‘An hereditary crown! A transmissible throne! What a notion!’

Mike Marqusee notes Thomas Paine’s views on the ‘master-fraud’ of monarchy

July 24, 2013 · 3 min read

In Rights of Man (1791-92) Paine describes monarchy as like ‘something kept behind a curtain, about which there is a great deal of bustle and fuss, and a wonderful air of seeming solemnity; but when, by any accident, the curtain happens to be open and the company see what it is, they burst into laughter.’

For Paine, it was the institution of monarchy, rather than the character of the individual monarch, that was the source of a dysfunctional system. ‘It is wrong to reproach kings with their ferocity, their brutal indifference, the oppressions of the people, and molestations of citizens: it is hereditary succession that makes them what they are: this breeds monsters as a marsh breeds vipers.’ The institution ‘turns the progress of the human faculties upside down. It subjects age to be governed by children, and wisdom by folly.’ As a result of ‘this absurdity, man is perpetually in contradiction with himself; he accepts, for a king, or a chief magistrate, or a legislator, a person whom he would not elect for a constable.’

Crucially, he notes the deleterious effect of monarchic celebration on society as a whole:

‘It is by distortedly exalting some men, that others are distortedly debased, till the whole is out of nature. A vast mass of mankind are degradedly thrown into the back-ground of the human picture, to bring forward, with greater glare, the puppet-show of state and aristocracy.’

Hereditary monarchy treats human beings and whole nations as forms of heritable property, as ‘mere animals without a right or will’: ‘To inherit government is to inherit peoples, as if they were herds. It is the basest, the most shameful fantasy that ever degraded mankind.’

Reading Paine it becomes clear that he experiences monarchy and all that goes with it as a standing affront to his own dignity, intelligence and self-respect. ‘An hereditary crown! A transmissible throne! What a notion! With even a little reflexion, can any one tolerate it?’ This was ‘the most base and humiliating idea that ever degraded the human species.’ ‘It is time that nations should be rational, and not be governed like animals, for the pleasure of their riders.’

In his Letter to Abbe Sieyes, written in mid-1791, Paine explained the all-encompassing and at the same time piquantly personal nature of his rage against monarchy:

‘I am the avowed, open, and intrepid enemy of what is called Monarchy; and I am such by principles which nothing can either alter or corrupt—by my attachment to humanity; by the anxiety which I feel within myself, for the dignity and the honour of the human race; by the disgust which I experience, when I observe men directed by children, and governed by brutes; by the horror which all the evils that Monarchy has spread over the earth excite within my breast; and by those sentiments which make me shudder at the calamities, the exactions, the wars, and the massacres with which Monarchy has crushed mankind: in short, it is against all the hell of monarchy that I have declared war.’


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