Enquiry Concerning


& Its Influence on Morals & Happiness

William Godwin

(1793; Revised Edition of 1798)


Of Opinion Considered As A Subject of Political Institution



A principle which has entered deeply into the systems of the writers on political law is that of the duty of governments to watch over the manners of the people. 'Government' say they, 'plays the part of an unnatural step mother, not of an affectionate parent, when she is contented by rigorous punishments to avenge the commission of a crime, while she is wholly inattentive beforehand to imbue the mind with those virtuous principles which might have rendered punishment unnecessary. It is the business of a sage and patriotic magistracy to have its attention ever alive to the sentiments of the people, to encourage such as are favourable to virtue, and to check, in the bud, such as may lead to disorder and corruption.

How long shall government be employed to display its terrors without ever having recourse to the gentleness of invitation? How long shall she deal in retrospect and censure to the utter neglect of prevention and remedy?' These reasonings have, in some respects, gained additional strength by means of the latest improvements, and clearest views, upon the subject of political truth. It is now more evident than it was in any former period that government, instead- of being an object of secondary consideration, has been the principal vehicle of extensive and permanent evil to mankind. It was unavoidable therefore to say 'since government can produce so much positive mischief, surely it can do some positive good'.

But these views, however specious and agreeable they may in the first instance appear, are liable to very serious question. If we would not be seduced by visionary good, we ought here, more than ever, to recollect the fundamental principles laid down and illustrated in the work, 'that government is, in all cases, an evil', and 'that it ought to be introduced as sparingly as possible'. Man is a species of being whose excellence depends upon his individuality; and who can be neither great nor wise but in proportion as he is independent.

But, if we would shut up government within the narrowest practicable limits, we must beware how we let it loose in the field of opinion. Opinion is the castle, or rather the temple, of human nature; and, if it be polluted, there is no longer anything sacred or venerable in sublunary existence.

In treating of the subject of political obedience,[1] we settled, perhaps with some degree of clearness, the line of demarcation between the contending claims of the individual and of the community. We found that the species of obedience which sufficiently discharged the claims of the community was that which is paid to force, and not which is built upon a sentiment of deference; and that this species of obedience was, beyond all others, least a source of degeneracy in him that paid it. But, upon this hypothesis, whatever exterior compliance is yielded, opinion remains inviolate.

Here then we perceive in what manner the purposes of government may be answered, and the independence of the individual suffer the smallest degree of injury. We are shown how government, which is, in all cases, an evil, may most effectually be limited as to the noxiousness of its influence.

But, if this line be overstepped, if opinion be rendered a topic of political superintendence, we are immediately involved in a slavery to which no imagination of man can set a termination. The hopes of our improvement are arrested; for government fixes the mercurialness of man to an assigned station. We can no longer enquire or think; for enquiry and thought are uncertain in their direction, and unshackled in their termination. We sink into motionless inactivity and the basest cowardice; for our thoughts and words are beset on every side with penalty and menace.

It is not the business of government, as will more fully appear in the sequel, to become the preceptor of its subjects. Its office is not to inspire our virtues, that would be a hopeless task; it is merely to check those excesses which threaten the general security.

But, though this argument ought perhaps to be admitted as sufficiently decisive of the subject under consideration, and cannot be set aside but upon grounds that would invalidate all the reasonings of this work, yet the prejudice in favour of the political superintendence of opinion has, with some persons, been so great, and the principle, in some of its applications, has been stated with such seeming plausibility, as to make it necessary that we should follow it in these applications, and endeavour in each instance to expose its sophistry.

In the meantime it may not be improper to state some further reasons in confirmation of the general unfitness of government as a superintendent of opinion.

One of these may be drawn from the view we have recently taken of society considered as an agent.[2] A multitude of men may be feigned to be an individual, but they cannot become a real individual. The acts which go under the name of the society are really the acts now of one single person and now of another. The men who by turns usurp the name of the whole perpetually act under the pressure of encumbrances that deprive them of their true energy. They are fettered by the prejudices, the humours, the weakness and the vice of those with whom they act; and, after a thousand sacrifices to these contemptible interests, their project comes out at last, distorted in every joint, abortive and monstrous. Society therefore, in its corporate capacity, can by no means be busy and intrusive with impunity, since its acts must be expected to be deficient in wisdom.

Secondly, they will not be less deficient in efficacy than they are in wisdom. The object at which we are supposing them to aim is to improve the opinions, and through them the manners, of mankind; for manners are nothing but opinions carried out into action: such as is the fountain, such will be the streams that are supplied from it. But what is it upon which opinion must be founded? Surely upon evidence, upon the perceptions of the understanding. Has society then any particular advantage, in its corporate capacity, for illuminating the understanding? Can it convey, into its addresses and expostulations a compound or sublimate of the wisdom of all its members, superior in quality to the individual wisdom of any? If so, why have not societies of men written treatises of morality, of the philosophy of nature, or the philosophy of mind? Why have all the great steps of human improvement been the work of individuals?

If then society, considered as an agent, have no particular advantage for enlightening the understanding, the real difference between the dicta of society and the dicta of individuals must be looked for in the article of authority. But authority is, by the very nature of the case, inadequate to the task it assumes to perform. Man is the creature of habit and judgment; and the empire of the former of these, though not perhaps more absolute, is one at least more conspicuous. The most efficacious instrument I can possess for changing a man's habits is to change his judgments. Even this instrument will seldom produce a sudden, though, when brought into full operation, it is perhaps sure of producing a gradual revolution. But this mere authority can never of. Where it does most in changing the characters of men, it only changes them into base and despicable slaves. Contending against the habits of entire society, it can do nothing. It excites only contempt of its frivolous endeavours. If laws were a sufficient means for the reformation of error and vice, it is not to be believed but that the world, long ere this, would have become the seat of every virtue. Nothing can be more easy than to command men to be just and good to love their neighbours, to practise universal sincerity, to be content with a little, and to resist the enticements of avarice and ambition. But, when we have done, will the actions of men be altered by our precepts? These commands have been decreed that every man should be hanged that violated them, it is vehemently to be suspected that this would not have secured their influence.

But it will be answered 'that laws need not deal thus in generals, but may descend to particular provisions calculated to secure their success. We may institute sumptuary laws, limiting the expense of our citizens in dress and food. We may institute agrarian laws forbidding any man proclaim prizes as the rewire of acts of justice, benevolence and public virtue'. And, when we have done this, how far are we really advanced in our career? If the people are previously inclined to moderation of expense, the walls are a superfluous parade. If they are not inclined, who shall execute them, or prevent their evasion? It is the misfortune in these cases that regulations cannot be executed but by the individuals of that very people they are meant to restrain. If the nation at large be infested with vice, who shall secure us a succession of magistrates that are free from the contagion? Even if we could surmount this difficulty, still it would be vain. Vice is ever more ingenious in evasion than authority in detection. It is absurd to imagine that any law can be executed that directly contradicts the propensities and spirit of the nation. If vigilance were able fully to countermine the subterfuges of art, the magistrates who thus pertinaciously adhered to the practice of their duty could scarcely fail to become the miserable victims of depravity exasperated into madness.

What can be more contrary to all liberal principles of human intercourse than the inquisitorial spirit which such regulations imply? Who shall enter into my house, scrutinize my expenditure, and count the dishes upon my table? Who shall detect the stratagems I employ, 'to cover my real possession of an enormous income, while I seem to receive but a small one? Not that there is really anything unjust and unbecoming, as has been too often supposed, in my neighbour's animadverting with the utmost freedom upon my personal conduct.[3] But that all watchfulness that proposes for its object the calling in of force as the corrective of error is invidious. Observe my conduct; you do well. Report it as widely as possible, provided you report it fairly; you are entitled to commendation. But the heart of man unavoidably revolts against the attempt to correct my error by the infliction of violence. We disapprove of the superior, however well informed he may be who undertakes, by chastisement, to induce me to alter in my opinion, or vary in my choice; but we disapprove still more, and we do well, of the man who officiates as the Argus of my tyrant; who reports my conduct, not for the purpose of increasing my wisdom and prudence, not for the purpose of instructing others, but that he may bring down upon me the brute, the slavish and exasperating arm of power.

Such must be the case in extensive governments: in governments of smaller dimensions opinion would be all-sufficient; the inspection of every man over the conduct of his neighbours, when unstained with caprice, would constitute a censorship of the most irresistible nature. But the force of this censorship would depend upon its freedom, not following the positive dictates of law, but the spontaneous decisions of the understanding.

Again, in the distribution of rewards who shall secure us against error, partiality and intrigue, converting that which was meant for the support of virtue into a new engine for her ruin? Not to add that prizes are a very feeble instrument for the generation of excellence, always inadequate to its reward where it exists, always in danger of being bestowed on its semblance, continually misleading the understanding by foreign and degenerate motives of avarice and vanity.

The force of this argument, respecting the inefficacy of regulations, has often been felt, and the conclusions that are deduced from it have been in a high degree, discouraging. 'The character of nations,' it has been said, 'is unalterable, or at least, when once debauched, can never be recovered to purity. Laws are an empty name when the manners of the people are become corrupt. In vain shall the wisest legislator attempt the reformation of his country when the torrent of profligacy and vice has once broken down the bounds of moderation. There is no longer any instrument left for the restoration of simplicity and frugality. It is useless to declaim against the evils that arise from inequality of riches and rank, where this inequality has already gained an establishment. A generous spirit will admire the exertions of a Cato and a Brutus; but a calculating spirit will condemn them, as inflicting useless. torture upon a patient whose disease was irremediable. It was from a view of this truth that the poets derived their fictions respecting the early history of mankind; well aware that, when luxury was introduced, and the springs of intellect unbent, it would be a vain expectation that should hope to recall men from passion to reason, and from effeminacy to energy.'[4] But this conclusion from the inefficacy of regulations is so far from being valid that in reality,

A third objection to the positive interference of society in its corporate capacity for the propagation of truth and virtue is that such,interference is altogether unnecessary. Truth and virtue are competent to fight their own battles. They do not need to be nursed and patronized by the hand of power.

The mistake which has been made in this case is similar to the mistake which is now universally exploded upon the subject of commerce. It was long supposed that, if any nation desired to extend its trade, the thing most immediately necessary was for government to interfere, and institute protecting duties, bounties and monopolies. It is now generally admitted by speculative enquirers that commerce never flourishes so much as when it is delivered from the guardianship of legislators and ministers, and is conducted upon the principle, not of forcing other people to buy our commodities dear, when they might purchase them elsewhere cheaper or better, but of ourselves feeling the necessity of recommending them by their intrinsic advantages. Nothing can be at once so unreasonable and hopeless as to attempt, by positive regulations, to supersede the dictates of common sense, and the essential principles of human understanding.

The same truth which has gained such extensive footing under the article of commerce has made some progress in its application to speculative enquiry. Formerly it was thought that the true religion was to be defended by acts of uniformity, and that one of the first duties of the magistrate was to watch the progress of heresy. It was truly judged that the connection between error and vice is of the most intimate nature; and it was concluded that no means could be more effectual to prevent men from deviating into error than to check their wanderings by the scourge of authority. Thus writers whose political views in other respects have been uncommonly enlarged have been found to maintain 'that men ought indeed to be permitted to think as they please, but not to propagate their pernicious opinions; as they may be permitted to keep poisons in their closet, but not to offer them to sale under the denomination of cordials'.[5] Or, if humanity have forbidden them to recommend the extirpation of a sect which has already got footing in a country, they have however earnestly advised the magistrate to give no quarter to any new extravagance that might be attempted to be introduced.[6] The reign of these two errors, respecting commerce, and theoretical speculation, is nearly at an end; and it is reasonable to believe that the idea of teaching virtue through the instrumentality of regulation and government will not long survive them.

All that we should require on the part of government, in behalf of morality and virtue, seems to be a clear stage upon which for them to exert their own energies, and perhaps some restraint, for the present, upon the violent disturbers of the peace of society, that the operations of these principles may be permitted to go on uninterrupted to their genuine conclusion. Who ever saw an instance in which error, unallied to power, was victorious over truth? Who is there that can bring himself to believe that, with equal arms, truth can be ultimately defeated? Hitherto it seems as if every instrument of menace or influence had been employed to counteract her. Has she made no progress? Has the mind of man the capacity to choose falsehood, and reject truth, when evidence is fairly presented? When it has been once thus presented, and has gained a few converts, does she ever fail to go on increasing the number of her votaries? Exclusively of the fatal interference of government, and the violent irruptions of barbarism threatening to sweep her from the face of the earth, has not this been, in all instances, the history of science?

Nor are these observations less true in their application to the manners and morals of mankind. Do not men always act in the manner which they esteem best upon the whole, or most conducive to their interest? Is it possible then that evidence of what is best, or what is most beneficial, can be stated to no purpose? The real history of the changes of character they experience in this respect seems to be this. Truth for a long time, spreads itself unobserved. Those who are the first to embrace it are little aware of the extraordinary events with which it is pregnant. But it goes on to be studied and illustrated. It increases in dearness and amplitude of evidence. The number of those by whom it is embraced is gradually enlarged. If it have relation to their practical interests, if it show them that they may be a thousand times more happy and more free than at present, it is impossible that, in its perpetual 'Increase of evidence and energy, it should not, at last, break the bounds of speculation, and become an operative principle of action. What can be less plausible than the opinion which has so long prevailed 'that justice, and an equal distribution of the means of happiness, may appear, with the utmost clearness, to be the only reasonable basis of social institution, without ever having a chance of being reduced into practice? that oppression and misery are draughts of so intoxicating a nature that, when once tasted, we can never afterwards refuse to partake of them? that vice has so many advantages over virtue as to make the reasonableness and wisdom of the latter, however powerfully exhibited, incapable of obtaining a firm hold upon our affections?'

While therefore we demonstrate the inefficacy of naked and unassisted regulations, we are far from producing any discouragement in the prospect of social improvement. The true tendency of this view of the subject is to suggest indeed a different, but a more consistent and promising, method by which this improvement is to be produced. The legitimate instrument of effecting political reformation is knowledge. Let truth be incessantly studied, illustrated and propagated, and the effect is inevitable. Let us not vainly endeavour, by laws and regulations, to anticipate the future dictates of the general mind, but calmly wait till the harvest of opinion is ripe. Let no new practice in politics be introduced, and no old one he anxiously superseded, till the alteration is called for by the public voice. The task which, for the present, should occupy the first rank in the thoughts of the friend of man is enquiry, communication, discussion. The time may come when his task shall appear to be of another sort. Error indeed, if, with unaltered constancy to sink into unnoticed oblivion, without almost one partisan adventurous enough to intercept her fall. Such would probably be the event were it not for the restless and misjudging impetuosity of mankind. But the event may be otherwise. Political change, advancing too rapidly to its crisis, may be attended with commotion and hazard; and it may then be incumbent on the generous and disinterested man, suspending, to a certain degree, general speculations, and the labours of science, to assist in unfolding the momentous catastrophe, and to investigate and recommend the measures which the pressure of temporary difficulties shall appear successively to require. If this should at any time be the case, if a concert of action can become preferable to a concert of disquisition, the duty of the philanthropist will then change its face. Instead of its present sober, cheerful and peaceable character, it will be full of ardurousness, solicitude and uncertainty, evils which nothing but an assured simplicity and independence of conduct can ever purify or relieve. -- To return.

In the fourth place, the interference of an organized society, for the purpose of influencing opinions and manners, is not only useless, but pernicious. We have already found that such interference is in one view of the subject ineffectual. But here a distinction is to be made. Considered with a view to the introduction of any favourable changes in the state of Society, it is altogether impotent. But, though it be inadequate to change it, it is powerful to prolong. This property is political regulation is so far from being doubtful that to it alone we are to ascribe all the calamities that government has inflicted on mankind. When regulation coincides with the habits and propensities of mankind at the time it is introduced, it will be found capable of maintaining those habits and propensities, in the greater part, unaltered for centuries. In this view it is doubly entitled to jealousy and distrust.

To understand this more accurately, let us apply it to the case of rewards, which has always been a favourite topic with the advocates of an improved legislation. How often have we been told 'that talents and virtues would spring up spontaneously in a country, one of the objects of whose constitution should be to secure to them an adequate reward'? Now, to judge of the propriety of this aphorism, we should begin with recollecting that the discerning of merit is an individual, not a social capacity. What can be more reasonable than that each man, for himself, should estimate the merits of his neighbour? To endeavour to institute a general judgement in the name of the whole, and to melt down the different opinions of mankind into one common opinion, appears, at first sight, so monstrous an attempt that it is impossible to augur well of its consequences. Will this judgement be wise, reasonable or just? Wherever each man is accustomed to decide for himself, and the appeal of merit is immediately to the opinion of its contemporaries, there, were it not for the false bias of some positive institution, we might expect a genuine ardour in him who aspired to excellence, creating and receiving impressions in the preference of an impartial audience. We might expect the judgement of the auditors to ripen by perpetual exercise, and mind, ever curious and awake, continually to approach nearer to its genuine standard. What do we gain in compensation for this, by setting up authority as the oracle, from which the active mind is to inform itself what sort of excellence it should seek to acquire, and the public at large what judgement they should pronounce upon the efforts of their contemporaries? What should we think of an act of parliament appointing some individual president of the court of criticism, and judge in the last resort of the literary merit of dramatic compositions? Is there any solid reason why we should expect better things from authority usurping the examination of moral or political excellence?

Nothing can be more unreasonable than the attempt to retain men in one common opinion by the dictate of authority. The opinion thus obtruded upon the minds of the public is not their real opinion; it is only a project by which they are rendered incapable of forming an opinion. Whenever government assumes to deliver us from the trouble of thinking for ourselves, the only consequences it produces are torpor and imbecility. This point was perhaps sufficiently elucidated when we had occasion directly to investigate the principle of the right of private judgement.[7]

We shall be still more completely aware of the pernicious tendency of positive institutions if we proceed explicitly to contrast the nature of mind, and the nature of government. One of the most unquestionable characteristics of the human mind has appeared to be its progressive nature. Now, on the other hand, it is the express tendency of positive institution to retain that with which it is conversant for ever in the same state. Is then the perfectibility of understanding an attribute of trivial importance? Can we recollect, with coldness and indifference, the advantages with which this quality seems pregnant to the latest posterity? And how are these advantages to be secured? By incessant industry, by a curiosity never to be disheartened or fatigued, by a spirit of enquiry to which a philanthropic mind will allow no pause. The circumstance most indispensably necessary is that we should never stand still, that everything most interesting to the general welfare, wholly delivered from restraint, should be in a state of change, moderate and as it were imperceptible, but continual. Is there anything that can look with a more malignant aspect upon the general welfare than an institution tending to give permanence to certain systems and opinions? Such institutions are two ways pernicious; first, which is most material, because they render the future advances of mind inexpressibly tedious and operose; secondly because, by violently confining the stream of reflection and holding it for a time in an unnatural state, they compel it at last to rush forward with impetuosity, and thus occasion calamities which, were it free from restraint, would be found extremely foreign to its nature. If the interference of positive institution had been out of the question, would the progress of intellect, in past ages, have been so slow as to have struck the majority of ingenuous observers with despair? The science of Greece and Rome upon the subject of politics was, in many respects, extremely imperfect: yet could we have been so long in appropriating their discoveries, had not the allurements of reward, and the menace of persecution, united to induce us not to trust to the direct and fair verdict of our own understandings?

The just conclusion from the above reasonings is nothing more than a confirmation, with some difference in the mode of application, of the fundamental principle that government is little capable of affording benefit of the first importance to mankind. It is calculated to induce us to lament, not the apathy and indifference, but the inauspicious activity of government. It incites us to look for the moral improvement of the species, not in the multiplying of regulations, but in their repeal. It teaches us that truth and virtue, like commerce, will then flourish most when least subjected to the mistaken guardianship of authority and laws. This maxim will rise upon us in its importance in proportion as we connect it with the numerous departments of political justice to which it will be found to have relation. As fast as it shall be adopted into the practice of mankind, it may be expected to deliver us from a weight, intolerable to mind, and, in the highest degree, hostile to the progress of truth.


[1]. Book III, Chap. VI

[2]. Book V, Chap. XXIII.

[3]. Book II, Chap. V.

[4]. Book I, Chap. VII

[5]. Gulliver's Travels, Part II, Chap. VI

[6]. Mably, de la legislation, Liv. IV, Chap. III: des Etats Unis d'Amerique, Lettre III

[7]. Book II, Chap. VI.



One of the most striking instances of the injurious effects of the political patronage of opinion, as it at present exists in the world, is to be found in the system of religious conformity. Let us take our example from the church of England, by the constitution of which subscription is required from its clergy to thirty-nine articles of precise and dogmatical assertion, upon almost every subject of moral and metaphysical enquiry. Here then we have to consider the whole honours and revenues of the church, from the archbishop, who takes precedence next after the princes of the blood royal, to the meanest curate in the nation, as employed in support of a system of blind submission and abject hypocrisy. Is there one man, through this numerous hierarchy, that is at liberty to think for himself? Is there one man among them that can lay his hand upon his heart, and declare, upon his honour and conscience, that the emoluments of his profession have no effect in influencing his judgement? The supposition is absurd. The most that an honest and discerning man, under such circumstances, can say, is, "I hope not; I endeavour to be impartial."

First, the system of religious conformity is a system of blind submission. In every country possessing a religious establishment, the state, from a benevolent care, it may be, for the manners and opinions of its subjects, publicly excites a numerous class of men to the study of morality and virtue. What institution, we might obviously be led to enquire, can be more favourable to public happiness? Morality and virtue are the most interesting topics of human speculation; and the best effects might be expected to result from the circumstance, of many persons perpetually receiving the most liberal education, and setting themselves apart from the express cultivation of these topics. But, unfortunately, these very men are fettered in the outset by having a code of propositions put into their hands, in a conformity to which all their enquiries must terminate. The direct tendency of science is to increase from age to age, and to proceed, from the slenderest beginnings, to the most admirable conclusions. But care is taken, in the present case, to anticipate these conclusions, and to bind men, by promises and penalties, not to improve upon the science of their ancestors. The plan is designed indeed to guard against degeneracy and decline; but it makes no provision for advance. It is founded in the most sovereign ignorance of the nature of mind, which never fails to do either the one or the other.

Secondly, the tendency of a code of religious conformity is to make men hypocrites. To understand this, it may be sufficient to recollect the various subterfuges that have been invented by ingenious men to apologize for the subscription of the English clergy. It is observable, by the way, that the articles of our church are founded upon the creed of the Calvinists, though, for one hundred and fifty years past, it has been accounted disreputable among the clergy to be of any other than the opposite, or Arminian tenets. Volumes have been written to prove that, while these articles express Calvinistic sentiments, they are capable of a different construction, and that the subscriber has a right to take advantage of that construction. Divines of another class have rested their arguments upon the known good character and benevolent intentions of the first reformers, and have concluded that they could never intend to tyrannize over the consciences of men, or to preclude the advantage of further information. Lastly, there are many who have treated the articles as articles of peace; and inferred that, though you did not believe, you might allow yourself the disingenuity of subscribing them, provided you added the further guilt of constantly refraining to oppose what you considered as an adulteration of divine truth.

It would perhaps be regarded as incredible, if it rested upon the evidence of history alone, that a whole body of men, set apart as the instructors of mankind, weaned, as they are expected to be, from temporal ambition, and maintained upon the supposition that the existence of human virtue and divine truth depends on their exertions, should, with one consent, employ themselves in a casuistry the object of which is to prove the propriety of a man's declaring his assent to what he does not believe. These men either credit their own subterfuges, or they do not. If they do not, what can be expected from men so unprincipled and profligate? With what front can they exhort other men to virtue, with the brand of infamy upon their own foreheads? If they do yield this credit, what must be their portion of moral sensibility and discernment? Can we believe that men shall enter upon their profession with so notorious a perversion of reason and truth, and that no consequences will flow from it, to infect their general character? Rather, can we fail to compare their unnatural and unfortunate state with the wisdom and virtue which the same industry and exertion might unquestionably have produced, if they had been left to their genuine operation? They are like the victims of Circe, to whom human understanding was preserved entire, that they might more exquisitely feel their degraded condition. They are incited, like Tantalus, to contemplate and desire an object, the fruition of which is constantly withheld from their unsuccessful attempts. They are held up to their contemporaries as the votaries of truth, while political institution tyrannically commands them, in all their varieties of understanding, and through a succession of ages, to model themselves by one invariable standard.

Such are the effects that a code of religious conformity produces upon the clergy; let us consider the effects that are produced upon their countrymen. They are bid to look for instruction and morality to a denomination of men, formal, embarrassed and hypocritical, in whom the main spring of intellect is unbent and incapable of action. If the people be not blinded with religious zeal, they will discover and despise the imperfections of their spiritual guides. If they be so blinded, they will not the less transplant into their own characters the imbecile and unworthy spirit they are not able to detect. Is virtue so deficient in attractions, as to be incapable of gaining adherents to her standard? Far otherwise. Nothing can bring the wisdom of a just and pure conduct into question but the circumstance of its being recommended to us from an equivocal quarter. The most malicious enemy of mankind could not have invented a scheme more destructive of their true happiness than that of hiring, at the expense of the state, a body of men whose business it should seem to be to dupe their contemporaries into the practice of virtue.

One of the lessons that powerful facts are perpetually reading to the inhabitants of such countries is that of duplicity and prevarication in an order of men, which, if it exists at all, ought to exist only for reverence. Can it be thought that this prevarication is not a subject of general notoriety? Can it be supposed that the first idea that rises to the understanding of the multitude at sight of a clergyman is not that of a man, inculcates certain propositions not so properly because he thinks them true, or thinks them interesting, as because he is hired to the employment? Whatever instruction a code of religious uniformity may fail to convey, there is one that it always communicates, the wisdom of sacrificing our understandings, and maintaining a perpetual discord between our professions and our sentiments. Such are the effects that are produced by political institution, in a case in which it most zealously intends, with parental care, to guard its subjects from seduction and depravity.

These arguments do not apply to any particular articles and creeds, but to the notion of ecclesiastical establishments in general. Wherever the state sets apart a certain revenue for the support of religion, it will infallibly be given to the adherents of some particular opinions, and will operate, in the manner of prizes, to induce men to embrace and profess those opinions. Undoubtedly, if I think it right to have a spiritual instructor, to guide me in my researches, and, at stated intervals, publicly to remind me of my duty, I ought to be at liberty to take the proper steps to supply myself in this respect. A priest, who thus derives his mission from the unbiassed judgement of his parishioners, will stand a chance to possess, beforehand, and independently of corrupt influence, the requisites they demand. But why should I be compelled to contribute to the support of an institution, whether I approve of it or no? If public worship be conformable to reason, reason without doubt will prove adequate to its vindication and support. If it be from God, it is profanation to imagine that it stands in need of the alliance of the state. It must be, in an eminent degree, artificial and exotic, if it be incapable of preserving itself in existence otherwise than by the inauspicious interference of political institution.



The same views which have prevailed for the introduction of religious establishments have inevitably led to the idea of provisions against the rise and progress of heresy. No arguments can be adduced in favour of the political patronage of truth that will not be equally cogent in behalf of the political discouragement of error. Nay, they will, of the two, perhaps be most cogent in the latter case; as to prevent men from going wrong is a milder and more temperate assumption of power than to compel them to go right. It has however happened that this argument, though more tenable, has had fewer adherents. Men are more easily reconciled to abuse in the distribution of rewards, than in the infliction of penalties. It seems therefore the less necessary laboriously to insist upon the refutation of this principle; its discussion is principally requisite for the sake of method.

Various arguments have been alleged in defence of this restraint. "The importance of opinion, as a general proposition, is notorious and unquestionable. Ought not political institution to take under its inspection that root from which all our voluntary actions are ultimately derived? The opinions of men must be expected to be as various as their education and their temper: ought not government to exert its foresight, to prevent this discord from breaking out into anarchy and violence? There is no proposition so absurd, or so hostile to morality and public good, as not to have found its votaries: will there be no danger in suffering these eccentricities to proceed unmolested, and every perverter of truth and justice to make as many converts as he is able? It may be found indeed to be a hopeless task to endeavour to extirpate by the hand of power errors already established; but is it not the duty of government to prevent their ascendancy, to check the growth of their adherents, and the introduction of heresies hitherto unknown? Can those persons to whom the care of the general welfare is confided, or who are fitted, by their situation, or their talents, to suggest proper regulations to the adoption of the community, be justified in conniving at the spread of such extravagant and pernicious opinions as strike at the root of order and morality? Simplicity of mind, and an understanding undebauched with sophistry, have ever been the characteristics of a people among whom virtue has flourished: ought not government to exert itself, to exclude the inroad of qualities opposite to these? It is thus that the friends of moral justice have ever contemplated with horror the progress of infidelity and latitudinarian principles. It was thus that the elder Cato viewed with grief the importation into his own country of that plausible and loquacious philosophy by which Greece had already been corrupted."[1]

There are several trains of reflection which these reasoning suggest. None of them can be more important than that which may assist us in detecting the error of the elder Cato, and of other persons who have been the zealous, but mistaken, advocates of virtue. Ignorance is not necessary to render men virtuous. If it were, we might reasonably conclude that virtue was an imposture, and that it was our duty to free ourselves from its shackles. The cultivation of the understanding has no tendency to corrupt the heart. A man who should possess all the science of Newton, and all the genius of Shakespeare, would not, on that account, be a bad man. Want of great and comprehensive views had as considerable a share as benevolence in the grief of Cato. The progress of science and intellectual cultivation, in some degree, resembles the taking to pieces a disordered machine, with a purpose, by reconstructing it, of enhancing its value. An uninformed and timid spectator might be alarmed at the temerity of the artist, at the confused heap of pins and wheels that are laid aside at random, and might take it for granted that nothing but destruction could be the consequence. But he would be disappointed. It is thus that the extravagant sallies of mind are the prelude of the highest wisdom, and that the dreams of Ptolemy were destined to precede the discoveries of Newton.

The event cannot be other than favourable. Mind would else cease to be mind. It would be more plausible to say that the incessant cultivation of the understanding will terminate in madness than that it will terminate in vice. As long as enquiry is suffered to proceed, and science to improve, our knowledge is perpetually increased. Shall we know everything else, and nothing of ourselves? Shall we become clear-sighted and penetrating in all other subjects, without increasing our penetration upon the subject of man? Is vice most truly allied to wisdom, or to folly? Can mankind perpetually increase in wisdom, without increasing in the knowledge of what it is wise for them to do? Can a man have a clear discernment, unclouded with any remains of former mistake, that this is the action he ought to perform, most conducive to his own interest, and to the general good, most delightful at the instant, and satisfactory in the review, most agreeable to reason, justice and the nature of things, and refrain from performing it? Every system which has been constructed relative to the nature of superior. beings and Gods, amidst its other errors, has reasoned truly upon these topics, and taught that the accession of wisdom and knowledge led, not to malignity and tyranny, but to benevolence and justice.

Secondly, the injustice of punishing men for their opinions and arguments will be still more visible if we reflect on the nature of punishment. Punishment is one of the classes of coercion, and, as such, may perhaps be allowed to have an occasional propriety, where the force introduced is the direct correlative of corporal violence previously exerted. But the case of false opinions and perverse arguments is of a very different nature. Does any man assert falsehood? Nothing further can appear requisite than that it should be confronted with truth. Does he bewilder us with sophistry? Introduce the light of reason, and his deceptions will vanish. Where argument, erroneous statements, and misrepresentation alone are employed, argument alone should be called forth to encounter them.

To enable us to estimate properly the value of laws for the punishment of heresy, let us suppose a country to be sufficiently provided with such laws, and observe the result. The object is to prevent men from entertaining certain opinions, or, in other words, from thinking in a certain way. What can be more absurd than to undertake to put fetters upon the subtlety of thought? How frequently does the individual who desires to restrain it in himself fail in the attempt? Add to this that prohibition and menace in this respect, will frequently give new restlessness to the curiosity of the mind. I must not so much as think of the propositions that there is no God; that the stupendous miracles of Moses and Christ were never really performed; that the dogmas of the Athanasian creed are erroneous. I must shut my eyes, and run blindly into all the opinions, religious and political, that my ancestors regarded as sacred. Will this, in all instances, be possible?

There is another consideration, trite indeed, but the triteness of which is an additional argument of its truth. Swift says "Men ought to be permitted to think as they please, but not to propagate their pernicious opinions."[2] The obvious answer to this is, "We are much obliged to him: how would he be able to punish our heresy, even if he desired it, so long as it was concealed?" The attempt to punish opinion is absurd: we may be silent respecting our conclusions, if we please; the train of thinking by which those conclusions are generated cannot fail to be silent.

"But, if men be not punished for their thoughts, they may be punished for uttering those thoughts." No. This is not less impossible than the other. By what arguments will you persuade every man in the nation to exercise the trade of an informer? By what arguments will you persuade my bosom-friend, with whom I repose all the feelings of my heart, to repair immediately from my company to a magistrate, in order to procure my commitment, for so doing, to the prisons of the inquisition? In countries where this is attempted, there will be a frequent struggle, the government endeavouring to pry into our most secret transactions, and the people excited to countermine, to outwit and to execrate their superintendents.

But the most valuable consideration which this part of the subject suggests is, Supposing all this were done, what judgement must we form of the people among whom it is done? Though all this cannot, yet much may be performed; though the embryo cannot be annihilated, it may be prevented from expanding itself into the dimensions of a man. The arguments by which we were supposing a system for the restraint of opinion to be recommended were arguments derived from a benevolent anxiety for the virtue of mankind, and to prevent their degeneracy. Will this end be accomplished? Let us contrast a nation of men daring to think, to speak, and to act what they believe to be right, and fettered with no spurious motives to dissuade them from right, with a nation that fears to speak, and fears to think upon the most interesting subjects of human enquiry. Can any spectacle be more degrading than this timidity? Can men in whom mind is thus annihilated be capable of any good or valuable purpose? Can this most abject of all slaveries be the genuine state, the true perfection of the human species?[3]

Another argument, though it has often been stated to the world, deserves to be mentioned in this place. Governments no more than individual men are infallible. The cabinets of princes and the parliaments of kingdoms, if there by any truth in considerations already stated,[4] are often less likely to be right in their conclusions than the theorist in his closet. But, dismissing the estimate of greater and less, it was to be presumed from the principles of human nature, and is found true in fact, that cabinets and parliaments are liable to vary from each other in opinion. What system of religion or government has not, in its turn, been patronized by national authority? The consequence therefore of admitting this authority is not merely attributing to government a right to impose some, but any, or all, opinions upon the governed. Are Paganism and Christianity, the religions of Mahomet, Zoroaster and Confucius, are monarchy and aristocracy, in all their forms, equally worthy to be perpetuated among mankind? Is it certain that the greatest of human calamities is change? Must we never hope for advance and improvement? Have no revolution in government, and no reformation in religion, been productive of more benefit than disadvantage? There is no species of reasoning, in defence of the suppression of heresy, which may not be brought back to this monstrous principle that the knowledge of truth, and the introduction of right principles of policy, are circumstances altogether indifferent to the welfare of mankind.

The same reasonings that are here employed against the forcible suppression of religious heresy will be found equally valid with respect to political. The first circumstance that will not fail to suggest itself to every reflecting mind is, What sort of constitution must that be which must never be examined? whose excellencies must be the constant topic of eulogium, but respecting which we must never permit ourselves to enquire in what they consist? Can it be the interest of society to proscribe all investigation respecting the wisdom of its regulations? Or must our debates be occupied with provisions of temporary convenience; and are we forbid to ask whether there may not be something fundamentally wrong in the principles of the structure? Reason and good sense will not fail to augur ill of that system of things which is too sacred to be looked into; and to suspect that there must be something essentially weak in what thus shrinks from the eye of curiosity. Add to which that, however we may doubt of the importance of religious disputes, nothing can less reasonably be exposed to question than that the happiness of mankind is essentially connected with the improvement of political science.

That indeed, in the present situation of human affairs, is sufficiently evident, which was formerly endeavoured to be controverted, that the opinions of men are calculated essentially to affect their social condition. We can no longer, with any plausibility, lay claim to toleration, upon pretence of the innocence of error. It would not, at this time, be mere indifference, it would be infatuation, in our rulers, to say, We will leave the busily idle votaries of speculation to manage their controversies for themselves, secure that their disputes are, in no degree, of concern to the welfare of mankind.

Opinion is the most potent engine that can be brought within the sphere of political society. False opinion, superstition and prejudice, have hitherto been the true supporters of usurpation and despotism. Enquiry, and the improvement of the human mind, are now shaking to the Centre those bulwarks that have so long held mankind in thraldom. This is the genuine state of the case: how ought our governors, and the friends of public tranquillity, to conduct themselves in this momentous crisis?

We no longer claim toleration, as was formerly occasionally done, from the unimportance of opinion; we claim it because a contrary system will be found pregnant with the most fatal disasters, because toleration only can give a mild and auspicious character to the changes that are impending.

It has lately become a topic of discussion with political enquirers whether it be practicable forcibly to effect the suppression of novel opinions. Instances have been cited in which this seems to have been performed. A cool and deliberate calculation has been made, as to the number of legal or illegal murders that must be committed, the quantity of misery that must be inflicted, the extent and duration of the wars that must be carried on, according to the circumstances of the case, to accomplish this purpose.

In answer to this sort of reasoning, it may be observed, first, that, if there are instances where a spreading opinion seems to have been extirpated by violence, the instances are much more numerous where this expedient has been employed in vain. It should appear that an opinion must be in a particular degree of reception, and not have exceeded it, in order to give to this engine a chance of effecting its purpose. Above all, it is necessary that the violence by which a set of opinions is to be suppressed should be unintermitted and invariable. If it should happen, as often has happened in similar cases, that the partisans of the new opinion should alternately gain the ascendancy over their oppressors, we shall then have only an alternate succession of irritation and persecution. If there be the least intermission of the violence, it is to be expected that the persecuted party will recover their courage, and the whole business will be to be begun over again. However seriously anyone may be bent upon the suppression of opinions, it would be absurd for him to build upon the supposition that the powers of government will never be transferred to other hands, and that the measures now adopted will be equably pursued to a distant termination.

Secondly, we must surely be induced on strong grounds to form a terrible idea of the consequences to result from the ascendancy of new opinions, before we can bring ourselves to assent to such severe methods for their suppression. Inexpressible must be the enormities committed by us, before we can expect to succeed in such an undertaking. To persecute men for their opinions is, of all the denominations of violence, that to which an ingenuous mind can with the greatest difficulty be reconciled. The persons, in this case, most obnoxious to our hostility are the upright and conscientious. They are of all men the most true to their opinions, and the least reluctant to evils in which those opinions may involve counter the evils in which those opinions may involve them. It may be they are averse to every species of disorder, pacific, benevolent, and peculiarly under the guidance of public spirit and public affections. A gallant spirit would teach us to encounter opinion with opinion, and argument with argument. It is a painful species of cowardice to which we have recourse, whatever be our motive, when we determine to overbear an opponent by violence, whom e cannot convince. The tendency of persecution is to generate the most odious vices: in one part of the community, those malevolent passions which teach us to regard our brethren as prodigies and monsters, and that treacherous and vindictive spirit which is ever lying in wait to destroy: the other part of the community, terror, hatred, hypocrisy and falsehood. Supposing us ultimately to succeed in our object, what sort of a people will be the survivors of this infernal purification?

Thirdly, opinion, though formidable in its tendencies, is perhaps never calamitous in its operation but so far as it is encountered with injustice and violence. In countries where religious toleration has been established, opposite sectaries have been found to pursue their disputes in tranquillity. It is only where measures of severity are adopted that animosity is engendered. The mere prospect of melioration may inspire a sedate and consistent ardour; but oppression and suffering are necessary to render men bitter, impatient and sanguinary. If we persecute the advocates of improvement, and fail of our object, we may fear a terrible retribution; but, if we leave the contest to its genuine course, and only apply ourselves to prevent mutual exasperation, the issue perhaps, whichever way it is determined, will be beneficent and auspicious.


[1]. The reader will consider this as the language of the objectors. The most eminent of the Greek philosophers were, in reality, distinguished from all the other teachers by the fortitude with Which they conformed to the precepts they taught.

[2]. See above, Chap. I.

[3]. Book II, Chap. VI.

[4]. Book V, Chap. XXIII.



The majority of the arguments above employed, on the subject of penal laws in matters of opinion, are equally applicable to tests, religious and political. The distinction, between prizes and penalties, between greater and less, has little tendency to change the state of the question, if we have already proved that any discouragement extended to the curiosity of intellect, and any authoritative countenance afforded to one set of opinions in preference to another, is in its own nature unjust, and evidently hostile to the general welfare.

Leaving out of the consideration religious tests, as being fully comprehended in the preceding discussion,[1] let us attend for a moment to an article which has had its advocates among men of considerable liberality, the supposed propriety of political tests. 'Shall we have no federal oaths, no oaths of fidelity to the nation, the law and the republic? How in that case shall we distinguish between the enemies and the friends of freedom?'

Certainly there cannot be a method devised for this purpose at once more iniquitous and ineffectual than a federal oath. What is the language that, in strictness of interpretation, belongs to the act of the legislature imposing this oath? To one party it says, "We know that you are our friends; the oath, as it relates to you, we acknowledge to be superfluous; nevertheless you must take it, as a cover to our indirect purposes, in imposing it upon persons whose views are less unequivocal than yours." To the other party it says, "It is vehemently suspected that you are hostile to the cause in which we are engaged: this suspicion is either true or false; if false, we ought not to suspect you, and much less ought we to put you to this corrupting and nugatory purgation; if true, you will either candidly confess your difference, or dishonestly prevaricate: be candid, and we will indignantly banish you; be dishonest, and we will receive you as bosom-friends."

Those who say this, however, promise too much. Duty and common sense oblige us to watch the man we suspect, even though he should swear he is innocent. Would not the same precautions, which we are still obliged to employ, to secure us against his duplicity have sufficiently answered our purpose, without putting him to this purgation? Are there no methods by which we can find whether a man be the proper subject in whom to repose an important trust, without putting the question to himself? Will not he who is so dangerous an enemy that we cannot suffer him at large, discover his enmity by his conduct, without reducing us to the painful necessity of tempting him to an act of prevarication? If he be so subtle a hypocrite that all our vigilance cannot detect him, will he scruple to add to his other crimes the guilt of perjury?

Whether the test we impose be merely intended to operate as an exclusion from office, or to any more considerable disadvantage, the disability it introduces is still in the nature of a punishment. It treats the individual in question as an unsound member of society, as distinguished, in an unfavourable sense, from the majority of his countrymen, and possessing certain attributes detrimental to the general interest. In the eye of reason, human nature is capable of no other guilt than this.[2] Society is authorized to animadvert upon a certain individual, in the case of murder, for example, not because he has done an action that he might have avoided, not because he was sufficiently informed of the better, and obstinately chose the worse; for this is impossible, every man necessarily does that which he at the time apprehends to be best: but because his habits and character render him dangerous to society, in the same sense as a wolf or a blight would be dangerous.[3] It must, no doubt, be an emergency of no common magnitude that can justify a people in putting a mark of displeasure upon a man for the opinions he entertains, be they what they may. But, taking for granted, for the present, the propriety of such a measure, it would certainly be just as equitable to administer, to the man accused for murder, an oath of purgation, as to the man accused of disaffection to the established order of society. The proof of this injustice is to be found in the nature of punishment. It would be well, in ordinary cases at least, that a man were allowed to propose to his neighbour what questions he pleased, and, in general, his duty would prompt him to give an explicit answer. But, when you punish a man, you suspend the treatment that is due to him as a rational being, and consequently your own claim to a reciprocation of that treatment. You demand from him an impartial confession at the same time that you employ a most powerful motive to prevarication, and menace him with a serious injury in return for his ingenuousness.

These reasonings being particularly applicable to a people in a state of revolution, like the French, it may perhaps be allowable to take, from their revolution, an example of the injurious and ensnaring effects with which tests, and oaths of fidelity, are usually attended. It was required of all men, in the year 1791, to swear, 'that they would be faithful to the nation, the law and the king'. In what sense can they be said to have adhered to their oath who, twelve months after their constitution had been established on its new basis, have taken a second oath declaratory of their everlasting abjuration of monarchy? What sort of effect, favourable or unfavourable, must this precarious mutability in their solemn appeals to heaven have upon the minds of those by whom they are made?

And this leads us, from the consideration of the supposed advantages of tests, religious and political, to their disadvantages. The first of these disadvantages consists in the impossibility of constructing a test in such a manner as to suit the various opinions of those upon whom it is imposed, and not to be liable to reasonable objections When the law was repealed imposing upon the dissenting clergy of England a subscription, with certain reservations, to the articles of the established church, an attempt was made to invent an unexceptionable test that might be substituted in its room. This test simply affirmed 'that the books of the Old and New Testament, in the opinion of the person who took it, contained a revelation from God'; and it was supposed that no Christian could scruple such a declaration. But is it impossible that I should be a Christian, and yet doubt of the canonical authority of the amatory eclogues of Solomon, or of certain other books, contained in a selection that was originally made in a very arbitrary manner? 'Still however I may take the test, with a persuasion that the books of the Old and New Testament contain a revelation from God, and something more.' In the same sense I might take it, and if the Koran, the Talmud, and the sacred books of he Hindoos, were added to the list. What sort of influence will be produced upon the mind that is accustomed to this looseness of construction in its most solemn engagements?

Let us examine, with the same view, the federal oath of the French, proclaiming the determination of the swearer, "to be faithful to the nation, the law and the king". Fidelity to three several interests, which may, in various cases, be placed in opposition to each other, will appear at first sight to be no very reasonable engagement. The propriety of vowing fidelity to the king has already been brought to the trial, and received its condemnation.[4] Fidelity to the law is an engagement of so complicated a nature as to strike terror into every mind of serious reflection. It is impossible that a system of law, the composition of men, should ever be presented to such a mind, that shall appear faultless. But, with respect to laws that appear to me to be unjust, I am bound to every kind of hostility short of open violence; I am bound to exert myself incessantly, in proportion to the magnitude of the injustice, for their abolition. Fidelity to the nation is an engagement scarcely less equivocal. I have a paramount engagement to the cause of justice, and the benefit of the human race. If the nation undertake what is unjust, fidelity in that undertaking is a crime. If it undertake what is just, it is my duty to promote its success, not because I was born one of its citizens, but because such is the command of justice.

It may be alleged with respect to the French federal oath, as well as with respect to the religious test before cited, that it may be taken with a certain laxity of interpretation. When I swear fidelity to the law, I may mean only that there are certain parts of it that I approve. When I swear fidelity to the nation, the law and the king, I may mean, so far only as these three authorities shall agree with each other, and all of them agree with the general welfare of mankind. In a word, the final result of this laxity of interpretation explains the oath to mean, 'I swear that I believe it is my duty to do everything that appears to me to be just'. Who can look without indignation and regret at this prostitution of language? Who can think, without horror, of the consequences of the public and perpetual lesson of duplicity which is thus read to mankind?

But, supposing there should be certain members of the community, simple and uninstructed enough to conceive that an oath contained some real obligation, and did not leave the duty of the person to whom it was administered precisely where it found it, what is the lesson that would be read to such members? They would listen, with horror, to the man who endeavoured to persuade them that they owed no fidelity to the nation, the law and the kin, as to one who was instigating them to sacrilege. They would tell him that it was too late, and that they must not allow themselves to hear his arguments. They would perhaps have heard enough, before their alarm commenced, to, make them look with envy on the happy state of this man. who was free to listen to the communications of others without terror, who could give a loose to his thoughts, and intrepidly follow the course of his enquiries wherever they led him. For themselves they had promised to think no more. for the rest of their lives. Compliance indeed in this case is impossible; but will a vow of inviolable adherence to a certain constitution have no effect in checking the vigour of their contemplations, and the elasticity of their minds?

We put a miserable deception upon ourselves when we promise ourselves the most favourable effects from the abolition of monarchy and aristocracy, and retain this wretched system of tests, overturning, in the apprehensions of mankind at large the fundamental distinctions of justice and injustice. Sincerity is not less essential than equality to the well-being of mankind. A government that is perpetually furnishing motives to jesuitism and hypocrisy is not less in hostility with reason than a government of orders and hereditary distinction. It is not easy to imagine how soon men would become frank explicit in their declarations, and unreserved in their manners, were there no positive institutions inculcating upon them the necessity of falsehood and disguise. Nor is it possible for any language to describe the inexhaustible benefits that would arise from the universal practice of sincerity.


[1]. Chap. II.

[2]. Book IV, Chap. VIII.

[3]. Book IV, Chap. VIII.

[4]. Book V. Chap. II-VIII.



The same arguments that prove the injustice of tests maybe applied universally to all oaths of duty and office. If I entered upon the office without an oath, what would be my duty? Can the oath that is imposed upon me make any alteration in my duty? If not, does not the very act of imposing it by implication assert a falsehood? Will this falsehood have no injurious effect upon a majority of the persons concerned? What is the true criterion that I shall faithfully discharge the office that conferred upon me? Surely my past life, not any protestations I may be compelled to make. If my life have been unimpeachable, this compulsion is an unmerited insult; if it have been otherwise, it is something worse.

It is with no common disapprobation that a man of undebauched understanding will reflect upon the prostitution of oaths, which marks the history of modern European countries, and particularly of our own. This is one of the means that government employs to discharge itself of its proper functions, by making each man security for himself. It is one of the means that legislators have provided to cover the inefficiency and absurdity of their regulations, by making individuals promise the execution of that which the police is not able to execute. It holds out, in one hand, the temptation to do wrong, and, in the other, the obligation imposed not to be influenced by that temptation. It compels a man to engage, not only for his own conduct, but for that of all his dependents. It obliges certain officers (church-wardens in particular) to promise an inspection beyond the limits of human faculties, and to engage for a proceeding, on the part of those under their jurisdiction, which they neither intend, nor are empowered to enforce. Will it be believed in after ages that every considerable trader in exciseable articles in this country is induced, by the constitution of its government, to reconcile his mind to the guilt of perjury, as to the condition upon which he is allowed to exercise his profession?

There remains only one species of oaths to be considered, which have found their advocates among persons sufficiently speculative to reject every other species of oath, I mean, oaths administered to a witness in a court of justice. 'These are certainly free from many of the objections that apply to oaths of fidelity, duty or office. They do not call upon a man to declare his assent to a certain proposition which the legislator has prepared for his acceptance; they only require him solemnly to pledge himself to the truth of assertions, dictated by his own apprehension of things, and expressed in his own words. They do not require him to engage for something future, and, of consequence, to shut up his mind against further information, as to what his conduct in that future ought to be; but merely to pledge his veracity to the apprehended order of things past.'

These considerations palliate the evil, but do not convert it into good. Wherever, in any quarter of the globe, men of peculiar energy and dignity of mind have existed, they have felt the degradation of binding their assertions with an oath. The English constitution recognizes, in a partial and imperfect manner, the force of this principle, and therefore provides, that, while the common herd of mankind shall be obliged to confirm their declarations with an oath, nothing more shall be required from the order of nobles, in the very function which, in all other cases, has emphatically received the appellation of juror, than a declaration upon honour. Will reason justify this distinction?

Can there be a practice more pregnant with false morality than that of administering oaths in a court of justice? The language it expressly holds is, 'You are not to be believed upon your mere word'; and there are few men firm enough resolutely to preserve themselves from contamination, when they are accustomed, upon the most solemn occasions, to be treated with contempt. To the unthinking it comes like a plenary indulgence to the occasional tampering with veracity in affairs of daily occurrence, that they are not upon their oath; and we may affirm, without risk of error, that there is no cause of insincerity, prevarication and falsehood more powerful than that we are here considering. It treats veracity, in the scenes of ordinary life, as a thing not to be looked for. It takes for granted that no man, at least of plebeian rank, is to be credited upon his bare affirmation; and what it thus takes for granted, it has an irresistible tendency to produce.

Add to this, a feature that runs through all the abuses of political institution, it saps the very foundations of moral principle. Why is it that I am bound to be more especially careful of what I affirm in a court of justice? Because the subsistence, the honest reputation, or the life, of a fellow man, is there peculiarly at issue. All these genuine motives are, by the contrivance of human institution, thrown into shade, and we are expected to speak the truth only because government demands it of us upon oath, and at the times in which government has thought proper, or recollected, to administer this oath. All attempts to strengthen the obligations of morality by fictitious and spurious motives will, in the sequel, be found to have no tendency but to relax them.

Men will never act with that liberal justice, and conscious integrity, which are their highest ornament till they come to understand what men are. He that contaminates his lips with an oath must have been thoroughly fortified with previous moral instruction, if he be able afterwards to understand the beauty of an unconstrained and simple integrity. If our political institutors had been but half as judicious in perceiving the manner in which excellence and worth were to be generated, as they have been ingenious and indefatigable in the means of depraving mankind, the world, instead of a slaughterhouse, would have been a paradise.

Let us leave, for a moment, the general consideration of the principle of oaths, to reflect upon their particular structure, and the precise meaning of the term. They take for granted, in the first place, the existence of an invisible governor of the world, and the propriety of our addressing petitions to him, both which a man may deny, and yet continue a good member of society. What is the situation in which the institution of which we treat places this man? But we must not suffer ourselves to be stopped by trivial considerations. Oaths are also so constructed, as to take for granted the religious system of the country whatever it may happen to be.

Now what are the words with which we are taught, in this instance, to address the creator whose existence we have thus recognized? 'So help me God, and the contents of his holy word.' It is the language of imprecation. I pray him to pour down his everlasting wrath and curse upon me if I utter a lie. It were to be wished that the name of that man had been recorded who first invented this mode of binding men to veracity. He had surely himself very slight and contemptuous notions of the Supreme Being, who could thus tempt men to insult him, by braving his displeasure. If it be thought to be our duty to invoke his blessing, yet surely it must be a most hardened profaneness that can thus be content to put all the calamity with which he is able to overwhelm us to the test of one moment's rectitude or frailty.



In the examination already bestowed upon the article of heresy, political and religious,[1] we have anticipated one of the heads of the law of libel; and, if the arguments there adduced be admitted for valid, it will follow that no punishment can justly be awarded against any writing or words derogatory to religion or political government.

It is impossible to establish any solid ground of distinction upon this subject, or to lay down rules in conformity to which controversies, political or religious, must be treated. It is impossible to tell me, when I am penetrated with the magnitude of the subject, and I must be logical, and not eloquent: or, when I feel the absurdity of the theory I am combating, that I must not express it in terms that shall produce feelings of ridicule in my readers. It were better to forbid me the discussion of the subject altogether than forbid me to describe it in the manner I conceive to be most suitable to its merits. It would be a most tyrannical species of candour to tell me, 'You may write against the system we patronize, provided you will write in an imbecile and ineffectual manner; you may enquire and investigate as much as you please, provided, when you undertake to communicate the result, you carefully check your ardour, and be upon your guard that you do not convey any of your own feelings to your readers.' In subjects connected with the happiness of mankind, the feeling is the essence. If I do not describe the miserable effects of fanaticism and abuse, if I do not excite in the mind a sentiment of aversion and ardour, I had better leave the subject altogether, for I am betraying the cause of which I profess to be the advocate. Add to this, that rules of distinction, as they are absurd in relation to the dissidents, will prove a continual instrument of usurpation and injustice to the ruling party. No reasonings will appear fair to them but such as are futile. If I speak with energy, they will deem me inflammatory; and if I describe censurable proceedings in plain and homely but pointed language, they will cry out upon me as a buffoon.

It must be truly a deplorable case if truth, savoured by the many, and patronized by the great, should prove too weak to enter the lists with falsehood. It is in a manner self-evident that that which will stand the test of examination cannot need the support of penal statutes. After our adversaries have exhausted their eloquence, and exerted themselves to mislead us, truth has a clear, nervous and simple story to tell, which, if force be excluded on all sides, will not fail to put down their arts. Misrepresentation will speedily vanish if the friends of truth be but half as alert as the advocates of falsehood. Surely then it is a most ungracious plea to offer, 'We are too idle to reason with you, and are therefore determined to silence you by force.' So long as the adversaries of justice confine themselves to expostulation, there can be no ground for serious alarm. As soon as they begin to act with violence and riot, it will be time enough to encounter them with force.

There is however one class of libel that seems to demand a separate consideration. A libel may either not confine itself to any species of illustration of religion or government, or it may leave illustration entirely out of its view. Its object may be to invite a multitude of persons to assemble, as the first step towards acts of violence. A public libel is any species of writing in which the wisdom of some established system is controverted; and it cannot be denied that a dispassionate and severe demonstration of its injustice tends, not less than the most alarming tumult, to the destruction of such institutions. But writing and speech are the proper and becoming methods of operating changes in human society, and tumult is an improper and equivocal method. In the case then of the specific preparations of riot, it should seem that the regular force of the society may lawfully interfere. But this interference may be of two kinds. It may consist of precautions to counteract all tumultuous concourse, or it may arraign the individual for the offences he has committed against the peace of the community. The first of these seems sufficiently commendable and wise, and would perhaps, if vigilantly exerted, be, in almost all cases, adequate to the purpose. A firm and explicit language as to the preceding steps, a careful attention to avoid unnecessary irritation and violence, and a temperate display of strength in case of extremity, might be expected always to extricate the government in safety in these delicate exigencies. It must be a very uncommon occasion in which the mass of the sober and effective part of the community will not be found inimical to disorderly and tumultuous proceedings. The second idea, that of bringing the individual to account for a proceeding of this sort, is of a more doubtful nature. A libel the avowed intention of which is to lead to immediate violence is altogether different from a publication in which the general merits of any institution are treated with the utmost freedom, and may well be supposed to fall under different rules. The difficulty here arises from the consideration of the general nature of punishment, which is abhorrent to the true principles of mind, and ought to be restrained within as narrow limits as possible, if not immediately abolished.[2] A distinction to which observation and experience, in cases of judicial proceeding, have uniformity led is that between crimes that exist only in intention, and over acts. So far as prevention only is concerned, the former would seem, in many cases, not less entitled to the animadversion of society than the latter; but the evidence of intention usually rests upon circumstances equivocal and minute, and the friend of justice will tremble to erect any grave proceedings upon so uncertain a basis.[3] These reasonings on exhortations to tumult will also be found applicable, with slight variation, to incendiary letters addressed to private persons.

But the law of libel, as we have already said, distributes itself into two heads, libels against public establishments and measures, and libels against private character. Those who have been willing to admit that the first ought to pass unpunished have generally asserted the propriety of counteracting the latter by censures and penalties. It shall be the business of the remainder of this chapter to show that they were erroneous in their decision.

The arguments upon which their decision is built must be allowed to be both popular and impressive. 'There is no external possession more solid, or more valuable than an honest fame. My property, in goods or estate, is appropriated only by convention. Its value is, for the most part, the creature of a debauched imagination; and, if I were sufficiently wise and philosophical, he that deprived me of it would do me very little injury. He that inflicts a stab upon my character is a much more formidable enemy. It is a very serious inconvenience that my countrymen should regard me as destitute of principle and honesty. If the mischief were entirely to myself, it is not possible to be regarded with levity. I must be void of all sense of justice, if I am callous to the contempt and detestation of the world. I must cease to be a man, if I am unaffected by the calumny that deprives me of the friend I love, and leaves me perhaps without one bosom in which to repose my sympathies. But this is not all. The same stroke that annihilates my character extremely abridges, if it do not annihilate, my usefulness. It is in vain that I would exert my good intentions and my talents for the assistance of others, if my motives be perpetually misinterpreted. Men will not listen to the arguments of him they despise; he will be spurned during life, and execrated as long as his memory endures. What then are we to conclude but that to an injury greater than robbery, greater perhaps than murder, we ought to award an exemplary punishment?'

The answer to this statement may be given in the form of an illustration of two propositions: first, that it is necessary the truth should be told; secondly, that it is necessary men should be taught to be sincere.

First, it is necessary the truth should be told. How can this ever be done if I be forbidden to speak upon more than one side of a question? The case is here exactly similar to the case of religion and political establishment. If we must always hear the praise of things as they are, and allow no man to urge an objection, we may be lulled into torpid tranquillity, but we can never be wise.

If a veil of partial favour is to be drawn over the indiscretions and faults of mankind, it is easy to perceive whether virtue or vice will be the gainer. There is no terror that comes home to the heart of vice like the terror of being exhibited to the public eye. On the contrary, there is no reward worthy to be bestowed upon eminent virtue but this one, the plain, unvarnished proclamation of its excellence in the face of the world.

If the unrestrained discussion of abstract enquiry be of the highest importance to mankind, the unrestrained investigation of character is scarcely less to be cultivated. If truth were universally told of men's dispositions and actions, gibbets and wheels might be dismissed from the face of the earth. The knave unmasked would be obliged to turn honest in his own defence. Nay, no man would have time to grow a knave. Truth would follow him in his first irresolute essays, and public disapprobation arrest him in the commencement of his career.

There are many men at present who pass for virtuous that tremble at the boldness of a project like this. They would be detected in their effeminacy and imbecility. Their imbecility is the growth of that inauspicious secrecy which national manners, and political institutions, at present draw over the actions of individuals. If truth were spoken without reserve, there would be no such men in existence. Men would act with clearness and decision if they had no hopes in concealment, if they saw, at every turn, that the eye of the world was upon them. How great would be the magnanimity of the man who was always sure to be observed, sure to be judged with discernment, and to be treated with justice? Feebleness of character would hourly lose its influence in the breast of those over whom it now domineers. They would feel themselves perpetually urged, with an auspicious violence, to assume manners more worthy of the form they bear.

To these reasonings it may perhaps be rejoined, 'This indeed is an interesting picture. If truth could be universally told, the effects would no doubt be of the most excellent nature; but the expectation is to be regarded as visionary.'

Not so: the discovery of individual and personal truth is to be effected in the same manner as the discovery of general truth, by discussion. From the collision of disagreeing accounts, justice and reason will be produced. Mankind seldom think much of any particular subject without coming to think right at last.

'Is it then to be supposed that mankind will have the discernment and the justice, of their own accord, to reject the libel?' Yes; libels do not at present deceive mankind from their intrinsic power, but from the restraint under which they labour. The man who, from his dungeon, is brought to the light of day cannot accurately distinguish colours; but he that has suffered no confinement feels no difficulty in the operation. Such is the state of mankind at present: they are not exercised to employ their judgement, and therefore they are deficient in judgement. The most improbable tale now makes a deep impression; but then men would be accustomed to speculate upon the possibilities of human action.

At first, it may be, if all restraint upon the freedom of writing and speech were removed, and men were encouraged to declare what they thought, as publicly as possible, every press would be burdened with an inundation of scandal. But the stories, by their very multiplicity, would defeat themselves. No one man, if the lie were successful, would become the object of universal persecution. In a short time, the reader, accustomed to the dissection of character, would acquire discrimination. He would either detect the imposition by its internal absurdity, or at least would attribute to the story no further weight than that to which its evidence entitled it.

Libel, like every other human concern, would soon find its level, if it were delivered from the injurious interference of political institution. The libeller, that is, he who utters an unfounded calumny, either invents the story he tells, or delivers it with a degree of assurance to which the evidence that has offered itself to him is by no means entitled. In each case he would meet with his proper punishment in the judgement of the world. The consequences of his error would fall back upon himself. He would either pass for a malignant accuser, or for a rash and headlong censurer. Anonymous scandal would be almost impossible in a state where nothing was concealed. But, if it were attempted, it would be wholly pointless, since, where there could be no honest and rational excuse for concealment, the desire to be concealed would prove the baseness of the motive.

Secondly, force ought not to intervene for the suppression of private libels, because men ought to learn to be sincere. There is no branch of virtue more essential than that which consists in giving language to our thoughts. He that is accustomed to utter what he knows to be false, or to suppress what he knows to be true, is in a state of perpetual degradation. If I have had particular opportunity to observe any man's vices, justice will not fail to suggest to me that I ought to admonish him of his errors, and to warn those whom his errors might injure. There may be very sufficient ground for my representing him as a vicious man, though I may be totally unable to demonstrate his vices, so as to make him a proper subject of judicial punishment. Nay, it cannot be otherwise; for I ought to describe his character exactly as it appears to be, whether it be virtuous or vicious, or of an ambiguous nature. Ambiguity would presently cease if every man avowed his sentiments. It is here as in the intercourses of friendship: a timely explanation seldom fails to heal a broil; misunderstandings would not grow considerable were we not in the habit of brooding over imaginary wrongs.

Laws for the suppression of private libels are, properly speaking, laws to restrain men from the practice of sincerity. They create a warfare between the genuine dictates of unbiassed private judgement and the apparent sense of the community; throwing obscurity upon the principles of virtue, and inspiring an indifference to the practice. This is one of those consequences of political institution that presents itself at every moment: morality is rendered the victim of uncertainty and doubt. Contradictory systems of conduct contend with each other for the preference, and I become indifferent to them all. How is it possible that I should imbibe the divine enthusiasm of benevolence and justice, when I am prevented from discerning what it is in which they consist? Other laws assume for the topic of their animadversion actions of unfrequent occurrence. But the law of libels usurps the office of directing me in my daily duties, and, by perpetually menacing me with the scourge of punishment, undertakes to render me habitually a coward, continually governed by the basest and most unprincipled motives.

Courage consists more in this circumstance than in any other, the daring to speak everything the uttering of which may conduce to good. Actions the performance of which requires an inflexible resolution call upon us but seldom; but the virtuous economy of speech is our perpetual affair. Every moralist can tell us that morality eminently consists in 'the government of the tongue'. But this branch of morality has long been inverted. Instead of studying what we shall tell, we are taught to consider what we shall conceal. Instead of an active virtue, 'going about doing good', we are instructed to believe that the chief end of man is to do no mischief. Instead of fortitude, we are carefully imbued with maxims of artifice and cunning, misnamed prudence.

Let us contrast the character of those men with whom we are accustomed to converse, with the character of men such as they ought to be, and will be. On the one side, we perceive a perpetual caution that shrinks from the observing eye, that conceals, with a thousand folds, the genuine emotions of the heart, and that renders us unwilling to approach the men that we suppose accustomed to read it, and to tell what they read. Such characters as ours are the mere shadows of men, with a specious outside perhaps, but destitute of substance and soul. When shall we arrive at the land of realities, where men shall be known for what they are, by energy of thought, and intrepidity of action! It is fortitude that must render a man superior alike to caresses and threats, enable him to derive his happiness from within, and accustom him to be, upon all occasions, prompt to assist and to inform. Everything therefore favourable to fortitude must be of inestimable value: everything that inculcates dissimulation, worthy of our fullest disapprobation.

There is one thing more that is of importance to be observed upon this subject of libel, which is the good effects that would spring from every man's being accustomed to encounter falsehood with its only proper antidote, truth. After all the arguments that have been industriously accumulated to justify prosecution for libel, every man that will retire into himself feels himself convinced of their insufficiency. The modes in which an innocent and a guilty man would repel an accusation against them might be expected to be opposite; but the law of libel confounds them. He that was conscious of his rectitude, and undebauched by ill systems of government, would say to his adversary, 'Publish what you please against me, I have truth on my side, and will confound your misrepresentations.' His sense of fitness and justice would not permit him to say, 'I will have recourse to the only means that are congenial to guilt, I will compel you to be silent.' A man urged by indignation and impatience may commence a prosecution against his accuser; but he may be assured, the world, that is a disinterested spectator, feels no cordiality for his proceedings. The language of their sentiments upon such occasions is, 'What! he dares not even let us hear what can be said against him.'

The arguments in favour of justice, however different may be the views under which it is considered, perpetually run parallel to each other. The recommendations under a this head are precisely the same as those under the preceding, the generation of activity and fortitude. The tendency of all false systems of political institution is to render the mind lethargic and torpid. Were we accustomed not to recur either to public or individual force, but upon occasions that unequivocally justified their employment we should then come to have some respect for reason for we should know its power. How great must be the difference between him who answers me with a writ of summons or a challenge, and him who employs the sword and the shield of truth alone? He knows that force only is to be encountered with force, and allegation with allegation; and he scorns to change places with the offender by being the first to break the peace. He does that which, were it not for the degenerate habits of society, would scarcely deserve the name of courage, dares to meet, upon equal ground, with the sacred armour of truth, an adversary who possesses only the perishable weapons of falsehood. He calls up his understanding; and does not despair of baffling the shallow presences of calumny. He calls up his firmness and knows that a plain story, every word of which is marked with the emphasis of sincerity, will carry conviction to every hearer. It were absurd to expect that truth should be cultivated, so long as we are accustomed to believe that it is an impotent incumbrance. It would be impossible to neglect it, if we knew that it was as impenetrable as adamant, and as lasting as the world.


[1]. Book VI, Chap. VI.

[2]. See the following Book.

[3]. Book VII, Chap. VII.



A question intimately connected with the political superintendence of opinion is presented to us relative to a doctrine which has lately been taught upon the subject of constitutions. It has been said "that the laws of every regular state naturally distribute themselves under two heads, fundamental and temporary; laws the object of which is the distribution of political power, and directing the permanent forms according to which public business is to be conducted; and laws the result of the deliberations of powers already constituted." This distinction being established in the first instance, it has been inferred 'that these laws are of very unequal importance, and that, of consequence, those of the first class ought to be originated with much greater solemnity, and to be declared much less susceptible of variation, than those of the second'. The French national assembly of 1789 pushed this principle to the greatest extremity, and seemed desirous of providing every imaginable security for rendering the work they had formed immortal. It was not to be touched, upon any account, under the term of ten years; every alteration it was to receive must be recognized as necessary by two successive national assemblies of the ordinary kind; after these formalities an assembly of revision was to be elected, and they to be forbidden to amend the constitution in any other points than those which had been previously marked out for their consideration.

It is easy to perceive that these precautions are in direct hostility with the principles established in this work. 'Man and for ever!' was the motto of the labours of this assembly. just broken loose from the thick darkness of an absolute monarchy, they assumed to prescribe lessons of wisdom to all future ages. They seem not so much as to have dreamed of that purification of intellect, that climax of improvement, which may very probably be the destiny of posterity. The true state of man, as has been already said, is, not to have his opinions bound down in the fetters of an eternal quietism, but, flexible and unrestrained, to yield with facility to the impressions of accumulating observation and experience. That form of society will, of consequence, appear most eligible which is least founded in a principle of permanence. But, if this view of the subject be just, the idea, of giving permanence to what is called the constitution of any government, and rendering one class of laws, under the appellation of fundamental, less susceptible of change than another, must be founded in misapprehension and error.

The error probably originally sprung out of the forms of political monopoly which we see established over the whole civilized world. Government could not justly flow, in the first instance, but from the choice of the people; or, perhaps more accurately speaking, ought to be adjusted in its provisions to the prevailing apprehensions of equity and truth. We see government as present administered, either in whole or in part, by a king and a body of noblesse; and we reasonably say that the laws made by these authorities are one thing, and the laws from which they derived their existence another. Now this, and indeed every species of exclusive institution, presents us with a dilemma, memorable in its nature, and hard of solution. If the prejudices of a nation are decisively favourable to a king or a body of noblesse, it seems impossible to say that a king, or a body of noblesse, should not form part of their government. But then, on the other hand, the moment you admit this species of exclusive institution, you counteract the purpose for which it was admitted, and deprive the sentiments of the people of their genuine operation.

If we had never seen arbitrary and capricious forms of government, we should probably never have thought of cutting off certain laws from the code, under the name of constitutional. When we behold certain individuals, or bodies of men, exercising an exclusive superintendence over the affairs of a nation, we inevitably ask how they came by their authority, and the answer is, By the constitution. But, if we saw no power existing in the state but that of the people, having a body of representatives, and a certain number of official secretaries and clerks acting in their behalf, subject to their revival, and renewable at their pleasure, the question how the people came by this authority would never have suggested itself.

A celebrated objection that has been urged against the governments of modern Europe is "that they have no constitutions".[1] If, by this objection, it be understood that the), have no written code bearing this appellation, and that their constitutions have been less an instantaneous than a gradual production, the criticism seems to be rather verbal than of essential moment. In any other sense, it is to be suspected that the remark would amount to an eulogium, but an eulogium to which they are certainly by no means entitled.

But to return to the question of permanence. Whether we admit or reject the distinction between constitutional and ordinary legislation, it is not less true than the power of a nation to change its constitution, morally considered, must be briefly and universally coeval with the existence of a constitution. The languages of permanence, in this case, is the grossest absurdity. It is to say to a nation, 'Are you convinced that something is right, perhaps immediately necessary, to be done? It shall be done ten years hence.'

The folly of this system may be further elucidated, if further elucidation be necessary, from the following dilemma. Either a people must be governed according to their own apprehensions of justice and truth, or they must not. The last of these assertions cannot be avowed, but upon the unequivocal principles of tyranny. But, if the first be true, then it is just as absurd to say to a nation, 'This government, which you chose nine years ago, is the legitimate government, and the government which your present sentiments approve, the illegitimate'; as to insist upon their being governed by the dicta of their remotest ancestors, even of the most insolent usurper.

It is extremely probable that a national assembly, chosen in the ordinary forms, is just as well entitled to change the fundamental laws as to change any of the least important branches of legislation. This function would never perhaps be dangerous but in a country that still preserved a portion of monarchy or aristocracy; and, in such a country, a principle of permanence would be found a very feeble antidote against the danger. The true principle upon the subject is that no assembly, though chosen with the most unexampled solemnity, is competent to impose any regulations contrary to the public apprehension of right; and a very ordinary authority, fairly originated, will be sufficient to facilitate the harmonious adoption of a change that is dictated by national opinion. The distinction of constitutional and ordinary topics will always appear in practice unintelligible and vexatious. The assemblies of more frequent recurrence will find themselves arrested in the intention of conferring eminent benefit on their own country, by the apprehension that they shall invade the constitution. In a country where the people are habituated to sentiments of equality, and where no political monopoly is tolerated, there is little danger that any national assembly should be disposed to enforce a pernicious change, and there is still less that the people should submit to the injury, or not possess the means easily and with small interruption of public tranquillity, to avert it. The language of reason on this subject is, 'Give us equality and justice, but no constitution. Suffer us to follow, without restraint, the dictates of our own judgement, and to change our forms of social order, as fast as we improve in understanding and knowledge.'

The opinion upon this head, most popular in France at the time (1792) that the national convention entered upon its functions, was that the business of a convention extended only to the presenting the draft of a constitution, to be submitted in the sequel to the approbation of the districts and, subsequently only to that approbation, to be considered as law. This opinion is deserving of a serious examination.

The first idea that suggests itself respecting it is that, if constitutional laws ought to be subjected to the revision of the districts, then all laws ought to undergo the same process, understanding by laws all declarations of a general principle to be applied to particular cases as they may happen to occur, and even including all provisions for individual emergencies that will admit of the delay incident to the revision in question. It is a mistake to imagine that the importance of these articles is in a descending ratio, from fundamental to ordinary, and from ordinary to particular. It is possible for the most odious injustice to be perpetrated by the best constituted legislature that ever was framed. A law rendering it capital to oppose the doctrine of transubstantiation would be more injurious to the public welfare than a law changing the duration of the national representative from two years, to one year, or to three. Taxation has been shown to be an article rather of executive than legislative administration;[2] and yet a very oppressive and unequal tax would be scarcely less ruinous than any single measure that could possibly be devised.

It may further be remarked that an approbation demanded from the districts to certain constitutional articles, whether more or less numerous, will be either real or delusive, according to the mode adopted for that purpose. If the districts be required to decide upon these articles by a simple affirmative or negative, it will then be delusive. It is impossible for any man or body of men, in the due exercise of their understanding, to decide upon any complicated system in that manner. It can scarcely happen but that there will be some things that they would approve, and some that they would disapprove. On the other hand, if the articles be unlimitedly proposed for discussion in the districts, a transaction will be begun to which it is not easy to foresee termination. Some districts will object to certain articles; and, if these articles be modelled to obtain their approbation, it is possible that the very alteration, introduced to please one part of the community, may tender the code less acceptable to another. How are we to be assured that the dissidents will not set up a separate government for themselves? The reasons that might be offered to persuade a minority of districts to yield to the sense of a majority are by no means so perspicuous and forcible as those which sometimes persuade the minority of members in a given assembly to that species of concession.

It is desirable, in all cases of the practical adoption of any given principle, that we should fully understand the meaning of the principle, and perceive the conclusions to which it inevitably leads. This principle of a consent of districts has an immediate tendency, by a salutary gradation perhaps, to lead to the dissolution of all government. What then can be more absurd than to see it embraced by those very men who are, at the same time, advocates for the complete legislative unity of a great empire? It is founded upon the same basis as the principle of private judgement, which, in proportion as it impresses itself on the minds of men, may be expected perhaps to supersede the possibility of the action of society in a collective capacity. It is desirable that the most important acts of the national representatives should be subject to the approbation or rejection of the districts, whose representatives they are, for exactly the same reason that it is desirable that the acts of the districts themselves should, as speedily as practibility will admit, be in force only so far as relates to the individuals by whom those acts are approved.

The first consequence that would result, not from the delusive, but the real establishment of this principle would be the reduction of the constitution to a very small number of articles. The impracticability of obtaining the deliberate approbation of a great number of districts to a very complicated code would speedily manifest itself. In reality, the constitution of a state, governed either in whole or in part by a political monopoly, must necessarily be complicated. But what need of complexity in a country where the people are destined to govern themselves? The whole constitution of such a country ought scarcely to exceed two articles; first, a scheme for the division of the whole into parts equal in their population, and, secondly, the fixing of stated periods for the election of a national assembly: not to say that the latter of these articles may very probably be dispensed with.

A second consequence that results from the principle of which we are treating is as follows. It has already appeared that the reason is no less cogent for submitting important legislative articles to the revisal of the districts than for submitting the constitutional articles themselves. But, after a few experiments of this sort, it cannot fail to suggest itself that the mode of sending laws to the districts for their revision, unless in cases essential to the general safety, is a proceeding unnecessarily circuitous, and that it would be better, in as many instances as possible, to suffer the districts to make laws for themselves, without the intervention of the national assembly. The justness of this consequence is implicitly assumed in the preceding paragraph, while we stated the very narrow bounds within which the constitution of an empire, such as that of France for example, might be circumscribed. In reality, provided the country were divided into convenient districts with a power of sending representatives to the general assembly, it does not appear that any ill consequences would ensue to the common cause from these districts being permitted to regulate their internal affairs, in conformity to their own apprehensions of justice. Thus, that which was, at first, a great empire with legislative unity would speedily be transformed into a confederacy of lesser republics, with a general congress or Amphictyonic council, answering the purpose of a point of cooperation upon extraordinary occasions, The ideas of a great empire, and legislative unity, are plainly the barbarous remains of the days of military heroism. In proportion as political power is brought home to the citizens, and simplified into something of the nature of parish regulation, the danger of misunderstanding and rivalship will be nearly annihilated. In proportion as the science of government is divested of its present mysterious appearances, social truth will become obvious, and the districts pliant and flexible to the dictates of reason.

A third consequence, sufficiently memorable, from the same principle, is the gradual extinction of law. A great assembly, collected from the different provinces of an extensive territory, and constituted the sole legislator of those by whom the territory is inhabited, immediately conjures up to itself an idea of the vast multitude of laws that are necessary for regulating the concerns of those whom it represents. A large city, impelled by the principles of commercial jealousy, is not slow to digest the volume of its by-laws and exclusive privileges. But the inhabitants of a small parish, living with some degree of that simplicity which best corresponds to the real nature and wants of a human being, would soon be led to suspect that general laws were unnecessary, and would adjudge the causes that came before them, not according to certain axioms previously written, but according to the circumstances and demand of each particular cause. It was proper that this consequence should be mentioned in this place. The benefits that will arise from the abolition of law will come to be considered in detail in the following book.[3]

The principal objection that is usually made to the idea of confederacy, considered as the substitute of legislative unity, is 'the possibility that arises of the members of the confederacy detaching themselves from the support of the public cause'. To give this objection every advantage, let us suppose 'that the seat of the confederacy, like France, is placed in the midst of surrounding nations, and that the governments of these nations are anxious, by every means of artifice and violence, to suppress the insolent spirit of liberty that has started up among this neighbour people'. It is to be believed that, even under these circumstances, the danger is more imaginary than real. The national assembly, being precluded by the supposition, from the use of force against the malcontent districts, is obliged to confine itself to expostulation; and it is sufficiently observable that our powers of expostulation are tenfold increased, the moment our hopes are confined to expostulation alone. They have to display, with the utmost perspicuity and simplicity, the benefits of independence; to convince the public at large that all they intend is to enable every district, and, as far as possible, every individual, to pursue unmolested its own ideas of propriety; and that, under their auspices, there shall be no tyranny, no arbitrary punishments, such as proceed from the jealousy of councils and courts, no exactions, almost no taxation, Some ideas respecting this last subject will speedily occur.[4] It is not possible but that, in a country rescued from the inveterate evils of despotism, the love of liberty should be considerably diffused. The adherents therefore of the public cause will be many: the malcontents few. If a small number of districts were so far blinded as to be willing to surrender themselves to oppression and slavery, it is probable they would soon repent. Their desertion would inspire the more enlightened and courageous with additional energy. It would be a fascinating spectacle, to see the champions of the general welfare eagerly declaring that they desired none but willing supporters. It is not possible that so magnanimous a principle should not contribute more to the advantage than the injury of their cause.


[1]. Paine's Rights of Man.

[2]. Book V, Chap. I.

[3]. Book VII, Chap. VIII.

[4]. pp. 625, 626.



A mode in which government has been accustomed to interfere, for the purpose of influencing opinion, is by the superintendence it has in a greater or less degree, exerted in the article of education. It is worthy of observation that the idea of this superintendence has obtained the countenance of several of the zealous advocates of political reform. The question relative to its propriety or impropriety is entitled, on that account, to the more deliberate examination.

The argument in its favour have been already anticipated. "Can it be justifiable in those persons who are appointed to the functions of magistracy, and whose duty it is to consult for the public welfare, to neglect the cultivation of the infant mind, and to suffer its future excellence or depravity to be at the disposal of fortune? Is it possible for patriotism and the love of the public to be made the characteristic of a whole people in any other way so successfully as by rendering the early communication of these virtues a national concern? If the education of our youth be entirely confided to the prudence of their parents, or the accidental benevolence of private individuals, will it not be a necessary consequence that some will be educated to virtue, others to vice, and others again entirely neglected?" To these considerations it has been added, "That the maxim which has prevailed in the majority of civilized countries, that ignorance of the law is no apology for the breach of it, is in the highest degree iniquitous; and that government cannot justly punish us for our crimes when committed unless it have forewarned us against their commission, which cannot be adequately done without something of the nature of public education."

The propriety or impropriety of any project for this purpose must be determined by the general consideration of its beneficial or injurious tendency. If the exertions of the magistrate in behalf of any system of instruction will stand the test, as conducive to the public service, undoubtedly he cannot be justified in neglecting them. If, on the contrary, they conduce to injury, it is wrong and unjustifiable that they should be made.

The injuries that result from a system of national education are, in the first place, that all public establishments include in them the idea of permanence. They endeavour, it may be, to secure and to diffuse whatever of advantageous to society is already known, but they forget that more remains to be known. If they realized the most substantial benefits at the time of their introduction, they must inevitably become less and less useful as they increased in duration. But to describe them as useless is a very feeble expression of their demerits. They actively restrain the flights of mind, and fix it in the belief of exploded errors. It has frequently been observed of universities, and extensive establishments for the purpose of education, that the knowledge taught there is a century behind the knowledge which exists among the unshackled and unprejudiced members of the same political community. The moment any scheme of proceeding gains a permanent establishment, it becomes impressed, as one of its characteristic features, with an aversion to change. Some violent concussion may oblige its conductors to change an old system of philosophy for a system less obsolete; and they are then as pertinaciously attached to this second doctrine as they were to the first. Real intellectual improvement demands that mind should, as speedily as possible, be advanced to the height of knowledge already existing among the enlightened members of the community, and start from thence in the pursuit of further acquisitions. But public education has always expended its energies in the support of prejudice; it teaches its pupils, not the fortitude that shall bring every proposition to the test of examination, but the art of vindicating such tenets as may chance to be established. We study Aristotle, or Thomas Aquinas, or Bellarmine, or chief justice Coke, not that we may detect their errors, but that our minds may be fully impregnated with their absurdities. This feature runs through every species of public establishment; and, even in the petty institution of Sunday schools, the chief lessons that are taught are a superstitious veneration for the church of England, and to bow to every man in a handsome coat. All this is directly contrary to the true interests of mankind. All this must be unlearned before we can begin to be wise.

It is the characteristic of mind to be capable of improvement. An individual surrenders the best attribute of man, the moment he resolves to adhere to certain fixed principles, for reasons not now present to his mind, but which formerly were.[1] The instant in which he shuts upon himself the career of enquiry is the instant of his intellectual decease. He is no longer a man; he is the ghost of departed man. 'There can be no scheme more egregiously stamped with folly than that of separating a tenet from the evidence upon which its validity depends. If I cease from the habit of being able to recall this evidence, my belief is no longer a perception, but a prejudice: it may influence me like a prejudice; but cannot animate me like a real apprehension of truth. The difference between the man thus guided and the man that keeps his mind perpetually alive is the difference between cowardice and fortitude. The man who is, in the best sense, an intellectual being delights to recollect the reasons that have convinced him, to repeat them to others, that they may produce conviction in them, and stand more distinct and explicit in his own mind; and, he adds to this a willingness to examine objections, because he takes no pride in consistent error. The man who is not capable of this salutary exercise, to what valuable purpose can he be employed? Hence it appears that no vice can be more destructive than that which teaches us to regard any judgement as final, and not open to review. The same principle that applies to individuals applies to communities, There is no proposition at present apprehended to be true so valuable as to justify the introduction of an establishment for the purpose of inculcating it on mankind. Refer them to reading, to conversation, to meditation; but teach them neither creeds nor catechisms, either moral or political.

Secondly, the idea of national education is founded in an inattention to the nature of mind. Whatever each man does for himself is done well; whatever his neighbours or his country undertake to do for him is done ill. It is our wisdom to incite men to act for themselves, not to retain them in a state of perpetual pupillage. He that learns because he desires to learn will listen to the instructions lie receives, and apprehend their meaning. He that teaches because he desires to teach will discharge his occupation with enthusiasm and energy. But the moment political institution undertakes to assign to every man his place, the functions of all will be discharged with supineness and indifference. Universities and expensive establishments have long been remarked for formal dullness. Civil policy has given me the power to appropriate my estate to certain theoretical purposes; but it is an idle presumption to think I can entail my views, as I can entail my fortune. Remove those obstacles which prevent men from seeing, and which restrain them from pursuing their real advantage; but do not absurdly undertake to relieve them from the activity which this pursuit requires. What I earn, what I acquire only because I desire to acquire it, I estimate at its true value; but what is thrust upon me may make me indolent, but cannot make respectable. It is an extreme folly to endeavour to secure to others, independently of exertion on their part, the means of being happy. - This whole proposition of national education is founded upon a supposition which has been repeatedly refuted in this work, but which has recurred upon us in a thousand forms, that unpatronized truth is inadequate to tire purpose of enlightening mankind.

Thirdly, the project of a national education ought uniformly to be discouraged on account of its obvious alliance with national government. This is an alliance of a more formidable nature than the old and much contested alliance of church and state. Before we put so powerful a machine under the direction of so ambiguous an agent, it behoves us to consider well what it is that we do. Government will not fail to employ it, to strengthen its hands, and perpetuate its institutions. If we could even suppose the agents of government not to propose to themselves an object which will be apt to appear in their eyes, not merely innocent, but meritorious; the evil would not the less happen. Their views as institutors of a system of education will not fail to be analogous to their views in their political capacity: the data upon which their conduct as statesmen is vindicated will be the data upon which their instructions are founded. It is not true that our youth ought to be instructed to venerate the constitution, however excellent; they should be led to venerate truth; and the constitution only so far as it corresponds with their uninfluenced deductions of truth. Had the scheme of a national education been adopted when despotism was most triumphant, it is not to be believed that it could have for ever stifled the voice of truth. But it would have been the most formidable and profound contrivance for that purpose that imagination can suggest. Still, in the countries where liberty chiefly prevails, it is reasonably to be assumed that there are important errors, and a national education has the most direct tendency to perpetuate those errors, and to form all minds upon one model.

It is not easy to say whether the remark 'that government cannot justly punish offenders, unless it have previously informed them what is virtue and what is offence' be entitled to a separate answer. It is to be hoped that mankind will never have to learn so important a lesson through so incompetent a channel. Government may reasonably and equitably presume that men who live in society know that enormous crimes are injurious to the public weal, without its being necessary to announce them as such, by laws, to be proclaimed by heralds, or expounded by curates. It has been alleged that 'mere reason may teach me not to strike my neighbour; but will never forbid my sending a sack of wool from England, or printing the French constitution in Spain'. This objection leads to the true distinction upon the subject. All real crimes that that can be supposed to be the fit objects of judicial animadversion are capable of being discerned without the teaching of law. All supposed crimes not capable of being so discerned are truly and unalterably placed beyond the cognisance of a sound criminal justice. It is true that my own understanding would never have told me that the exportation of wool was a crime: neither do I believe it is a crime, now that law has been made affirming it to be such. It is a feeble and contemptible palliation of iniquitous punishments to signify to mankind beforehand that you intend to inflict them. Men of a lofty and generous spirit would almost be tempted to exclaim: Destroy us if you please; but do not endeavour, by a national education, to destroy in our understandings the discernment of justice and injustice. The idea of such an education, or even perhaps of the necessity of a written law, would never have occurred if government and jurisprudence had never attempted the arbitrary conversion of innocence into guilt.


[1]. Book I, Chap. V.



An article which deserves the maturest consideration, and by means of which political institution does not fail to produce the most important influence upon opinion, is that of the mode of rewarding public services. The mode which has obtained in all European countries is that of pecuniary reward. He who is employed to act in behalf of the public is recompensed with a salary. He who retires from that employment is recompensed with a pension. The arguments in support of this system are well known. It has been remarked "that indeed it may be creditable to individuals to be willing to serve their country without a reward; but that it is a becoming pride on the part of the public to refuse to receive as an alms that for which they are well able to pay. If one man, animated by the most disinterested motives, be permitted to serve the public upon these terms, another will assume the exterior of disinterestedness, as a step towards the gratification of a sinister ambition. If men be not openly and directly paid for the services they perform, we may rest assured that they will pay themselves, by ways a thousand times more injurious. He who devotes himself to the public ought to devote himself entire: he will therefore be injured in his personal fortune, and ought to be replaced. Add to this that the servants of the public ought, by their appearance and mode of living, to command respect both from their countrymen, and from foreigners; and that this circumstance will require an expense, for which it is the office of their country to provide."[1]

Before this argument can be sufficiently estimated, it will be necessary for us to consider the analogy between labour in its most usual acceptation, and labour for the public service, what are the points in which they resemble, and in which they differ. If I cultivate a field the produce of which is necessary for my subsistence, this is an innocent and laudable action; the first object it proposes is my own emolument; and it cannot be unreasonable that that object should be much in my contemplation, while labour is performing. If I cultivate a field the produce of which is not necessary to my subsistence, but which I propose to give in barter for a garment, the case becomes different. The action here does not, properly speaking, begin in myself. Its immediate object is to provide food for another; and it seems to be, in some degree, a perversion of intellect that causes me to place in an inferior point of view the inherent quality of the action, and to do that which is, in the first instance, beneficent, from a partial retrospect to my own advantage. Still the perversion here, at least to our habits of reflecting and judging, does not appear violent. The action differs only in form from that which is direct. I employ that labour in cultivating a field which must otherwise be employed in manufacturing a garment. The garment I propose to myself as the end of my labour. We are not apt to conceive of this species of barter and trade as greatly injurious to our moral discernment.

But then this is an action, in the slightest degree, indirect. It does not follow, because we are induced to do some actions immediately beneficial to others from a selfish motive, that we can admit of this, in all instances, with impunity. It does not follow, because we are sometimes inclined to be selfish, that we must never be generous. The love of our neighbour is the great ornament of a moral nature: the perception of truth is the most solid improvement of an intellectual nature. He that sees nothing in the universe deserving of regard but himself, is a consummate stranger to the dictates of general and impartial reason. He that is not influenced in his conduct by the real and inherent nature of things is rational to no purpose. Admitting that it is venial to do some actions, immediately beneficial to my neighbour, from a partial retrospect to myself, surely there must be other actions in which I ought to forget, or endeavour to forget myself. This duty is most obligatory in actions most extensive in their consequences. If a thousand men are to be benefited, I ought to recollect that I am only an atom in the comparison, and to reason accordingly.

These considerations may enable us to decide upon the article of pensions and salaries. Surely it ought not to be the end of a good political institution to increase our selfishness, instead of suffering it to dwindle and decay. If we pay an ample salary to him who is employed in the public service how are we sure that he will not have more regard to the salary than to the public? If we pay a small salary, yet the very existence of such a payment will oblige men to compare the work performed, and the reward bestowed; and all the consequence that will result will be to drive the best men from the service of their country, a service first degraded by being paid, and then paid with an ill-timed parsimony. Whether the salary be large or small, if a salary exist, many will desire the office for the sake of its appendage. Functions the most extensive in their consequences, will be converted into a trade. How humiliating will it be to the functionary himself, amidst the complication and subtlety of motives, to doubt whether the salary were not one of his inducements to the accepting the office? If he stand acquitted to himself, it is however still to be regretted that grounds should be afforded to his countrymen which tempt them to misrepresent his views.

Another consideration of great weight in this instance is that of the source from which salaries are derived: from public revenue, from taxes imposed upon the community. The nature of taxation has perhaps seldom been sufficiently considered. By some persons it has been supposed that the superfluities of the community might be collected, and placed under the disposition of the representative or executive power. But this is a gross mistake. The superfluities of the rich are, for the most part, inaccessible to taxation; the burthen falls, almost exclusively, upon the laborious and the poor. All wealth, in a state of civilized society, is the produce of human industry.[2] To be rich is merely to possess a patent, entitling one man to dispose of the produce of another man's industry. Taxation therefore can no otherwise fall upon the rich but so far as it operates to diminish their luxuries. But this it does in a very few instances, and in a very small degree. Its genuine operation is to impose a new portion of labour upon those whom labour has already plunged deep in ignorance, degradation, and misery. The higher and governing part of the community are like the lion who hunted in concert with the weaker beasts. The landed proprietor first takes a very disproportionate share of the produce to himself; the capitalist follows, and shows himself equally voracious. Both these classes, in the form in which they now appear, might, under a different mode of society, be dispensed with. Taxation comes in next, and lays a new burthen upon those who are bowed down to the earth already. Who is there, allowed the choice of an alternative, and possessing the spirit of a man, that would choose to be thus fed, with the hard-earned morsel that, through the medium of taxation, is wrested from the gripe of the peasant?

Too much stress however is not to be laid upon this argument. There is no profession, there is perhaps no mode of life compatible with liberal and intellectual pursuits, that does not include in it a portion of inquiry. It is one of the evils of a corrupt state of society that it forces the most enlightened and the most virtuous unwillingly to participate in its injustice. It would be weakness, and not magnanimity, that should teach us to view these things with a microscopical scrupulosity; and to refuse to be useful because no usefulness is pure. The most important objection to emoluments flowing from a public revenue is built upon their tendency to corrupt the mind of the receiver, and the views of the spectators.

Let us proceed to consider the extent of the difficulty that would result from the abolition of salaries. The majority of persons nominated to eminent employments, under any state of mankind approaching to the present, will possess a personal fortune adequate to their support. Those selected from a different class will probably be selected for extraordinary talents, which will naturally lead to extraordinary resources. It has been deemed dishonourable Pensions and to subsist upon private liberality; but this dishonour is produced only by the difficulty of reconciling this mode of subsistence and intellectual independence. It is true that the fortunes of individuals, like public salaries, are merely a patent, empowering them to engross the produce of other men's labour. But large private fortunes cannot cease to exist till a spirit of sobriety and reflection, hitherto unknown, has been infused into the great mass of mankind. In the meantime the possessors of them are bound to consider of the best mode of disposing of their incomes for the public interest: and it would perhaps be difficult to point out a better than that here alluded to. By this method no new addition would be made to the burthens of the laborious; and the distribution would perhaps produce a better effect, than if it were made in douceurs and prizes to the more ordinary classes of mankind. As to the receiver, he, by the supposition, receives no more than his due; and therefore prejudice alone can represent him as degraded, or imbue him with servility. This source of emolument is free from many of the objections that have been urged against a public stipend. I ought to receive your superfluity as my due, while I am employed in affairs more important than that of earning a subsistence; but at the same time to receive it with a total indifference to personal advantage, taking only what I deem necessary for the supply of my wants. He that listens to the dictates of justice, and turns a deaf ear to the suggestions of pride, will probably wish that the customs of his country should cast him for support on the virtue of individuals, rather than on the public revenue. That virtue may be expected, in this, as in all other instances, to increase, the more it is called into action.

'But what if he have a wife and children?' Let many aid him, if the aid of one be insufficient. Let him do in his lifetime what Eudamidas did at his decease, bequeath his daughter to be subsisted by one friend, and his mother by another. This is the only true taxation, which he, in whom civil policy has vested the means, assesses on himself, not which he endeavours to discharge upon the shoulders of the poor. It is a striking example of the power of venal governments in generating prejudice that this scheme of serving the public functions without salaries, so common among the ancient republicans, should, by liberal-minded men of the present day, be deemed impracticable. Nor let us imagine that the safety of the community will depend upon the services of an individual. In the country in which individuals fit for the public service are rare, the post of honour will probably be his, not that fills an official situation, but that, from his closet, endeavours to waken the sleeping virtues of mankind. In the country where they are frequent, it will not be difficult, by the short duration of the employment, to compensate for the slenderness of the means of him that fills it.

It is not easy to describe the advantages that must result from this proceeding. The public functionary would, in every article of his charge, recollect the motives of public spirit and benevolence. He would hourly improve in the vigour and disinterestedness of his character. The habits created by a frugal fare and a cheerful poverty, not hid as now in obscure retreats, but held forth to public view, and honoured with public esteem, would speedily pervade the community, and auspiciously prepare them for still further improvements.

The objection 'that it is necessary for him who acts on' the part of the public to make a certain figure, and to live in a style calculated to excite respect, is scarcely to be considered as deserving a separate answer. The whole spirit of this enquiry is in direct hostility to such an objection. If therefore it have not been answered already, it would be vain to attempt an answer in this place. It is recorded of the burghers of the Netherlands who conspired to, throw off the Austrian yoke, that they came to the place of consultation, each man with his knapsack of provisions: who is there that feels inclined to despise this simplicity and honourable poverty? Who would not exclaim with the imperial minister when he viewed the spectacle, Men thus resolute and austere, are neither to be despised nor subdued? The abolition of salaries would doubtless render necessary the simplification and abridgement of public business. This would be a benefit, and not a disadvantage.

It will further be objected that there are certain functionaries, in the lower departments of government, such as clerks and tax-gatherers, whose employment is perpetual, and whose subsistence ought, for that reason, to be made the result of their employment. If this objection were admitted, its consequences would be of subordinate importance. The office of a clerk or a tax-gatherer is considerably similar to those of mere barter and trade; and therefore to degrade it altogether to their level would have little resemblance to the fixing such a degradation upon offices that demand the most elevated character. The annexation of a stipend to such employments, if considered only as a matter of temporary accommodation, might perhaps be endured.

But the exception, if admitted, ought to be admitted with great caution. He that is employed in an affair of direct public necessity ought to be conscious, while he discharges it, of its true character. We should never allow ourselves to undertake an office of a public nature without feeling ourselves animated with a public zeal. We shall otherwise discharge our trust with comparative coldness and neglect. Nor is this all. The abolition of salaries would lead to the abolition of those offices to which salaries are thought necessary. If we had neither foreign wars nor domestic stipends, taxation would be almost unknown; and, if we had no taxes to collect, we should want no clerks to keep an account of them. In the simple scheme of political institution which reason dictates, we could scarcely have any burthensome offices to discharge; and, if we had any that were so in their abstract nature, they might be rendered light by the perpetual rotation of their holders.

If we have salaries, for a still further reason we ought to have no pecuniary qualifications, or, in other words, no regulation requiring the possession of a certain property as a condition to the right of electing, or the capacity of being elected. It is an uncommon strain of tyranny to call upon men to appoint for themselves a delegate, and at the same time forbid them to appoint exactly the man whom they may judge fittest of the office. Qualification in both kinds is a most flagrant injustice. It asserts the man to be of less value than his property. It furnishes to the candidate a new stimulus to the accumulation of wealth; and this passion, when once set in motion, is not easily allayed. It tells him, 'Your intellectual and moral qualifications may be of the highest order; but you have not enough of the means of luxuries and vice.' To the non-elector it holds the most detestable language. It says, 'You are poor; you are unfortunate; the institutions of society oblige you to be the perpetual witness of other men's superfluity: because you are sunk this low, we will trample you yet lower; you shall not even be reckoned for a man, you shall be passed by, as one of whom society makes no account, and whose welfare and moral existence she disdains to recollect.'


[1] The substance of these arguments may be found in Burke's Speech on Oeconomical Reform.

[2] Book VIII, Chap. II.



What has been here said upon the subject of qualifications naturally leads to a few observations upon the three principal modes of determining public questions and elections, by sortition, ballot and vote.

The idea of sortition was first introduced by the dictates of superstition. It was supposed that, when human reason piously acknowledged its insufficiency, the Gods, pleased with so unfeigned a homage, interfered to guide the decision. This imagination is now exploded. Every man who pretends to philosophy will confess that, wherever sortition is introduced, the decision is exclusively guided by the laws of impulse and gravitation. Strictly speaking, we know of no such thing as contingence. But, so far as relates to the exercise of apprehension and judgement on the particular question to be determined, all decision by lot is the decision of contingence. The operations of impulse and gravitation either proceed from a blind and unconscious principle; or, if they be the offspring of a superintending mind, it is mind executing general laws, not temporizing with every variation of human caprice.

All reference of public questions and elections to lot includes in it one of two evils, moral imbecility or cowardice. There is no situation in which we can be placed that has not its corresponding duties. There is no alternative that can be offered to our choice that does not include in it a better and a worse. The idea of sortition therefore i. springs either from an effeminacy that will not enquire, or a timidity that dares not pronounce its decision.

The path of virtue is simple and direct. The first attributes of a virtuous character are a mind awake, and a quick and observant eye. A man of right dispositions will enquire out the lessons of duty. The man, on the contrary, who is spoiled by stupidity or superstition will wait till these lessons are brought to him in a way that he cannot "resist. A superficial survey will perhaps lead him to class a multitude of human transactions among the things that are indifferent. But, if we be indefatigably benevolent, we shall, for the most part, find, even among things ordinarily so denominated, a reason for preference. He may well be concluded to have but a small share of moral principle who easily dispenses himself from seeking the occasion to exercise it. Add to which, they are not trifles, but matters of serious import that it has been customary to commit to the decision of lot.

But, supposing us to have a sentiment of preference, or a consciousness that to attain such a perception is our duty, if we afterwards desert it this is the most contemptible cowardice. Nothing can be more unworthy than a propensity to take refuge in indolence and neutrality, simply because we have not the courage to encounter the consequences of ingenuousness and sincerity.

Ballot is a mode of decision still more censurable than sortition. It is scarcely possible to conceive a political institution that includes a more direct and explicit patronage of vice. It has been said 'that ballot may ~n certain cases be necessary to enable a man of a feeble character to act with ease and independence, and to prevent bribery, corrupt influence and faction,. Hypocrisy is an ill remedy to apply to the cure of weakness. A feeble and irresolute character might before be accidental; ballot is a contrivance to render it permanent, and to scatter its seeds over a wider surface. The true remedy for a want of constancy and public spirit is to inspire firmness, not to inspire timidity. Sound and just conceptions, if communicated to the mind with perspicuity, may be expected to be a sufficient basis for virtue. To tell men that it is necessary they should form their decision by ballot is to tell them that it is necessary they should be ashamed of their integrity.

If sortition taught us to desert out duty, ballot teaches us to draw a veil of concealment over our performance of it. It points out to us a method of acting unobserved It incites us to make a mystery of our sentiments. If it did this in the most trivial article, it would not be easy to bring the mischief it would produce, within the limits of calculation. But it dictates this conduct in our most important concerns. It calls upon us to discharge our duty to the public with the most virtuous constancy; but at the same time directs us to hide our discharge of it. One of the most beneficial principles in the structure of the material universe will perhaps be found to be its tendency to prevent our withdrawing ourselves from the consequences of our own actions. A political institution that should attempt to counteract this principle would be the only true impiety. How can a man have the love of the public in his heart, without the dictates of that love flowing to his lips? When we direct men to act with secrecy, we direct them to act with frigidity. Virtue will always be an unusual spectacle among men, till they shall have learned to be at all times ready to avow their actions, and assign the reasons upon which they are founded.

If then sortition and ballot be institutions pregnant with vice, it follows that all social decisions should be made by open vote; that, wherever we have a function to discharge, we should reflect on the purpose for which it ought to be exercised; and that, whatever conduct we are persuaded to adopt, especially in matters of routine and established practice, be adopted in the face of the world.

 Writings of William Godwin

 Classical Liberals