Thomas Paine on the absurdity of an hereditary monarchy (1791)

Thomas Paine

Found in The Writings of Thomas Paine, Vol. II (1779-1792)

After having helped the American colonists shake off their reluctance to secede from the British Empire, Thomas Paine (1737-1809) turned his attention to the French Revolution which he vigorously defended against attacks by Edmund Burke. In the Rights of Man (1791) he distinguished between two types of government - the “representative” which was flourishing in North America, and the “hereditary” which still prevailed in Britain and France. He had the following harsh things to say about having an hereditary monarch:

We have heard the Rights of Man called a levelling system; but the only system to which the word levelling is truly applicable, is the hereditary monarchical system. It is a system of mental levelling. It indiscriminately admits every species of character to the same authority. Vice and virtue, ignorance and wisdom, in short, every quality, good or bad, is put on the same level. Kings succeed each other, not as rationals, but as animals. It signifies not what their mental or moral characters are. Can we then be surprised at the abject state of the human mind in monarchical countries, when the government itself is formed on such an abject levelling system?—It has no fixed character. To-day it is one thing; to-morrow it is something else. It changes with the temper of every succeeding individual, and is subject to all the varieties of each. It is government through the medium of passions and accidents. It appears under all the various characters of childhood, decrepitude, dotage, a thing at nurse, in leading-strings, or in crutches. It reverses the wholesome order of nature. It occasionally puts children over men, and the conceits of non-age over wisdom and experience. In short, we cannot conceive a more ridiculous figure of government, than hereditary succession, in all its cases, presents.

The pageantry of royal events does not hide some of its most unappealing aspects, namely, its disregard for the notion of the equal and inalienable rights of man, the idea that political sovereignty can be passed down from one generation to the next through a bloodline, and that any “legitimate” sovereign has an equal right to that political power regardless of their skills, capacities, or moral character. One of the great critics of hereditary monarchical power was Thomas Paine who had the luxury or the bad luck to be involved in two of the great world revolutions, the American and then the French.

In this passage he turns a major criticism of revolution levelled by its conservative critics, like Edmund Burke, on its head. Perhaps with a conscious reference to the “Levellers” of the English Revolution of the mid-17th century, Paine says that to call the idea of the “rights of man” a “levelling system” in which the good and the mighty are brought down to some low common denominator of the people is itself a form of “levelling” which in his view is unjustified. Paine thought the “levelling” came from the other direction, that anybody, no matter how well or badly qualified for the position of monarch they were, could become a king so long as the proprieties of bloodline, descent, and family connections were adhered to. Thus all qualifications were “levelled” in the name of an ancestral claim to political power. This is a major reason why Paine called “hereditary monarchy” the most “ridiculous figure of government” imaginable.