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”...the dark covering of antiquity...”

In what I intend to become an annual tradition, I'm reading Thomas Paine's Common Sense around the 4th of July holiday. Paine abhorred monarchy, but might have abhorred hereditary succession even more:

To the evil of monarchy we have added that of hereditary succession; and as the first is a degradation and lessening of ourselves, so the second, claimed as a matter of right, is an insult and an imposition on posterity.

...

This (the purported legitimacy of succession) is supposing the present race of kings in the world to have had an honorable origin; whereas it is more than probable, that could we take off the dark covering of antiquity, and trace them to their first rise, that we should find the first of them nothing better than the principal ruffian of some restless gang, whose savage manners or pre-eminence in subtility obtained him the title of chief among plunderers; and who by increasing in power, and extending his depredations, over-awed the quiet and defenceless to purchase their safety by frequent contributions. Yet his electors could have no idea of giving hereditary right to his descendants, because such a perpetual exclusion of themselves was incompatible with the free and unrestrained principles they professed to live by. Wherefore, hereditary succession in the early ages of monarchy could not take place as a matter of claim, but as something casual or complimental; but as few or no records were extant in those days, and traditional history stuffed with fables, it was very easy, after the lapse of a few generations, to trump up some superstitious tale, conveniently timed, Mahomet like, to cram hereditary right down the throats of the vulgar.

Basically, he's saying that even if the present generation of commoners approves (or just grudgingly tolerates) the current king or queen, it's unfair to force the royal heirs on future generations. Although that king or queen may be decent, their child or grandchild might turn out to be an relentless tyrant once they take the throne.

I like Paine's "dark covering of antiquity", which hides or smoothes out the dishonorable or even criminal behaviors of one's forebears. Years ago I toyed with the concept of a story - long ago abandoned - about a grade school student writing a paper about one of her ancestors (depicted as a wholesome founding father/pillar of the community type) who, in reality and unbeknownst to the student, first got rich as a horse thief. We usually look back on our ancestors with reverence, but who knows what sort of scoundrels they might have actually been?

July 5, 2019 in Books, History | Permalink

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