The Purposes of Government
George Bernard Shaw is famously supposed to have described Britain and the USA as “two countries separated by a common language” except nobody can find the reference. However Oscar Wilde did say something similar. In The Canterville Ghost (1887), he wrote, ‘We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language’.
And this seems to be exacerbated by an almost complete ignoring of the Greats of American literature, such as Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, James Fenimore Cooper, or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. And yet they are as much part of our literary heritage as Jane Austen, Sir Walter Scott, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Cowper Powys, W. H. Davies, or Dylan Thomas, for example, are of theirs.
And so it is with political theory, or political philosophy as people are happier calling it. The thinking that led to the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution didn’t appear out of the blue – the architects of these documents were steeped in British political culture and history. In many respects, the events that led to the American Revolution began some half a century before 1776.
The issues that had produced the British Civil War had, everybody thought, been sorted out and the Act of Settlement 1689 and the Act of Union 1707 more or less neatly tied it all off. Except in 1710 the Parliament in Westminster decided that it was more than simply “the High Court of Parliament” where the Common Law was declared and expanded, and began to enact new legislation outside the Common Law. This didn’t go down too well in the British Isles, let alone in British North America.
So, in treating of modern British politics and government it is sensible and germane to look at the products of the American Revolution and its contemporary Scottish Enlightenment, as well as the English theorists like Burke, Locke, and the Mills. Which is what I should have done, but didn’t, with the latest question that has been bugging me.
It is harder than you might think to discover what the Purposes of Government are.
You’d think that a quick recourse to an ‘A’ Level textbook of yesteryear, when students were actually asked the sort of questions that would stretch the faculties a bit, would throw up the answer in easily digested form.
No such luck. Nobody seems to know what they are, or are too shy to admit their ignorance. Well, I’ll make a start: I don’t know.
I’m working on something that requires some words on government – or rather on these purposes of government.
I’ve read through David Hume’s “Of the First Principles of Government” and “Of the Origin of Government”; Adam Ferguson’s Essay on the History of Civil Society – well, I skimmed through a lot of it that didn’t seem relevant; and John Millar on “The Powers of the Sovereign”.
I must admit that there’s a lot of information in these pillars of the Scottish Enlightenment, and the underlying Presbyterianism is actually notable. But it all seems to start by assuming the ‘why?’ that I want to know. So I went to the previous century.
I suppose I should have looked at the Great Montrose’s essay “On Sovereign Power” and Richard Hooker’s Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie – well, I will get round to them – but I actually headed for Thomas Hobbes and Leviathan.
Again, the problem I had was one of the author apparently assuming what I wanted to know.
It wasn’t until a friend suggested reading through the letters of Thomas Jefferson that I got the eye-opening steer that I needed.
The American Revolution was, in many respects, Round Three of the British Civil War and some of the intellectual and legal issues that had driven the Bishops’ War and the War between Parliament and the Crown were still very much alive – both in Great Britain and in British North America.
And these were part of the intellectual heritage of the signatories to the Declaration of Independence at the Second Continental Congress on 4 July, 1776, as they were of the “American Party” in London.
So, it’s hardly any wonder that Russell Kirk took Edmund Burke as the start-point for his opus The Conservative Mind from Burke to Eliot which is a very American take on conservatism. Burke is usually marked as the leader of the American Party that seems to have been made up, surprisingly, of Tories seeing as in American terms the word Tory is applied to the Loyalists who resisted the Revolution.
But those labels were remarkably slippery things in those days – it’s quite hard to fix a particular one on any political personalities of the time. Burke – and Pitt – are usually said to be Tories, but Burke was politically affiliated with the Rockingham Whigs. John Locke and the Mills were liberals, but there’s quite a tory angle to their views, too
Thomas Jefferson, the Adamses, George Washington, James Madison and others are claimed as Whigs, but their political philosophies would tend to place them with the Tories. At this distance in time, it’s hard to draw too fine a distinction between the political views of the Whigs and the Tories. But it exists, and is formative of our present governmental world. So, as well as reading through the liberals of the American Revolution, I’ll be re-reading Richard Hooker and those who came after him like the English Romantics. And there is another difference and that is between ideas of government that emerged from Scotland’s “Community of the Realm” as the fount of sovereignty (deriving ultimately from the Declaration of Arbroath 1320) and that of England’s “Crown in Parliament” that was the product of the Act of Settlement 1689. But, the political thinking of the American Revolution is a good place to start.
So, taking the famous opening words of that British political document, the Declaration, as my jumping off point, I’m now reading my way towards finding out the Purposes of Government:
“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness — That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”