"Government Is the Only Thing that We All Belong To"

What is American Government?

A recent Democratic Party campaign commercial suggests that “the government is the only thing that we all belong to.”

At first glance, the commercial seems to be suggesting that we the people are servants of the government–and belong to it the way my pen belongs to me. A more fair construction would be to read it as saying that we all are part of the government. We belong to it the way we belong to a church congregation, or a sports club. The language implies that the American people and the American government are inseparable and indistinguishable.

That is not quite how Americans have traditionally understood things. From the time of the American revolution we have distinguished the American people from American government. In 1776, Thomas Paine noted at the start of Common Sense that:

“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.’

Paine’s account of the difference between society and government was not the only one in the founding generation. When Paine wrote Common Sense, he was an Englishman, recently arrived from London. He thought of revolution after the fashion of Englishmen. In 1688, in a sense, government was dissolved and reconstituted. Society, meanwhile, remained intact. The English did not cease to be English.

In 1776, partly thanks to Paine’s help, the Americans declared independence. In the American Revolution, unlike the Glorious Revolution, political identity changed, along with government. British subjects became American citizens. John Adams gave a good account of the change in the Massachusetts Constitution, which he drafted in late 1779. The Massachusetts Constitution would be the first state constitution written by a special convention, and ratified by the people. It began:

The end of the institution, maintenance and administration of government, is to secure the existence of the body-politic; to protect it; and to furnish the individuals who compose it, with the power of enjoying, in safety and tranquility, their natural rights, and the blessings of life: And whenever these great objects are not obtained, the people have a right to alter the government, and to take measures necessary for their safety, prosperity and happiness.

The body-politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals: It is a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good. It is the duty of the people, therefore, in framing a Constitution of Government, to provide for an equitable mode of making laws, as well as for an impartial interpretation, and a faithful execution of them; that every man may, at all times, find his security in them.

In this construction, the compact is both political and social.

Despite this difference, Adams and Paine, who disagreed about much, (Adams once called Paine “a mongrel between pig and puppy, begot by a wild boar on a bitch wolf.”), agreed in this: American citizenship was what all Americans had in common. The government was distinct. It was created by and for the people to serve certain ends. Americans share a nationality. One could say we all belong to the American social/ political compact or to the body politic. The government is appointed by we the people for the good of the body politic, just as the board of directors of a congregation is appointed to serve the good of a religious congregation. Reflecting this idea President Clinton often said that he had “to go back to work for the American people.”

This point may appear to be a minor one, but it does have major implications. When we are careless in describing what government is, it has the potential lead us to change what America is. It is easy to slip back to the old feudal idea, that inferiors work for superiors, and superiors staff the government. If we wish to do that, we the people should at least recognize that that is what we are doing. As Publius wrote at the start of The Federalist papers, here in America, we wish to base government on “reflection and choice” rather than “accident and force.” In short, we have here yet another sign (as if more were needed) that we need to do a much better job of teaching civics.