Front Page Titles (by Subject) INCONVINCIBLE GOVERNMENTS. ( From The Saturday Review, 21 st June, 1856.) - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review)
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INCONVINCIBLE GOVERNMENTS. ( From “ The Saturday Review, ” 21 st June, 1856.) - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review) 
The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, ed. Mrs. Russell Barrington. The Works in Nine Volumes. The Life in One Volume. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915). Vol. 9.
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A topic of the day is the cost of freedom. Recent history on the Continent has called up a crowd of courtier speculators, who magnify that cost till it seems too much to pay for anything. Even in the country, some thinkers—rather informed than educated, rather active than wise—have half advocated the same conclusion. Of course this is extreme error. No sound inquirer, attending to the evidence of history or to the evidence of his own eyes, will resist the conclusion that, if you can effectually establish a free government, you had better establish it—that, by so doing, you secure immense blessings and escape overwhelming evils. Yet the gain of freedom, it may be allowed, is not pure gain. There are certainly some minor compensations, which, as a sort of purchase-money, we must pay for freedom.
One of these set-offs is a difficulty in foreign policy. You cannot convince a free people. Of course in real life, it is very hard to convince any one. The number of unsuccessful litigants who are bonâ fide converted by the adverse judgments of the courts, is seemingly rather small. The majority resemble the eminent counsel, who exclaimed, “It is the law, I know it is the law, but the d—d judges won’t decide it so”. There being no effectual international tribunal, Governments are peculiarly difficult to persuade. The most intelligent Government has its crotchets. As, in common life, almost every family has a tradition that its ancestors were cheated out of some estate—they even name the estate, value the acres, and count the trees, the only thing not intelligible being the title—so all nations have ancient claims. There is Old Coast, captured ad 1—Icy Isle, invaded ad 5—Barren Peak, ascended ad 6; and it is difficult to make them imagine that these traditional demands are not in truth valuable possessions.
This is of course common to all Governments, despotic and free. But there is a great difference in practice. A despot is one man. He governs by a bureau. If he does not read international controversies himself, he is daily in familiar intercourse with statesmen who have to write on them—who do read them, study them, master them. It is impossible that such a man should not get some notion of there being two sides to every question. Of course, he may be weak and obstinate, vain or haughty. He may have great defects of understanding. Still, in civilised European despotisms, the monarch is brought daily into contact with people who know, and whose ordinary interest it is that he should know, what the case of the adversary is. On the other hand, a free people only hears its own side. It never reads the enemy’s despatches. Very few persons are much wiser if they do read despatches. The nation’s own Government, by word of mouth, or through its own organs, makes its statement; and hardly any one effectually answers it. No doubt the Opposition are quite ready to say that the negotiations have been misconducted—that the whole affair has been mismanaged—that everybody has done everything wrong—that no one who, in that matter, has done anything, should ever be allowed to do anything again. But the Opposition will go no farther. It is most dangerous in politics to give your opponent the monopoly of the national grievances. If he can make out his case, he will be cheered, applauded, beloved. He has “vindicated the national honour”. If you succeed—if you prove that your nation has no claim to the Bay Islands—all you can hope is a cold, ungratified respect. “Well, I suppose, confound him, he was right. But I wish he had not been—it was a very deep bay, and there was much to be said on the other side, for all that.” If a war breaks out, the case is worse. Those who object are proving that victories are injurious—that defeats are merited—that there is no glory for those who live, no patriotic consolation for those who mourn—that those who are dead, died endeavouring to do injustice. No Opposition will condemn itself to an argument like this. All political parties conspire to prove to the nation the validity of its claims.
In America this is felt even more than it is here. No respect for the American people—no admiration for their vigour, ability, and energy—will induce educated men in Europe to respect certain American institutions. Many wonder that, in a country where there is so much virtue and cultivation, the tone of public political discussion should be so low and mean. Yet we have at home an instance which should enable us to understand how the two may be consistent. If you throw the whole power into the hands of an inferior class—a class worthy, no doubt, to be represented in its way, but not worthy to have an enormous preponderance—you must not wonder if you reap as you have sown. There is the borough of Finsbury. We remember hearing a learned man in Russell Square—a scholar, who, like many other erudite scholars, rather preferred the instructed, elaborate bureaucracy of Germany to the free, ignorant politics of his own country—arrest an eloquent eulogium on the success with which all classes were represented under the British Constitution by remarking, “I am represented by Mr. Wakley and Tom Duncombe”. America is one great Finsbury. The instructed sense, the delicate taste, the high cultivation, which are really components in her national life, find no voice in her Government—are overwhelmed amid the multitude of her masses. It is true, of course, that those masses are not what they would be in this or in any European country. We do not speak of the unsettled population of the extreme south—a dangerous element, which, it is to be feared, the world may hereafter have more adequate means of estimating at its value. We do not speak of the States in which the institution of slavery has produced one of its worst and most obvious effects in the disrepute and degradation of free labour. We would speak of America in her best estate—in provinces abounding in all the materials of civilisation—where the working classes are better off than they are anywhere else in the world. It is exactly here that she is most likely to feel the difficulty of impartiality in foreign affairs. The ruling power in those districts resides in what we may call the just taught classes. An immense deal of common information is diffused. All the knowledge which is of use in the everyday work of civilisation is most popular. Reading and writing are the property of everybody. An eager, sharp, “smart” sense is universal among the masses. Woe to those who try to deceive them on matters within their daily sphere, and having reference to their daily calling.
But it is absurd to expect from such persons the balanced sense, the exercised judgment, the many-sided equanimity which are necessary to form a judgment on elaborate controversies, and on difficult foreign relations. The eager intuition, the narrow promptitude, which conduce to their rapid success in their personal pursuits, unfit them for forming a judgment on matters beyond them. They go too quick. They are unalive to the danger of believing as they wish. They fancy that all who argue against them are trying to impose upon them. A low suspicion taints their intellect—a fear of being overreached warps their conduct. They are the ready victims of incendiaries—the sure converts of agitators who trade in grievances, and who can always show that America is injured, that England has been meddling, and that instant attention is required to prevent our attacking some place which we never desired, or annexing some region of which we never heard.
The inference from all this is clear. A country whose institutions subject her to this difficulty is entitled—most of all from those who are near enough in habit and language to comprehend her—to a large tolerance in international controversies. She does not know what she is doing. We may justly endure from our misled and mistaken kindred what it would be disgraceful to bear from an intelligent and designing despot.