Front Page Titles (by Subject) On Universal Suffrage. a - Political Economy and the Philosophy of Government
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On Universal Suffrage. a - Jean Charles Léonard Simonde de Sismondi, Political Economy and the Philosophy of Government 
Political Economy and the Philosophy of Government; A Series of Essays selected from the Works of M. de Sismondi. With an Historical Notice of his Life and Writings by M. Mignet (London: John Chapman, 1847).
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On Universal Suffrage.a
From the title of this little essay, it may be supposed that we are preparing to leave the restricted field of political economy. We think, however, that without going beyond the limits of this science, we may seek for the origin of social power even in the houses of simple citizens, and inquire to what point all may and ought to concur in the expression of the national will. The security which every condition ought to enjoy, the not less important security of the prosperity of all, concern public wealth as well as public liberty. Indeed, in entering upon this inquiry, we fear much more that we shall not make ourselves understood, and that we shall shock the sentimeats and prejudices of all parties, than that we are leaving the circle to which this journal ought to restrict itself.
If there be a truth demonstrated by the experience of every age and of every nation, it is, that whoever exercises political power is disposed to abuse it; that on the other side, whoever is deprived of every political power and right, is in danger of being oppressed; whether this portion of the nation, which is despoiled of these securities, is separated from the rest by birth or by race, by wealth or by indigence, by the religion which it professes, by the territory it inhabits, or merely by the spirit of party. But what are the defensive arms which can be given to each class of society, which each class will know how to use? What are the political rights which can be attributed to all the citizens, and which will be adequate to secure themselves, without injuring the nation of which they form a part? It is indeed the fundamental problem of political organization, the problem which all legislators, friends of man and of liberty, have proposed to themselves to resolve by balanced constitutions, but which, however, is not yet resolved.
It is true that in the eyes of ignorant and presumptuous youth this problem, which the sages of antiquity confessed their inability to resolve, is one no longer. We find on every side publicists without reflection and without study, ready to affirm boldly, that the electoral right is a sufficient security for all and for each. They protest that Universal Suffrage is the essential prerogative of a free people, and riley stigmatize with the name of monopoly every limitation to the right of all men to co-operate in elections; at the same time, they decide that from elections should proceed every social power.
It is not everything to have a popular government; it must accomplish its task; and far from its being so simple, so easy to every one, it is, on the contrary, the most important, the most complicated, the most difficult of any task to which men can devote their efforts. An old maxim of the French economists, Let things alone (laissez faire, et laissez passer) which they gave as a rule to governments in commercial legislation, and for the advancement of national wealth, has too much disposed the public to think that the action of social power ought to be negative; that destined only to prevent evil, its best part is to remain quiet. It has been too readily decided, that it is enough to retrench the power of government: the action for which this power is designed, and the knowledge which ought to direct this action, are too much forgotten.
What is the end of man? What is the end of human society? The happiness and the progress of all. Do not let us forget that these objects of our wishes ought to be united, that prosperity without improvement is not enough. We desire these two things for all, and for each; we desire them for the whole nation, and for every family, and for every individual of which it is composed.
To attain this double end, the knowledge of existing laws and of jurisprudence, which constitutes the celebrity of many eminent men, is not enough; we must rise to the philosophy of law, to the theory of the manner in which the administration of government and justice acts on men. In order to lay open to the young tbe way to acquire this knowledge, it is not enough to be acquainted with various sciences, or to know what has been done in different communities; we must rise to the philosophy of education, to the theory of the distribution of moral and intellectual light, so as to make it more vivid, and to diffuse it more and more. It is not enough to be attached by the heart and the conscience to the religion we profess; we must rise high enough to judge the religious spirit of men, the good and the evil that may be expected from it; we must place ourselves above the narrow and intolerant spirit of sects, and even in religion open the door to progress. It is not enough to understand ehresmatistics, de laissez faire, et laissez passer, not to interfere with the acquiring or disposing of wealth; it should be known how to direct its distribution, so as to procure for the poor the greatest material comfort and the most leisure, allowing them time to exercise the intellect and to develop their virtues, more knowledge of their duties, more zeal to fulfil them. In short, it is not enough for social power to have endowed the nation it directs with all these advantages; it must provide against their being taken from it by other nations. Thus is required the knowledge of the comparative strength of nations, of their interests and of their attachments; that of the obligations they have contracted by their treaties, and of their public rights; finally, a knowledge of all means of defence, of finance, and of national resources, of chrysology, or the theory of money and credit, of strategy, of the marine, and of all the art of war. Certainly when one measures the whole circle of the social sciences, one is frightened at all which they require, study, talent, genius, and elevation of character.
There exists an opinion, Madame de Staël often said, which is more acute than that of the most acute man of the world; it is that, of the public, for public opinion collects all the most distinguished opinions, it enlightens them, it renders them more acute by collision, it is the sum of the best, and not the mean proportion of the most advanced and the most absurd. So there exists in public opinion a social science, entire, developed, and more profound than any publicist has ever attained to. It is this opinion which we call into power and action when we proclaim the sovereignty of the people. We invoke this sovereignty, but it is that of national intelligence, of the enlightened, virtuous, and progressive opinion which has been formed in the nation. In order to conceive a better state of society and to realize it, and in order to develop the progress of all, it is necessary to be in advance of all; not only talent, but genius is required. The nation can only be well governed by the most enlightened and the most virtuous of her citizens. It is not that they have, by reason of their virtue and intelligence, any right to sovereignty; it is that the nation, as sovereign, has a right to the intelligence and virtue which they possess. If they were set apart to form a governing aristocracy, it would be giving them an interest of caste, which would probably destroy this virtue and this intelligence; but if from the fear of giving them an equal share in the sovereignty, they are left in that minority where they must necessarily originate, all the advantages of this virtue and of this intelligence which belong to the nation are lost, and the object is not obtained.
Certainly the direction of a state is more difficult than that of a ship; nevertheless, if a ship on an unknown sea had on board with a thousand ignorant persons one skilful pilot, these ignorant persons would be mad if they did not give up the helm to him, or if they pretended to regulate his navigation by the majority of suffrages. It is not the pilot who has the right, to direct the ship; it is the right of all those who are rulnning a common risk, to profit by the skill of the most skilful for the safety of the lives and property of all. The object of association is, in fact, to bring forward the greatest talent and the greatest virtue, in order to employ them for the greatest good of all. In a time of great danger, of deep feeling, the instinct by which to discover greatness is not wanting to the masses, and genius often takes its true place without trouble. But it is rare that political questions inspire the people with the sentiment of danger and the necessity of confidence at the same time. Most frequently, if we asked each individual for his opinion, we should be far from obtaining in reply the expression of the national opinion. The ignorant populace, given up almost, everywhere to retrograde prejudices, will refuse to favour its own progress. The more ignorant the people are, the more are they opposed to all kind of development, the more they are deprived of all enjoyment, and the more are they obstinately, angrily attached to their habits, as to the only possession they have left; like horses, which in a fire it is impossible to force out of a stable in flames. Count the voices in Spain and Portugal, they will be for the maintenance of the Inquisition. Count them in Russia, they will be for the despotism of the Czar. Count them everywhere, they will be for those laws, for those local customs which most require to be corrected, they will be for prejudices: it would seem that this word, appropriated to opinions adopted by vulgar minds without discussion, says enough; it suffices to teach us that the masses hold to opinions ready made, that only the small number of thinkers rise above them to consider them anew.
In fact, the national will, that is the sum of all the wills, of all the intelligence, of all the virtue of the nation, a sum in which each quantity counts for what it is, and negations count for nothing, is almost always absolutely opposed to the doctrine of universal suffrage, which makes those who have no will prevail over those who have, those who know nothing of what they are deciding upon, over those who do know it. How is it possible, in endeavouring to discover the national will, to reckon as nothing the intenseness of the will of those whose suffrages are counted? Do we not know that as soon as a question presents some obscurity, most men have in regard to it only a suggested will, thousands of which often represent only one suffrage, one individual choosing and making others agree with him? Do not we know that when the ignorant are sincere, they prefer not voting at all, for they know their vote is a falsehood? Between two names equally unknown, they decide either by the intrigues which recommend to them the candidate of a faction, or by chance. Is this the suffrage which is represented as an indivisible unity, as precisely equal to that of a great citizen whose will is firm, enlightened, and virtuous?” Which way shall we direct our course, to China or to California? “we will suppose is asked of every sailor on hoard a vessel in danger in the middle of the South Sea.” But I do not know where we are, “answers he,” I do not even know whether there is a China or a California: I will not vote, for I cannot make a choice, I have no will in the matter.—“That is of no consequence,” is the reply; “you must vote, and your vote will have as much weight as that of the most skilful among us.”—“China, then, the name is shorter, and I shall remember it better.”
The national will rises as high as the most elevated point of the intelligence, will and virtue of the nation: universal suffrage, on the contrary, (and according to its principle, women and children should share in it,) by lowering all that is elevated to an illusory equality, is just as far removed from all pre-eminence as all pre-eminence is rare in society. If the decision is to be made by the patriotism, the disinterestedness, and the courage of a country, can we reckon on a majority of men like Regulus or Aristides? If it is to be by the extent of knowledge, shall we more easily find a majority of Montes-quleus? If it must be by the energy of the will, is there a nation in which Napoleons form the greater number? Can we arrive, in short, at that expression of public opinion which comprises all that is great and good in the nation, by reckoning all these eminent individualities as simple unities lost in the crowd?
The most that can be hoped for from universal suffrage is, that it should give the proportional mean among all differences; that the eminent minorities should succeed in modifying the vulgar majorities, precisely according to their respective numbers; that if, for example, there are among those called on to vote nine ignorant for one wise man, the result of the vote should only be nine-tenths nearer the ignorance of the first than the wisdom of the latter. But most frequently the two portions of the assembly, instead of reciprocally modifying, will clash against one another, and there the ignorant will triumph by an immense majority. In both cases, universal suffrage, which considers men as simple figures, as so many equal unities, and which counts them instead of weighing them, strips the nation of her most precious possession, the influence of her greatest men.
We need only ask what would be the decision of the majority on all questions already decided by science, by national will, or by virtue, in order to enable us to acknowledge this complete opposition. France, England, and Germany, know doubtless that the earth goes round the sun. Consult the majority in these three countries, by universal suffrage, it will no doubt answer that the sun goes round the earth. Let us descend from this scientific idea to a decision to be made in a common case: a drowned man is taken out of a river; consult the majority by universal suffrage as to what is best to be done; they will answer, hold him up by the feet, that he may throw up the water he has drunk. During the death-struggle of Poland, all the virtue, all the energy of France and England would have wished to save her at the price of the greatest sacrifices; it might have been said that France and England willed a war, for the amount of the wills of the most energetic, the most reflecting, and the most virtuous, is really the will of the nation. But universal suffrage would have given the sum of apathy, that of indifference and of personal interest. The apathetic and indifferent knew too little of what Poland was to have a will; the others repelled the ideas of conscription and taxes, with too much egotism to make sacrifices. By consulting the greatest number, we hope to arrive at the exact medium. Universal suffrage may throw the nation by turns into the two extremes, but her true resting-place is the exact medium.
We have been accustomed, in our modern Europe, to governments which have not been founded with a view to the good of all, to governments inherited as a patrimony, where the people were only considered as property, more or less profitable; their masters only thought of getting the most advantage from them, not of making them advance towards prosperity, intelligence, and virtue. When these nations began to know themselves, to feel what they were, to make their voice heard, their sovereigns, astonished or affrighted at this new sound, only thought of imposing silence. Sometimes they deceived the public voice by priests sold to authority; sometimes they corrupted it by frivolity and pleasure, or by the bait of false glory; sometimes they imposed silence by terror and punishments; never did they consent to listen to it, and to conduct themselves by its advice. This hostility of power to public opinion has accustomed us to see only the physical obstacle which represses it. We have invoked the sovereignty of this public voice, and have not given ourselves the trouble to inquire how this public voice is formed.
The ancients had much more experience than we have in free governments, and in all republican forms. Those who appeal to their authority in support of what they call principles, great principles, must be astonished if they should ever open, not only Aristophanes, but Plato or Aristotle, to see them declare themselves so strongly against pure democracies. All the Greek philosophers who had seen them in action, had remarked the constant increase of the dominion of the retrograde over the progressive principle, of the low tone of the greater number over the virtue and knowledge of the smaller. They had seen the habitual oppression of the minority by the majority, the harshness of masters towards their subjects when the city commanded the country; or when democracy was supreme, popular favouritism not less formidable than that of courts, and the rapidity of revolutions produced by the violent hut fugitive enthusiasm of the multitude. We shall not stop to discuss their testimony, but we cannot help asking, with astonishment, the partisans of universal suffrage, not where is their experience, hut where is their'theory? They reject what is old, they would change the face of the world, and they not only do not bring forward a legislator, hut not even a philosopher, a wise man, a great writer, who has admitted and developed what they call their principles.
For ourselves, when we look round, there is no want of examples, even in our own times, to show us the retrograde spirit of the masses. It is a very melancholy lesson in human nature, which Spain and Portugal have not ceased giving, ever since the people have been called into action in the Peninsula. Among the inhabitants of these two countries, the worst go. verned in Europe, all those who have any soul or intelligence, and they are in great numbers, ardently desire fundamental reform, and have not feared manifesting this desire in the midst of the greatest dangers, and by the greatest sacrifices; but the masses, confounding the remains of past time with its trophies, and attributing the ancient national glory even to the abuses which destroyed it, have shown a not less energetic determination to maintain everything which is the disgrace of Spain. The population, raised and led by priests, the most dangerous of all demagogues, fought with fury against the progress of knowledge, against liberty, against clemency. Insurrections broke out in 1832, at Toledo and at Leon, to repel the amnesty offered by the queen. They were renewed in 1833, because this princess was suspected merely of liberal intentions, and an absolutist revolution would have succeeded against her if her adversary had not wanted courage and capacity, to a degree rare even among royal families. The most ignorant, the most fanatical, but the most numerous party in Portugal, remained faithful to the monster Don Miguel, after he had lost two capitals, his treasures, and his arsenals, and in spite of the scarcely disguised hostility of France, England and Spain. We should think this constancy heroic, were it possible to admire violence against all that is good and honourable in human society; devotion to all that is criminal and disgraceful. The Italian patriots, who make such generous efforts to restore to their country that liberty which formed its independence and its glory, who, on a soil watered with the blood of so many martyrs, still press forward every day to offer the sacrifice of fortune, happiness, and life to their country, are for the most part too young to have seen, as we bays done, insurrection burst forth everywhere in their beautiful country, to cries of Viva Maria, morte alla libertà! the populace pursuing, pillaging, and murdering the patriots, and receiving with transports of joy the colours of their Austrian oppressors. Now, however, the Italians say that this foreign yoke has undeceived the people, that their feelings are changed in many provinces, that in others the inhabitants of the country might be attached to the liberal cause by the abolition of certain imposts; a melancholy way of bribing an opinion proclaimed as being sovereign. Nevertheless, the majority is not with them; on the contrary, Rome might still lâcher contre eux la grande lévrierea ; it was the phrase which the same party, the party of obscurantism, employed in France, in 1562, when it let loose the populace and the inhabitants of country places against the Protestants: the reformation, already dominant among the noblesse and the citizens of towns, triumphant in the states-general of Orleans and Pon-toise, was then attacked by all the rude and ignorant men in France, and was almost everywhere drowned in blood.
But it will be said that slavery debases men till they love it, and this is true: we shall be required to take our examples from free countries, where the citizens have received the vigorous education of public assemblies, where they have been enlightened by experience as to their interests, purified by virtue, inflamed with noble sentiments. Certainly we shall not deny the superiority or the excellence of a republican education; we shall not cast a doubt on the power of such institutions to imbue the mass of the people with more intelligence and virtue, and greater interest in public affairs. It is by associating all the citizens in the national power, that the most noble object of all social science, the improvement of all, can alone be hoped for. But if it is supposed that in republics the masses are progressive, it is an error contradicted by the history of all ages: we arrive at an absurd contradiction in terms, if we choose as a guide to progress the majority of suffrages; for when all the votes are considered as equal, the majority must stop at a mean term between the most advanced and the least informed voters.
The new publicists would usefully employ their time, if they gave some attention and some study to the republics of Switzerland. For five centuries this country has gloriously preserved her independence, her attachment to popular forms, her ancient manners, and her love for the name of liberty. Thanks to her republican and federative constitution, Switzerland is reckoned among the second rate powers of Europe, while her population and her wealth would scarcely assign her a place among the fourth. Switzerland has sought her liberty, with more or less success, with more or less capacity, in balanced constitutions: if she has not always succeeded, she wished at least to give pubhc opinion the means of forming itself into masses, by uniting all conscientious and enlightened individual opinions, the means of maturing itself by discussion, and at the same time of pointing out eminent men, in order to place them at the head of the state, instead of dragging them after it. But in Switzerland there are also many republics where the democratic principle has prevailed in all its rigour, where each intellect, as well as each will, is reckoned equal, and where universal suffrage has stifled public opinion.
In the centre of Switzerland the three little cantons of Uri, Schwitz, and Unterwalden are pure democracies; among shepherds, almost equal in fortune, as well as in intelligence, it was not thought necessary to preserve greater influence for opinions resulting from mere deliberation; the elections as well as the laws, as well as all public resolutions, are carried by the votes of universal suffrage, by all the male inhabitants above the age of 18, assembled in the Landsgemeine; it is really a will of their own, which the citizens of these little cantons express in these assemblies of all the people; but this will is constantly retrograde. In spite of their confederates, in spite of the clamour of Europe, they have continued the use of torture in their tribunals; they have kept up the custom of contracts to enter into the service of foreign powers; and these men, so proud and so jealous of their liberty, are the most eager to sell themselves to despots, to enable them to keep other nations in chains: every year, in short, and at every diet, they solicit their confederates to proscribe the liberty of the press. We must not suppose, however, that there are not in Uri, Schwitz, and Unterwalden, men whose more enlightened intellect, whose more elevated character, recoils from torture, trading in men, and the censorship of the press: no doubt they would form public opinion, if time were given them; but before every discussion, universal suffrage decides, by a majority, in favour of the gross ignorance of the great number, against the virtuous intelligence of some few.
Must we accuse our young and presumptuous publicists of ignorance or bad faith, when they endeavour to escape from the consequences of these notorious facts by a singular juggling trick? They have given the name of aristocrat to the democratic party in Switzerland, they have talked to the public of the aristocratic faction, which at the conventicle of Sarnen separated itself from patriotic Switzerland. There never was in the world an example of a more absolute democracy than that of the three little cantons, of the dixains of the Valais, and of the communes of the Grisons league. Without doubt these democracies have their demagogues, their leaders; it is the necessary consequence of such a government: almost always these leaders are nobles or priests, and it must be expected, that at the head of a democracy they will preserve all their prejudices, all their attachment to their orders; without doubt, they labour unceasingly at confirming the people in their illiberal sentiments and prejudices; but the little cantons would not be democracies, if ambitious men did not there endeavour to rise to power by seducing and corrupting the people.
To these democracies of the mountains were associated at the conventicle of Sarnen the democracies of the cities of Basle and Neufchatel, in which the exercise of the rights of the city belonged almost exclusively to the freemen of these two cities. The shoemakers and butchers of Basle and Neufchate] must smile to see themselves reproached in the journals with their pride of ancient nobility, but they complacently admit this reproach; whilst it was the privileges derived from their shops, exercised often with revolting rigour in order to enable them to sell dearer and buy cheaper, which frequently embroiled them with the inhabitants of the country. The heads of the burgesses of Neufchatel, enriched by commerce, have obtained titles of nobility from the king of Prussia, and think themselves great lords: those of Basle, though as opulent, have remained more modest and liberal in their sentiments, but they have not been able to conquer the narrow spirit, the mean interests of the burgesses in their companies; and when afterwards their self-love was engaged in the quarrel between the democracy o£ the city and the democracy of the country, their obstinacy drew them into the greatest imprudences. On the other band new democracies, but equally blind, equally illiberal, interfered in this quarrel, and all Switzerland blushes at the arbitrary sentence which destroyed the University of Basle, and divided its possessions between the town and the country. This opposition between the towns and the country is the scourge of pure democracies; with men employed in mechanical labour, the intrests and the jealousy of trade influence them more than all social considerations. Thus it is precisely in these republics, where the inhabitants of the towns exercise all the power, where the constitution appears most liberal, that the sovereign citizenship has most oppressed the peasants, and excited the most bitter resentment, as at Zurich, Schaffhausen, and Basle. In military aristocracies, on the contrary, which have passed through a revolution, as at Berne and Lucerne, the country forming the great majority is thoroughly counter-revolutionary, and keeps the liberal party in continual alarm. In general the present fermentation of Switzerland, and the dangers which threaten her, arise from the endeavours which the friends of progress are making to gain entrance into the different constitutions for a little liberality, a few general ideas, a little application of the first notions of political economy, of religious toleration, of law procecdings, of criminal justice, and lastly, of hospitality, not only to foreigners but from Swiss to Swiss; and from those endeavours being everywhere opposed and resisted by the democratic spirit, or the supremacy which universal suffrage gives to those who know nothing, and who do not understand what they are deciding on, over those who wish for the advance of true liberty.
Among those who know these facts, some think they give sufficient answer by calling all the demagogues aristocrats, without trying to find out how there can be a democracy without demagogues, and how they can be prevented abusing the power which they owe to popular caprice. Others refer us to the progress of knowledge and to the care that will be taken of the education of the people. We eagerly accept the augury; we hope that really free governments will feel that their first duty is to give to all citizens, not the power of leading and governing others, but the power of conducting and governing themselves; that they will not relax their efforts to put knowledge within the reach of all, virtue within the reach of all; that they will fix their attention on increasing the comforts of the poor, on one side to keep them from temptation, on the other to give them more leisure, and more means of exercising their intellectual faculties as well as their hands. But whatever may be their efforts, as long as there are rich and poor there will be men who cannot devote all their time to meditation and study; there will be others who can only give up to them some moments every day, and that with a body fatigued by manual labour, and a mind distracted by the cares of life.
Would it be expedient to level all conditions, to divide equally all possessions, and afterwards to maintain the equality of these divisions? But supposing that this order of things were possible, it would not do away with the necessity of manual labour, and even then this must fill the greatest part of the existence of all: it would only be to forbid a life of study and meditation to every one; the nation would only be so much the less elevated, when every one was forbidden to raise himself; and yet it would not be possible to level native talent. Even in a nation equal in wealth, universal suffrage would always leave virtue, talent, and genius in the minority. Shall a more reasonable plan be followed? Shall the development and the progress of all be favoured without disturbing the differences of rank? Then every rank of intelligence will be more advanced than it is now, but the distance between them will be always the same. It cannot be, it never will be, that a majority can be composed of superior men.
The wisest will say, perhaps, that they are not partisans of democracy, but of representative government. It is a great concession, and we ask no better than to accept it with all its logical consequences; we believe that representative government is a happy invention to bring forward the eminent men of a nation, to give them an opportunity of gaining, and above all, of deserving the public confidence, and of placing them at the helm of affairs. We believe that it is a still more happy invention to bring into notice different interests, different feelings, and different opinions, by giving organs of utterance to each, so that they may be discussed, light thrown on each, one weighed against another, in order ultimately to form one focus which may be regarded as national interest, thought, and feeling. We think it is a happy institution to form public opinion, to make it advance; to make it triumph at last, so that when collected from those who know and feel, elaborated by the discussion of those to whom the nation listens, it may re-descend to the masses and penetrale them with a common opinion before being transformed into a law. We believe that happy though difficult combinations, may, with the assistance of representative government, protect all localities, all opinions, all classes of citizens, and all interests. But if such is in fact the object, if such is the office of representative government, all the scaffolding of abstractions and vain suppositions which are every day presented to us as principles must be thrown down.
In fact, those who will see in representative government only an expedient invented to make the democracy govern in large states, do not wish to give the sovereignty to public opinion but to the plurality of voices. They adopt as a principle which they scarcely give themselves the trouble to declare, much less to discuss and establish, that all the individuals of a community know, feel, and will, equally, so that they must all be reckoned as simple unities. They believe that if all the decisions of the community were made according to the greatest number of voices, they would all be conformable to its interest, to its progress, and to its virtue; they believe that the sole motive of the community in delegating its powers, is the impossibility of assembling a great nation to exercise them itself; they believe, in short, that the minority is free, when it is bound by the will of the majority, and that the majority is sovereign, when instead of commanding itself it commands by its representatives. There is not one of these pretended principles which is not contradicted equally by reason and by experience.
We have already endeavoured to make it understood what immense ditferenees there really are among these pretended equalities, how wretched a nation would be which allowed itself to be led by a majority without intelligence, without knowledge of the thing on which it decides: instead, therefore, of pointing out the double vote as a scandalous violation of equality, we should be disposed to see in it an invention susceptible of a happy application, to make all the population take a part in public affairs, but yet to leave the decision to the most independent as well as the best informed. Experience has confirmed our doubt as to the equal value of suffrages; the farther the right of voting has been extended, the more have electoral assemblies been deserted. Why should the nation make so great a point of the suffrages of citizens who themselves do not attach any importance to them, who will not submit to the slightest inconvenience to go and vote? In this way the pretended vote of the people is often a falsity, for a small minority of those present often carries it over an immense majority of the absent.
It is not because the nation is identical with its representatives, it is not because they will do precisely what the nation would do if it could be assembled altogether, that the representative government appears to us to have been instituted, for persons can only delegate what they have, and if the masses are ignorant and retrograde, they will not transmit to their deputies progressive knowledge and will. If pure democracy is a bad government, representative democracy cannot be worth more. It is something else which has been sought for by means of popular elections; partly the dignity and the guarantee which the exercise of some political power gives to every citizen; partly that tact in discovering eminent men which great meetings of men almost always manifest. It is said that in great political crises genius almost always takes its place; in calmer times, virtue and nobility of character gain suffrages by the sympathy which they excite. The people, it is true, know men of action better than men of theory, and I do not know whether the Athenians had not a better, chance of ohocsing their generals well by public assemblies, than the French their legislators. Besides the advantage of elections by the people is, that they are generally free from corrupting interests; they choose according to the value of the thing itself; whilst governments and ministers are often directed in their choice by personal advantages in opposition to public interest. No this purity of popular elections cannot be maintained when the citizens, by their suffrages, distribute dignities, power, or riches. Then, and whenever the people open or close the career of ambition at their pleasure, they are the object of every act of intrigue, of all the baseness of flattery. The language which is addressed to them, the principles which are gloried in before them, are only the white robe of the candidates, which is laid aside when they mount the curule chair. To please the people, to flatter them, to corrupt them, are the arts which ambitious men study above all others; but when by these means they have arrived at power and riches, they only think of keeping them for themselves, and of preventing others from rising by the artifices which they have themselves employed. As soon as they have obtained power they change their maxims and their conduct; according to the advice of St. Remy, they burn what they had adored, they adore what they had burned; and their jealousy of their prerogatives, their distrust of their rivals, are the more active and vigilant from knowing so well the means by which they have themselves risen.
Thus, with respect to popular elections, we must not say, itis a principle, but it is expedient; we must not speak of the right of every citizen, of every individual, to be represented, but of the right of every individual to be well governed, of the interest of the community that in every case the best possible choice should be made; of the right also of every individual to be respected, to have entrusted to him by the community some participation in political power, which may serve him as it were as a defensive arm, without exposing him to too much danger from his inexperience or his imprudence. In fact, political institutions are only good in as far as they attain this end.
It is not, however, only poor and obscure citizens who require to be furnished with defensive arms to protect their rights; all classes, every fraction of society should possess them. Those publicists who have founded universal suffrage on the sovereignty of the people forget that there is no pre-existing contract by which the minority are bound by the will of the majority. This rule for deliberations has been introduced into the laws as expedient, by virtue of precise stipulations in different constitutions; it is by no means inherent in human natare, or in the formation of all communities; it may easily be changed into a frightful tyranny, and examples of this are not wanting in countries which consider themselves free. Sometimes the minority forms a class by the circumscription of its territory,—a province is oppressed by a larger province, or a nation by another nation. Thus Holland was oppressed by Spain, America and Ireland by England, and in the smallest republics, the conquered bailliages by the democracy of Schwitz, and the Lower Valais by the democracy of the Higher Valais. Sometimes a race is proscribed by the race which dwells with it. Thus many of the American constitutions grant the right of suffrage to free negroes and red men, but both are always thrown into the minority, and the dreadful laws which have been during the last three years passed against them, and against all who give them any instruction, will long be a scandal and shame to the American Union. Sometimes one religion is proscribed by another religion; and the atrocity of St. Bartholomew was less the crime of Catharine and Charles IX. than of the demagogues who demanded it and the people who executed it. Sometimes material interests are armed one against another. In pure democracies, where power rests with the mechanical trades, arises the opposition between the towns and the country. At Basle, at Zurich, at Schaffhausen, at Neufchatel, the peasants were at first subject to the shops; now that they are accounted the strongest, and find themselves to be so, they abuse their power, being the majority, as it was formerly abused against them; they talk of razing the fortifications of the towns because the fields are not fortified, of unpaving the streets of the towns, because the country roads are not paved.
If it is absurd to say that a minority is free because it only obeys laws made against it by a majority, it is no less so to say that a nation is free because she only obeys laws which those whom she has elected make contrary to her interest: it is the hature of the laws, it is their conformity with public opinion, and not the deceptive idea of a representation, which must prove that they are really the expression of the will of a free nation. It is false that the people obey what they have themselves willed when they obey the will of their regularly chosen representatives, for most frequently, on the legislative questions which these decide, they have neither wig nor opinion; still less can it be supposed that they have transmitted their will through their deputies, for the questions which those have to decide upon are, most frequently, posterior to their nomination. Besides, as we have seen, if the people had a will in these questions, it would almost always be behind the common rate of information. Still more, the poor and labouring classes of the population experience a difficulty in the exercise of their right of election, which renders their repreaentation always illusory. They have, in fact, not theories on public order, but sufferings, interests and wants, to which it is of consequence to them to give utterance, that they may be heard. By whom shall they get themselves represented? By their equals;mpeasant by a peasant, working men in a manufactory by working men? But these ignorant and illiterate men, not being able to seize the whole of social organization, nor to arrange their ideas, nor to express them in a way to lead others, would come unarmed on that political arena where others combat with so much advantage; they would be deceived, they would be intimidated, they would exercise no influence. Shall poor men be represented by men who are also poor, but who are stnmgers to all trades, and who follow the profession of letters, perhaps that of intrigue? There would be no identity of interests among them, no knowledge even of what the poor desire and what they ought to desire, and striking, daily examples, so numerous as to be almost without exceptions, show us that this class is, of all those which constitute society, the one most easily seduced, the most easily intoxicated by drawing-room success, the most accessible to the baits of vanity, luxury, pleasure and riches. Shall the poorer classes address themselves to the rich and the powerful? But then how could they be represented by persons differing so completely from them, communicating so little with them, who neither understand them, nor feel what they have felt? In all the democracies of Greece, Italy, Germany, Holland and Switzerland, the working classes have tried in turns these three kinds of representatives. Sometimes the rude good sense of the peasant or the mechanic, seated among statesmen in his coat of coarse cloth, has been praised; but the utmost that this rude good sense could do, was to prevent him from compromising himself; it had no influence on public decisions. Then came poor and clever intriguers, such warm patriots before their election, so jealous of the people afterwards, and thence arose the proverb, il n'est oppression que deparvenus; upstarts are the greatest oppressors; then last, the people threw themselves into the arms of the noble and the rich, and the longer a democracy has lasted the more certain it is to see these in possession of power.
If we have established that democratic elections, that popular representation, are not in themselves sufficient guarantees of liberty, how much more reason have we to reject the deceptions of a constituency named by primary assemblies, or of a coastitution voted by the people. How ean the people, in fact, transmit to the men they have delegated a knowledge which they do not themselves possess, of what is most high, most abstract, in the science of legislation? It is not the people alone, it is philosophers and civilians, men most eminent in social seience, who can only understand a constitution by experience, who ought only to judge à posteriori non à priori. A community reeeives its constitution, or its mode of existance, which preserves it in life, and which that life is eontinually modifying, from all the chances embraced by the past. By combining its habits, its manners, and its laws, by resting written rules on recollections, and confirming them by precedents, it comes by degrees to distinguish the vain clack of the words of charters from really leading principles; it finds out what injures it, what improvements its wants require. Then only the most eminent men in the nation partially arrive at the most sublime of all theories. They point out the modifications to be made, by degrees they triumph over the resistance of the people, who defend every abuse foot by foot, who in Poland claimed the liberum veto as the palladium of liberty; they correct by degrees ancient disorders, and they arrive at last at an organization, each part of which has been preconceived by genius, adopted by enlightened men, sanctioned by experience, and lastly, placed under the guarantee of national usage. It is in this way only that a constitution is willed by the nation; but to pretend that the will has emanated from her because it has emanated from deputies which she has chosen, without being able to transmit one idea to them, or yet more, because she has at last accepted it without comprehending it, and without its authors comprehending it, is the most cruel mockery.
We have said that we consider the questions relative to the participation of simple citizens in political power as among the most complicated, the most difficult and the most obscure that the social sciences present. Thus we have not the presumption to offer a solution of them; besides, we do not think there is any one which can adapt itself to all nations. We have desired only to point out the end to be attained; it consists in bringing out the true will of the nation; that is to say, accelerating the formation of public opinion, maturing it, and then only, causing its authority to be acknowledged. We ask from national representatives not to divide themselves into two or three camps, under two or three banners, hut to come penstrated with the virtuous wishes and opinions of all the localities, all the bodies, all the sects and all the employments of those who send them; to be prepared to defend them, but also to modify them, in order to make them agree with public opinion. We attach much more importance to the deliberations of these representatives than to their votes. We believe that in defending the interests which they represent, in making it their ambition to shine by the development of national opinions, they get to the bottom of abstract questions, they form themselves, and they enlighten the nation. We believe that the first principle of all liberty is respect for independent opinion, the protection of the minority, that it may investigate every thing and keep up discussion to the last. We do not know which to condemn most, orators who indulge themselves in sarcasm, who aim at provoking and abusive modes of speaking, or majorities who, provoked, close the discussion and crush by votes those whom they have not been able to convinee. We have very little respect for assemblies which decide instead of deliberating; their knowledge appears more than doubtful, and they belie their moderation when they refuse to listen. Finally, we look upon no decision of the legislature as definitive as long as it continues to be a subject of discussion in the opinion of the public.
By looking at the system of elections which has been adopted in France, we may discover how incapable even the most profound thinkers have been of forming a judgment beforehand as to the effect of the sanctions which they introduced into the constitution. After the revolution the French legislstors wished at first to make all the nation concur in the nomination of its representatives; it gave to primary assemblies the nomination of electors, who, collected in electoral assemblies, were to choose the members of the legislature. They thought that by thus doing they preserved the whole sovereignty to the nation. The citizens, much better informed, eoon perceived that the deputies named by them in this way were strangers to them, had neither respect nor gratitude for them; that their wishes had no influence on the will of the legislature, that their share of the sovereignty, which at the most could only be estimated at a six-millionth part for each citizen of an age to judge, was really reduced to nothing. They did not come to these primary assemblies, and the elections fell into the hands of a small number of intriguers.
True philosophers, true publicists, returned then to the more simple idea, that the people could only have a real participation in power by direct elections, and that for every citizen to feel the importance of his suffrage, the right of suffrage must not he too much multiplied. Elections by one step were introduced into France for the first time after the restoration; and its effect has been to give to the nation the means of expressing its will, very energetically, more than once.
If, however, the proportion of electors to the mass of the population were as large as in Schwitz or Basle, which have been so absurdly called aristocracies, there would he six million electors in France, and not one of them would give himself the trouble to go out of his way to exercise a six-millionth share of influence on the elections. The framers of the law of electious only gave the electoral right to Frenchmen who paid 800fic. direct taxes. Their number it is said was not much above a hundred thousand citizens. This classification at first gave universal satisfaction; the electoral right was not a privilege, for it was accessible to all; each one could, without litigation, without expense, establish his own; and it was agreed that the rate paid to the taxes might be received as a presumption of the education, the intelligence, and the independence of each elector, for it was only a presumption of these qualifies which was sought for in establishing electoral rights.
When the English still more recently were occupied in reforming their electoral system, the simple, equal, regular system of the classification in France, was put in eomparison on both sides the Channel with the ancient English system, both before and after the Reform Bill, as being more rational, more peffeca It is by use only that it has begun to be perceived that the multiform system of the English, in spite of ira rights being subject to litigation, in spite of the flagrant inequality between one citizen and another, between one town and another, connects the national representation with all classes of the nation, and that the French system, in spite of its simplicity and equality, left the population, and especially national intelligence, out of the representation, and ended by exciting universal censure.
In the English parliament are seen seated together, deputies from counties, deputies from towns, deputies from universities; the first are elected by the freeholders, proprietors in the country, of that kind of property which was formerly looked on as the best guarantee of independence. The second are elected by the citizens of towns; in certain towns, the number of electors is so limited that the election is decided by a strict coterie; some other towns extend the right of election to all the male population, and then it is the work of a pure democracy. Whoever has received his education in one of the universities and has taken his degrees there, concurs in the election of the deputies for that university. Far from the double vote being considered in England as a violation of the equality of the citizens, the same man can frequently vote as master of arts in one of the universities, as a freeholder in two or three counties, as a freeman of two or three towns; so that towns consider it an honour to give their freedom to eminent men.
In France, after the revolution of 1830, it was wished to make the elections more popular, and as there was only one class of electors, it was thought that this object would be attained by lowering the rate of 800fr. to 200 fr., and now a new clamour demands a much more considerable diminution; at the same time, to relieve the electors from an expensive journey, which would prevent those who were poor from coming to give their votes, the elections were transported from the chief places of the departments to the chief places of the districts. But far from the electors being found to be more numerous, they have become much less so; the assesmblies remain deserted; the spirit of locality and the jealousies of neighhours have only been strengthened, and have become even obligatory on half the deputies; thus the Chamber has been fined with men whose celebrity only extended to districts and villages; and by persisting in the same course, by still farther lowering the rate, the elections will become still more estranged from the nation.
It has not been sufficiently considered that the electoral rate has the effect of giving a prodigious advantage to the inhabitants of the country over those of the towns, because the land tax is much the most considerable of all direct taxes, though it forms less than a third of what the people are called upon to pay; as it takes from the proprietor nearly the fifth of his revenue, the country elector paying 200fr. has only for himself and his family, which may be estimated on an average at five individuals, 1000fr. income, so that he must labour with his hands to live; but in towns there is no family working with their hands who pay nearly 200 fr. in direct taxes: there are a great number, on the contrary, who enjoy some advantages of education, who have the sentiment of independence, and a lively interest in public affairs, but who having their money placed out at interest or in the funds, or in business, would not be called on to exercise the electoral rights, even by another lowering of the rate. Now, although we believe that agricultural labour is best suited to man, most advantageous to his health, his morality, and his happiness, we believe also, that it is what least prepares him for an acquaintance with the social sciences. The inhabitant of the country lives very little in society, scarcely ever hears political interests spoken of, does not read, and remains a perfect stranger to the experience obtained by study. In workshops, conversation, newspapers, and books, habitually excite political fermentation. The ideas of the working man may not be just, but they are his own; those of the peasant are only a reflection of the ideas of his cure, of his lord, or of the attorney of the village.
In fixing the electoral privileges by the direct taxes, the more the rate is lowered, the more the man who labours with his hands is secure of an overwhelming majority: he who works only with his mind is thrown into a minority which is reckoned as nothing. The uniformity of the rate, the uniformity of the electoral right, have been adopted by the nation with blind fanaticism as a result of equality, and by the minister with calculating skill, for he had well remarked that the country electors were much more tractable, and much less restless than those, of towns. But mind is power, its restlessness is power also, and the government may find that it has injured itself by giving this power to its enemies.
Certainly, we have not the penetration to propose an electoral law, and if we allow ourselves here to make some calculations, it is only to make it understood how, by adopting the complicated system of the English, instead of the simple but deceptive system of the French, a much greater part of the nation might be associated in the elections, and still that share preserved to the national intelligence which it ought to have. We will propose, for example, to give two-fifths of the national representation to the democracy, two-fifths to the most enlightened and intelligent part of the nation, who inhabit towns, and there develop material prosperity; a fifth to that part occupied in intellectual interests. We will lower the census to 100fr. in obedience to the present clamour; and giving to 84 departments (Paris not included) two deputies for each department, to be elected in the chief place, we shall have 168 deputies, representing particularly the democracy of the country, perhaps, more probably, the nobility, who will seize on it. We will add 42 deputies elected by the 21 greater cities in France, in purely democratic assemblies, such as those of Westminster and Preston in England, giving a vote to whoever can read and write. We would give an equal number of deputies, 210, to the burgesses of towns requiring for their admission to the freedom a complete education in the secondary schools, and a dcgrec of fortuhe which places them above manual labour. We would reserve at least 105 deputies for learned professions, in which all those who had received a superior education and taken degrees, should have the honour of being inscribed, and we would allow these last elections to be made by letters, that they might point out the most eminent persons, not in the provinces only, but in France. We should thus have a representarion of 525 members, to the election of whom a very considerable part of the nation would have contributed, but in which, however, the share of intelligence and real will, would have been preserved.
We would not ask for any rate of eligibility, for in democratic elections great eminence would be necessary, in order to fix on any man the attention of all the inhabitants of a department or of a great town; besides, those whom they would elect, not forming the majority of the assembly, would not be corrupted by their own power, or detached from the interests which they ought to represent. As to the deputies from the middle class, and the highly educated class, the guarantee to the community would be found in the condition of the electors. By making a separate body of the highly educated class, and giving to it a direct power of election, the personal suffrage of each well educated man would have more value than if confounded with the masses, and at the same time the well-founded objection of the ministerial party would be avoided, that an extension of the right of suffrage would only be in favour of those who have not succeeded in their business or their profession.
We again repeat, this is not a project but an example, to make ourselves understood. We do not wish that the deputies of France should all have the right to enter the Legislative Chamber by the same rifle, hut on the contrary, that there should be different qualifications: we would willingly mulriply them much more. We should wish them to think of the different interests which they have to defend, instead of being ranged under three banners, bearing the deceptive names of carlists, patriots, and ministerialists; for, among these hostile battalions, exasperation has made all discussion impossible; each one prides himself to his own party on bitterly insulting his ad versaries, and the exasperated majority reply to the insults by scandalous clamour, and overwhelm their enemies by their votes.
It would not be very polite to tell the present Chamber what France, what Europe thinks of it; history will take care to do this; but there is one thing which it ought to perceive without being told of it; it is that the representative system is beginning to be considered as a great deception; the ministerial party see in it a convenient form of protecting their own ease and advantages, the liberal party a cruel cheat to deprive them of their liberty. The first have rejected the very modest pretensions of the intellectual professions to be admitted into the electoral college by the same title as qualifies them to be on juries; they have restricted as much as they could participation in municipal elections, which ought to be so much the more extended as political elections are less so: the second, by their cry for universal suffrage, labour at their own annihilation. The Chamber is, however, a pretty true representation of the just medium of the intelligence, energy, and virtue of those who have chosen it. The object of the true friends of liberty ought to be, to infuse into it a greater portion of that knowledge, and of those elevated ideas and sentiments, which constitute the true citizen. The counter revolutionary party, on the contrary, should desire, and does, in fact, desire to bring into it a greater portion of ignorance, personal interest, and low passions, so as to lower the level of the just medium among all the electors. It desires universal suffrage, and it has a very good reason for doing so, for it knows that whilst we would go forward, the masses are retrograde; it knows that every passion will in its turn make a step backwards; it knows that while civil and religious liberty might in France play at universal suffrage, priests and kings would win the game, and liberty would soon be lost.
[a]Du Suffrage Universel. Fxtrait de la revue mensuelle d' Economie Politique. Mors, 1834.
[a]“Let alip the dogs of war.”