Thomas Paine described the Constitution as “not a thing in name only; but in fact . . . . It is the body of elements, to which you can refer, and quote article by article; and which contains . . . every thing that relates to the complete organization of a civil government, and the principles on which it shall act, and by which it shall be bound.” Paine, Rights of Man, Foner, ed., Writings of Paine, I, 278.
The English Whigs were an influential, even revered, group for many of the colonists in America. Their beliefs resonated with ordinary, common people.
The Whigs believed that “the promotion of the people’s happiness was the sole purpose of government.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 20. Further, government was “a wise, a necessary, and a sacred thing,” which restrained the “lusts and passions that drove all men.” Id. quoting Samuel Williams, A Discourse on the Love of our Country (Salem, 1775), 28; John Joachim Zubly, The Law of Liberty (Philadelphia, 1775), 6-7.
The basics of the social contract were fundamental to Whig beliefs. The government officials “agreed to use their superior power to protect the rights of the people,” who “pledged their obedience, but only . . . as long as the rulers promoted the public interest.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 20 citing Dan Foster, A Short Essay on Civil Government (Hartford, 1775).
Many Whig leaders in England became idols for American liberty. William Pitt, the First Earl of Chatham, developed an almost cult-like following amongst a segment of colonists in America. In Bristol County, Massachusetts, one colonist explained: “Our toast in general is,—Magna Charta [sic], the British Constitution,—Pitt and Liberty forever!” Clinton Rossiter, Seedtime of the Republic. The Origin of the American Tradition of Political Liberty (New York: Harcourt, Bruce and Company, 1953), 145, 359-60.
This early American obsession with the Whig ideology would frame the revolutionaries’ beliefs and priorities. Those beliefs and priorities have carried forward to modern Americans.
The social contract certainly has not been forgotten, as many modern Americans are fully aware of the fact that their elected officials can be voted out just as easily as they were voted in.
However, the political theory surrounding the purpose of government perhaps has been lost over the years. The Whig belief that the sole purpose of government is to promote the happiness of the people is an optimistic, hopeful perspective. Many contemporary Republicans, particularly of the Ronald Reagan era, would not be able to disagree loud and fast enough to this Whig belief. Even some modern Democrats may take issue with it, as it is perhaps not nuanced enough to apply to a nuanced society.
While we were quick to import the Whig belief that government’s sole purpose is to promote happiness, should we, as modern Americans be so quick to dismiss it? If the purpose of government is not happiness for all, then what is it?