who are most intimately convinced that the surest way to truth is by hearing nothing but on one side, will, I dare answer almost, find nothing of that which they deem poison in this third volume. I would not wish to send the Reader to any other than this, which, if I recollect aright, stands clear of the objections that have of late been urged, with so much vehemence, against the work in general.[By Dr BEATTIE, in his Essay on the Immutability of Truth.] As to the two first, the Author himself, I am inclined to think, is not ill disposed, at present, to join with those who are of opinion, that they nsight, without any great loss to the science of Human Nature, be dispensed with. The like might be said, perhaps, of a considerable part, even of this. But, after all retrenchments, there will still remain enough to have laid mankind under indelible obligations. That the foundations of all virtue are laid in utility, is there demonstrated, after a few exceptions made, with the strongest force of evidence: but I see not, any more than Helvetius saw, what need there was for the exceptions. 2. For my own part, I well remember, no sooner had I read that part of the work which touches on this subject, than I felt as if scales had fallen from my eyes, I then, for the first time, learnt to call the cause of the people the cause of Virtue. Perhaps a short sketch of the wanderings of a raw but well-intentioned mind, in its researches after moral truth, may, on this occasion, be not unuseful: for the history of one mind is the history of many. The writings of the honest, but prejudiced, Earl of Clarendon to whose integrity nothing was wanting, and to whose wisdom little, but the fortune of living something later; and the contagion of a monkish atmosphere; these, and other concurrent causes, had listed my infant affections on the side of despotism. The Genius of the place I dwelt in, the authority of the state, the voice of the Church in her solemn offices; all these taught me to call Charles a Martyr, and his opponents rebels. I saw innovation, where indeed innovation, but a glorious innovation, was, in their efforts to withstand him. I saw falsehood, where indeed falsehood was, in their disavowals of innovation. I saw selfishness, and an obedience to the call of passion, in the efforts of the oppressed to rescue themselves from oppression. I saw strong countenance lent in the sacred writings to monarchic government: and none to any other. I saw passive obedience deep stamped with the seal of the Christian Virtues of humility and self-denial. Conversing with Lawyers, I found them full of the virtues of their Original Contract, as a recipe of sovereign efficacy for reconciling the accidental necessity of resistance with the general duty of submission. This drug of theirs they administered to me to calm my scruples. But my unpractised stomach revolted against their opiate. I bid them open to me that page of history in which the solemnization of this important contract was recorded. They shrunk from this challenge; nor could they, when thus pressed, do otherwise than our Author has done, confess the whole to be a fiction. This, methought, looked ill. It seemed tome the acknowledgment of a bad cause, the bringing a fiction to support it. `To prove fiction, indeed,' said I, `there is need of fiction; but it is the characteristic of truth to need no proof but truth. Have you then really any such privilege as that of coining facts? You are spending argument to no purpose. Indulge yourselves in the licence of supposing that to be true which is not, and as well may you suppose that proposition itself to be true, which you wish to prove, as that other whereby you hope to prove it.' Thus continued I unsatisfying, and unsatisfied, till I learnt to see that utility was the test and measure of all virtue; of loyalty as much as any; and that the obligation to minister to general happiness, was an obligation paramount to and inclusive of every other. Having thus got the instruction I stood in need of, I sat down to make my profit of it. I bid adieu to the original contract: and I left it to those to amuse themselves with this rattle, who could think they needed it.
  21. A compact or contract (for the two words on this occasion, at least, are used in the same sense) may, I think, be defined, a pair of promises, by two persons reciprocally given, the one promise in consideration of the other.
  22. The importance which the observance of promises is of to the happiness of society, is placed in a very striking and satisfactory point of view, in a little apologue of Montesquieu, entitled, The History of the Troglocytes.[See the Collection of his Works.] The Troglodytes are a people who pay no regard to promises. By the natural consequences of this disposition, they fall from one scene of misery into another; and are at last exterminated. The same Philosopher, in his Spirit of Laws, copying and refining upon the current jargon, feigns a LAW for this and other purposes, after defining a LAW to be a relation. How much more instructive on this head is the fable of the Troglodytes than the pseudo-metaphysical sophistry of the Esprit des Loix!
  23. To this denomination, has of late been added, or substituted, the greatest happiness or greatest felicity principle: this, for shortness, instead of saying at length that principle which states the greatest happiness of all those whose interest lain question, as being the right and proper, and only right and proper and universally desirable, end of human action: of human action in every situation; and, in particular, in that of a functionary, or set of functionaries, exercising the powers of Government. The word utility does not so clearly point to the ideas of pleasure and pain as the words happiness and felicity do: nor does it lead us to the consideration of the number, of the interests affected: [to] the number, as being the circumstance which contributes, in the largest proportion, to the formation of the standard here in question; the standard of right and wrong, by which alone the propriety of human conduct, in every situation, can with propriety be tried. This want of a sufficiently manifest connection between the ideas of happiness and pleasure on the one hand, and the idea of utility on the other, I have every now and then found operating, and with but too much efficiency, as a bar to the acceptance, that might otherwise have been given, to this principle. For further elucidation of the principle of utility, or say greatest happiness principle, it may be some satisfaction to the reader, to see a note, inserted in a second edition, now printing, of a later work of the Author's, intitled `An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation'. In chapter 1, subjoined to paragraph xiii is a note in these words:'The principle of utility' (I have heard it said) `is a dangerous principle: it is dangerous on certain occasions to consult it.' This is as much as to saywhat? that it is not consonant to utility to consult utility; in short, that it is not consulting it, to consult it. In the second edition, to this note is added the following paragraph. Explanation, written 12th July, 1822, relative to the above note. Not long after the publication of the Fragment on Government, Anno 1776, in which, in the character of an all-comprehensive and all-commanding principle, the principle of utility was brought to view, one person by whom observation to the above effect was made was Alexander Wedderburn, at that time Attorney or Solicitor General, afterwards successively Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, and Chancellor of England, under the successive titles of Lord Loughborough and Earl of Rosslyn. It was made not indeed in my hearing, but in the hearing of a person by whom it was almost immediately communicated to me. So far from being self-contradictory, it was (I now see and confess) a shrewd and perfectly true one. By that distinguished functionary, the state of the Government was perfectly understood; by the obscure individual, at that time, not so much as supposed to be so; his disquisitions had not been as yet applied, with any thing like a comprehensive view, to the field of Constitutional Law, nor therefore to those features of the English Government, by which the greatest happiness of the ruling one, with or without that of a favoured few, are now so plainly seen to be the only ends to which the course of it has at any time been directed. The principle of utility was an appellative, at that time employed by me, as it has been by others, to designate that which, in a more perspicuous and instructive manner, may as above be designated by the name of the greatest happiness principle. `This principle' (said Wedderburn) `is a dangerous one.' Saying so, he said that which, to a certain extent, is strictly true; a principle, which lays down, as the only right and justifiable end of Government, the greatest happiness of the greatest number how can it be denied to be a dangerous one? dangerous to every Government, which has for its actual end or object, the greatest happiness of a certain one, with or without the addition of some comparatively small number of others, whom it is a matter of pleasure or accommodation to him to admit, each of them, to a share in the concern, on the footing of so many junior partners. `Dangerous' it therefore really was to the interest the sinister interest of all those functionaries, himself included, whose interest it was to maximize delay, vexation, and expence, in judicial and other modes of procedure, for the sake of the profit extractible out of the expence. In a Government which had for its end in view the greatest happiness of the greatest number, Alexander Wedderburn might have been Attorney General and then Chancellor; but he would not have been Attorney General with 15,000 l. a year, nor Chancellor, with a Peerage, with a veto upon all justice, with 25,000 l. a year, and with 500 sinecures at his disposal, under the name of Ecclesiastical Benefices besides et caeteras Note of the Author's, 12th July, 1822.