Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER SECOND.: MARCHAMONT NEDHAM. OBJECTIONS ANSWERED. - The Works of John Adams, vol. 6 (Defence of the Constitutions Vol. III cont'd, Davila, Essays on the Constitution)
Return to Title Page for The Works of John Adams, vol. 6 (Defence of the Constitutions Vol. III cont’d, Davila, Essays on the Constitution)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CHAPTER SECOND.: MARCHAMONT NEDHAM. OBJECTIONS ANSWERED. - John Adams, The Works of John Adams, vol. 6 (Defence of the Constitutions Vol. III cont’d, Davila, Essays on the Constitution) 
The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a Life of the Author, Notes and Illustrations, by his Grandson Charles Francis Adams (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1856). 10 volumes. Vol. 6.
Part of: The Works of John Adams, 10 vols.
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.
Our author having established his building upon fourteen solid pillars, as he seems to think, proceeds to answer objections.
The first objection is, “that such a government would set on levelling and confusion.” By levelling, he understands “levelling all men in point of estates;” “making all things common to all;” “destroying propriety;” “introducing a community of enjoyments among men.” This he allows to be an odious thing, “a scandal fastened by the cunning of the common enemy upon this kind of government, which they hate above all others.”
We are not then put to the trouble of examining the whimsies of Plato or Xenophon, about a community of goods, wives, and children; nor those of Sir Thomas More, about a community of property only. He asserts that his project is, “so far from introducing a community, that it is the only preservative of propriety in every particular.” It is agreed that it would not introduce levelling, nor a community of goods, unless the poor should be more numerous than the rich, and rise for a division. But even this would produce but a temporary level; the new acquisitions would soon be spent, and the inequality become as great as ever; and there must be a perpetual succession of divisions and squanderings, until property became too precarious to be sought, and universal idleness and famine would end it. But the pennniless, though more numerous, would probably never unite; and the principals of the majority would make use of the most artful among them, in stripping, by degrees, the minority, and accumulating for themselves. So that, instead of levelling and community of goods, the inequalities both of power and property would be constantly increasing, until they became as great as in Poland, between the gentlemen and peasants. But it is denied that this would be a preservative of property; on the contrary, property must become insecure. The ruling party, disposing of all offices, and annexing what salaries and fees they will; laying on all taxes, and distributing them according to their ideas of justice and equality; appropriating the public money to what uses they will; and deciding all causes in the courts of justice by their own judgments; in all these ways, themselves and their partisans will be found continually growing in wealth, and their antagonists, the minor party, growing poorer. These last can have no security of property at all.
This will not be prevented nor alleviated by those handsome words of our author: “It is not in reason to be imagined, that so choice a body as the representatives of a nation should agree to destroy one another in their several rights and interests.” A majority would be found to agree to destroy the rights and interests of the minority; and a man’s property is equally insecure, whether it is plundered by an arbitrary, lawless minority, or by a domineering decemvirate, triumvirate, or single despot.
“All determinations being carried by common consent, every man’s particular interest must needs be fairly provided for against the arbitrary disposition of others.”
If common consent means unanimous consent, there might be some plausibility in this. But, as unanimity is impossible, and common consent means the vote of the majority, it is self-evident that the few are at the mercy of the many; and the government of the latter being unbalanced by any equal force, interest, passion, or power, is as real a tyranny as the sovereignty of a hereditary senate, or thirty tyrants, or a single despot. Our author himself confesses this in so many words, when he says, that whatever “placeth every man’s right under the will of another is no less than tyranny;” “seating itself in an unlimited, uncontrollable prerogative over others, without their consent,” and “is the very bane of property.” Are not the property, liberty, and life of every man in the minority under the will of the majority? and may not the majority seat themselves in an unlimited, uncontrollable prerogative over the minority, without their consent?
Our author then runs all over the world in search of examples, and affirms that “a free state, or successive government of the people,” &c., expressions which he always explains to mean his Right Constitution of a Commonwealth, “or supreme representative assembly,” the same with M. Turgot’s all authority collected into one centre, the nation, “is the only preservative of property, as appears by instances all the world over.” This is a species of sophistry, grossly calculated to deceive the most ignorant of the people, that is unworthy of so great and good a cause as that of liberty and republican government. This assertion is so wide from the truth, that there was not in the world, nor had been, one example of such a government, excepting the Long Parliament; for the Italian republics, which resembled it the most, were still better constituted. We know what became of the Long Parliament; Oliver soon found they were self-seekers, and turned them out of the house.
The reader is next led on, through a series of examples, in a very curious strain of popular rant, to show that monarchies, and all standing powers, have been levellers.
“Under monarchs, subjects had nothing that they could call their own; neither lives, nor fortunes, nor wives, nor any thing else that the monarch pleased to command; because the poor people knew no remedy against the levelling will of an unbounded sovereignty.” “In France,” it is asserted, “the people have nothing of propriety, but all depends upon the royal pleasure, as it did of late here in England.”
The truth now almost breaks out, and he almost confesses that he sees it.
“It is very observable, that in kingdoms where the people have enjoyed any thing of liberty and propriety, they have been such kingdoms only, where the frame of government hath been so well tempered, as that the best share of it hath been retained in the people’s hands.”
If he had said an equal share, instead of the best share, this sentence would have been perfect; but he spoils it in the next breath, by adding, “and by how much the greater influence the people have had therein, so much the more sure and certain they have been in the enjoyment of their propriety.”
This is by no means true; on the contrary, wherever the people have had any share in the executive, or more than one third part of the legislative, they have always abused it, and rendered property insecure.
The Arragonians are quoted, as “firm in their liberties and properties, so long as they held their hold over their kings in their supreme assemblies. And no sooner had Philip II. deprived them of their share in the government, but themselves and their properties became a prey to the will and pleasure of their kings.”
It is astonishing that Arragon should be quoted as an example of a government of the people in their supreme successive assemblies. If it is to be called a republic, it was such another as Poland; it was what is sometimes called a mixed monarchy, and sometimes a limited monarchy; but as no judgment of a government can be formed by the name that is given it, we may safely pronounce it an aristocracy. Much pains were taken to balance it, but so awkwardly and unskilfully, that its whole history is a scene of turbulence, anarchy, and civil war. The king was, among the twelve rich men, little more than primus inter pares, like the king among his twelve archons in Phæacia. Although the royal dignity was hereditary, and Arragon was never an elective kingdom, yet the confirmation of the states to the title of the next heir was held necessary; and it was highly resented if he assumed the royal title, or did any public act, before he had taken an oath to preserve the privileges of the states. When any dispute arose concerning the succession, the states took upon them to decide it.
One awkward attempt to balance the influence of the king, was the institution of a chief justice,* to whom appeals might be made from the king. This judicial authority was empowered to control the king if he acted illegally; and this high officer was accountable only to the states for whatever he did in the execution of his office. This was a very powerful check.
Another attempt to form a balance against the royal authority has been celebrated as one of the most sublime and sentimental institutions of liberty. If it had been an institution of the body of the people, it would have been the most manly and noble assertion of the rights and natural and moral equality of mankind to be found in history, and would have merited immortal praise; but, in fact and effect, it was no more than a brilliant expression of that aristocratical pride which we have seen to be so common in all the nations of the earth. At the inauguration of the monarch, the chief justice was seated in his robes, on an elevated tribunal, with his head covered. The king appeared before him bareheaded, fell down upon his knees, and swore to govern according to law, and to maintain the privileges of the states. Proclamation was then made, in the name of the assembly of the states: “We, who are as good as you are, have accepted you for king and lord, upon condition that you observe our laws and protect our liberties.”*
But who were these noble assertors of rights? Not the people. And whose liberties were asserted? Not those of the people, but of a few gentlemen. The men of property, who in general had acquired their estates by their swords, were called rich men,† or barons; for whatever titles were afterwards introduced by the grants of kings, the right to seats and votes in the states arose not from the rank or dignities of dukes, marquises, or counts, but was attached to the quality of landholders, rich men, or barons. There were not more than twelve old families who were the original barons, or ricos hombres, of Arragon. In a course of time, they were distinguished into the greater and lesser nobility; the former were such as were raised by the kings to superior titles; the latter were those who retained only their ancient character of landholders. The clergy were represented in the states by the prelates, and the great cities by deputies; but the farmers, the mechanics, the merchants, in one word the common people, were, according to the doctrine of Aristotle, not admitted to the rank or rights of citizens. They had no seat in the states, nor any vote in the choice of those who had. The third estate, as it was called, or the representatives of cities, was very unskilfully composed. In some cities, the mayor of course represented the city; in others, the king appointed the representative; in others, it was either by some grant of the king, or some senseless custom of the city, a hereditary right in a single family; and the best appointments of all were made by the aristocratical regencies of the cities. In such an assembly of the states, laws were made for the government of the nation; but it was a single assembly, and neither estate had a negative. If two estates agreed, it was a law; and, indeed, the most important questions, even donations of money, were decided by a majority, and the chief justice was the only balance against the oppression of any subject, or even of the king, and the only guardian of the laws, to see them carried into execution. The rich men and the clergy, as well as the king, were such standing powers as always excite our author’s invectives; and the third estate was as distant as possible from being an adequate and equitable representative of the people, annually elected. The clergy became generally humble servants of the king, and the deputies of cities were often corrupted; so that the contest was chiefly between the crown and the nobles. In progress of time, by gaining over more and more the prelates and deputies of the cities to the interest of the crown, it became an overmatch for the nobility, and made itself absolute. This example, therefore, is as ill chosen as all the others, and instead of supporting our author’s argument, is decisive against it.
France is the next example, where, “as long as the people’s interest bore sway in their supreme assemblies, they could call their lives and fortunes their own, and no longer. For all that have succeeded since Louis XI. followed his levelling pattern so far, that in a short time they destroyed the people’s property, and became the greatest levellers in Christendom.”
It would take up too much time to give in this place a sketch of the history of France, to show in detail how inapplicable this example is to the purpose of our author. Those who have leisure and curiosity, may consult Boulainvilliers, the Abbé de Mably, and Monsieur Moreau; and many most beautiful reflections may be found in Lord Bolingbroke’s Dissertation on Parties.* It is sufficient here to say, that the states-general were composed of nobles, clergy, and a third estate, all meeting in one assembly; that the third estate consisted of representatives of cities not chosen by the people, but appointed at least by the aristocratical regencies; that in some places the mayor, in others some particular family, held it as a hereditary right. But nothing can be conceived more unlike our author’s idea of the people’s successive sovereign assemblies than these states-general. The constitution in those times was an unskilful attempt to reconcile an ill-compounded aristocracy with simple monarchy; but the states-general conducted themselves like all other single assemblies, till they were laid aside.
England comes next, where, “as long as the people’s interest was preserved by frequent and successive parliaments, so long we were in some measure secure of our properties; but as kings began to worm the people out of their share in government, by discontinuing of parliaments, so they carried on their levelling design to the destroying of our properties; and the oracles of law and gospel at last spoke it out with a good levelling grace, ‘that all was the king’s, and that we had nothing we might call our own.’ ”
There is at least wit and burlesque humor in thus ascribing levelism to monarchy; and while it is considered only as rodomontade, there is no objection to it. Nor is there any thing to say against confounding levelism with insecurity of property; for though the ideas are distinct, the things must always exist together.
From monarchy he proceeds to other standing powers, which have all produced arrant levellers.
“In Athens, as long as the people kept free indeed, in an enjoyment of their successive assemblies, so long they were secure in their properties.”
But Athens never was free, according to our author’s plan of successive assemblies. Athens never had assemblies of representatives. The collective assemblies of the people were made sovereigns, in all cases whatsoever, by Solon. But they never practised it till Aristides began and Pericles completed the plan; and as soon as it existed, it began to render property, liberty, and life insecure. Yet the ordinary administration was never conducted in these assemblies; the senate and the Areopagus and the ten other courts conducted them. Yet with all these checks, ask Demosthenes and Phocion, and Miltiades and Aristides, how the sovereign people behaved.
“After kings were laid aside, they erected another form of standing power in a single person, called a governor (archon), for life, who was accountable for misdemeanors. But yet a trial being made of nine of them, the people saw so little security by them, that they pitched upon another standing form of decimal government; and being oppressed by them too, they were cashiered. The like miseries they tasted under the standing power of thirty, which were a sort of levellers more rank than all the rest; who put to death, banished, pill’d, and poll’d whom they pleased, without cause or exception; so that the poor people, having been tormented under all the forms of standing power, were in the end forced (as their last remedy) to take sanctuary, under the form of a free state, in their successive assemblies.”
It is droll enough thus to turn the strain of popular banter upon the royalists, by charging kings, perpetual archons, annual archons, the ten archons, the thirty tyrants, &c., as levellers. It was the levelling spirit of the nobles, to be sure, that abolished kings and single archons and set up ten. But the poor people had no hand in it, but as passive instruments. As to the people’s taking sanctuary under the form of a free state, in their successive assemblies, they never did it. They never set up any such government. They did assume the sovereignty, it is true; but Pericles led them to it, only that he might govern them, and he, and successive, unprincipled wretches after him, did govern till the commonwealth was ruined. But there was as much levelling at least, indeed much more, under Themistocles, Pericles, and Alcibiades, as under kings or archons.
Our author’s conscience was always uppermost. He always betrays something which shows that he knew very well what the truth was. He judges very rightly here.
“And though it may be objected,” says he, “that afterwards they fell into many divisions and miseries, even in that form, yet whoever observes the story shall find, it was not the fault of the government, but of themselves, in swerving from the rules of a free state, by permitting the continuance of power in particular hands; who having an opportunity thereby to create parties of their own among the people, did for their own ends inveigle, engage, and entangle them in popular tumults and divisions. This was the true reason of their miscarriages; and, if ever any government of the people did miscarry, it was upon that account.”
It is plain, from this passage, that our author was well read, and judged very well upon these subjects. He knew how it was; but he has not candidly told us what he knew. That they fell into divisions and miseries he owns; but denies that it was the fault of the government—it was the fault of themselves. Is it not the fault of themselves under all governments, despotisms, monarchies, aristocracies, oligarchies, as well as democracies? Was it not the fault of themselves under their kings, their perpetual archons, their archons for life, their ten archons, as well as under the Pisistratidæ, that they were tormented with divisions and miseries? The law of nature would be sufficient for the government of men, if they would consult their reason, and obey their consciences. It is not the fault of the law of nature, but of themselves, that it is not obeyed; it is not the fault of the law of nature that men are obliged to have recourse to civil government at all, but of themselves; it is not the fault of the ten commandments, but of themselves, that Jews or Christians are ever known to steal, murder, covet, or blaspheme. But the legislator who should say the law of nature is enough, if you do not obey it, it will be your own fault, therefore no other government is necessary, would be thought to trifle.
We certainly know, from the known constitution of the human mind and heart and from uniform experience, that the law of nature, the decalogue, and all the civil laws, will be violated, if men’s passions are not restrained; and, therefore, to presume that an unmixed democratical government will preserve the laws, is as mad as to presume that a king or senate will do it. If a king or senate do not observe the laws, we may say it is not the fault of the government, but of themselves. What then? We know that themselves will commit the fault, and so will a simple democracy, and, therefore, it is in all these cases the fault of the government as well as of themselves. The government should be so constituted, that themselves cannot commit the fault. Swerving from rules is no more the fault of standing kings and senates, than it is of standing or successive popular assemblies. Of the three, the last have the strongest disposition to swerve, and always do swerve the soonest when unbalanced. But the fault of permitting the continuance of power in particular hands, is incurable in the people, when they have the power. The people think you a fool, when you advise them to reject the man you acknowledge to be the ablest, wisest, and best, and whom you and they know they love best, and appoint another, who is but second in their confidence. They ever did, and ever will continue him, nay, and augment his power; for their love of him, like all their other passions, never stands still; it constantly grows, until it exceeds all bounds. These continual reelections, this continuance of power in particular men, gives them “an opportunity to create parties of their own among the people, and for their own ends to inveigle, engage, and entangle them in popular tumults and divisions.”
Let me now ask Marchamont Nedham, or any advocate for his system: Do you believe that the people, unbalanced, ever will avoid to confer a continuance of power on their favorites? Do you believe they ever did in any age or country? The answer must be in the negative. Do you believe it possible, from the constitution of human nature, that they ever will, any more than that they will universally obey the law of nature and the ten commandments? The answer must be in the negative. Why then is the world any longer amused with a speculative phantom, that all enlightened men know never did, and never can exist? My hand is impatient of the pen, and longs to throw it down, while I am laboring through a series of popular sophisms, which disgraces a work that abounds with sense and learning, with excellent principles, maxims, and rules of government, miserably perverted to answer a present purpose, to run down one party, and support another.1 But as this book is known in America, and ought to be perused by Englishmen, in whatever part of the globe, as a valuable monument of the early period in which the true principles of liberty began to be adopted and avowed in the nation, I shall pursue the subject to the end.
Lacedæmon is next introduced as an instance of levelism.
“After they had tried the government of one king, then of two, afterwards came in the Ephori, as supervisors of their kings. After they had tried themselves through all the forms of a standing power, and found them all to be levellers of the people’s interest and property, then necessity taught them to seek shelter in a free state, under which they lived happily, till, by the error of the Athenians, they were drawn into parties by powerful persons, and so made the instruments of division among themselves, for the bringing of new levellers into play, such as were Machanidas and Nabis.”
The Ephori were supervisors of the senate, rather than of kings. They swore, both for themselves and the people, to support the kings forever against the enterprises of the senate. But when did the Lacedæmonians take shelter in a free state? Never, according to our author’s definition of a free state, until the Ephori murdered the king, instead of supporting him, according to their oath, and until the people set up Machanidas and Nabis. And it is always thus. The first thing a people broke loose from all restraints of their power do, is to look out for a chief, whom they instantly make a despot in substance, and very soon in form. The government of Sparta was as different from a free state, during the six or seven centuries that Lycurgus’s institution lasted, as the English constitution is, and much more. The people had not half the weight in it. Standing powers, both of king and senate, stood like Mount Atlas while the republic existed, and when the free state succeeded, it was the tyranny of Machanidas and Nabis, not better than that of Nero. It is droll enough to call the Spartans levellers, to be sure; they who supported a haughty aristocracy at home, and in every other city of Greece where they could negotiate. When the institution of Lycurgus was worn out, and the people began to gain in power, they used it as the Athenians and all others have done when unbalanced; they set up idols, continued and increased their power, were drawn into parties and divisions, and made themselves instruments of division, until despotism became inevitable.
Rome, in her turn, comes round.
“After the standing form of kings was extinct, and a new one established, the people found as little safety and property as ever.”
Here the fact is truly stated, and the expressions are very just, “for the standing senate and the decemviri proved as great levellers as kings.” It is burlesque again to call the senate and decemviri levellers. They were the very antithesis. But if by levellers he means arbitrary men, it is very true.
“So that they were forced to settle the government of the people by a due and orderly succession of their supreme assemblies.”
I wonder when. To quote Athens, Sparta, and Rome, as examples of a government of one sovereign representative assembly, is dishonest; nothing can be further from the purpose. The standing power of the senate existed from Romulus to Cæsar, as our author very well knew, and the people never obtained even an effectual check. So far from settling the government of the people by a due and orderly succession of their supreme assemblies, if “they ever recovered their property, in having somewhat they might call their own,” they owed the blessing to the senate’s wisdom and equity; for the people were so far from being sovereign in their successive assemblies, that they had not an equal share of power with the senate, allowing for all the assistance they derived from the tribunes. But as soon as they began to arrogate a superior power, or even an equal share, they began to run into “the error of Lacedæmonians, Athenians,” and all other people that ever lived; “swerving from the rules of a free state;” or, in other words, trampling on the laws, “lengthening of power in particular hands, they were drawn and divided into parties, to serve the lusts of such powerful men as by craft became their leaders; so that by this means, through their own default, they were deprived of their liberty long before the days of imperial tyranny. Thus Cinna, Sylla, Marius, and the rest of that succeeding gang, down to Cæsar, used the people’s favor to obtain a continuation of power in their own hands; and then, having saddled the people with a new standing form of their own, they immediately rooted up the people’s liberty and property by arbitrary sentences of death, proscriptions, fines, and confiscations; which strain of levelling, (more intolerable than the former) was maintained by the same arts of devilish policy down to Cæsar, who, striking in a favorite of the people, and, making use of their affections to lengthen power in his own hands, at length, by this error of the people, gained opportunity to introduce a new levelling form of standing power in himself, to an utter and irrecoverable ruin of the Roman liberty and property.”
Thus it is that our author accumulates examples from history, which are demonstrations against his own system, and in favor of the English and American constitutions. A good Englishman, or a good American, with the most diligent search, could not find facts more precisely in vindication of those balances to the power of the people, a senate, and an executive first magistrate. Nothing else can ever prevent the people from running into the same error, and departing from the rules of a free state, and even the fundamental laws.
Florence is again introduced to the same purpose, and with the same success; so is Pisa; so is Mantua, and its sons, Passerino and Gonzaga. We have already seen enough of these Italian republics to convince us that every page in their history is against our author’s system. His conclusion is exactly the reverse of what it should be. It should be, that a commonwealth by the people in their successive assemblies, hath never, in any age, been a preservation of liberty or property, or any remedy against usurpations of standing powers, but had, in all ages, been, in his own sense, levellers of all things to the will of a standing despot.
The second objection is, “that such a form in the people’s hands would cause confusion in government.”
This objection seems to have been started by his own party, who were afraid of the influence of royalists; and the answer to it distinguishes two states of a commonwealth; one, while it is new after a revolution, when great numbers are disaffected. These he treats with great severity, and allows the danger of confusion from their intrigues; he therefore excludes them from voting, or being chosen, and justifies it by Greek and Roman examples.
The other is a quiet state, when all the people may, he thinks, be admitted to choose and be chosen without confusion. But as this whole objection and answer to it, relate to the time and circumstances in which he wrote, it is unnecessary to enlarge upon it; it is nevertheless amusing, or provoking, to observe with what facility he asserts the right of the majority to make slaves of the minority.
“Such as have commenced war, to serve the lusts of tyrants against the people’s interest, should not be received any longer a part of the people, but may be handled as slaves when subdued, if their subduers please so to use them; because, by their treasons against the majesty of the people, they have made forfeiture of all their rights and privileges.”
The majesty of the people is a very venerable, sublime, and affecting idea; but, in human theory, every government, despotism, monarchy, aristocracy, and every mixture, is created by the people, continued by their sovereign will, and represents their majesty, their august body. Resistance, therefore, to a despotism, or simple monarchy or aristocracy, or a mixed government, is as really treason against the majesty of the people, as when attempted against a simple or representative democracy; since the right of the people to confide their authority and majesty to one man, or a few men, can no more be doubted than to a larger number. In the divine theory, upon which most of the governments of Europe still rest, it is not only treason, but impiety and blasphemy, to resist any government whatever. If the sovereignty of a nation is a divine right, there is an end of all the rights of mankind at once; and resistance to the sovereignty, wherever placed, is rebellion against God.
It is worth while to observe also a contradiction to what our author had advanced in the former part of his work. “The old commonwealth of Greece,” he says here, “were wont to heap up all honors they could vent, upon such as did or suffered any thing for the maintenance of their liberty.” Under a former head he represented it as a commendable custom of commonwealths to make their service a burden.
The third objection is, “that the management of state affairs requires judgment and experience, which is not to be expected from new members coming into those assemblies upon every election.”
The answer to this objection is of great importance, because it in effect, though not in words, gives up his whole argument in favor of a single sovereign assembly. He distinguishes between acta imperii and arcana imperii, acts of state and secrets of state. By acts of state he means the laws and ordinances of the legislative power; things that have most influence upon a commonwealth, as to its ill or well being; and the only remedies for such bad customs, inconveniences, and encroachments as afflict and grieve it. Matters of grievance being matters of common sense, and such as are obvious to the people, who best know where the shoe pinches them, there is no need of any great skill or judgment in passing or applying a law for remedy.
“But as to secrets of state, or the executive part of government, during the intervals of their supreme assemblies;—these things being of a nature remote from ordinary apprehensions, and such as necessarily require prudence, time, and experience, to fit men for management, much in reason may be said, and must be granted, for the continuation of such trusts in the same hands, as relate to matter of council or administration of justice, more or less, according to their good or ill behavior. A prudential continuation of these may, (without question,) and ought to be, allowed upon discretion; because if they do amiss, they are easily accountable to the people’s assemblies.”
Here our author’s plan begins to develop itself. Hitherto we had heard nothing but of successive sovereign assemblies of the people’s representatives. Now, indeed, we learn that this assembly is to appoint judges, generals, and admirals, and a standing committee perhaps for the treasury, the admiralty, the customs, excise, and foreign affairs. Whether these judges and committees and commanders are to be members of the sovereign assembly, or whether their appointments are to vacate their seats, is not ascertained; but in either case it is obvious they will be the friends and confidants of the prevailing party in the house. They will be persons on whose friendship the major party in the assembly can rely to promote their views, by advancing their friends among their constituents, in order to procure a new election, or, in other words, a standing power, a thing which our author dreads so much in the representative assembly; and thus the whole executive and judicial power and all the public treasure is at once applied to corrupt the legislature and its electors.
And what is it “to be accountable to the people’s assemblies?” It is to be afraid to offend the strongest party in the house, by bestowing an office or deciding a cause, civil or criminal, against their inclinations. James’s boast comes in very pertinently here. The leaders in the house having the appointment, the impeachment, censure, condemnation, reward, and pay of all the bishops, judges, and commanders in their power, they will have what law, gospel, war, peace, and negotiation they please. Corruption is let in in such a torrent, as the virtue of no people that ever lived, or will live, is able to resist, even for a few years. The gangrene spreads immediately through the whole body.
Our author proceeds to his ordinary routine of examples.
“Athens upheld constant returns and periods of succession in their supreme assemblies for remedy of grievances; and they had a standing council, called the Areopagus, to whom all the secrets of state were committed, together with the administration of government during the intervals of those assemblies, at whose return they were accountable, and warily continued or excluded, as the people found cause.”
But our author nowhere recollects the checks to the popular government of Athens, which, however, was never at any one moment so popular as his project. He nowhere recollects, that there were ten slaves to one citizen; that the education of the citizens, therefore, was superior to that which is possible in any nation that has not slaves. He nowhere recollects, that the whole of religion was saved in the hands of the nobly born, which gave a few families such an influence as no part of Christendom now affords an example of, not even in Catholic countries. He nowhere recollects, that the whole people were divided into ranks, and all magistrates taken out of the higher ranks. He nowhere recollects the senate of one hundred, and afterwards of five hundred, appointed by lot, which formed the council of state, which had the constant charge of political affairs, and particularly the preparation of business for the assembly of the people. He nowhere pays a sufficient attention to the court of Areopagus and its important powers, and the persons of whom it was composed. All the archons out of office were members for life. He nowhere recollects that a single representative assembly, being necessarily few, are more liable to corruption than even a collective assembly, who are many. He nowhere recollects that Solon’s institution was at last ruined by allowing to the fourth class of citizens an equal vote in the assembly of the people; a terrible warning against all such projects of government. These important checks, which gave such vast weight to the aristocratical part of the community in the government of Athens, have no equivalent in our author’s plan.
In Sparta and Rome, says our author, they had the like. But it is really shocking to read these affirmations so entirely without foundation. The governments of Sparta and Rome were governments as different and as opposite to our author’s “right form” as can be imagined; and the moment they obtained the least resemblance of it, all authority was seen in one centre, in Nabis and Cæsar. Florence too was after the same mode, and Holland and Switzerland. In Holland the people never had the election of any regular assemblies; and they never speak but by petition, or in bodies unknown to any written constitution; I mean mobs. A more unlucky example could not have been thought of. Their regencies, too, are for life in general, and fill up their own vacancies. In all the aristocratical cantons of Switzerland, the same. How far some of the smallest democratical cantons in any particular resemble our author’s notions, may be seen in the former volume; no sufficient justification of them will be found there. But if a parallel could, in states so small and poor, be found, it would be no precedent for nations, large, opulent, and powerful, full of great objects of ambition, and constantly exposed to the hostile envy and resentment of great and dangerous neighbors.
The fourth objection is, “that such a government brings great damage to the public, by their frequent discontents, divisions, and tumults.”
In answer to this, he considers several cases:—1. When any citizens arrogate privileges to themselves or their families, beyond the ordinary standard of the people, then discontents, divisions, and tumults arise. In Rome, the senate retaining the power of the old government in the hands of themselves and their families, upon the expulsion of the Tarquins, occasioned the subsequent discontents and tumults. “Had Brutus made them free when he declared them so, or had the senate followed the advice and example of Publicola, all occasion of discontent had been taken away.”
2. “When the people felt themselves not fairly dealt withal” by their leaders and generals. In Syracuse, Dionysius being made general, under pretence of defending the people’s liberties, and then using his power to other purposes, became the firebrand of the state, and put the people all into flames for his expulsion.
“In Sparta, the people were peaceable until they found themselves overreached, and their credulity abused, for converting liberty into tyranny under Machanidas and Nabis. In old Rome, under the people’s government, it was a sad sight to see the people swarming in tumults, their shops shut up, all trade given over, and the city forsaken, as also in Athens; the occasion was the same; for though the people naturally love ease and peace, yet finding themselves outwitted by slights, and abused by feats of the senate, they grew out of all patience. When any one of their senators or of themselves arrived to any height of power, by insinuating into the people’s favor upon specious and popular pretences, and then made a forfeiture of those pretences, as Sylla and Marius, they were the causes of those tumults and slaughters among the Romans, the infamy whereof has been cast most injuriously upon the people’s government by the profane pens of court pensioners. Cæsar, too, was the cause of all those civil broils and tragedies among the people.”
An impartial writer would have brought every one of these examples in proof of the direct contrary; for they all show, that in proportion as the people gained an authority uncontrolled, or more than a balance for the senate, they grew more discontented, divided, and tumultuous, the more inclined to stir up factious leaders, as Pericles, Alcibiades, Cleon, the Gracchi, Marius, Sylla, and Catiline and Cæsar. The people were certainly peaceable under the kings, though the archons and nobles were not. The people were peaceable under the Grecian archons and Roman senate, so peaceable as to bear extreme oppression; but their turbulence began with their aspiring at power, and increased as it grew, and grew intolerable the moment they obtained the exercise of that authority which our author contends they ought always to exercise. These examples, therefore, all show the necessity of a balance to the people’s exercise of power in a mixed government.
3. The people are tumultuous when sensible of oppression, although naturally of a peaceable temper, minding nothing but a free enjoyment; but if circumvented, misled, or squeezed by such as they have trusted, they swell like the sea, overrun the bounds of justice and honesty, ruining all before them; but unhappily they very often mistake and swell against the most honest and faithful men, and insist upon being misled by the most artful and knavish. A great majority of the people, and those as honest as any, are too fond of ease and peace to trouble themselves with public affairs, which leaves an opportunity to the profligate and dissolute to have more influence than they ought, to set up such idols as will flatter and seduce them, by gifts, by offices, and by partiality in judgments; which shows, that although they are very competent to the choice of one branch of the legislative, they are altogether incapable of well managing the executive power. It is really unaccountable, but by that party spirit which destroys the understanding as well as the heart, that our author should conclude, “there is not one precedent of tumults or sedition, which can be cited out of all stories, where the people were in fault.” It was even their fault to be drawn in or provoked; it was their fault to set up idols, whose craft or injustice, and whose fair pretences had designs upon the public liberty. They ought to know that such pretenders will always arise, and that they never are to be trusted uncontrolled.
But he seems to be aware that all this would not be quite satisfactory. In order to extenuate the evil, he admits, for argument sake, that the people were tumultuous in their own nature; and he ought to have admitted, from regard to truth, that without laws, government, and force to restrain them, they really are so.
“Tumults, when they happen, are more easily to be borne than those inconveniences that arise from the tyranny of monarchs and great ones.”
It is a great question, whether anarchy or tyranny be the greater evil? No man who reads the third book of Thucydides, or Plato’s description of a democratical city, or who considers the nature of mankind, will hesitate to say that anarchy, while it lasts, is a greater evil than simple monarchy, even exercised by tyrants. But as anarchy can never last long, and tyranny may be perpetual, no man who loves his country, and is willing to submit to a present evil for a future public good, would hesitate to prefer anarchy, provided there was any hope that the fair order of liberty and a free constitution would arise out of it. A chance of this would be preferred by a patriot to the certainty in the other case. Some men too would prefer anarchy, conscious of more address with the people than with a monarch. But if anarchy and tyranny were to be alike permanent and durable, the generality of mankind would and ought to prefer tyranny; at least monarchy, upon the principle that a thousand tyrants are worse than one.
But our author extenuates the evils of tumults:—
1. “The injury of them never extends further than some few persons, and those for the most part guilty enough, as the thirty grandees in Athens, the ten in Rome, &c.” Such tumults, however, have often proceeded to greater lengths, and have had innocent and excellent men for their objects. Examples enough have been cited from Greece and Italy, as well as Holland.
2. “Tumults are not lasting. An eloquent oration of a grave man, as Menenius Agrippa, Virginius, or Cato, may pacify them.” True sometimes, but much oftener the grave man will fall a sacrifice to their fury.
3. “Tumults usually turn to the good of the public; the great are kept in awe, the spirits of the people kept warm with high thoughts of liberty.” This has some weight in monarchies and aristocracies, where they may be quelled; but in simple democracy, where they cannot, they would be fatal.
4. “In Rome they obtained the law of the twelve tables, procured the tribunes and supreme assemblies and frequent confirmation of them.” The supreme assemblies they obtained are very unluckily quoted, because these, having no control, destroyed the commonwealth.
All this “is far otherwise under the standing power of the great ones. They, in their counsels, projects, and designs, are fast and tenacious.”
As this is an acknowledgment that the people are not fast and tenacious, that is, steady, it should seem an argument in favor of a standing senate, at least of some senate appointed from the persons of most experience, best education, most respectable families and considerable property, who may be supposed thoroughly to understand the constitution, to have the largest views, and be “fast and tenacious” of the maxims, customs, and laws of the nation, to temper the unsteadiness of the people, and even of their representatives.
“The evils under these forms are more remediless and universal.” Not at all in mixed governments. They are, on the contrary, more easily “remedied,” for the house of commons is the grand inquest of the nation.
“Those tumults and quarrels that arise among them, never end but in further oppression of the people.” Quarrels among them have commonly given more weight to the people, and must always end in relieving the people, where the people have a full share.
Upon the whole, tumults arise in all governments; but they are certainly most remediless and certainly fatal in a simple democracy. Cheats and tricks of great men will as certainly take place in simple democracy as in simple aristocracy or monarchy, and will be less easily resisted or remedied; and, therefore, our author has not vindicated his project from the objection of its danger from tumults. A mixed government, of all others, is best calculated to prevent, to manage, and to remedy tumults, by doing justice to all men on all occasions, to the minority as well as majority; and by forcing all men, majority as well as minority, to be contented with it.
The fifth objection is, “that little security is to be had for the more wealthy and powerful sort of men, in regard of that liberty which the people assume to accuse or calumniate whom they please.”
In answer to this, our author acknowledges that calumniation (by which he means ambitious slandering of men, by whisperings, reports, or false accusations) has been more or less in all forms of government, but affirms that it was never allowed or approved in his form of government; that it has been most in use under standing powers of great ones, who make it their grand engine to remove or ruin all who stand in their way, and have always instruments ready at hand; that it is marked out by Aristotle inter flagitia dominationis.
But the true and impartial answer is this, that all simple governments are addicted to this vice, and make use of it as an instrument to destroy their adversaries. In our author’s “Right Constitution” it would be as prevalent as in any monarchy or aristocracy; and in each of the simple governments it is equally impossible to prevent, palliate, or remedy the evil. In a simple democracy it must be the worst of all upon the whole, because the whole nation must necessarily be slanderers. The majority calumniate of course for the same reason that unlimited monarchs and senates do, namely,—to support their power and annoy their enemies; and the minority are necessitated to slander in their turn in self-defence. The liberty of accusation, however, in every form of government, must in some degree be admitted; without it, neither will nor pleasure nor law can govern. In a simple democracy it would be unlimited; every body belonging to the majority would be informer and accuser, and always sure of supporting his accusation. The minority, therefore, in a simple democracy, are subjected to spies, informers, accusations, and slanders, without end and without redress.
In a mixed government, like the English and American, informers from private motives are justly odious; from public motives respected. Every crime, however high, may be prosecuted and punished. The grand inquest of the nation becomes accuser against those in high places; the grand inquest of the counties for ordinary offences. No crime can be concealed; no fictitious crime can be pretended or alleged. Calumny itself is punishable as an offence against the public, and the injured individual may obtain satisfaction. It is in such a government alone that calumny is or can be managed upon principles of public safety and private justice, neither of which can ever be generally regarded in any simple government, and most certainly least of all in our author’s “Right Constitution,” or authority in one centre.
For the proof of these observations any history would serve; but it will be sufficient to attend to those anecdotes quoted by our author.
In Rome “the ten grandees, and all that succeeded them in that domineering humor over the people, ever kept a retinue, well stocked with calumniators and informers (such as we call ‘Knights of the Post’) to snap those that in any wise appeared for the people’s liberties. This was their constant trade, as it was afterwards also of their emperors. But while the people kept their power entire in the supreme assemblies, we read not of its being brought into any constant practice.”
This continued chicanery, in holding out to the people of England an idea that the Romans were ever governed by his “Right Constitution,” is really unpardonable; nothing can be more unfair. But to pass this over: Are the examples of Cassius, Mælius, Manlius, Coriolanus, the Gracchi, so soon forgot? The Scipios, indeed, he recollects. These calumnies were promoted by the senate, in some instances, it is true; but by the people, too, in all; at least the people were made the dupes and tools; which is sufficient to make the examples strong proofs against our author.
The same profligacy of a party spirit appears in his example of Athens. “By their lofty and unwary carriage, they stirred up the people’s fear and jealousy so far, as to question and send divers of them into banishment; as Alcibiades, Themistocles, and others.”
Why are Aristides, Miltiades, Socrates, and Phocion, forgotten? These would have been too grossly against him, and warnings too terrible against his paltry system.
“Whereas, if the rules of a free state had been punctually observed, by preserving a discreet revolution of powers, and an equability, or moderate state of particular persons, there had been no occasion of encroachment on one part, or of fear on the other.”
That is to say, if the rules of a free state had been observed in a city where no such rule of a free state existed; and an equability and moderation maintained, of which there is no example in history, and which is totally impracticable; then there would have been no encroachment or fear; or, in other words, if all men had been wise and virtuous, and there had been no need of government at all, then there would have been no democratical tyranny, and, he might add, monarchical or aristocratical. It is burlesque to talk of a rule of a free state, which never was, and every man of common sense knows never can be, a rule of a free state. Our conclusion must be directly contrary to that of our author; namely,—the calumniation under his “Right Constitution” must be more frequent, intolerable, and remediless, than under any form of tyranny, whether monarchical or aristocratical. The English constitution furnishes rules, means, and judicatures, in their grand and petit juries, and in impeachments of the commons before the lords, so equitable and admirable, that it is very unaccountable that any man should think of preferring to it a simple democracy of a single representative assembly, where it is so obvious that every man’s reputation, liberty, property, and life must be in constant danger of accusations by and before an omnipotent party.
“The liberty of accusation by the people before their supreme assemblies,” cannot mean that the whole people should join in such accusation. This is impossible; every man then must have liberty to accuse whom he will. The house will consider who is the accuser and who the accused; and members in the house will consider how their parties are likely to be affected by the sentence, more than truth or justice. An accuser, who is useful to the majority, will rarely be punished, let his accusation be ever so false or malicious. One of the minority will never be heard, though his complaint be ever so true.
“The liberty of accusation is, indeed, a thing so essentially necessary for the preservation of a commonwealth, that there is no possibility of having persons kept accountable without it; and, by consequence, no security of life and estate, liberty and property. Maxime interest reipublicæ libertatis ut libere possis civem aliquem accusare: it most highly concerns the freedom of a commonwealth, that the people have liberty of accusing any persons whatsoever.”
Thus far we agree, as well as in the opinion, that a great evil in governments simply monarchical or aristocratical, is the want of such liberty. But simple democracy has in it as great an evil in this respect; for the minority have too little liberty of accusation, in proportion as the majority have too much. It is therefore in a mixed government only where an equal liberty can be preserved to all, without being too great in any. It is agreed further to be a means, and the only means, of extinguishing jealousies and emulations, discontents and fury in the people, when they can bring to account their oppressors; and the instances of the Decemviri and Coriolanus are properly enough produced. The story from Florence too, of one who occasioned such calamities for want of this liberty of accusation, by which he might have been taken down; and the case of Soderini, who drove the people to call in the Spaniard to suppress him for want of such a power. To these examples there is no objection, nor to the doctrine they convey, namely,—that the liberty of accusation prevents the people very often from running in rage and despair to internal violence or foreign alliance, and in both cases to arms. But the conclusion upon the whole must be, that this objection stands in full force against our author’s plan, and wholly unanswered. There is no security for the most wealthy and powerful sort of men among the minority; they will be constantly exposed to ruin by false accusations.
The sixth objection is, “that people by nature are factious, inconstant, and ungrateful.” In answer to the charge of faction, he repeats his positions under the fourth reason; and his examples of Pompey and Cæsar; Guelph and Ghibelline in Italy; the families of Orleans and Burgundy in France; the Guises; York and Lancaster, &c., we must refer to our observations on the fourth reason.
Inconstancy he allows to be a characteristic of the people who are debauched and in a corrupted state of a commonwealth, when degenerated from its true principles, as in Athens, Rome, Florence.
“But yet in Rome you may see as pregnant instances of that people’s constancy as of any sort of men whatsoever; for they continued constant, irreconcilable enemies to all tyranny in general, and kingly power in particular. In like manner, when they had once gotten their successive assemblies, they remained firm and stiff to uphold them. In making their elections, too, they could never be persuaded to choose a known infamous, vicious, or unworthy fellow, so that they seldom or never erred in the choice of their tribunes and other officers. But it has ever been otherwise under kings and all standing powers.”
Here he must mean simple monarchies and aristocracies, because he distinguishes the case from Rome, which was a mixed government. “Standing powers usually ran into all the extremes of inconstancy upon every new project, petty humor, and occasion; shifted principles every moon; cashiered all oaths, protestations, promises, and engagements, and blotted out the memory of them with a wet finger;” he instances in Charles I.
If we speak impartially upon this head, we must say that all men are alike; that simple governments are equally inconstant, so far as they partake of the same human nature. Kings have been as inconstant as any men; so have simple senates. Simple democracies have never been tried; but, if we reason from their nature, we shall conclude that they are more inconstant than either, because the result depending on the majority of votes, the difficulty and impossibility of assembling equal numbers at all times, increases the chances of change and inconstancy. The ignorance of multitudes, who compose a part of the people, is another cause. So that if a difference must be allowed, it must be confessed that simple democracy is the least constant. But a mixed government produces and necessitates constancy in all its parts; the king must be constant to preserve his prerogatives; the senate must be constant to preserve their share; and the house theirs. Neither can go beyond its line, without being called back by the other. The legislative must be constant to preserve its rights, and the executive for the same end. The judicial too must be constant to the laws, which alone can screen it from the resentment and encroachment of one or other of the three branches in the legislature. It is to this universal vigilance and constancy, which such a constitution renders necessary and unavoidable, that the laws owe their perpetual superiority, and are able to make kings, nobles, and commoners, ministers of state and religion, and judges too, bow with reverence to its decisions. To this constancy, therefore, is due that delightful tranquillity of mind, arising from a sense of perfect security in the protection of known laws for the enjoyment of life, liberty, honor, reputation, and property.
“Ingratitude has been much charged upon this form. In Athens and Rome, unhandsome returns were made to some worthy persons that had done high services,—Alcibiades, Themistocles, Phocion, Miltiades, Camillus, Coriolanus, and both the Scipios, the cause of whose misfortunes is described by Plutarch and Livy, to be their own lofty and unwary carriage, which stirred up the people’s fear and jealousy. The Scipios were most to be pitied, because the nobles, not the people, disobliged them; as for Camillus and Coriolanus, they deserved whatever befell them, because they maligned and hated the people.”
All this is tolerably just. Our author proceeds:—
“This humor, however, is highly commended by some, as a sign of a commonwealth’s being in pure and perfect health, when the people are thus active, zealous, and jealous in the behalf of their liberties, that will permit no such growth of power as may endanger it.” Yet he adds, with great truth, “that the people have been so far from ingratitude, that they have always been excessive in their rewards and honors to such men as deserved any way of the public, whilst they conformed themselves to rules and kept in a posture suitable to liberty. Witness their consecration of statues, incense, sacrifices, and crowns of laurel, enrolling such men in the number of their deities. The crime of ingratitude cannot, in any peculiar manner, be fastened upon the people.”
This is very just; the people are no more ungrateful than kings or senates, nor more jealous; and the instances from republics of apparent ingratitude, are not fair proofs. They commonly have arisen from party; and the ill treatment of deserving men has been the work of intrigues of the aristocratical and monarchical parts of these communities, oftener than of the people themselves. The jealousy and envy of commanders and leading senators and patricians have plotted with the people, fomented their prejudices, inflamed their passions, and misrepresented by false reports, until such points have been carried.
There is another thing, too, to be considered. The real merit of public men is rarely fully known and impartially considered; empiricism is practised to an astonishing degree by some, even in the purest times. Aristides and Themistocles, Cæsar and Cato, are not upon an equal footing; but when men arise, who to real services add the arts of political empiricism, conform to the errors of the people, comply with their prejudices, gain their hearts, and excite their enthusiasm, then their gratitude is a contagion; it is a whirlwind; it is infinitely worse to the public than their ingratitude, or than the ingratitude of kings or nobles.
Our author produces, as instances of the ingratitude of princes: “Alexander hated Antipater and Parmenio, and put the latter to death; Vespasian cashiered the meritorious Antonies; the King of Portugal, Alphonsus Albuquerque; Ferdinand of Arragon, Consalvus the Great; Henry VII., Stanley of the House of Derby, who put the crown upon his head; Sylla, his instruments; Augustus, Cicero;” and he might have added many thousands of others. After all, justice and sound policy ought to be the rule and measure of rewards and punishments, not any vague sensation of gratitude or jealousy. Every simple government and every unbalanced mixture must produce frequent instances, not only of ingratitude, but of injustice and bad policy, in the article of rewards and punishments; but in a mixed government effectually balanced, it is rarely possible that real service, merit, and virtue, should go unrewarded. If the king is disposed to be ungrateful, the lords and commons will not suffer it; if the commons are ungrateful, the king and lords will do justice; if the lords are faulty, the king and commons will set all right. The chances of ingratitude, therefore, in such a government are much less, and the assurance of a just recompense of reward is much greater, while the danger of royal favoritism and popular extravagance are wholly avoided. As there is nothing of more essential importance to the preservation of liberty, the promotion of prosperity, and the exaltation of the dignity and grandeur of a state, than a just, generous, and steady rule of policy in rewards and punishments, it must, with all humble submission, be presumed that a mixed government has an infinite advantage of all others in this respect. But of all imaginable governments, that of one assembly is the worst; for every man of the minority will be sure of ingratitude and injustice, let his service be what it will; nay, he will be in danger of punishment for his merit; and every man of the majority will be safe against punishment for many misdemeanors, and sure of excessive rewards for every trifling service.
We may fairly conclude, upon the whole, that none of these six objections stand against a free government of three branches; but every one of them in full force against a single sovereign assembly.
The next chapter is entitled, “The Original of all Just Power is in the People.” This book is valuable, as it is so ancient a monument of liberty and political knowledge in England. Many of its principles were at that time extremely rare in the world, excepting in England. They have been since enlarged on, with great success, by Sidney, Locke, Hoadley, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Raynal, De Mably, Price, Priestley, Beccaria, and many others of various nations, and are now becoming universal. It is unnecessary to abridge this chapter; because, although it contains the hints on which succeeding writers have enlarged, their discourses are more ample and more satisfactory.
[* ]El Justicia de Arragon.
[* ]Nos que valemos tanto como vos os hazemos nuestro rey y segnor con tal que guardeis nuestros fueros y libertades, si no, no.
[† ]Los ricos hombres.
[* ]Letters, 13-16.
[1 ]The personal history of Nedham sufficiently proves that his work was written for no other reason. He was one of that numerous class of writers, bred in the contests of all free countries, who are ever ready to defend the strongest side for pay.