Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION VI.: EXTINCTION OF DEMOCRATIC ASCENDENCY AND REFORM—RESTORATION OF MONARCHICO-ARISTOCRATICAL ASCENDENCY, AND ITS CONSEQUENCES. - The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 3
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SECTION VI.: EXTINCTION OF DEMOCRATIC ASCENDENCY AND REFORM—RESTORATION OF MONARCHICO-ARISTOCRATICAL ASCENDENCY, AND ITS CONSEQUENCES. - Jeremy Bentham, The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 3 
The Works of Jeremy Bentham, published under the Superintendence of his Executor, John Bowring (Edinburgh: William Tait, 1838-1843). 11 vols. Vol. 3.
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EXTINCTION OF DEMOCRATIC ASCENDENCY AND REFORM—RESTORATION OF MONARCHICO-ARISTOCRATICAL ASCENDENCY, AND ITS CONSEQUENCES.
Having continued so long—Democratical ascendency—how came it to end? Having proceeded so far,—Reform—how came it to stop?—Answer: Democratical ascendency was brought to its end by the leaders whom the people, in their character of associated volunteers, had chosen; and in particular by those of them who were in Parliament. Democratical ascendency being stopped, monarchico-aristocratical ascendency was restored, and reform was stopped of course. These leaders—how came it that they deserted and betrayed the cause of those by whom they had been chosen?—Answer: Because they had gained everything that in their eyes was for the advantage of their aggregate interest,—namely, the aristocratical interest; and if they had proceeded with the people any farther, the next step they took would have been for the advantage of no other interest of theirs than that which they had in common with the people. Now, this broad interest was in their eyes of less value than their own peculiar one. As for the interest of the rest of the community, in so far as distinct from their own, it was not, it never had been, it never could have been, of any value in their eyes. In the eyes of here and there an extraordinarily constituted individual, perhaps yes; but taking them as a body, it is inconsistent with the nature of men that it ever should have been so.
By the emancipation of Irish trade from English oppression, they had given increase to the wealth of the people and to their own along with it: by the emancipation of the Irish Parliament from the English Parliament, they had given increase to their own power, without giving proportionate increase, if any, to the power of the people. By Parliamentary reform, in so far as it was efficient, they would have given increase to the power of the people at the expense of their own:—of course it was not to be endured.
Being all of them public men, and in particular of that class of men—the Whigs—to whose interest it is not safe openly to cast off, as do the Tories, all pretence of regard for the interest of the people,—for deserting the cause of the people it was necessary to find a pretence. It was necessary to them all: to Lord Charlemont in his acting; to Mr. Hardy, his eulogist, in his writings; to Mr. Grattan in his speeches. Then, as now, the substance of their pretences was included in the two words, mischievous and impracticable.
So long as they had confined, as far as appeared, their designs to commercial and parliamentary emancipation, the people had had the most influential members of the aristocracy of the country, not only for their leaders, but for their sincere and active friends and co-operators. No sooner had Parliamentary reform come in view, than their leaders, continuing still in the exercise of their functions, became in secret the most determined and irreclaimable opponents. Still, however, they were not the less, but rather the more determinately their leaders; for it was for the more sure frustration of the most important and salutary of their designs and measures, that their original friends secretly became their adversaries, continued to be their leaders, and to employ all their art and energy in giving obstruction to these same measures.
For this policy, such as it was, the Irish nation, and along with it the British, are chiefly indebted to the Earl of Charlemont: for the disclosure of it, to his Lordship’s biographer, which of course is as much as to say his panegyrist. With Mr. Hardy’s most interesting as well as instructive performance, the public was not gratified till the year 1810.* Of Mr. Plowden’s more general history, the date being 1803, the secret for which the friends of radical reform are so highly indebted for the candour and simplicity of the biographer, was, as was natural, still a secret to the historian. The treacherous lord is accordingly mentioned by him, not merely as the actual, but as the well-meriting object of the public confidence.
The 29th of November 1783 was the important day on which the fate of Parliamentary reform, and with it that of Ireland, and thereby also that of Great Britain, was—no one can say for what length of time—decided. Up to that day, continual had been the advance on the part of the associated volunteers, the only true representatives of the people—the retreat on the part of the British monarchy, with its dependents and adherents in the two Houses. On that day, within trumpet’s sound of the then sitting Parliament, the Convention was sitting, with the Earl of Charlemont for its president. To the House of Commons from the Convention came, with a Parliamentary Reform Bill in his hand, Mr. Grattan’s great and worthy rival Mr. Flood. The House of Commons made a stand. At the end of an almost furious debate, the motion was rejected by a large majority, the mover having been dealt with in the character of the chief of an invading enemy.
Masters of the field, the two Houses resumed their independence. They gave exercise to it by the appropriate resolutions and addresses. Volunteer bodies,—provincial assemblies,—conventions—were now put upon their good behavour. From universally acknowledged benefactors and saviours of their country, a few words would have sufficed for converting them into, and declaring and constituting them, traitors.
No sooner had Parliament marked the Association, and in particular the meetings of delegates, with the character of delinquency, than the men of rank and opulence among its leaders either quitted it altogether; or if they continued their attendance on it, did so for no other purpose than that of putting a stop to its operations, and nullifying its influence.
The last meeting of any assembly under the name of a convention or assembly of delegates, was held as an illegal one, and those by whom it was convened were, though members of the official establishment, prosecuted and punished.
Though the only means by which any constitutional reform could have been effected, had thus been stigmatized and proscribed, reform itself had not been formally included in the proscription, nor were meetings for that purpose either simply and indiscriminately prohibited, or endeavoured to be rendered ineffectual by restrictive regulations. Petitions and bills, having a reform in the representation for their professed object, were therefore, on more occasions than one, presented to the Commons House. But with the exception of the bill which, so long as eleven years after the critical censure passed on the Convention in 1783, was moved in 1794 by Mr Brabazon Ponsonby, whatever was proposed was so far short of radical reform, as to be void of all real efficiency; and even these changes, insufficient as they were, were rejected with scorn as absurd, and with horror as dangerous.
In this state of things, finding democratic ascendency, and efficient reform under the constitution hopeless, the friends of the people—the only men who were really so, little by little began to turn their eyes to democracy, as being the people’s only remaining hope.
Between the termination of the American war in 1783, and the commencement of the French revolution in 1793, disturbances in various parts of the country, on the part of various sets of insurgents from various causes, took place. On the part of the Protestants, the great all-comprehensive grievance was the system of universal corruption and misrule: on the part of the Catholics, the great and all-eclipsing grievance was Catholic slavery—the remedy exclusively or chiefly looked for, Catholic emancipation. Thus differing in their objects, the two sects, in the course of their opposition to Government, frequently clashed and persecuted each other. All this while, Government availed itself of this dissension, and stands charged with having fomented it, and by connivance, and even instigation, given encouragement and increase to the outrages which were so savage and so abundant.
On this occasion, in Ireland, as on every occasion everywhere else, the great object of those who shared in the power and sweets of Government was to maintain, and with as much increase as possible, their power. The extraction of the money of the subject-many for the benefit of the ruling few, being, in so far as it was distinct from the prior object, that which in the scale of estimated importance stood next to it, occupied the middle place between that and the comfort and tranquillity of the people.
Among the effects of everything that is commonly presented to view by any such words as discord or disturbance, are the lessening, or tendency to lessen, the quantity of money capable of being extracted as above, and the calling upon members of Government for an extra proportion of attention and mental labour. By the first-mentioned of these effects, the interest of the purse was disagreeably affected—by the other, the interest of the pillow. Even while employed in giving support to them, it became an object with the Government to apply some check and limitation to the discontents—some relief to the sufferings it was producing. Though it had force enough at command to set insurrection at defiance, a different and less atrocious policy presented itself as eligible, and was adopted.
Division, as it was the most obvious expedient, so from the very outset it was employed: but in the course of things—as by this means discord with its mischiefs to the rulers as above was kept up—the less pleasant operation of giving to one of the naturally opposed parties a partial relief was superadded; vengeance sacrificing its gratification at the irresistible call of self-regarding prudence. To which of the two parties the relief should be administered, was not exposed to doubt. The Protestants, whose object was a Parliamentary reform, and that a radical one, could not be expected to be satisfied with anything less. But Parliamentary reform would to the powers that be—confederacies of monarchy and aristocracy—Parliamentary reform would, by the whole amount of it, be the surrender of so much power—a partial abdication which King George was no more disposed to than King James was to that total one which he knew not of his having effected till he was informed of it by the two Houses. By Parliamentary reform, everybody who had power in his hands would have lost more or less of it. By any relief that was proposed to be given to the Catholics, he did but exercise it. The Monarch lost none—the aristocracy lost none. The Protestants were the party by whom the expense of it would be paid. By no concession to the reformists, either in the shape of gratitude, or in any other, could much popularity be expected: by no benefit, except under the notion of its being the fruit of voluntary kindness, can any such sentiment as gratitude be produced; and little must he know of the nature of man, and especially of men in that situation, to whom any such free good-will could present itself as possible.
Among the advantages possesed by despotism, one is—that so long as the blindness produced by it continues, the praise of mercy may, in proportion as the despotism is pure and complete, be reaped in conjunction with the profit of tyranny. Under it, vice is at all times covered with the mantle of virtue. Rightly understood, all mercy supposes tyranny—every claim to the praise of mercy is a confession of tyranny: take away tyranny, that which is called mercy is, if beneficially exercised, nothing more than justice. The more mischief a man has it in his power to produce, the greater the quantity which he has it in his power to abstain from producing: and for every lot of evil which the monarch abstains from producing, he obtains at the hands of the prostrate multitude the praise of mercy. Monarchy is almost the only soil in which that species of vice which calls itself mercy can make its appearance. Under aristocracy, the praise being as it were lost on such a multitude—lost for want of an individual to fix upon, is seldom claimed. In a democracy, there being no person in whom any such power as that of doing evil with impunity is to be found, there is no place for mercy.
Under every monarchy—under every aristocracy—under every form of government which is compounded of these two, the great body of the people are, in the eyes of their rulers, objects of a mixed sentiment, composed of hatred and contempt: the most crafty are those in whom the dissocial affection is covered by a cloak of sympathy; but among the vulgar herd indolence prevails, and the expense of the covering is saved. Only where every such covering is most completely and disdainfully cast off, could any such law be ordained as that which, assuming as a fact its being itself, on the part of the people, the object of hostile affection, attaches pains and penalties to the expression of it. By every act which it does under the motive of stifling the expression of the sentiment, the intensity of it is increased. Few are the boys who, by a certain number of lashes applied by a tyrant schoolmaster, might not be made to cry out, “I love you, Sir,” in any language which he professes to teach; but to expect to find the boy in whose breast the affection so designated should by any number of lashes be produced, is a sort of expectation not compatible with any degree of blindness short of that of which the late liberticide measures have afforded so conspicuous an example.
Under such a government there is a continual conflict—or, as Swift would say in the Tale of a Tub—a continual game of leapfrog between love of money and love of vengeance. By love of vengeance, if it stood alone, the whole species would be devoted to extirpation. In ordinary times, love of money steps in, and says, Nay, but if no payers of taxes were left alive, no taxes would be paid. Some circumstances there are, which admit of a compromise between the contending passions. When population has got the start of subsistence, and the indigent become troublesome, the irascible appetite may be permitted to indulge itself without prejudice to the concupiscible, by a prudent and discriminating use of muskets or sabres. The irascible, while it is affording a feast to itself, may even be rendering a service to the concupiscible. In proportion as the number of paupers is decreased, so is the burden of the poor-rates.
While, to the Catholics, Government with one hand held out relief, and in driblets even administered it, it set the Protestants against them on the other. By this policy, the attention of both sects was diverted from the dreaded enterprise, and both parties were enfeebled. Instead of menace, the great body of the Catholics betook themselves to prostration. Catholic suffrage was given to them—Catholic emancipation was offered to their hope. Those who wanted the faith necessary to such hope, became insurgents—were unsuccessful—were subdued, and thus instead of the electors and representatives which victory would have rendered them, they became rebels and traitors. Being thus brought under management, the great body was prepared for offering their necks, along with those of their Protestant fellow-countrymen, to that measure from which the people of both nations received the common yoke.
A charge then has been made—a charge than which a more perfectly groundless, a more absurd one, never was or could be made. Myriads are its direct objects, and with them millions have been the victims of it. All this I have proved: and now that I have proved it, what am I or any one to be the better? Too probably, but so much the worse. The stronger the proof, the more intolerable the provocation—the provocation afforded to those against whom there is no security—whose will is their only law, and who, the more highly they are provoked, will be but the more likely to set upon me their legal black mastiffs, and drag me into a prison, there to finish what remains of life.
Subversion of the Constitution—enmity to English institutions—almost treason; what needs there more than a few such phrases—phrases completely void of all meaning other than that by which the disposition and designs of those by whom they are employed is manifested. Almost treason to-day, it may be quite treason to-morrow: Judges ready to decide this: Crown lawyers ready to call for this—all this is secured, and abundantly secured by the Constitution as it stands.
If to do this by the forms of the law would be too much trouble, what should hinder men in power, with or without the pretence of searching for treasonable or seditious matter, from sending a soldier or an armed yeoman to put me to death? The deed done, a pardon or a noli prosequi follows. This too is secured by the Constitution as it stands.
Not to speak of Constitution, for there is no such thing—if I love a government under which such things not only can be done, but are done, how can I do so without hating, or at least regarding with indifference, sixteen or seventeen millions of human beings whose misfortune it is to live under it? Can I do this? No; but I can say I do so: and after this declaration, if this will satisfy them, I am ready to do so at this time, and at all times.
The advocate of reason has drawn forth all his reasons—rendered demonstration complete, and disproof impossible. What is the consequence? Is conduct in anywise amended by it? Is any of the desired effect produced by it? No: either it is turned aside from, with a mixture of fear and scorn, or if noticed, noticed no otherwise than as a butt for ridicule. Look—did you ever see such a fool as this man! as if when we said he meant to strip us of our property, we, or any man of common sense, could believe it. No—let him go to Rome with his reasoning, and make the Pope turn Protestant: or to Constantinople, and make the Sublime Porte turn Christian. This is the radicalist who thought he should bring us over to radicalism, by showing that the principles of it had been professed to be acted upon in King’s speeches. You remember how Brougham quizzed him, and how good a laugh it made for us. A parliamentary ground? Yes: that every parliamentary measure must have of course,—not that the ground must have any truth in it: where has the man lived all this while?
Now, let any man who has ever thought it worth while to consider what Parliament is—let him say whether, if instead of the words about subversion of the rights of property, an equal number of words taken by lot out of Johnson’s Dictionary would not in that place have had the same effect; and whether if in addition to what has been done, the Bill of Rights had been repealed in form, and the mutiny act made perpetual, the majorities would have been less, or Whigs more numerous and constant in their attendance, or more active for the people’s interest in their counties?
Let not the substance of the charge brought against us by the destroyers of our liberties—by the subverters of our rights—be out of mind. The object we are charged with aiming at is, to their purpose at least, precise enough: it is, the subversion of the rights of property—the subversion, not the destruction:—the subversion by means of a new partition; for, without aiming at destruction, which as above is impossible, no other mode of subversion is there that can be aimed at. But we have seen how impossible it is that any plan for mere partition of property should be formed and acted upon. What they put into his speech—the men who put it there,—did they themselves believe it to be true, or did they not? If they did, think of their wisdom: if they did not, think of their honesty;—think of the task which that man has to perform, whose endeavour it is to expose the falsehood of those pretences on the ground of which, for the more effectual preservation it is said of “English Institutions,”* English liberties have been destroyed. An absurd design is professed to be imputed—so palpably absurd, that the fact of its being really supposed to be entertained is impossible. Of this impossibility a manifestation has been made. What is the consequence—that the charge is retracted? Oh no: but some other design of equally palpable absurdity is then imputed. Confute the second imputation, then comes a third: and so on, out of the tyrant’s brain come chimeras after chimeras in any number. Now, if it were possible, suppose the last chimera destroyed, what would the accused—and if not all accused, the whole people of the country have been punished—what would the accused be the better for it? Not a whit. This power is still in hand: a power by which every oppression in every shape in which it is wished to be exercised, can be exercised at pleasure. The power is still in hand,—it can equally be exerted with a pretence as without a pretence. The pretences under which the subversion has been effected are all dissipated: but the subversion remains the same. The wolf and the lamb,—how often has that fable been—how often will it continue to be—converted into fact? The devourer’s pretences are all refuted, but the victim is not the less devoured.
The men in question—the accused—protest and declare in the face of day—thousands and ten thousands—that they have no such design—no design whatever by which the right of property could be touched. The state of the representation rendered what it is pretended to be—that is their aim: that, and nothing more. These protestations, what regard do they receive? Not any. Though the individuals are unknown, yet that they are radicalists is known, and this is sufficient to deprive them of all title to be believed. Men drenched in insincerity—men to whom no one who has ever been at the pains of making observations on them believe anything they assert the more for their asserting it,—these men—though even not these men individually and responsibly,—throw out an insinuation to this or that effect—an insinuation which means anything or nothing, just as they see convenient. This insinuation is acted upon,—the declarations of the thousands of witnesses are set down in the account as equal to 0; such in this case is the law of evidence.
How unequal is the contest between honesty and reason on the one part, and sinister interest in or out of office on the other!—how hard the lot of the advocate on the honest side! On the part of sinister interest, a short phrase composed of falsehood and nonsense is thrown out, and this is to be accepted as a reason—as a reason, and that of itself a conclusive one, on which the whole difference between good government and bad government in this country, and thence perhaps in every other—at this time, and thence perhaps at all times—is to depend.
The advocate of reason sets himself to work: he displays the nothingness, he detects and exposes the fallacies. What is he the better? The exposure is turned aside from: the compound of falsehood and nonsense continues to be delivered, with the same effrontery and the same intolerant arrogance as ever. Even were that abandoned, some other phrase of the like material would be employed instead of it: the same work would be to do over again, and with equal fruit.
Subversion of the Constitution: your aim is to subvert the Constitution. Behold in this phrase one of those compounds of falsehood and nonsense, equally useful to, and equally employed by Tories and Whigs. The Constitution—in which is implied the constitution of the state as in existence: herein lies the falsehood. This Constitution you are aiming to subvert: here is the nonsense. So applied, subversion means nothing: that which has no existence cannot be subverted.
Now, as to the existence of a constitution. For these forty years and more we have known what a constitution is, and so long every man who has chosen to know has known that we have no such thing. Look to United America. Behold there twenty-two states, each having a constitution of its own—a real constitution; and the Congressorial government, which has a constitution in which all these others are included. These constitutions were established each of them by a convention chosen by the great body of the population—by that body out of whose obedience all power is composed, and by the interests of which all power ought in its exercise, in so far as it is not tyranny, to direct itself. There we see so many real constitutions. In this country, what have we, to which we give that name? A mere fictitious entity—a creature of the imagination—a sham—an imposture. When the existence of a constitution is asserted or assumed, what is done? Out of his own head, to suit his own private or party purposes, in the form of words that presents itself as best adapted to these sinister purposes—some one says, “the Constitution is so and so”—“the constitution says so and so;” while the truth is, that the Constitution not being anything, is not so and so;—not being anything, it says nothing—neither so and so, nor anything else. Common sense being none—truth being none—reason being none—argument being none—on either side, these dissensions,—how are they to be made up? Within doors by effrontery, by arrogance, by violence, by intolerance:—without doors by sabres, by bayonets, by field-pieces.
Is it really among your wishes that we should possess the blessing? Give us then a Constitution, or let us give one to ourselves. This done, then, and for the first time, we shall have one. Let us first have a Constitution, and then the offence of aiming at the subversion of it will be a possible one.
The Constitution you figure to yourselves.—tyrants, what is it? A collection of the pretences under which, and the written formularies in and by which, you have been in the habit of carrying on the incessant war for the sacrifice of the universal to your own particular interest—the carrying on in the most regular and commodious manner the work of oppression and depredation on the largest scale. This is what in your eyes is the Constitution. This is everything you wish, and does for you everything that you wish of it.
[* ]Memoirs of the political and private life of James Caulfield, Earl of Charlemont, by Francis Hardy, Esq. London, 1810, 4to. (See p. 269, et seq.)
[* ]English Institutions. In this phrase, let Scotchmen see the sort of regard testified for Scottish “institutions;” Irishmen for Irish.