Item of the Day: The Rights of the British Colonies (1764)
Full Title: The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved by James Otis, Esq. Boston: Printed and Sold by Edes and Gill, in Queen-Street, 1764.
Of the Origins of Government
The origin of government has in all ages no less perplexed the heads of lawyers and politicians, than the origin of evil has embarrassed divines and philosophers: And 'tis probable the world may receive a satisfactory solution on both those points of enquiry at the same time.
The various opinions on the origin of government have been reduced to four. 1. That dominion is founded in Grace. 2. On force or meer power. 3. On compact. 4. On property.
The first of these opinions is so absurd, and the world has paid so very dear for embracing it, especially under the administration of the roman pontiffs, that mankind seem at this day to be in a great measure cured of their madness in this particular; and the notion is pretty generally exploded, and his'd off the stage.
To those who lay the foundation of government in force and meer brutal power, it is objected; that, their system destroys all distinction between right and wrong; that it overturns all morality, and leaves it to every man to do what is right in his own eyes; that it leads directly to scepticism, and ends in atheism. When a man's will and pleasure is his only rule and guide, what safety can there be either for him or against him, but in the point of a sword?
On the other hand the gentlemen in favor of the original compact have been often told that their system is chimerical and unsupported by reason or experience. Questions like the following have been frequently asked them, and may be again.
"When and where was the original compact for introducing government into any society, or for creating a society, made? Who were present and parties to such compact? Who acted for infants and women, or who appointed guardians for them? Had these guardians power to bind both infants and women during life, and their posterity after them? Is it in nature or reason that a guardian should by his own act perpetuate his power over his ward, and bind him and his posterity in chains? Is not every man born as free by nature as his father? Has he not the same natural right to think and act and contract for himself? Is it possible for a man to have a natural right to make a slave of himself or of his posterity? Can a father supersede the laws of nature? What man is or ever was born free, if every man is not? What will there be to distinguish the next generation of men from their forefathers, that they should not have had the same right to make original compacts as their ancestors had? If every man and woman born or to be born has, and will have, a right to be consulted, and must accede to the original compact before they can with any kind of justice be said to be bound by it, will not the compact be every forming and never finished, ever making but never done? Can it with propriety be called a compact original or derivative, that is ever in treaty but never concluded?"
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There are other questions which have been started, and a resolution of them demanded, which may perhaps be deemed indecent by those who hold the prerogatives of an earthly monarch, and even the power of a plantation government, so sacred as to think it little less than blasphemy to enquire into their origin and foundation: while the government of the supreme ruler of the universe is every day discussed with less ceremony and decency than the administration of a petty German prince. I hope the reader will consider that I am present only mentioning such questions as have been put by high-flyers & others in church and state, who would exclude all compact between a Sovereign and his people, without offering my own sentiments upon them; this however I presume I may be allowed hereafter to do without offence. Those who want a full answer to them may consult Mr. Locke's discourses on government, M. De Vattel's law of nature and nations, and their own consciences.