Front Page Titles (by Subject) LETTER III.: On the Liberty of Public Discussion in Free Meetings—Continuation from Letter II. - The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 2
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
LETTER III.: On the Liberty of Public Discussion in Free Meetings—Continuation from Letter II. - 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—Continuation from Letter II.
I continue.—The subject is of too great importance to be dismissed, while the mass of documents with which it has furnished me, remains in any part unexamined. In my last you had some remarks of mine on the proposed law itself—“the law regarding public societies,” as proposed to the Cortes on the 21st September by Mr. Goreli, in the name of the commission charged with that subject; those remarks being followed by some others of mine on a speech of that same honourable gentleman, which, though delivered so long before as the 4th of that same month, exhibits the considerations which, in the character of reasons, had been employed by him to pave the way for the reception of this same proposed law.
On that same occason, namely, that of September 4th, I see exhibited, for that same purpose, reasons from two other public functionaries; viz. one of the king’s seven ministers—the minister of the colonies (so I see him styled) and Count Toreno, then and now a member of the Cortes, and since then president.
I begin with the Minister of the Colonies. By this official name I find him designated, and not by his proper name. This mode of designation is a real relief to me. It would have been no small one, to have found Mr. Goreli thus anonymous. This relief is, with great prudence, provided for debaters by the tactics of the English parliament. The sound of a man’s name, from the mouth of an antagonist, whose utmost powers are at that moment put to the stretch in the endeavour to sink his reputation, is a cause of irritation against which neither habit nor philosophy, nor both together, can sufficiently arm his patience.
Next in order to the proposer of the proposed law, to which, at the end of seventeen days, this debate gave rise—next in order in the debate to Mr. Goreli, but much more abundant (as will be seen) in length and detail, comes the so happily unnamed minister of the colonies.
1. He too is “anxious”—manifestly not less anxious than Mr. Goreli—“that every Spaniard should enjoy full liberty.” Yes: but what sort of full liberty? That sort, of course, which is, or is to be, “founded on the law.” On the law? Good. But on what law? On that which we have seen already: on the law, which, in embryo, that representative of the people, and this minister of the king, bore each of them, in his breast: the law which I had to lay before you in my last: the very proposed law by which, as you have seen, that same full liberty is proposed to be so fully destroyed.
2. Notwithstanding such anxiety, the anxious gentleman “could not admit the existence of political associations without dependence on the government, and without responsibility of their members.” Could not admit of this? No: that I will be bound for him he could not: just as little as I myself could, were I in his place. But what is this to the purpose? As much as if he said he could not admit of rape or robbery. But his inability to admit of rape and robbery could not have afforded a passport to an insinuation which, if produced in the shape of a direct assertion, would have been seen to have been as completely groundless as it was false; it would not have afforded a passport to the assertion: no, nor so much as a cover to the falsity of it. What! by meeting and talking together—let the subject of their talk be what it will, in a room or out of a room, in any number, small or great—do a company of unarmed men become, or it is possible they should fancy themselves to be, independentof the government under which they thus meet? independent of that same government, and exempt from being “responsible” to it? Any one of the societies in question, on any charge of specific delinquency,—would an officer of justice have found any greater difficulty in obtaining entrance into it, than if the subject of their conversation had been confined to plays or bull feasts?
3. The candour of this faithful servant of his Majesty is truly admirable: not less so than that of the representative of the people. “I know well,” he added, says the report, “I know well that these associations owe their origin to a laudable object.”
4. “And that to them,” continues the speech, “we owe the acquisition of the good we enjoy.” Is it in the power of words to wind up candour to a higher pitch? But, my friends, you have seen already what is at the bottom of it.
Such being the grounds made for gratitude, see, in the next place, the grounds made for annihilation, in proof of gratitude.
5. “But the means,” it continues, “which have been employed to acquire it” (to acquire that same good,) “far from being conducive to its preservation, would be the great obstacle to its consolidation.” Well: here is assertion; and assertion directly to the point: this is the very thing which, to afford a justifying reason for the proposed law, required to be proved. But the proof, where is it? Go on a little further, and you will see—if not a proof, that which it has been gentlemen’s endeavour to cause you to accept for proof. As to probable mischief, in any determinate shape, not any the slightest attempt is made to prove it. Instead of listening to a proof, what he depends upon your doing is, the taking the thing for granted, without so much as an attempt at proof. Why no such attempt? For a perfectly plain reason: because success was, in every eye, impossible.
But if no such proof was brought by him (and you will see whether there was any,) mind the logic of this his argument. By these societies it is that all the good that has been done, has been done. Till this moment, by these same societies, nothing but good has been done. Now for the conclusion—left as it is to be collected from the proposed law: therefore, says this conclusion, by these same societies, if suffered to subsist, nothing will be done but what is bad,—absolutely bad, or at least, when weighed against the good, preponderately bad, in future.
But he does not end here. For now comes a tissue of irrelevancies, in which, in virtue of the confusion in which it promised to involve men’s minds, he evidently puts his trust. Mark well the suspicions which by means of it he seeks to infuse into them: mark whether for any of these suspicions he has been able to make so much as the smallest ground.
6. “What comparison is there,” continues the speech—“what comparison is there between individual liberty, and that which may be arrogated to themselves by permanent juntas, with peculiar constitutions, secret sittings, dignities, offices, and funds?”
“What comparison?” What means he by comparison? What has it to do with the question? Who ever made any such comparison? If there were any meaning to the word, these are the questions, by the answers to which it might be brought to light. But meaning it has none. If individual liberty must be spoken of, that which the societies in question had been doing with it was, the applying it to that constitutional purpose, of the goodness of which his testimony has been so explicit.
Does he think, by this question—does he think to make you believe, that by preventing you from meeting in societies with these good things in them, no restraint upon your individual liberty will be imposed? If not, then by what else can any restraint be imposed upon it? Mistake me not, my friends, so far as to suppose me passing condemnation on a law, as some have done, on no other ground than that of its being a restraint upon individual liberty: it is only by being such, that laws can be laws.
Putting aside these inanities, in the production of which there is no saying in what degree the reporter and the translator may not have had their share—putting aside these debatable points, let us take up the argument:—it is this.
“The societies in question have in themselves permanent juntas, with peculiar constitutions, secret sittings, dignities, offices, and funds.” Here we have the antecedent. Therefore, says he, they would, if suffered to exist, “be the great obstacle to the consolidation . . . of the good we enjoy.” Here we have the consequent.
Here, then, we have so many elements, of an unnamed something, by the instrumentality of which, the mischief to which he thus makes allusion would, but for his remedy (he would have you to think) be produced. To this unnamed and undescribed something, by which such prodigious effects would have been produced, I will, under correction, for the purpose of considering whether it be in the nature of the case that it should be composed of such elements, any or all of them, give the name of power: political power, if of itself the name of power be not sufficiently explicit.
I beg his pardon. Looking out for substantial political meaning, I have overlooked that which is presented by grammatical rules. True it is, that for its indisputable proper grammatical antecedent, the relative pronoun-adjective “that” has the noun-substantive “liberty,” as modified by its noun-adjective “individual.” But it was by my too good opinion of his logic, that my attention was then called off from his grammar. “What comparison is there between individual liberty?” says he—(he means individual liberty at large)—“what comparison between it, and that which may be arrogated,” &c.?—What comparison? My answer is, that comparison which there is between a genus, and a species of that same genus: if by comparison he means relation—as I suppose he does, if he means anything—taking this for his meaning, his argument stands thus:—“In your opinion,” says he, speaking to the Cortes—“in your opinion, all restraints upon individual liberty are bad things.” And so they are in mine. But it does not follow, that a restraint upon this individual liberty which I am restraining, is a bad thing: for a restraint upon individual liberty in this shape, is not a restraint upon individual liberty in any shape.
But, putting aside nonsense, and determined to have sense to argue with if possible, I put aside individual liberty, and return to the word power: political power.
As to this matter,—power, and that pure from all responsibility, and from all dependence on the government,—this is what, according to him, these societies were thus arrogating to themselves.
The essence of this sophistry consists in a name—in the name given by him to the one first mentioned by him of these his pretended elements of “independent” and “irresponsible” power, arrogated to themselves, if you will believe him, by these societies. Permanent Juntas is the name he, on this occasion, gives to them. For what purpose? I answer (as you, many of you, cannot but have answered already,) for the purpose of assuming as proved, and causing you to regard as already proved, the very thing which he was professing to prove: and thus causing you to regard as proved, that which neither by him had been, nor by anybody else could be, proved. In your constitutional language, Junta is a name given to societies by which power is really exercised: Junta is a name which I have observed given to societies, by which, for a time, even the supreme power in the state has been exercised. In the ambiguity of this appellative—in the misrepresentation conveyed by the use here made of it—consists the sophism, in which the main strength of his argument lies. This irrelevant sense set aside—what, in its original sense, means “Junta?” A set of men who, for any purpose whatsoever, are joined together. This is its generical and widest sense. But, by omission or abridgment, it has come to be used moreover in a limited sense—in that limited sense in which it designates a set of men joined together for the purpose of exercising power. In this one word, then, behold here the whole strength of his argument—of this argument which he thus insinuated—and for the absurdity of which he seeks a cover in the use he makes of this ambiguous word. The persons in question are joined together; therefore, they are joined together for the exercise of power, and that power, as he had before insinuated, “independent” and “irresponsible.”
Still there remains the word permanent. If, by constituting themselves juntas, the societies in question did not constitute themselves “juntas arrogating to themselves power independent of government, and irresponsible,” let us see whether they did so by constituting themselves permanent juntas. A junta which, after meeting once, has not met a second time, has not been a permanent junta. But a junta which, after meeting once, has met a second time, has been a permanent junta. This indeed has been but a small degree of permanence: it has been even the very smallest degree; but still it has been permanence: and whether, by the smallest degree of permanence having place in a junta which, at its first meeting, arrogated to itself no power, any power is arrogated, any one may be left to judge. And so, if instead of two meetings, it has had two thousand.
As to “peculiar constitution, funds, and offices,” to say of these societies that they had these things, is nothing more than to say that they were societies.
2. “Peculiar Constitution.”—If the society have an object, be that object ever so perfectly innoxious, some mark or other must the society have to express the object, and to distinguish the members of the society from the same number of men taken at random as they pass along the street; as also from other societies, whatever these may be. Having this, every society must, on pain of not being a society, have a peculiar constitution. Here, then, the right honourable gentleman sees that element of independent power which he calls peculiar constitution.
3. “Funds.”—If, in the society, a memorandum is to be made of anything that has passed,—it follows, that for making the memorandum there must be pen, ink, and paper, or something equivalent. But neither pen, nor ink, nor paper, are to be had for nothing. Here, then, the right honourable gentleman sees the element of independent power called funds.
4. Offices:—collector’s, treasurer’s, receiver’s, secretary’s, president’s.—If to obtain the purchase-money for the pen, ink, and paper, a quarto from each member be requisite, and the quartos are not all paid at the same moment, here must be a Collector: if there be any person by whom the money, when collected, is kept till it is employed in the purchase, here we have a Treasurer: if there be any person, who receives it, or any part of it, on its way from the collector to the treasurer, here we have a Receiver: if there be any person whose more particular business it is to make use of the pen, and ink, and paper, for taking the memorandums, or for any other purpose, here we have a Secretary: if there be any person whose more particular business it is to prevent disorder in the conversation, here we have a President: if neither these nor any other denominations are employed, the functions are not the less exercised. Here, and in most formidable abundance, the right honourable gentleman sees the element of independent power called Offices.
5. Dignities.—What the dignities may have been, which the right honourable minister had in view, I cannot pretend to say. In the four preceding articles, I have indicated so many ingredients necessary to the composition of every society for public discussion, be the topic what it may, on pain of its not being a society. Of dignities, this is more than I can pretend to say, without the help of a distinction. If, and in so far as the office, be it what it may, is regarded as a mark of illustration, causing the owner of it, as such, to be regarded with more respect than if he were not so,—on this supposition, indeed, so many offices, so many dignities.
All this while, true it is, for aught I can pretend to say, in this or that society there may have been this or that individual, bearing or not bearing an office—there may have been one, or even more, by whom, at the desire of the rest, this or that mark of illustration has been possessed. But with regard to the present purpose, by any such mark of illustration how is the case varied? If by the possession of it, so it were that a man possessed anything that could be called power, the persons over whom, and in relation to whom, it was exercised, would be the members of the society: but even over them, how is it, that by the bare possession of this dignity, whatever it be, anything that can be called power is or can be exercised? It cannot, then, give power even when applied to them: how much further, then, must it not be from giving any such thing, when applied to anybody else? Here, however, may be seen all that the right honourable gentleman has for his element of independent power called dignities.
6. Secret Sittings.—As little do I know—and I care almost as little as I know—whether, in the instance of any one of the societies by which such alarms were produced in so many right honourable breasts, there were any sittings that could with propriety be called secret. Here, however, a distinction requires to be made: not a little depends on the circumstance of time—relative time. Secresy imports fear: it is even conclusive evidence of it. Where the secresy has for its accompaniment a design, whether good or bad, it at any rate imports fear of miscarriage, supposing that known which is endeavoured to be kept secret. Now then, if it was only while the society in question was engaged in the pursuit of the object which he had in view when he was honouring it with the epithet of “laudable,” it was while they were engaged in the endeavour to free him as well as themselves from the yoke of that oppressive power, to which that milder power, in the exercise of which he is bearing a part, and which he is making this use of, has succeeded. On this supposition, the secresy had for its cause fear of oppression, fear of being oppressed by the hands which were at the same time inspiring him with the same fear. On the other hand, if the time was no other than that during which the power was wielded by him and those with whom he acts, the fear had for its object oppression by the hand of himself and colleagues. If, then, during this latter period, any such secresy in the sitting of any society for political discussion had place, the secresy having necessarily fear for its cause—this being supposed, if I were to learn, that of that fear he had been the object, and his conduct the source,—if I were to learn this,—judging him from all I know of him, which is this speech, and the proposed law in the support of which it was employed,—my wonder, I must confess, would not be great. On the one supposition, he inflicts punishment for benefits received by him: on the other supposition, he first makes the crime, and then punishes it.
Be this as it may—supposing him really alarmed, and the secresy, and nothing but the secresy, the object of his alarm, the way to quiet it was, to put an end to the secresy. But his object was, not the putting an end to the secret sittings of the societies, but the putting an end to the societies themselves: and this his proposed law but too sufficiently proves. His object was the putting an end to all societies in which any such “individual liberty” should be exercised, as that of representing his measures and designs in any such light as that in which they have presented themselves to the eyes of an impartial observer, viewing them at this distance. For, of everything of that sort, the tendency, how faint soever—the tendency, if it has any, is to oppose an “obstacle” to what he calls “the consolidation of the good” of which he and his colleagues are in the enjoyment—the good of which, by the means that you have here a sample of, they are thus labouring for the increase.
“All these criticisms,” some will be forward enough to say—“all these criticisms are minute and trifling: criticisms on logic, criticisms on grammar: mere criticisms upon words.” Yes: considered merely in themselves, and without regard to the result indicated, they are as trifling as you please. But if the result be regarded, few things can be further from being trifling. For the result indicated,—is it not that the functionaries in question had for their object the substitution of a despotic government to the indespotic government, of which your Constitutional Code affords so well-grounded a promise?—that they were not themselves in an error, but occupied in the endeavours to deceive their colleagues, and to deceive you?—and that in this design it was, that they wove and employed this web of sophistry, which, otherwise than by such verbal criticisms, the nature of the case did not allow to be unravelled?
Gratified, my friends—most sincerely gratified should I be, to find these my remarks as groundless as, in my present view of it, that conduct is to which you have been seeing them thus sincerely and anxiously, howsoever mistakenly, applying themselves.
My friends, I have not yet quite done with this proposed law and its supporters. The messenger presses. But even already I can venture to propose two subjects for your consideration:—Whether, under a government professing not to be despotic, a law more mischievous in its complexion as well as tendency was ever proposed: and whether any law could be proposed on grounds more consummately frivolous.
Looking for the authority of example to supply the deficiency of reason, the right honourable gentleman gives you an account of England. A more complete misrepresentation has not been often given. This I hope to show you in my next.