Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter xxxv.: vox populi vox dei. - On Civil Liberty and Self-Government
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
chapter xxxv.: vox populi vox dei. - Francis Lieber, On Civil Liberty and Self-Government 
On Civil Liberty and Self-Government, 3rd revised edition, ed. Theodore D. Woolsey (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1883).
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.
vox populi vox dei.
The maxim Vox Populi Vox Dei is so closely connected with the subjects which we have been examining, and it is so often quoted on grave political occasions, that it appears to me proper to conclude this work with an inquiry into the validity of this stately saying. Its poetic boldness and epigrammatic finish, its Latin and lapidary formulation, and its apparent connection of a patriotic love of the people with religious fervor, give it an air of authority and almost of sacred-ness. Yet history, as well as our own times, shows us that everything depends upon the question who are “the people,” and that even if we have fairly ascertained the legitimate sense of this great yet abused term, we frequently find that their voice is anything rather than the voice of God.
If the term people is used for a clamoring crowd, which is not even a constituted part of an organic whole, we would be still more fatally misled by taking the clamor for the voice of the deity. We shall arrive, then, at this conclusion, that in no case can we use the maxim as a test, for, even If we call the people's voice the voice of God in those cases in which the people demand that which is right, we must first know that they do so before we could call it the voice of God. It is no guiding authority; it can sanction nothing.
“The chief priests, and the rulers, and the people,” cried out all at once, “Crucify him, crucify him!”1 Were then “the rulers and the people” not the populus? But their voice was assuredly not the vox Dei in this case. If populus means the constituted people speaking through the organs and in the forms of law, the case of Socrates arises at once in our mind. It was the people of Athens, speaking by their constituted authorities, that bade him drink the hemlock; yet it would be blasphemy to say that it was the voice of God that spoke in this case through the mouth of the Athenians. Was it the voice of the people, and, through it, the voice of God, which demanded the sway of the guillotine in the first French revolution? Or was it the voice of God which made itself heard in 1848, when all punishment of death for political offences was abolished in France? Or is it the voice of God which through “the elect one of the people” demanded the re-establishment of capital punishment for high political offences? Or is it the voice of God that used so indefinite a term in law as that of political offences?
There are, indeed, periods in history in which, centuries after, it would seem as if an impulse from on high had been given to whole masses, or to the leading minds of leading classes, in order to bring about some comprehensive changes. That remarkable age of maritime discovery which has influenced the whole succeeding history of civilization and the entire progress of our kind, would seem at first glance, and to many, even after a careful study of all its elements, to have received its motion and action from a breath not of human breathing. No person, however, living at that period would have been authorized to call the wide-spread love of maritime adventure the voice of God, merely because it was widely diffused. Impulsive movements of greater extent and intensity have been movements of error, passion, and crime. It must be observed that the thorough historian often acts in these cases as the natural philosopher who finds connection, causes and effects, where former ages thought they recognized direct and detached manifestations or interpositions of a superior power, and not the greater attribute of variety under eternal laws and unchanging principles.
When the whole of Europe was animated by one united longing to conquer the Holy Land, it appeared undoubtedly to the crusaders that the voice of the people was the voice of God. It seemed, indeed, as if an afflatus numinis breathed over the European lands. Those, however, who now believe that the crusades were a great injury to Europe—and there are such—do not perceive the voice of God in this vast movement. They will perhaps maintain that it was not the people who felt this surprising impulse, but the chivalry, who by their unceasing petty feuds had developed a martial restlessness which began to lack food, and thus engaged in distant enterprises, stimulated by the highly sacerdotal character which pervaded that age. To find out, then, whether it was the vox populi, would first require to find out whether it was the vox Dei, and, consequently, we are no better off with the maxim than without it.1
I am under the impression that the famous maxim first came into use in the middle ages, at a contested episcopal election,2 when the people, by apparent acclamation, having elected one person, another aspirant believed he had a better right to the episcopate on different grounds or a different popular acclamation. That the maxim has a decidedly medieval character no one familiar with that age will doubt. The middle ages are, indeed, characterized by the fact that all Europe was parcelled out, not in states, but under a political system of graduated and encapsulated allegiance; but where this system failed to reach a sphere with its many ramifications, the same age bore a conclamatory character, especially in the earliest times. When a king was elected it was by conclamation. The earliest bishops of Rome were elected or confirmed by conclamation of the Roman people. Elections by conclamation always indicate a rude or deficiently organized state of things; and it is the same whether this want of organization be the effect of primitive rudeness or of relapse. Now the maxim we are considering has a strongly conclamatory character, and to apply it to our modern affairs is degrading rather than elevating them.
How shall we ascertain, in modern times, whether anything be the voice of the people? and next, whether that voice be the voice of God, so that it may command respect? For, unless we can do this, the whole maxim amounts to no more than a poetic sentence expressing the opinion of an individual, but no rule, no canon.
Is it unanimity that indicates the voice of the people? Unanimity in this case can mean only a very large majority But even unanimity itself is far from indicating the voice of God. Unanimity is commanding only when it is the result of digested and organic public opinion, and even then, we know perfectly well that it may be erroneous and consequently not the voice of God, but simply the best opinion at which erring and sinful men at the time are able to arrive.
Mr. Say informs us that when the first cotton manufactures were introduced into France, petitions from all the incorporated large towns, from merchants and silk-weavers, were sent to Paris, clamoring in vehement terms against the “ungodly-calico prints.” Rouen, now the busiest of all the French cotton manufacturing places, was among the foremost, and the petition of the united three corporations of Amiens ended thus: “To conclude, it is enough for the eternal prohibition of the use of printed calicoes, that the whole kingdom is chilled with horror at the news of their proposed toleration. Vox populi vox Dei.” This might well be considered as sufficient to prevent every reflecting man from using the maxim. We now know that the cotton tissue has become one of the greatest blessings of our race, giving comfort, health, and respectability to entire masses of men formerly doomed to tatters, filth, and its fearful concomitants, typhus and vice, and we know too that cotton manufacture is one of the most lucrative branches of French industry.
Unanimity of itself proves nothing worth being proved for our purpose. In considering unanimity, the first subject that presents itself to us is that remarkable phenomenon called Fashion—a phenomenon wellnigh calculated to baffle the most searching mind, and which has never received the attention it deserves at the hands of the philosopher, in every point of view, whether psychological, moral, economical, or political. Unassisted by any public power,1 by the leading minds of the age, by religion, literature, or any concerted action, it nevertheless rules with unbending authority, often in spite of health, comfort, and taste, and it exacts tributes such as no sultan or legislature can levy. While it often spreads ruin among producers and consumers, it is always sure to reach the most absolute czar and subject his taste. Though the head may wear a crown, Fashion puts her shears to its hair, if she has a mind to do so. Far more, powerful than international law, which only rules between nations, she brings innumerable nations into one fold, and that frequently the fold of acknowledged folly. How can we explain this stupendous phenomenon? It is not necessary to do so here. The fact, however, must be acknowledged. It is the most remarkable instance of unanimity, but will any one say that Fashion is a vox Dei? The very question would be irreverent were it not candidly made in a philosophical spirit.
Nor is the dominion of fashion restricted to dress and furniture, nor to the palate and minor intercourse. Bitter as the remark may sound, it is nevertheless true that there are countries void of institutions, where a periodical on political fashions might be published, with the same variety of matter as the Petit Courrier des Dames.
There was a fearful unanimity all over Europe in the sanguinary and protracted period of witch-trials, joined in by churchmen and laymen, Protestant and' Catholic, Teuton, Celt, and Sclavonic, learned and illiterate. If the fallacious and in some respects absurd “Quod ab omnibus, semper, ubique,” ever seemed to find an application, it was in the witch-trial from the earliest ages of history, and in all countries down to the time when very gradually it ceased to be ab omnibus, semper, ubique. But was Sprenger's sad Malleus Maleficarum on that account the voice of God?1 What fearful fanaticisms have not swept over whole countries with deplorable unanimity! The Romans were unanimous-enough when they slaughtered the worshippers of that God whose authority is invoked to dignify the voice of men in the fallacious maxim. If the voice of the people were the voice of God, the voice of the people ought not only to be unchangeable, but there ought to be one people only. Two nations frequently clamor for war, and both, under the motto Vox populi vox Dei, draw the sword against each other.
A remarkable degree of unanimity prevails in all those periods of excited commercial speculation, such as the Mississippi scheme in France, the South Sea scheme in England, the railway mania we have seen in the same country, or the commercial madness in our land some fifteen years ago.
If we carefully view the subject of unanimity, we shall find that in the cases in which vast action takes place by impelled masses—and it is in these cases that the maxim is invoked—error is as frequently the basis as truth. It is panic, fanaticism, revenge, lust of gain, and hatred of races that produce most of the sudden and comprehensive impulses. Truth travels slowly. Indeed, all essential progress is typified in the twelve humble men that fallowed Christ. The voice of God was not then the voice of the people. What the ancients said of the avenging gods, that they are shod with wool,1 is true of great ideas in history. They approach softly. Great truths always dwell a long time with small minorities, and the real voice of God is often that which rises above the masses, not that which follows them.
But the difficulty of fixing the meaning of this saying is not restricted to that of ascertaining what is the voice of God. It is equally difficult to find out what is the voice of the people. If by the voice of the people be meant, as was stated before, the organically evolved opinion of a people, we do not stand in need of the saying. We know we ought to obey the laws of the land. If by the voice of the people be meant the result of universal suffrage without institutions, and especially in a large country with a powerful executive, not permitting even preparatory discussion, it is an empty phrase; it is deception, or it may be the effect of vehement yet transitory excitement, or of a political fashion. The same is true when the clamoring expression of many is taken for the voice of the whole people.2
In politics, as in other spheres, it is never the loudest who are the wisest, though they are those who are heard and whom flatterers pretend to treat as the people and as the utterers of the voice of God. Governments frequently rule nations as some of the French theatres are ruled. Paid applauders, called claqueurs, force many a piece through a long series of performances; and it is these very governments of claqueurs that resort most frequently to the Vox populi vox Dei. Yet Mademoiselle Mars, one of the most distinguished French actresses that have ever played, was in the habit of saying, How much better we would play if we cared less for applause!
Another instance, showing that no dependence can be placed upon the maxim, is that of proverbs. They are doubtless the voice of the people, and many of them contain much wisdom, but there are also many in favor of our worst passions and meanest dispositions.
The following rhymes are given by Trench in his Lessons in Proverbs, as “of an old poet:”
A very large class of proverbs is directed against peasants and the laboring classes; against women, lawyers, physicians—indeed, against all the staple topics of former satire.
Whoever wishes to give great importance to a general movement, or sincerely believes it to be truly noble, calls it the voice of God. Pope Pius IX., in his proclamation of the 30th of March, 1848, says, in speaking of the general and enthusiastic movement of the Italians for Italy and Independence: “Woe to him who does not discern the Vox Dei in this blast,” etc. It cannot be supposed that the pope now considers that blast to have been the Vox Dei.
Sometimes the maxim is doubtless used in good faith, as the French at times use, without reserve, that favorite expression of theirs: The instinct of the masses; but generally, I think, Vox populi vox Dei is used either hypocritically or when people have misgivings that all may not be right, pretty much in the same manner as persons say that an argument is unanswerable, when they have a strong foreboding that it may be found very answerable.
Vox populi vox Dei has never been used in France so frequently as after the second of December, yet there are unquestionably thousands in that country who would find their religious convictions much bewildered, if they were obliged to believe that it was the voice of God which spoke through ballot boxes under the management of the most centralized executive in existence; and that the voice of the Deity requires a thousand intrigues among men for its utterance.
The doctrine Vox populi vox Dei is essentially unrepublican, as the doctrine that the people may do what they list under the constitution, above the constitution, and against the constitution, is an open avowal of disbelief in self-government.
The true friend of freedom does not wish to be insulted by the supposition that he believes each human individual an erring man, and that nevertheless the united clamor of erring men has a character of divinity about it; nor does he desire to be told that the voice of the people, though legitimately and institutionally proclaimed and justly commanding respect and obedience, is divine on that account. He knows that the majority may err, and that he has the right and often the duty to use his whole energy to convince them of their error, and lawfully to bring about a different set of laws. The true and stanch republican wants liberty, but no deification either of himself or others; he wants a firmly built self-government and noble institutions, but no absolutism of any sort—none to practise on others, and none to be practised on himself. He is too proud for the Vox populi vox Dei. He wants no divine right of the people, for he knows very well that it means nothing but the despotic power of insinuating leaders. He wants the real rule of the people, that is, the institutionally organized country, which distinguishes it from the mere mob. For a mob is an unorganic multitude, with a general impulse of action.1 Woe to the country in which political hypocrisy first calls the people almighty, then teaches that the voice of the people is divine, then pretends to take a mere clamor for the true voice of the people, and lastly gets up the desired clamor. The consequences are fearful, and invariably unfitting for liberty.
Whatever meaning men may choose, then, to give to Vox populi vox Dei, in other spheres, or, if applied to the long tenor of the history of a people, in active politics and in the province of practical liberty, it either implies political levity, which is one of the most mordant corrosives of liberty, or else it is a political heresy, as much so as Vox regis vox Dei would be. If it be meant to convey the idea that the people can do no wrong, it is as grievous an untruth as would be conveyed by the maxim, the king can do no wrong, if it really were meant to be taken literally.
However indistinct the meaning of the maxim may be, the idea intended to be [Editor: illegible word], and the imposing character of the saying, have, nevertheless, contributed to produce in some countries a general inability to remain in the opposition—that necessary element of civil liberty. A degree of shame seems there to be attached to a person that does not swim with the broad stream. No matter what flagrant contradictions may take place, or however sudden the changes may be, there seems to exist in every one a feeling of discomfort until he 'has joined the general current. To differ from the dominant party or the ruling majority appears almost like daring to contend with a deity, or a mysterious yet irrevocable destiny. To dissent is deemed to be malcontent; it seems more than rebellious, it seems traitorous; and this feeling becomes ultimately so general that it seizes the dissenting individuals themselves. They become ashamed, and mingle with the rest. Individuality is destroyed, manly character degenerates, and the salutary effect of parties is forfeited. He that clings to his conviction is put in ban as unnational, and as an enemy to the people. Then arises a man of personal popularity. He ruins the institutions; he bears down everything before him; yet he receives the popular acclaim, and, the voice of the people being the voice of God, it is deemed equally unnational and, unpatriotic to oppose him.1
[1.]St. Luke, xxiii. 13, 21.
[1.]Sir Wm. Hamilton begins the third paragraph, page 770, of The Works of Thomas Reid on the Universality of the Philosophy of Common Sense, in this way:
[2.]For many years I was under the impression that I had found this fact when studying the times of Abelard; but I must confess that all my attempts to recover it, when I came to write on this subject, have been fruitless. Sanderson, whom Mr. Hallam calls the most distinguished English casuist, treats of the maxim in his work De Conscientia. I copy from the London Notes and Queries, Nov. 19, 1853, the following passage, which was elicited by the preceding portion of this note:
[1.]It may, however, be mentioned, as a historical fact, that even fashion has been shrewdly drawn within the sphere of public action and influence, by the Emperor Napoleon III., through his graceful empress.
[1.]It has been calculated that several millions of human beings have been sacrificed by witch-trials in modern times. [!] An article in the Westminster Review, January, 1859, shows that the belief in witches is yet causing occasional disorder and crime in England. Indeed, if the famous Quod omnibus, etc., could ever be applied to any subject, it is to this. It has existed and still exists in all the coiners of the earth, and with tribes wholly insulated. There has been always whipping in the armies, until Always ceased; there was always slavery until it ceased; a multitude of gods was always worshipped; ghosts were always believed in; oracles were always believed in; to take interest from the borrower was always declared a crime; it was always believed that the earth is flat or that the sun moves; it was always believed that Jews poisoned the wells, or that some general distemper whose causes could not be explained arose from poisoned wells; people always believed that governments must answer for famines; gold was always believed to have some mysterious power, physical as well as psychological; the stars were always believed to influence the character of individuals; kings were always believed to have a peculiar healing power; it was always believed that wealth consists in money, and that therefore as one country gets rich others must needs get poorer, or that in the same degree as one roan increases his wealth so he deprives others of it; it was always believed that the security of the state requires the masses to be ground down; it was always believed that the eastern continent was all the land of the earth, and the suspicion that there might be another continent was even declared heretical; it was always believed that great cleanliness was not conducive to the health of children; it was always believed that indicted persons ought to be tortured, if they would not confess otherwise; it was always believed that persons accused of treason or witchcraft ought not, on account of the “heinousness of their crimes,” to have that protection which was granted to other indicted prisoners—until the Always and Everywhere ceased. These errors, most of which have caused commotions, risings, and bloodshed, were certainly the opinion of the people; they were the opinion of our whole race, but assuredly not the vox Dei.
[1.]Dii laneos habent pedes.
[2.]The doctrine Vox Populi Vox Dei, is capable of development. In November, for, 1857, some female, addressing a crowd in the city of New York, said: The voice of the working-men is the voice of God.
[1.]Which might lead to this syllogism:
[1.]The subject of Mobs has been enlarged upon in the Political Ethics.
[1.]The Paris journal, Le Pays, informed the public, at the time the present empire was established, that it had been raised to the dignity of an official paper to the imperial government. The announcement is made in that proclamatory and sententious style so much relished by the French, and in one of the paragraphs, standing by itself, it offers, with a naïveté which, surpasses anything the writer can remember, this comforting assurance: