A fragment on government/Chapter 2

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CHAPTER II

Forms of Government

1. The contents of the whole digression we are examining, were distributed, we may remember, at the outset of this Essay, into five divisions. The first, relative to the manner in which Government in general was formed, has already been examined in the preceding chapter. The next, relative to the different species or forms it may assume, comes now to be considered.

2. The first object that strikes us in this division of our subject is the theological flourish it sets out with. In God may be said, though in a peculiar sense, to be our Author's strength. In theology he has found a not unfrequent source, of ornament to divert us, of authority to overawe us, from sounding into the shallowness of his doctrines.[1]

3. That governors, of some sort or other, we must have, is what he has been shewing in the manner we have seen in the last chapter. Now for endowments to qualify them for the exercise of their function. These endowments then, as if it were to make them shew the brighter, and to keep them, as much as possible, from being soiled by the rough hands of impertinent speculators, he has chosen should be of aethereal texture, and has fetched them from the clouds.

`All mankind',[2] he says, `will agree that government should be reposed in such persons in whom those qualities are most likely to be found, the perfection of which are among the attributes of Him who is emphatically styled the Supreme Being: the three great requisites, I mean, of wisdom, of goodness, and of power.'

But let us see the whole passage as it stands

4. `But as all the members of Society', (meaning natural Society) `are naturally EQUAL,' (i.e., I suppose, with respect to political power, of which none of them as yet have any) `it may be asked,' (continues he) in whose hands are the reins of government to be intrusted? To this the general answer is easy; but the application of it to particular cases, has occasioned one half of those mischiefs which are apt to proceed from misguided political zeal. In general, all mankind will agree that government should be reposed in such persons in whom those qualities are most likely to be found, the perfection of which are among the attributes of Him who is emphatically styled the Supreme Being; the three grand requisites, I mean, of wisdom, goodness, and of power: wisdom, to discern the real interest of the community; goodness, to endeavour always to pursue that real interest; and strength or power, to carry this knowledge and intention into action. These are the natural foundations of sovereignty, and these are the requisites that ought to be found in every well-constituted frame of government.

5. Every thing in its place. Theology in a sermon, or a catechism. But in this place, the flourish we have seen, might, for every purpose of instruction, have much better, it should seem, been spared. What purpose the idea of that tremendous and incomprehensible Being thus unnecessarily introduced can answer, I cannot see, unless it were to bewilder and entrance the reader; as it seems to have bewildered and entranced the writer. Beginning thus, is beginning at the wrong end: it is explaining ignotum per ignotius. It is not from the attributes of the Deity, that an idea is to be had of any qualities in men: on the contrary, it is from what we see of the qualities of men, that we obtain the feeble idea we can frame to ourselves, of the attributes of the Deity.

6. We shall soon see whether it be light or darkness our Author has brought back from this excursion to the clouds. The qualifications he has pitched upon for those in whose hands Government is to be reposed we see are three: wisdom, goodness, and power. Now of these three, one there is which, I doubt, will give him some trouble to know what to do with. I mean that of Power which, looking upon it as a jewel, it should seem, that would give a lustre to the royal diadem, he was for importing from the celestial regions. In heaven, indeed, we shall not dispute its being to be found; and that at all junctures alike. But the parallel, I doubt, already fails. In the earthly governors in question, or, to speak more properly, candidates for government, by the very supposition there can not, at the juncture he supposes, be any such thing. Power is that very quality which, in consideration of these other qualities, which, it is supposed, are possessed by them already, they are now waiting to receive.

7. By Power in this place, I, for my part, mean political power: the only sort of power our Author could mean: the only sort of power that is here in question. A little farther on we shall find him speaking of this endowment as being possessed, and that in the highest degree, by a King, a single person. Natural power therefore, mere organical power, the faculty of giving the hardest blows, can never, it is plain, be that which he meant to number among the attributes of this godlike personage.

8. We see then the dilemma our Author's theology has brought him into, by putting him upon reckoning power among the qualifications of his candidates. Power is either natural or political. Political power is what they cannot have by the supposition: for that is the very thing that is to be created, and which by the establishment of Government, men are going to confer on them. If any, then, it must be natural power; the natural strength that a man possesses of himself without the help of Government. But of this, then, if this be it, there is more, if we may believe our Author, in a single member of a society, than in that member and all the rest of the society put together.[3]

9. This difficulty, if possible, one should be glad to see cleared up. The truth is, I take it, that in what our Author has said of power, he has been speaking, as it were, by anticipation: and that what he means by it, is not any power of either kind actually possessed by any man, or body of men, at the juncture he supposes, but only a capacity, if one may call it so, of retaining and putting into action political power, whensoever it shall have been conferred. Now, of actual power, the quantity that is possessed is, in every case, one and the same: for it is neither more nor less than the supreme power. But as to the capacity above spoken of, there do seem, indeed, to be good grounds for supposing it to subsist in a higher degree in a single man than in a body.

10. These grounds it will not be expected that I should display at large: a slight sketch will be sufficient.The efficacy of power is, in part at least, in proportion to the promptitude of obedience: the promptitude of obedience is, in part, in proportion to the promptitude of command:command is an expression of will: a will is sooner formed by one than many. And this, or something like it, I take to be the plain English of our Author's metaphor, where he tells us,[4] as we shall see a little farther on,[5] that `a monarchy is the most powerful' (form of government) `of any, all the sinews of government being knit together, and united in the hands of the prince.'

11. The next paragraph, short as it is, contains variety of matter. The first two sentences of it are to let us know, that with regard to the manner in which each of the particular governments that we know of have been formed, he thinks proper to pass it by. A third is to intimate, for the second time, that all governments must be absolute in some hands or other. In the fourth and last, he favours us with a very comfortable piece of intelligence; the truth of which, but for his averment, few of us perhaps would have suspected. This is, that the qualifications mentioned by the last paragraph as requisite to be possessed by all Governors of states are, or at least once upon a time were, actually possessed by them: (i.e.) according to the opinion of somebody; but of what somebody is not altogether clear: whether in the opinion of these Governors themselves, or of the persons governed by them.

12. `How the several forms of government we now see in the world at first actually began,' says our Author, `is matter of great uncertainty, and has occasioned infinite disputes. It is not my business or intention to enter into any of them. However they began, or by what right soever they subsist, there is and must be in all of them a supreme, irresistible, absolute, uncontrolled authority, in which the jura summi imperii, or the rights of sovereignty, reside. And this authority is placed in those hands, wherein (according to the OPINION of the FOUNDERS of such respective states, either expressly given or collected from their tacit APPROBATION) the qualities requisite fot supremacy, wisdom, goodness, and power, are the most likely to be found.'[6]

13. Who those persons are whom our Author means here by the word founders; whether those who became the Governors of the states in question, or those who became the governed, or both together, is what I would not take upon me to determine. For aught I know he may have meant neither the one nor the other, but some third person. And, indeed, what I am vehemently inclined to suspect is, that, in our Author's large conception, the mighty and extensive domains of ATHENS and SPARTA, of which we read so much at school and at college, consisting each of several score of miles square, represented, at the time this paragraph was writing, the whole universe: and the respective aeras of Solon and Lycurgus, the whole period of the history of those states.

14. The words `founders',--'opinion'-'approbation',--in short the whole complection of the sentence is such as brings to one's view a system of government utterly different from the generality of those we have before our eyes; a system in which one would think neither caprice, nor violence, nor accident, nor prejudice, nor passion, had any share: a system uniform, comprehensive, and simultaneous; planned with phlegmatic deliberation; established by full and general assent: such, in short, as, according to common imagination, were the systems laid down by the two sages above-mentioned. If this be the case, the object he had in mind when he said Founders, might be neither Governors nor governed, but some neutral person: such as hose sages, chosen as they were in a manner as umpires, might be considered with regard to the persons who, under the prior constitution, whatever it was, had stood respectively in those two relations.

15. All this, however, is but conjecture: In the proposition itself neither this, nor any other restriction is expressed. It is delivered explicitly and emphatically in the character of an universal one. `In ALL OF THEM', he assures us, `this authority,' (the supreme authority) `is placed in those hands, wherein, according to the opinion of the founders of such respective states, these "qualities of wisdom, goodness, and power," are the most likely to be found.' In this character it cannot but throw a singular light on history. I can see no end, indeed, to the discoveries it leads to, all of them equally new and edifying. When the Spaniards, for example, became masters of the empire of Mexico, a vulgar politician might suppose it was because such of the Mexicans as remained unexterminated, could not help it. No such thing it was because the Spaniards were of `opinion' or the Mexicans themselves were of `opinion' (which of the two is not altogether clear) that in Charles Vth, and his successors, more goodness (of which they had such abundant proofs) as well as wisdom, was likely to be found, than in all the Mexicans put together. The same persuasion obtained between Charlemagne and the Ger man Saxons with respect to the goodness and wisdom of Charlemagne:between William the Norman and the English Saxons: between Mahomet lid and the subjects of John Paleologus: between Odoacer and those of Augustulus: between the Tartar Gingiskan and the Chinese of his time: between the Tartars Chang-ti and Cam-ghi, and the Chinese of their times:between the Protector Cromwell and the Scotch: between William IIId and the Irish Papists: between Caesar and the Gauls:in short, between the Thirty Tyrants, so called, and the Athenians, whom our Author seems to have had in view:to mention these examples only, out of as many hundred as might be required. All this, if we may trust our Author, he has the `goodness' to believe: and by such lessons is the penetration of students to be sharpened for piercing into the depths of politics.

16. So much for the introductory paragraph The main part of the subject is treated of in six others: the general contents of which are as follow.

17. In the first he tells us how many different forms of government there are according to the division of the antients: which division he adopts. These are three: Monarchy, Aristocracy, and Democracy.

18. The next is to tell us, that by the sovereign POWER he means that of 'making laws'.

19. In a third he gives us the advantages and disadvantages of these three different forms of government.

20. In a fourth he tells us that these are all the antients would allow of.

21. A Fifth is to tell us that the British form of government is different from each of them; being a combination of all, and posses sing the advantages of all.

22. In the sixth, and last, he shews us that it could not possess these advantages, if, instead of being what it is, it were either of those others: and tells us what it is that may destroy it. These two last it will be sufficient here to mention: to examine them will be the task of our next chapter.

23. Monarchy is that form of Government in which the power of making Laws is lodged in the hands of a single member of the state in question. Aristocracy is that form of Government in which the power of making laws is lodged in the hands of several members. Democracy is that form of government in which the power of making laws is lodged in the hands of `all' of them put together. These, according to our Author, are the definitions of the Antients; and these, therefore, without difficulty, are the definitions of our Author.

24. `The political writers of antiquity,' says he, `will not allow more than three regular forms of government; the first, when the sovereign power is lodged in an aggregate assembly, consisting of all the members of a community, which is called a Democracy; the second, when it is lodged in a council composed of select members, and then it is styled an Aristocracy; the last, when it is entrusted in the hands of a single person, and then it takes the name of a Monarchy. All other species of government they say are either corruptions of, or reducible to these three.'

25. `By the sovereign power, as was before observed, is meant the making of laws; for wherever that power resides, all others must conform to, and be directed by it, whatever appearance the outward form and administration of the government may put on. For it is at any time in the option of the legislature to alter that form and administration by a new edict or rule, and to put the execution of the laws into whatever hands it pleases; and all the other powers of the state must obey the legislative power in the execution of their several functions, or else the constitution is at an end.'

26. Having thus got three regular simple forms of Government (this anomalous complex one of our own out of the question) and just as many qualifications to divide among them; of each of which, by what he told us a while ago, each form of Government must have some share, it is easy to see how their allotments will be made out. Each form of Government will possess one of these qualities in perfection, taking its chance, if one may say so, for its share in the two others.

27. Among these three different forms of Government then, it should seem according to our Author's account of them, there is not much to choose. Each of them has a qualification, an endowment, to itself. Each of them is completely characterized by this qualification. No intimation is given of any pre-eminence among these qualifications, one above another. Should there be any dispute concerning the preference to be given to any of these forms of government, as proper a method as any of settling it, to judge from this view of them, is that of cross and pile. Hence we may infer, that all the governments that ever were, or will be (except a very particular one that we shall come to presently, that is to say our own) are upon a par: that of ATHENS with that of PERSIA; that of GENEVA with that of Morocco: since they are all of them, he tells us, `corruptions of, or reducible to', one of these. This is happy. A legislator cannot do amiss. He may save himself the expence of thinking. The choice of a king was once determined, we are told, by the neighing of a horse.' The choice of a form of Government might be determined so as well.

28. As to our own form of government, however, this, it is plain, being that which it seemed good to take for the theme of his panegyric, and being made out of the other three, will possess the advantages of all of them put together; and that without any of the disadvantages; the disadvantages vanishing at the word of command, or even without it, as not being suitable to the purpose.

29. At the end of the paragraph which gives us the above definitions, one observation there is that is a little puzzling. `Other species of government', we are given to understand, there are besides these; but then those others, if not `reducible to', are but `corruptions of these'. Now, what there is in any of these to be corrupted, is not so easy to understand. The essence of these several forms of government, we must always remember, is placed by him, solely and entirely, in the article of number: in the ratio of the number of the Governors, (for so for shortness we will style those in whose hands is lodged this `power of making laws') to that of the governed. If the number of the former be, to that of the latter, as one to all, then is the form of Government a Monarchy: if as all to all, then is it a Democracy: if as some number between one and all to all, then is it an Aristocracy. Now then, if we can conceive a fourth number, which not being more than all, is neither one nor all, nor any thing between one and all, we can conceive a form of Government, which, upon due proof, may appear to be a corruption of some one or other of these three.[7] If not, we must look for the corruption somewhere else: Suppose it were in our Author's reason.[8]

30. Not but that we may meet, indeed, with several other hard worded names for forms of Government: but these names were only so many names for one or other of those three. We hear often of a Tyranny: but this is neither more nor less than the name a man gives to our Author's Monarchy, when out of humour with it. It is still the government of number one. We hear now and then, too, of a sort of Government called an Oligarchy: but this is neither more nor less than the name a man gives to our Author's Aristocracy, in the same case. It is still the Government of some number or other, between one and all. In fine, we hear now and then of a sort of government fit to break one's teeth, called an Ochlocracy: but this is neither more nor less than the name a man gives to a Democracy in the same case. It is still that sort of government, which, according to our Author, is the Government of all.

31. Let us now see how he has disposed of his three qualifications among his three sorts or forms of Government. Upon Monarchy, we shall find, he has bestowed the perfection of power; on Aristocracy, of wisdom; on Democracy, of goodness; each of these forms having just enough, we may suppose, of the two remaining qualifications besides its own peculiar one to make up the necessary complement of `qualities requisite for supremacy.' Kings are, (nay were before they were Kings, since it was this qualification determined their subjects to make them Kings[9]), as strong as so many Hercules's; but then, as to their wisdom, or their goodness, there is not much to say. The members of an Aristocracy are so many Solomons: but then they are not such sturdy folks as your Kings; nor, if the truth is to be spoken, have they much more honesty than their neighbours. As to the members of a Democracy, they are the best sort of people in the world; but then they are but a puny sort of gentry, as to strength, put them all together; and are apt to be a little defective in point of understanding.

32. `In a democracy', says he, `where the right of making laws resides in the people at large, public virtue or goodness of intention, is more likely to be found, than either of the other qualities of government. Popular assemblies are frequently foolish in their con trivance, and weak in their execution; but generally mean to do the thing that is right and just, and have always a degree of patriotism or public spirit. In aristocracies there is more wisdom to be found than in the other frames of Government; being composed, or intended to be composed, of the most experienced citizens; but there is less honesty than in a republic, and less strength than in a monarchy. A monarchy is indeed the most powerful of any, all the sinews of government being knit together and united in the hand of the prince; but then there is imminent danger of his employing that strength to improvident or oppressive purposes.'

33. `Thus these three species of government have all of them their several perfections and imperfections. Democracies are usually the best calculated to direct the end of a law; aristocracies to invent the means by which that end shall be obtained; and monarchies to carry those means into execution. And the antients, as was observed, had in general no idea of any other permanent form of government but these three; for though Cicero declares himself of opinion, esse optimé constitutam rempublicam, quae ex tribus generibus illis, regali, optimo, et populari sit modicé confusa; yet Tacitus treats this notion of a mixed government, formed out of them all, and partaking of the advantages of each, as a visionary whim; and one, that if effected, could never be lasting or secure,

34. In the midst of this fine-spun ratiocination, an accident has happened, of which our Author seems not to be aware. One of his accidents, as a logician would say, has lost its subject: one of the qualifications he has been telling us of, is, somehow or other, become vacant: the form of Government he designed it for, having unluckily slipped through his fingers in the handling. I mean Democracy; which he, and, according to him, the Antients, make out to be the Government of all. Now `all' is a great many; so many that, I much doubt, it will be rather a difficult matter to find these high and mighty personages power enough, so much as to make a decent figure with. The members of this redoubtable Commonwealth will be still worse off, I doubt, in point of subjects, than Trinculo in the play, or than the potentates, whom some later navigators found lording it, with might and main, over a Spanish settlement: there were three members of the Government; and they had one subject among them all.[10] Let him examine it a little, and it will turn out, I take it, to be precisely that sort of Government, and no other, which one can conceive to obtain, where there is no Government at all. Our Author, we may remember, had shrewd doubts about the existence of a state of nature:[11] grant him his Democracy, and it exists in his Democracy.[12]

35. The qualification of goodness, I think it was, that belonged to the Government of all, while there was such a Government. This having taken its flight, as we have seen, to the region of nonentities, the qualification that was designed for it remains upon his hands: he is at liberty, therefore, to make a compliment of it to Aristocracy or to Monarchy, which best suits him. Perhaps it were as well to give it to Monarchy; the title of that form of Government to its own peculiar qualification, power, being, as we have seen, rather an equivocal one: or else, which, perhaps, is as good a way of settling matters as any, he may set them to cast lots.


  1. This is what there would be occasion to shew at large, were what he says of Law in general, and of the Laws of nature, and revelation in particular, to be examined.
  2. I Comm. p.48.
  3. V. infra, par. 32 Monarchy, which is the government of one, `is the most powerful form of government,' he says, `of any:" more so than Democracy, which he describes as being the Government of all.
  4. 1 Comm. p.50.
  5. Par. 32.
  6. 1 Comm. 489.
  7. By the laws of GERMANY such and such states arc to furnish so many men to the general army of the empire: some of them so many men and one half; others, so many and one third; others again, If I mistake not, so many and one fourth. One of these half, third-part, or quarter-men, suppose, possesses himself of the Government: here then we have a kind of corruption of a Monarchy. Is this what our Author had in view?
  8. A more suitable place to look for corruption in, if we may take his own word for it, there cannot be. `Every man's reason,' he assures us [1 Comm. p.41.] `is corrupt'; and not only that, but `his understanding full of ignorance and error'. With regard to others, it were as well not to be too positive: hut with regard to a man's self, what he tells us from experience, it would be ill manners to dispute with him.
  9. 1 Comm. p.48.
  10. See HAWKESWORTH'S Voyages. The condition of these imaginary sovereigns puts one in mind of the story of, I forget what King's Fool. The Fool had stuck himself up one day, with great gravity, in the King's throne with a stick, by way of a sceptre, in one hand, and a ball in the other: being asked what he was doing, he answered, `reigning'. Much the same sort of reign, I take it, would be that of the members of our Author's Democracy.
  11. V. supra, ch. I. par. VI.
  12. What is curious is, that the same persons who tell you (having read as much) that Democracy is a form of Government under which the supreme power is vested in all the members of a state, will also tell you (having also read as much) that the Athenian Commonwealth was a Democracy. Now the truth is, that in the Athenian Commonwealth, upon the most moderate computation, it is not one tenth part of the inhabitants of the Athenian state that ever at a time partook of the supreme power: women, children, and slaves, being taken into the account.[See, among Mr HUME'S Essays, that on the populousness of ancient nations.] Civil Lawyers, indeed, will tell you, with a grave face, that a slave is nobody; as Common Lawyers will, that a bastard is the son of nobody. But, to an unprejudiced eye, the condition of a state is the condition of all the individuals, without distinction, that compose it.