Six Innovations on the Road to Revolution: Innovation 2--Minimalist Government. Thoughts by August Glen-James

Six Innovations on the Road to Revolution: Innovation 2--Minimalist Government. Thoughts by August Glen-James
Photo by Samuel Schroth / Unsplash

Despite living in an age of monarchical governments with all its pomp and ceremony, size and power, Englishmen and their “country cousins” in America were notorious throughout the Western world for their “insubordination, their insolence, [and] their stubborn unwillingness to be governed.”[1] While professing their loyalty to the crown, the essence of this rebellious spirit made the colonials particularly open to the republican spirit of minimalist government. Consequently, Thomas Paine found fertile ground for his theories in the colonies. Paine added some interesting insight to the developing revolutionary ideals in America by distinguishing between “society” and “government” and their respective roles.

Included in this theme is a work from Walt Whitman. Of course, Whitman was not a colonial; however, his ideas couple well with Thomas Paine’s thoughts and suggest a foundational colonial legacy of minimalist government still alive and well in the 1840s.

Thomas Paine:

SOME writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.

Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one: for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built upon the ruins of the bowers of paradise. For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him out of two evils to choose the least. Wherefore, security being the true design and end of government, it unanswerably follows that whatever form thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us, with the least expence (sic) and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others.[2]

Walt Whitman:

The following is a short article written by Whitman about the duty of government. It appeared in the Brooklyn Eagle, April 4, 1846, wherein he quoted an editorial viewpoint from the N.Y. Globe and then proceeded to explain his differences with the Globe’s stated opinion. As already noted, Whitman (1819-1892) was not contemporary with the Revolutionaries; however, it is, arguably, an expression of the political culture that developed in the United States subsequent to its founding. (The original article was not broken into parts. This construction is for the reader’s convenience.)

‘The end of all government is the happiness of the whole community; and whenever it does not secure that, it is a bad government, and it is time it was altered.’ –N.Y. Globe, March 28. We snip out this little paragraph from our New York contemporary because it affords us a chance of nailing a very wide though very foolish error. It is only the novice in political economy who thinks it the duty of government to make its citizens happy. Government has no such office. To protect the weak and the minority from the impositions of the strong and the majority, to prevent anyone from positively working to render the people unhappy (if we may so express it), to do the labor not of an officious intermeddler in the affairs of men but of a prudent watchman who prevents outrage—these are rather the proper duties of a government.

Under the specious pretext of effecting ‘the happiness of the whole community,’ nearly all the wrongs and intrusions of government have been carried through. The legislature may, and should, when such things fall in its way, lend its potential weight to the cause of virtue and happiness, but to legislate in direct behalf of those objects is never available and rarely effects any even temporary benefit. Indeed, sensible men have long seen that ‘the best government is that which governs least.’ And we are surprised that the spirit of this maxim is not oftener and closer to the hearts of our domestic leaders. [3]

In Federalist 45*, James Madison wrote that “The powers delegated by the proposed constitution to the federal government, are few and defined.” The Federal government today may not resemble this assertion; however, taken with Paine and Whitman, it represents an American innovation in terms of a minimalist philosophy and intent in government matters.

[1] WOOD, G. S. (1992). The radicalism of the American Revolution. Vintage Books.

[2] Paine, T. (1995). Common Sense. New York: Barnes and Noble. (Work originally published in 1776.)

[3] Found in The Annals of America, Vol. 1 1493-1754, Discovering a New World. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. Chicago.

*The Federalist Papers are ubiquitous on the Internet.