Front Page Titles (by Subject) LETTER II.: On the Liberty of Public Discussion in Free Meetings. - The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 2
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
LETTER II.: On the Liberty of Public Discussion in Free Meetings. - Jeremy Bentham, The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 2 
The Works of Jeremy Bentham, published under the Superintendence of his Executor, John Bowring (Edinburgh: William Tait, 1838-1843). 11 vols. Vol. 2.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
On the Liberty of Public Discussion in Free Meetings.
18th Oct. 1820.
I continue.—My former letter was principally allotted to the liberty of the press. Intimation was there given, that the arguments pleading in favour of that branch of personal liberty and constitutional security apply with little variation to that which forms exclusively the subject of the present letter. The proposed law, as it stood in four articles, together with the speeches by which I found it supported, will constitute the text of this discourse.
I commence with the proposed law itself: the text of it, in the state in which, on the 21st of September 1820, according to the English translation, it came out of the hands of Mr. Goreli—(Traveller, Oct. 6, 1820.) “The law regarding public societies,” I see it termed. The law for the prevention of popular assemblies, it might have been termed; for, of this law, what is the object? what the declaredly intended effect? In respect of this security against misrule, to place the people of Spain exactly upon the same footing as the people of Morocco. Yes; exactly upon the same footing as the people of Morocco: this you will see. Four, and no more, is the number of its articles: these are quite sufficient. Give but to language the extent it is susceptible of, the fewer the words, the greater the effect. Think of this, ye who, to make display of your humanity, complain of the multitude, nothing but the multitude, of penal laws. Draco made but one: Death is for him who breaks any one of my laws.
“Art. 1. All Spaniards will have the right of speaking on political affairs by conforming to the disposition of the law.” Good: and so have all the Moroccans. What is it, this same disposition of the law? Wait to the next article but one, and you will see it.
“Art. 2. Every assembly not authorized by law will immediately cease.” If so, and without revival, then will, ere long, the constitution itself cease, or at least everything that is good in it.
“Art. 3. Meetings shall not take place but in virtue of the permission of the local authority, who will take the necessary measures to guarantee the public tranquillity.” The person or persons in whose hands the local authority is: suppose, then, his own conduct among the proposed subjects of complaint—his own conduct, or that of any person or persons to whose power or influence he stands subjected, or that of any person or persons who stand subject to his power or influence, unless they happen to have incurred his displeasure: this indispensable permission when and how often will it be given to it?
In the whole kingdom, or in this or that part of it, suppose these functionaries, all or any of them, in a league to betray their trust, and abolish or otherwise render of no effect all that is good in the constitution, how many of these assemblies will respectively be permitted to be held?
Take the necessary measures? O yes, that he will. Of those who would have attended the meeting, he will exclude one part—he will keep the rest under a guard. By this means, those, and those only, will be there, who are of the same way of thinking, or at least of speaking. “Measures to guarantee the public tranquillity.” O yes: doubt not but that by measures such as these, the public tranquillity will be preserved. As to permission,—in every case in which there is neither need of, nor use in, any such public meeting, permission will be ready for it: in every case in which there is need of it, or use in it, punishment will be ready for it.
“Art. 4. Nevertheless these societies, authorized by the competent authority, will not be regarded as corporations.”
So then, according to the honourable gentleman, if men, in any number, however great or ever small, are but suffered to meet together, whether at stated times or by accident, for the purpose of conversing, and conversing accordingly, on the state of the nation, there needs no more to constitute them a corporation: to constitute them a corporation—or at least to give to the assembly an appearance so near to that of a corporation, as to produce a danger of its being taken for such, and that with mischievous effect.
Lawyer or non-lawyer, in the mind of the honourable gentleman, can it really have been a subject of belief, that, by any such means, in the sense put upon the word corporation by the law of his country—by the Rome-bred law, or by any other sort of law—a corporation would or could thus be constituted, or that to any other reflecting mind it could be taken to be so? I have tried hard, but I have not as yet been able to find in any such supposition the faintest colour of probability. But if not,—I grieve to think of it—what is the consequence? That, on the occasion of the insinuation thus conveyed for the purpose of gaining his point, and deluding into an acquiescence with a liberticide law his colleagues of the Cortes and the Spanish people their constituents, he had recourse to misrepresentation, wilful and studied misrepresentation. To the people, to induce them to sit still, and, without previous remonstrance or subsequent complaint, see themselves deprived of a real and indispensable security, he held up to view a danger purely imaginary, and known by himself to be so: at the same time, to effect this liberticide purpose, he scrupled not to use his endeavours to cause those whom he was depriving of their liberty to be regarded as a set of conspirators and usurpers, conspiring to assume and exercise an illegal power, for the purpose of employing it in acts of hostility against the government.
Oh but, as often as it pleases the local authority that any such assemblies shall be held, and to give permission accordingly, held they will be, or at least may be. Oh yes, that they may; held in Spain they may be, and so they may be in Morocco.
The Emperor of Morocco,—is he in want of a prime minister? Let Mr. Goreli tender his services. But, perhaps, he may be provided nearer home.
But the law is Mr. Goreli’s, and he has given us his reasons for it. Let us see them. [From the Traveller, 21st September 1820: Madrid, Sept. 6.—The Cortes—Sittings of the 4th.]
“M. Goreli allowed that the members of the societies and their objects deserved respect and confidence;—2. That they took every precaution to admit none but persons of upright intentions and devoted to the constitution;—3. But that they were exposed to be taken by surprise by some, who, under the appearance of patriotism, might lead them to impolitic conduct.”
Such are the premises: and his conclusion is what has just been seen.
And is it come to this? And did such logic then come from Spaniards?—and without fear of universal indignation, could it thus be presented to Spaniards? And so it is from these premises, that this same practical conclusion has been derived! These societies are to be annihilated! All societies of this description—all that now exist, and all that would otherwise have existed, plunged together, and forever, into one and the same bottomless pit—consigned for ever to annihilation!—People of Spain! this same logic—would you see it in its true character? This you may do, and without much difficulty. Apply it wherever else it is equally applicable, and observe the effect of it. Apply it then to the Ministry,—you annihilate the Ministry: apply it to the Cortes,—you annihilate the Cortes: apply it to the Monarchy,—you annihilate the Monarchy. Yes, the Monarchy; for was there not a monarch once, who was not merely “exposed to be taken,” but actually “taken by surprise?” But why thus spend time in taking men one by one? Apply it to human kind, you annihilate human kind. Would you give a top to the climax—apply this same logic to the maker of it: apply it to Mr. Goreli, you annihilate Mr. Goreli. For is not even Mr. Goreli exposed at least to be “taken by surprise,” and “led into impolitie conduct?” Ah! why was it not applied to him—this logic of his—and applied with somewhat more than logical effect, before he introduced this law? Was it that even he was taken by surprise, when he was “led into the conduct” manifested by the framing and proposing of such a law? Ah no! I see but too much of reflection in it—but too little of surprise.
“Deserving of respect and confidence,”—themselves as well as “their objects:”—“careful to admit none but persons of upright intentions, and devoted to the constitution:”—“exposed,” but only exposed “to be led to impolitic conduct:”—led by some, but only by some, “among them,” and by them no otherwise than by being “taken by surprise:”—such, according to Mr. Goreli, is the general character—not only of the societies, but in each society, that of the members! Such their character, and, notwithstanding their being all this—if not for their being all this—for this it is that they are annihilated! What had their characters been the very opposite of all this?—what worse could, even in that case, have been done to them? And because in—it is not said how small—a number, they are exposed to be taken by surprise, their general excellence being at the same time thus admitted and proclaimed—it is for this, that not only all that exist are at once to be consigned to nihility, but all that otherwise would have existed.
Well, then, the “impolitic conduct” they are exposed to be led into, together with whatever mischief might have been the result of it—what would have been the cause of it? “Surprise,” answers Mr. Goreli himself—their “being taken by surprise.” Well; and suppose them not so taken, what would have been the mischief? I answer—there would not have been any: even Mr. Goreli does not say there would. Against surprise, then, is there no other remedy—no remedy less drastic—than annihilation? Under the name of warning, does not the nature of the case present a somewhat better known and better approved, as well as milder remedy? Thinking as Mr. Goreli declares he thinks of them, some men in his place would have preferred giving warning. Mr. Goreli applies annihilation.
On this occasion, as on all similar ones, behold the same inexorable passion, and the same course taken by it: the elevation gained, at the first opportunity the ladder by which it was gained, is kicked down. On this same occasion, this is more explicitly confessed by other speakers. Excellent things those same societies, while occupied in laying the foundation of our power: deserving of annihilation, the moment it is perceived that, from the same useful and so lately necessary instrument, that same power is exposed to feel a check.
Take warning, Neapolitans! take warning, Portuguese! for warning you shall have; and for your beacon, you shall have the Spanish Cortes, with Mr. Goreli speaking the sense of it. Take warning—I know not whether to say, Spaniards!—for, alas! for you, I fear, it is too late: unless, by favour of Spanish dispatch, some of the elements of the La Isla army should still continue undissolved.
Still the same division—the same most simple and commodious division—of human kind into two classes: the good, those by whom our purposes are served; the bad, those by whom they are thwarted: and, no sooner is it seen or thought, that the good creatures, who till this moment served our purposes, thwart them, than their essence is changed, and they are become bad ones. Yes: this is the division you may see made by legitimacy all the world over. Above, all excellence; beneath, all depravity. Such is the arrangement—the systematical arrangement—of which Despotism is the Linnæus. In the English statute book, not a page in which it is not assumed and acted upon. Most excellent Majesty! O yes! most excellent: but Most Excellent in what? And from Majesty down to simple Knighthood runs the scale of excellence.
Spaniards! would you wish to see the difference between a despotic government and an undespotic one? You shall see it in few words. It was not made for this purpose; it was not made for a purpose; it was made for all purposes. Be this as it may, if it be admitted (the account thus given of this difference,) the sort of government which, by this law of his, Mr. Goreli has been endeavouring to establish—and, I much fear, has ere now established—is a despotic one. Yes: notwithstanding everything that is to be found in your constitutional code, a despotic one. The letter of that code may be left to you, and still the government may be a despotic government.
Would it be agreeable to you, moreover, to have at hand a test, by which the partisan of a despotic government and the partisan of an undespotic government, or (to use a more common phrase) a lover and a hater of liberty may be distinguished? Such a test you shall see: and if you approve of it, occasions will not be wanting for making application of it.
Time presses, space is wanting. The form I give it in must be as compressed as possible. It will not be a substitute to thinking, but an excitement. Be indulgent: be expectant: I cannot, in so narrow a space, do the argument anything like full justice.
Spaniards! behold, then, the distinction between a government that is despotic, and one that is not so. In an undespotic government, some eventual faculty of effectual resistance, and consequent change in government, is purposely left, or rather given, to the people.
Not inconsistent with government—on the contrary, indispensable to good government, is the existence of this faculty. Not inconsistent: for so experience, as you will see, proves.
Next to nothing is the danger from the existence, in comparison with that from the non-existence of this faculty. Everywhere, and at all times, on the part of the subject-many, howsoever treated, exists the disposition to obsequiousness. Birth, observation of the direction taken by rewards and punishments, by praise and dispraise, of the habit and language of all around;—by the concurrence of all these causes is the disposition produced, and kept up.
To alter or weaken this disposition, in such sort as to produce revolution in government, or considerable mischief to person or property of individuals, nothing ever has sufficed, or ever can suffice, short of the extremity of misrule.
Upon this principle alone could, or can, the English revolution be justified.
Upon this principle alone can the like change in Spain be justified.
No such past change can be justified, but by a principle by which the justification of all future change in like circumstances is already made.
Of a government that is not despotic, it is therefore the essential character even to cherish the disposition to eventual resistance. On some other occasions you shall see—such of you as will honour my pages with a glance—how effectually and pointedly that indispensable element of security has been cherished; cherished by the only government that stands upon a rock—the government of the Anglo-American United States. Meantime see to this purpose—such, if any of you, as have in hand the means—the liberticide Act of Congress, approved July 14, 1798; not forgetting the marginal note indicating the glorious expiration of it.
Instruments necessary to the existence of such a disposition, in a state adequate to the production of the effect, are instruction, excitation, correspondence. To the understanding applies instruction; to the will, excitation: both are necessary to appropriate action and correspondent effect; instruction and excitation, in the case of each individual taken separately; correspondence, for the sake of concert amongst the number of individuals requisite and sufficient for the production of the ultimate effect. Co-extensive with the instruction and excitation must be the correspondence: and therefore, as far as depends upon the government, under the government, if not a despotic one, will be the facility allowed and afforded to correspondence. When, to a national purpose, exertions on a national scale are necessary, exertions made without concert (need it be said) are made without effect.
By instruction, excitation, and faculty of correspondence—by these three instruments in conjunction, and not by any one or two of them alone—can the national mind be kept in a state of appropriate preparation—a state of preparation for eventual resistance. It is by the conjunct application of all these instruments, that minds are put and kept in a proper state of discipline, as bodies are by the military exercise.
From this state of full and constant preparation, result two perfectly distinct, though so intimately connected uses:—1. Effecting a change in government, if ever, and when necessary; 2. In the meantime, preventing, or at least retarding, the necessity, by the constant application of a check to misrule as applied to individual cases—to misrule in all its several shapes.
Necessary to instruction—to excitation—in a word, to a state of preparation directed to this purpose,—is (who does not see it?) the perfectly unrestrained communication of ideas on every subject within the field of government; the communication, by vehicles of all sorts—by signs of all sorts; signs to the ear—signs to the eye—by spoken language—by written, including printed language—by the liberty of the tangue, by the liberty of the writing-desk, by the liberty of the post-office—by the liberty of the press.
The characteristic, then, of an undespotic government—in a word, of every government that has any tenable claim to the appellation of a good government—is, the allowing, and giving facility to this communication; and this not only for instruction, but for excitation—not only for instruction and excitation, but also for correspondence; and this, again, for the purpose of affording and keeping on foot every facility for eventual resistance—for resistance to government, and thence, should necessity require, for a change in government.
In all this there is nothing new: nothing that is new, either in theory or in practice. Look around you, my friends, you will see it in theory, and at the same time in correspondent practice. In the Anglo-American United States, everybody sees it is in practice. In that declaration of independence, which stands at the head of their constitutional code, anybody may see it plainly and openly avowed. Not that I wish to be understood as holding up as a pattern, the logic of that document. But, at any rate, there is thus much in it of good politics. After speaking of certain “ends,”—meaning, beyond dispute, though not very appositely expressing, the greatest happiness of the greatest number, (a phrase for which, upwards of fifty years ago, I became indebted to a pamphlet of Dr. Priestley’s,) it proceeds to say—“Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government.” Thus it is, that in express terms, and with the most direct and deliberative intention,—thus it is, that with discernment as well as magnanimity till then unexampled—that government—(a government under which, during the forty years that it has been in existence, there has been more felicity—more undisturbed tranquillity, than during the same period under any other,) that government, let it never be out of your minds, has, with its eyes open, and with its own hands, laid the foundation of eventual resistance to itself. Even in England, even in the records of the English parliament, may be seen something of a show of it. At the time of the revolution, those who bore a part in that change saw their convenience in holding a sort of language from which the same conclusion was drawn; namely, that a state of things had at that time already taken place, and was therefore capable of taking place,—was then in contemplation, and therefore might and ought to be, upon occasion, taken again into contemplation—in which it might be right that the people should take the government into their own hands: an operation which, of course, could not be performed without resistance to the government then in existence. The logic, indeed, was in this case still worse than in the American case. For a falsehood was asserted: and that a notorious one; namely, that the king had entered into a contract with the people: whereas, to the perfect knowledge of all who said he had, he had never done any such thing: that having entered into such contract, he had broken it: and that by so doing he had abdicated the government: while, as everybody knows, he was clinging to it with all his might. Thus (as may be seen in their journals) said the House of Commons: and thus, after kicking against the lie in vain, said at length the House of Lords. The lie was the work of lawyers; for without a lie in his mouth, an English lawyer knows not how to open it. But though being, as it was, an untruth, the antecedent in this argument was unable to give any just support to its consequent, or to anything else; the consequent was in itself good: and in that we have all that is to the present purpose.
So much for the difference, or distinguishing criterion, between a free government (or, to speak more clearly though less familiarly,) a non-despotic government, and a despotic one.
Now for the promised test, by which, when applied to a man, it may be seen whether the government he means to give his support to is of the one sort or of the other. Put to him this question.—Will you, sir, or will you not, concur in putting matters on such a footing, in respect to the liberty of the press, and the liberty of public discussion, that, at the hands of the persons exercising the powers of government, a man shall have no more to fear from speaking and writing against them, than from speaking and writing for them? If his answer be yes, the government he declares in favour of, is an undespotic one; if his answer be no, the government he declares in favour of, is a despotic one: if yes, his principles as to this matter, are those of the Anglo-American United States, and, as you will see, if you have not seen already, those of the Spanish constitutional code: if no, they are those of—, and of the Emperor of Morocco.
Various are the modifications of which meetings for the purpose of political discussion are susceptible. All of them are more or less contributory to both purposes at once—to instruction and to excitation; but some of them are more particularly suitable to the one purpose, others to the other: some have more, some less, of the colour of dangerousness upon the face of them. If, at the expense of general utility, particular anxieties were to be conceded to—if a door were, in that case, found necessary to be left open to compromise, it night be worth while to bring to view the circumstances by which these several modes of communication stand distinguished: it might be worth while to propose this or that succedaneum, by which the anxieties might be calmed, without quite so costly a sacrifice, as the sacrifice of liberty on the altar of despotism.
But Mr. Goreli is inexorable: the principle he has displayed excludes all compromise Whenever he sees either excitation or instruction, there he sees an enemy. Meetings? Oh yes—in any number, and everywhere. Meetings? Oh yes: but on what terms? on condition of their being everywhere under the yoke of a licence—on condition, that is to say, that, on all occasions, the instruction and the excitation shall be all on one side; all on one side, and that, of course, the side of the ruling few—the side which calls for passive obedience and non-resistance—the side, in a word, that stands in constant opposition to the only side, on which it is in the nature of the case that they should be of any use—to the only purpose for which they are in demand.
Not but that in all this Mr. Goreli is perfectly consistent; nothing can be more so. The government he has in view—the government, the establishment of which is the object of these his endeavours, is of the despotic species. Spaniards! see whether I do him wrong;—see whether the object of these his endeavours be not to exclude all possibility of change, unless it be such as the people, seeing it to be for the interest of their rulers, and against theirs, would, if left at liberty, manifest their disapprobation of;—see whether it be not to exclude from misrule, how consummate soever, all means, and thereby all possibility of correction—from misery, how excruciating soever, all possibility of relief.
Not yet has he proposed the abolition of election meetings in their earliest stage—of those meetings of the subject-many in all their number, and, to outward appearance, in all their force. No: nor is any such change needful for the accomplishment of his purposes. Destitute of that necessary mental discipline which has just been brought to view—strangers to all instruction, to all excitation, to all political correspondence—meeting, the electors will meet and act like puppets, obsequious to this or that official showman’s hand. At the time of giving their votes, the code itself inhibits all discussion, and with it all instruction and excitation: and now it is that Mr. Goreli, coming upon them with this law of his, deprives men of all other opportunities of learning the mental exercise—that instrument of independence by which alone the man is distinguished from the puppet.