Nothing need be said to shew the value of the three kinds of liberty which I have distinguished under the names of physical, moral, and religious liberty. They are, without doubt, the foundation of all the happiness and dignity of men as reasonable and moral agents and the subjects of the Deity. It is, in like manner, true of civil liberty that it is the foundation of the whole happiness and dignity of men as members of civil society and the subjects of civil government.
First, it is civil liberty, or such free government as I have described, that alone can give just security against oppression. One government is better than another in proportion as it gives more of this security. It is, on this account, that the supreme government of the Deity is perfect. There is not a possibility of being oppressed or aggrieved by it. Subjection to it is the same with complete freedom.
Were there any men on whose superior wisdom and goodness we might absolutely depend, they could not possess too much power and the love of liberty itself would engage us to fly to them and to put ourselves under their direction. But such are the principles that govern human nature, such the weakness and folly of men, such their love of domination, selfishness, and depravity, that none of them can be raised to an elevation above others without the utmost danger. The constant experience of the world has verified this and proved that nothing intoxicates the human mind so much as power, and that men, when they have got possession of it, have seldom failed to employ it in grinding their fellow-men and gratifying the vilest passions. In the establishment, therefore, of civil government it would be preposterous to rely on the discretion of any men. If a people would obtain security against oppression, they must seek it in themselves and never part with the powers of government out of their own hands. It is there only they can be safe. A people will never oppress themselves or invade their own rights. But if they trust the arbitrary will of any body or succession of men, they trust enemies and it may be depended on that the worst evils will follow.
It follows from hence that a free government is the only government which is consistent with the ends of government. Men combine into communities and institute government to obtain the peaceable enjoyment of their rights and to defend themselves against injustice and violence; and when they endeavour to secure these ends by such a free government as I have described, improved by such arrangements as may have a tendency to preserve it from confusion and to concentrate in it as much as possible of the wisdom and force of the community, in this case, it is a most rational and important institution. But when the contrary is done and the benefits of government are sought by establishing a government of men, and not of laws made with common consent, it becomes a most absurd institution. It is seeking a remedy for oppression in one quarter by establishing it in another, and avoiding the outrages of little plunderers by constituting a set of great plunderers. It is, in short, the folly of giving up liberty in order to maintain liberty, and, in the very act of endeavouring to secure the most valuable rights, to arm a body of enemies with power to destroy them.
I can easily believe that mankind in the first and rude state of society might act thus irrationally. Absolute governments, being the simplest forms of government, might be the first that were established. A people having experienced the happy effects of the wisdom or the valour of particular men, might be led to trust them with unlimited power as their rulers and legislators. But they would soon find reason to repent. And the time, I hope, may come when mankind in general, taught by long and dear experience, and weary of the abuses of power under slavish governments, will learn to detest them, and never to give up that self-government which, whether we consider men in their private or collective capacities, is the first of all the blessings they can possess.
Again, free governments are the only governments which give scope to the exertion of the powers of men and are favourable to their improvement. The members of free states, knowing their rights to be secure and that they shall enjoy without molestation the fruits of every acquisition they can make, are encouraged and incited to industry. Being at liberty to push their researches as far as they can into all subjects, and to guide themselves by their own judgments in all their religious and civil concerns, while they allow others to do the same, error and superstition must lose ground. Conscious of being their own governors, bound to obey no laws except such as they have given their consent to, and subject to no controul from the arbitrary will of any of their fellow-citizens, they possess an elevation and force of mind which must make them great and happy. How different is the situation of the vassals of despotic power? Like cattle inured to the yoke, they are driven on in one track, afraid of speaking or even thinking on the most interesting points, looking up continually to a poor creature who is their master, their powers fettered, and some of the noblest springs of action in human nature rendered useless within them. There is nothing indeed more humiliating than that debasement of mankind which takes place in such situations.
It has been observed of free governments that they are often torn by violent contests which render them dreadful scenes of distress and anarchy. But it ought to be considered that this has not been owing to the nature of such governments, but to their having been ill-modelled and wanting those arrangements and supplemental checks which are necessary to constitute a wise form of government. There is no reason to doubt but that free governments may be so contrived as to exclude the greatest part of the struggles and tumults which have arisen in free states, and, as far as they cannot be excluded, they will do more good than harm. They will occasion the display of powers and produce exertions which can never be seen in the still scenes of life. They are the active efforts of health and vigour and always tend to preserve and purify. Whereas, on the contrary, the quiet which prevails under slavish governments and which may seem to be a recommendation of them, proceeds from an ignominious tameness, and stagnation of the human faculties. It is the same with the stillness of midnight, or the silence and torpor of death.
Further, free governments are the only governments which are consistent with the natural equality of mankind. This is a principle which, in my opinion, has been assumed with the greatest reason by some of the best writers on government. But the meaning of it is not that all the subordinations in human life owe their existence to the institution of civil government. The superiorities and distinctions arising from the relation of parents to their children, from the differences in the personal qualities and abilities of men, and from servitudes founded on voluntary compacts, must have existed in a state of nature and would now take place were all men so virtuous as to leave no occasion for civil government. The maxim, therefore, 'that all men are naturally equal' refers to their state when grown up to maturity and become independent agents, capable of acquiring property, and of directing their own conduct. And the sense of it is that no one of them is constituted by the author of nature the vassal or subject of another, or has any right to give law to him, or, without his consent, to take away any part of his property, or to abridge him of his liberty. In a state of nature one man may have received benefits from another, and this would lay the person obliged under an obligation of gratitude, but it would not make his benefactor his master, or give him a right to judge for him what grateful returns he ought to make and to extort them from him. In a state of nature, also, one man may possess more strength, or more knowledge, or more property than another, and this would give him weight and influence, but it would not give him any degree of authority. There would not be one human being who would be bound to obey him. A person, likewise in a state of nature, might let out his labour or give up to another, on certain stipulated terms, the direction of his conduct, and this would so far bring him into that station of a servant, but being done by himself, and on such terms only as he chuses to consent to, it is an instance of his liberty, and he will always have it in his power to quit the service he has chosen or to enter into another.
This equality or independence of men is one of their essential rights. It is the same with that equality or independence which now actually takes place among the different states or kingdoms of the world with respect to one another. Mankind came with this right from the hands of their maker. But all governments which are not free are totally inconsistent with it. They imply that there are some of mankind who are born with an inherent right of dominion, and that the rest are born under an obligation to subjection, and that civil government, instead of being founded on any compact, is nothing but the exercise of this right. Some such sentiments seem to be now reviving in this country and even to be growing fashionable. Most of the writers against Observations on civil liberty argue on the supposition of a right in the few to govern the many, independently of their own choice. Some of these writers have gone so far as to assert, in plain language, that civil governors derive their power immediately from the Deity, and are his agents or representatives, accountable to him only. And one courtly writer, in particular, has honoured them with the appellation of our political gods. Probably, this is the idea of civil governors entertained by the author [i.e. John Lind] of the Remarks on the Acts of the Thirteenth Parliament of Great Britain; for it is not easy to imagine on what other ground he can assert, that property and civil rights are derived from civil governors and their gifts to mankind.
If these sentiments are just, civil governors are indeed an awful order of beings, and it becomes us to enquire with anxiety who they are and how we may distinguish them from the rest of mankind. Shall we take for such all, whether men or women, whom we find in actual possession of civil power, whatever may be their characters or however they may have acquired their power? This is too extravagant to be asserted. It would legalize the American Congress. There must be some pretenders among civil governors, and it is necessary we should know how to discover them. It is incredible that the Deity should not have made this easy to us by some particular marks and distinctions which point out to our notice his real viceregents, just as he has pointed out man, by his figure and superior powers, to be the governor of the lower creatures. In particular, these persons must be possessed of wisdom and goodness superior to those of the rest of mankind for, without this, a grant of the powers they are supposed to possess would be nothing but a grant of power to injure and oppress, without remedy and without bounds. But this is a test by which they cannot be tryed. It would leave but few of them in possession of the places they hold and the rights they claim. It is not in the high ranks of life, or among the great and mighty, that we are to seek wisdom and goodness. These love the shade and fly from observation. They are to be found chiefly in the middle ranks of life and among the contemplative and philosophical who decline public employments and look down with pity on the scramble for power among mankind and the restlessness and misery of ambition. It is proper to add that it has never been hitherto understood that any superiority in intellectual and moral qualifications lays the foundation of a claim to dominion.
It is not then, by their superior endowments that the Deity intended to point out to us the few whom he has destined to command the many. But in what other manner could they be distinguished? Must we embrace Sir Robert Filmer's Patriarchal scheme? One would have thought, that Mr. Locke has said more than enough to expose this stupid scheme. One of my opponents, however, has adopted it, and the necessary inference from it is that, as there is but now one lineal descendant from Adam's eldest son, there can be but one rightful monarch of the world. But I will not abuse my reader's patience by saying more on this subject. I am sorry that in this country there should be any occasion for taking notice of principles so absurd and at the same time so pernicious. I say pernicious for they imply, that King James the Second was deposed at the Revolution unlawfully and impiously, that the present King is an usurper, and that the present government, being derived from rebellion and treason, has no right to our allegiance.
Without all doubt, it is the choice of the people that makes civil governors. The people are the spring of all civil power and they have a right to modify it as they please.
Mankind being naturally equal according to the foregoing explanation, civil government, in its genuine intention, is an institution for maintaining that equality by defending it against the encroachments of violence and tyranny. All the subordinations and distinctions in society previous to its establishment, it leaves as it found them, only confirming and protecting them. It makes no man master of another. It elevates no person above his fellow citizens. On the contrary, it levels all by fixing all in a state of subjection to one common authority. The authority of the laws. The will of the community. Taxes are given, not imposed. Laws are regulations of common choice, not injunctions of superior power. The authority of magistrates is the authority of the state, and their salaries are wages paid by the state for executing its will and doing its business. They do not govern the state. It is the state governs them, and had they just ideas of their own stations they would consider themselves as no less properly servants of the public than the labourers who work upon its roads or the soldiers who fight its battles. A king, in particular, is only the first executive officer, the creature of the law, and as much accountable and subject to the law as the meanest peasant. And were kings properly attentive to their duty, and as anxious as they should be about performing it, they could not easily avoid sinking under the weight of their charge.
The account now given is, I am fully persuaded, in every particular, a true account of what civil government ought to be, and it teaches us plainly the great importance and excellence of free government. It is this only that answers the description I have given of government, that secures against oppression, that gives room for that elevation of spirit and that exertion of the human powers which is necessary to human improvement, or that is consistent with the ends of government, with the rights of mankind, and their natural equality and independence. Free government, therefore, only, is just and legitimate government.
It follows farther from the preceding account that no people can lawfully surrender or cede their liberty. This must appear to anyone who will consider that when a people make such a cession and the extensive powers of government are trusted to the discretion of any man or body of men, they part with the powers of life and death and give themselves up a prey to oppression, that they make themselves the instruments of any injustice in which their rulers may chuse to employ them, by arming them against neighbouring states, and also, that they do this not only for themselves, but for their posterity. I will add that if such a cession has been made, or if through any causes a people have lost their liberty, they must have a right to emancipate themselves as soon as they can. In attempting this, indeed, they ought to consider the sufferings which may attend the struggle, and the evils which may arise from a defeat.
But at the same time it will be proper to consider that the sufferings attending such a struggle must be temporary, whereas the evils to be avoided are permanent, and that liberty is a blessing so inestimable, 'that whenever there appears any probability of covering it, a people should be willing to run many hazards, and even not to repine at the greatest expence of blood or treasure'.
I am very sensible that civil government, as it actually exists in the world, by no means answers to the account I have given of it. Instead of being an institution for guarding the weak against the strong, we find an institution which makes the strong yet stronger and gives them a systematical power of oppressing. Instead of promoting virtue and restraining vice, encouraging free enquiry, establishing liberty, and protecting alike all peaceable persons in the enjoyment of their civil and religious rights, we see a savage despotism, under its name, laying waste the earth, unreasonably elevating some and depressing others, discouraging improvement, and trampling upon every human right. That force of states which ought to be applied only to their own defence, we see continually applied to the purpose of attack and used to extend dominion by conquering neighbouring communities. Civil governors consider not themselves as servants but as masters. Their stations they think they hold in their own right. The people they reckon their property and their possessions a common stock from which they have a right to take what they will, and of which no more belongs to any individual than they are pleased to leave him.
What a miserable perversion is this of a most important institution? What a grievance is government so degenerated? But this perversion furnishes no just argument against the truth of the account I have given. Similar degeneracies have prevailed in other instances of no less importance.
Reason in man, like the will of the community in the political world, was intended to give law to his whole conduct, and to be the supreme controuling power within him. The passions are subordinate powers, or an executive force under the direction of reason, kindly given to be, as it were, wind and tide to the vessel of life in its course through this world to future honour and felicity. How different from this is the actual state of man? Those powers which were destined to govern are made to serve, and those powers which were destined to serve are allowed to govern. Passion guides human life and most men make no other use of their reason than to justify whatever their interest or their inclinations determine them to do.
Religion likewise (the perfection of reason) is, in its true nature, the inspirer of humanity and joy and the spring of all that can be great and worthy in a character, and were we to see its genuine effects among mankind, we should see nothing but peace and hope and justice and kindness, founded on that regard to God and to his will which is the noblest principle of action. But how different an aspect does religion actually wear? What is it, too generally, in the practice of mankind, but a gloomy and cruel superstition, rendering them severe and sour, teaching them to compound for wickedness by punctuality in religious forms, and prompting them to harrass, persecute and exterminate one another?
The same perversion has taken place still more remarkably in Christianity; the perfection of religion. Jesus Christ has established among Christians an absolute equality. He has declared that they have but one master, even himself, and that they are all brethren, and, therefore, has commanded them not to be called masters and, instead of assuming authority over one another, to be ready to wash one another's feet.
The princes of the Gentiles, he says, exercise lordship over them and are flattered with high titles; but he has ordained that it shall not be so amongst his followers, and that if any one of them would be chief, he must be the servant of all. The clergy in his church are, by his appointment, no more than a body of men, chosen by the different societies of Christians, to conduct their worship and to promote their spiritual improvement without any other powers than those of persuasion and instruction. It is expressly directed that they shall not make themselves Lords of God's heritage, or exercise dominion over the faith of Christians, but be helpers of their joy. Who can, without astonishment, compare these appointments of Christianity with the events which have happened in the Christian church? That religion which thus inculcates humility and forbids all domination, and the end of which was to produce peace on earth, and good will among men, has been turned into an occasion of animosities the most dreadful and of ambition the most destructive. Notwithstanding its mildness and benignity and the tendency it has to extinguish in the human breast pride and malevolence, it has been the means of arming the spirits of men with unrelenting fury against one another. Instead of peace, it has brought a sword, and its professors, instead of washing one another's feet, have endeavoured to tread on one another's necks. The ministers, in particular, of Christianity, became, soon after its establishment, an independent body of spiritual rulers, nominating one another in perpetual succession, claiming, by divine right, the highest powers and forming a hierarchy which by degrees produced a despotism more extravagant than any that ever before existed on this earth.
A considerate person must find difficulties in enquiring into the causes and reasons of that depravity of human nature which has produced these evils and rendered the best institutions liable to be so corrupted. This enquiry is much the same with the enquiry into the origin of moral evil which has in all ages puzzled human wisdom. I have at present nothing to do with it. It is enough for my purpose in these observations that the facts I have mentioned prove undeniably that the state of civil government in the world affords no reason for concluding that I have not given a just account of its true nature and origin.
I have shewn at the beginning of this section that it is free government alone that can preserve from oppression, give security to the rights of a people, and answer the ends of government. It is necessary I should here observe that I would not be understood to mean that there can be no kind or degree of security for the rights of a people under any government which cannot be denominated free. Even under an absolute monarchy or an aristocracy there may be laws and customs which, having gained sacredness by time, may restrain oppression and afford some important securities. Under government by representation there must be still greater checks on oppression provided the representation, though partial, is uncorrupt and also frequently changed. In these circumstances there may be so much of a common interest between the body of representatives and the people, and they may stand so much on one ground, that there will be no temptations to oppression. The taxes which the representative body impose they will be obliged themselves to pay, and the laws they make, they will make with the prospect of soon returning to the situation of those for whom they make them, and of being themselves governed by them.
It seems particularly worth notice here that as far as there are any such checks under any government they are the consequence of its partaking so far of liberty, and that the security attending them is more or less in proportion as a government partakes more or less of liberty. If, under an absolute government, fundamental laws and long established institutions give security in any instances, it is because they are held so sacred that a despot is afraid to violate them, or, in other words, because a people, not being completely subdued, have still some controul over the government. The like is more evidently true under mixed governments of which a house of representatives, fairly chosen and freely deliberating and resolving, forms a part, and it is one of the highest recommendations of such governments that, even when the representation is most imperfect, they have a tendency to give more security than any other governments. Under other governments it is the fear of exciting insurrections by contradicting established maxims that restrains oppression. But, as, in general, a people will bear much, and are seldom driven to resistance till grievances become intolerable, their rulers can venture far without danger, and, therefore, under such governments are very imperfectly restrained. On the contrary, if there is an honest representation, vested with powers like to those of our House of Commons, the redress of grievances, as soon as they appear, will be always easily attainable, and the rulers of a state will be under a necessity of regarding the first beginnings of discontent. Such, and greater than can be easily described, are the advantages of even an imperfect representation in a government.
How great then must be the blessing of a complete representation? It is this only gives full security and that can properly denominate a people free.
It deserves to be added here, that as there can be no private character so abandoned as to want all virtue, so there can be no government so slavish as to exclude every restraint upon oppression. The most slavish and, therefore, the worst governments are those under which there is nothing to set bounds to oppression besides the discretion and humanity of those who govern. Of this kind are the following governments.
First, all governments purely despotic. These may be either monarchical or aristocratical. The latter are the worst, agreeably to a common observation, that it is better to have one master than many. The appetites of a single despot may be easily satiated, but this may be impossible where there is a multitude.
Secondly, all provincial governments. The history of mankind proves these to be the worst of all governments and that no oppression is equal to that which one people are capable of practising towards another ... Bodies of men do not feel for one another as individuals do. The odium of a cruel action, when shared among many, is not regarded. The master of slaves working on a plantation, though he may keep them down to prevent their becoming strong enough to emancipate themselves, yet is led by interest, as well as humanity, to govern them with such moderations as to preserve their use. But these causes will produce more of this good effect when the slaves are under the eye of their proprietor and form a part of his family than when they are settled on a distant plantation where he can know little of them and is obliged to trust them to the management of rapacious servants.
It is particularly observable here that free governments, though happier in themselves, are more oppressive to their provinces than despotic governments. Or, in other words, that the subjects of free states are worse slaves than the objects of slaves not free. This is one of the observations which Mr. Hume represents as an universal axiom in politicks. 'Though', says he, 'free governments have been commonly the most happy for those who partake of their freedom, yet are they the most oppressive and ruinous to their provinces, and this observation may be fixed as an universal axiom in politics. What cruel tyrants were the Romans over the world during the time of their commonwealth? After the dissolution of the commonwealth the Roman yoke became easier upon the provinces, as Tacitus informs us, and it may be observed, that many of the worst Emperors (Domitian, for instance) were very careful to prevent all oppression of the provinces. The oppression and tyranny of the Carthaginians over their future states in Africa went so far as we learn from Polybius ... that not content with exacting the half of all the produce of the ground, which of itself was a very high rent, they also loaded them with many other taxes. If we pass from antient to modem times we shall always find the observation to hold. The provinces of absolute monarchies are always better treated than those of free states.'
Thirdly, among the worst sorts of governments I reckon all governments
by a corrupt representation. There is no instance in which the trite observation
is more true than in this, 'that the best things when corrupted become
the worst'. A corrupt representation is so far from being any defence against
oppression that it is a support to it. Long established customs, in this
case, afford no security because, under the sanction of such a representation,
they may be easily undermined or counteracted, nor is there any injury
to a people which, with the help of such an instrument, may not be committed
with safety. It is not, however, every degree of corruption that will destroy
the use of a representation and turn it into an evil so dreadful. In order
to this, corruption must pass a certain limit. But every degree of it tends
to this, saps the foundation of liberty and poisons the fountain of legislation.
And when it gets to its last stage and has proceeded its utmost length,
when, in particular, the means by which candidates get themselves chosen
are such as admit the worst, but exclude the best men, a House of Representatives
becomes little better than a sink into which is collected all that is most
worthless and vile in a kingdom. There cannot be a greater calamity than
such a government. It is impossible there should be a condition more wretched
than that of a nation, once free, so degenerated.
It is well known, that Montesquieu has paid the highest compliment to this country by describing its constitution of government in giving an account of a perfect government, and by drawing the character of its inhabitants, in giving an account of the manners and characters of a free people. 'All (he says) having, in free states, a share in government, and the laws not being made more for some than others they consider themselves as monarchs, and are more properly confederates than fellow-subjects. No one citizen being subject to another, each sets a greater value on his liberty than on the glory of any of his fellow-citizens. Being independent, they are proud for the pride of kings is founded on their independence. They are in a constant ferment and believe themselves in danger, even in those moments when they are most safe. They reason, but it is indifferent whether they reason well or ill. It is sufficient that they do reason. Hence springs that liberty which is their security. This state, however, will lose its liberty. It will perish, when the legislative power shall become more corrupt than the executive.'
Such is the account which this great writer gave, many years ago, of the British constitution and people. We may learn from it that we have nothing to fear from that disposition to examine every public measure, to censure ministers of state, and to be restless and clamorous which has hitherto characterized us. On the contrary, we shall have every thing to fear when this disposition is lost. As soon as a people grow secure and cease to be quick in taking alarms they are undone. A free constitution of government cannot be preserved without an earnest and unremitting jealousy. Our constitution, in particular, is so excellent, that it is the properest object of such jealousy. For my own part, I admire so much the general frame and principles of it that I could be almost satisfied with that representation of the kingdom which forms the most important part of it, had I no other objection to this representation than its inadequateness. Did it consist of a body of men, fairly elected for a short term, by a number of independent persons, of all orders in every part of the kingdom, equal to the number of the present voters and were it, after being elected, under no undue influence, it would be a security of such importance that I should be less disposed to complain of the injustice done by its own inadequateness, to the greatest part of the kingdom by depriving them of one of their natural and unalienable rights. To such a body of representatives we might commit, with confidence, the guardianship of our rights knowing that, having one interest with the rest of the state, they could not violate them or that if they ever did, a little time would bring the power of gaining redress without tumult or violence. Happy the people so blessed. If wise, they will endeavour, by every possible method, to preserve the purity of their representation and, should it have degenerated, they will lose no time in effecting a reformation of it. But if, unhappily, infection should have pervaded the whole mass of the state and there should be no room to hope for any reformation, it will be still some consolation to reflect, that slavery, in all its rigour, will not immediately follow. Between the time in which the securities of liberty are undermined and its final subversion there is commonly a flattering interval during which the enjoyment of liberty may be continued in consequence of fundamental laws and rooted habits which cannot be at once exterminated. And this interval is longer or shorter according as the progress of corruption is more or less rapid and men in power more or less attentive to improve favourable opportunities. The government of this country, in particular, is so well balanced, and the institutions of our common law are so admirable and have taken such deep root, that we can bear much decay before our liberties fall. Fall, however, they must, if our public affairs do not soon take a new turn. That very evil which, according to the great writer I have quoted, is to produce our ruin, we see working every where and increasing every day. The following facts, among many others, shew too plainly whither we are tending and how far we are advanced.
First, it seems to me that a general indifference is gaining ground fast among us. This is the necessary effect of increasing luxury and dissipation, but there is another cause of it which I think of with particular regret. In consequence of having been often duped by false patriots and found that the leaders of opposition, when they get into places, forget all their former declarations, the nation has been led to a conviction that all patriotism is an imposture and all opposition to the measures of government nothing but a struggle for power and its emoluments. The honest and independent part of the nation entertain at present most of this conviction and, therefore, having few public men to whom they can look with confidence, they give up all zeal, and sink into inactivity and despondence.
Secondly, at the Revolution, the House of Commons acquired its just weight in the constitution. And, for some years afterwards, it was often giving much trouble to men in power. Of late, it is well known that means have been tryed and a system adopted for quieting it. I will not say with what success. But I must say that the men whose policy this has been have struck at the very heart of public liberty and are the worst traitors this kingdom ever saw. 'If ever (says Judge Blackstone) it should happen, that the independency of any one of the three branches of our legislature should be lost, or that it should become subservient to the views of either of the other two, there would soon be an end of our constitution. The legislature would be changed from that which was originally set up by the general consent and fundamental act of the society, and such a change, however effected, is according to Mr. Locke (who perhaps carries his theory too far) at once an entire dissolution of the bonds of government, and the people are thereby reduced to a state of anarchy, with liberty to constitute themselves a new legislative power.'
Thirdly, soon after the Revolution, bills for triennial parliaments passed both Houses, in opposition to the court. At the Accession, septennial parliaments were established. Since this last period many attempts have been made by the friends of the constitution to restore triennial parliaments and, formerly, it was not without difficulty that the ministry were able to defeat these attempts. The division in the House of Commons in 1735 on a bill for this purpose was 247 to 184. I need not say that now all such attempts drop of themselves. So much are the sentiments of our representatives changed in this instance that the motion for such a bill, annually made by a worthy member of the House of Commons [John Sawbridge], can scarcely produce a serious debate, or gain the least attention. For several years, at the beginning of the last reign, the House of Commons constantly passed pension and place bills which were as constantly rejected by the House of Lords. At present, no one is so romantic as ever to think of introducing any such bills into the House of Commons.
Fourthly, standing armies have in all ages been destructive to the liberties of the states into which they have been admitted. Montesquieu observes that the preservation of liberty in England requires that it should have no land forces. Dr. Ferguson calls the establishment of standing armies 'a fatal refinement in the present state of civil government.' Mr. Hume pronounces 'our standing army a moral distemper in the British constitution, of which it must inevitably perish.' Formerly the nation was apprehensive of this danger and the standing army was a constant subject of warm debate in both Houses of Parliament. The principal reason then assigned for continuing it was the security of the House of Hanover against the friends of the Pretender. This is a reason which now exists no more, the House of Hanover being so well established as not to want any such security. The standing army also is now more numerous and formidable than ever, and yet all opposition to it is lost and it is become in a manner a part of the constitution.
Fifthly, for many years after the accession the national debt was thought an evil so alarming that the reduction of it was recommended every year from the throne to the attention of Parliament as an object of the last importance. The fund appropriated to this purpose was called the only hope of the kingdom and when the practice of alienating it begun, it was reckoned a kind of sacrilege and zealously opposed in the House of Commons and protested against in the House of Lords. But now, though the debt is almost tripled, we sit under it with perfect indifference and the sacred fund which repeated laws had ordered to be applied to no other purposes than the redemption of it, is always alienated of course and become a constant part of the current supplies and much more an encouragement to dissipation than a preservative from bankruptcy.
Sixthly, nothing is more the duty of the representatives of a nation than to keep a strict eye over the expenditure of the money granted for public services. In the reign of King William the House of Commons passed almost every year bills for appointing commissioners for taking, stating and examining the public accounts and, particularly, the army and navy debts and contracts. In the reign of Queen Ann such bills became less frequent. But since the Accession, only two motions have been made for such bills, one in 1715, and the other in 1741, and both were rejected.
Seventhly, I hope I may add that there was a time when the kingdom could not have been brought to acquiesce in what was done in the case of the Middlesex election. This is a precedent which, by giving the House of Commons the power of excluding its members at discretion and of introducing others in their room on a minority of votes, has a tendency to make it a self-created House and to destroy entirely the right of representation. And a few more such precedents would completely overthrow the constitution.
Lastly, I cannot help mentioning here the addition which has been lately made to the power of the Crown by throwing into its hands the East-India Company. Nothing more unfavourable to the security of public liberty has been done since the Revolution. And should our statesmen, thus strengthened by the patronage of the East, be farther strengthened by the conquest and patronage of the West, they will indeed have no small reason for triumph and there will be little left to protect us against the encroachments and usurpations of power. Rome sunk into slavery in consequence of enlarging its territories and becoming the center of the wealth of conquered provinces, and the seat of universal empire. It seems the appointment of Providence that free states, when, not contented with self-government and prompted by the love of dominion, they make themselves masters of other states shall lose liberty at the same time that they take it away and, by subduing, be themselves subdued. Distant and dependent provinces can be governed only by a military force. And a military force which governs abroad will soon govern at home. The Romans were so sensible of this that they made it treason for any of their generals to march their armies over the Rubicon into Italy. Caesar, therefore, when he came to this river, hesitated; but he passed it, and enslaved his country.
'Among the circumstances (says Dr. Ferguson) which in the event of national prosperity and in the result of commercial arts, lead to the establishment of despotism, there is none perhaps that arrives at this termination with so sure an aim as the perpetual enlargement of territory. In every state the freedom of its members depends on the balance and adjustment of its interior parts, and the existence of any such freedom among mankind depends on the balance of nations. In the progress of conquest those who are subdued are said to have lost their liberties. But, from the history of mankind, to conquer or to be conquered has appeared in effect the same.'
Many more facts of this kind might easily be enumerated, but these are sufficient. They shew with sad evidence how fast we have, for some rime, been advancing towards the greatest of all public calamities.
We may also infer from the preceding observations that there is only one way in which our deliverance is possible, and that is, by restoring our grand national security. This is the object which our great men in opposition ought to hold forth to the kingdom and to bind themselves by some decisive tests to do all they can to obtain. That patriotism must be spurious which does not carry its views principally to this. Without it, nothing is of great importance to the kingdom and even an accommodation with America would only preserve a limb and save from present danger, while a gangrene was left to consume the vitals.
But probably we are gone too far and corruption has struck its roots too deep to leave us much room for hope. Mr. Hume has observed that as the affairs of this country are not likely to take a turn favourable to the establishment of a perfect plan of liberty, 'an absolute monarchy is the easiest death, the true euthanasia of the British constitution.' If this observation is just our constitution (should no great calamity intervene) is likely, in some future period, to receive a very quiet dissolution. At present, however, it must be acknowledged, that we enjoy a degree of liberty, civil and religious, which has seldom been paralleled among mankind. We ought to rejoice in this happiness and to be grateful to that benevolent disposer of all events who blesses us with it. But, at the same time, our hearts must bleed when we reflect that, the supports of it having given way, it is little more than a sufferance which we owe to the temper of the times, the lenity of our governors, and some awe in which the friends of despotism are still held, by the voice and spirit of the uncorrupted part of the kingdom. May these causes, if no better securities can be hoped for, long delay our fate.
It must not be forgotten that all I have now said is meant on the supposition that our affairs will proceed smoothly till, by a common and natural progress, we have gone the round of other nations once free, and are brought to their end. But it is possible this may not happen. Our circumstances are singular and give us reason to fear that we have before us a death which will not be easy or common.
. He who wants to be convinced of the practicability, even in this country, of a complete representation should read a pamphlet lately published, Take your Choice.
. De I'esprit des lois. Bk. XIX, ch. 27.
. Commentaries, I, p. 48.
. An essay on the history of civil society. 6th edn. (Edinburgh, 1793), 454-455.
Writings of Richard Price