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CHAPTER IV: Of Liberty and Public Spirit Among the English. - Germaine de Staël, Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.) 
Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution, newly revised translation of the 1818 English edition, edited, with an introduction and notes by Aurelian Craiutu (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008).
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Of Liberty and Public Spirit Among the English.
The first basis of all liberty is individual security; and nothing is finer than English legislation in this respect. A criminal suit is in every country a horrible spectacle. In England the excellence of the procedure, the humanity of the judges, the precautions of every kind taken to secure the life of the innocent man, and means of defense to the guilty mingle a sentiment of admiration with the anguish of such a discussion. How will you be tried? says the officer of the court to the accused. By God and my country, replies the latter. God grant you good deliverance, rejoins the officer of the court. From the opening of the proceedings, if the prisoner be confused, if he commit himself by his answers, the judge sets him in the proper path and takes no account of inconsiderate words which might escape him. In the progress of the trial he never addresses himself to the accused, fearing that the emotion naturally experienced by the latter might expose him to injure himself. Indirect witnesses, that is, witnesses who depose on hearsay, are never admitted, as in France. In short, all the precautions have the interest of the accused for their object. Religion and liberty preside over the imposing act which permits man to condemn his fellow creature to death. The admirable institution of juries, which in England goes back to a very remote period, introduces equity into the administration of justice. Those who are momentarily invested with the right of sending a guilty person to death have a natural sympathy with the habits of his life, as they are in general chosen in a class nearly similar to his own; and when juries are obliged to find a criminal guilty, he himself is at least certain that society has done everything to procure his acquittal, if he had deserved it; and this conviction cannot but produce some tranquillity in his heart. For the past century, there is perhaps no example in England of a capital conviction in which the innocence of the individual was discovered too late. The citizens of a free state have so large a share of good sense and conscientiousness that, with these two directing lights, they never err.
We know what a noise was produced in France by the sentence pronounced against Calas,1 by that against Lally;2 and shortly before the Revolution, president Dupaty published a most energetic pleading in favor of three accused persons who had been condemned to die on the wheel, and whose innocence was proved after their death. Such misfortunes could not occur under the laws and criminal procedure of England; and public opinion, that court of appeal, would, with the liberty of the press, make known the slightest error in that respect, were it possible that it could be committed.
Moreover, offenses which have no connection whatever with politics are not those in which we have to dread the application of arbitrary power. In general, it is of little consequence to the great personages of this world in what way robbers and assassins are tried; and no person has an interest in wishing that the laws should not be respected in such trials. But when political crimes are in question, those crimes with which opposite parties reproach each other with so much hatred and bitterness, then it is that we have seen in France all kinds of extraordinary tribunals, created by existing circumstances, applied to such an individual and justified, it was said, by the greatness of the offense; while it is exactly when this offense is of a nature to excite the passions strongly that we are under the greatest necessity of recurring for its trial to the dispassionate firmness of justice.
The English had been vexed like the French, like every people of Europe, where the empire of law is not established, by the Star Chamber,3 by extraordinary commissions, by the extension of the crime of high treason to all that was displeasing to the possessors of power. But since liberty has been consolidated in England, not only has no individual accused of an offense against the state ever had to dread a removal from his natural judges—who could admit such a thought?—but the law gives to him more means of defense than to any other, because he has more enemies. A recent circumstance will show, in all its beauty, this respect of the English for justice, one of the most admirable traits of their admirable government.
Three attempts have been made, during the present reign, on the life of the King of England, and certainly it was very dear to his subjects. The veneration which he inspires under his present malady has something affecting and delicate, of which one would never have thought an entire nation capable; and yet none of the assassins who endeavored to kill the King have been condemned to death. Having been found to show symptoms of mental derangement, this was made the object of an inquiry the more scrupulous in proportion to the violence of public indignation against them. Louis XV was wounded by Damien toward the middle of the last century,4 and it is asserted that this wretch also was deranged; but supposing even that he possessed his reason to a degree that merited a capital punishment, can a civilized nation tolerate the tortures to which he was condemned? And it is said that those tortures had inquisitive and voluntary witnesses: what a contrast between such barbarity and the proceedings in England! But let us beware of deducing from this any consequence unfavorable to the French character; it is arbitrary government that depraves a nation, and not a decree of Heaven awarding every virtue to one and every vice to another.
Hatfield is the name of the third of the madmen who attempted to assassinate the King of England. He chose the day when the King reappeared at the theater after a long illness, accompanied by the Queen and the royal family. At the moment the King entered the house was heard the report of a pistol fired in the direction of his box; and as he stepped back a few paces, the public were, for a moment, doubtful whether the murder had not been committed; but when the courageous monarch again advanced to relieve the crowd of spectators, whose disquietude was extreme, nothing can express the transport they felt. The musicians, by a spontaneous impulse, struck up the sacred tune, “God Save the King,” and this prayer produced, in the midst of the public anxiety, an emotion of which the recollection still lives in the bottom of the heart. After such a scene, many persons unacquainted with the virtues of liberty would have loudly demanded a cruel death for the assassin, and the courtiers would have been seen acting the part of the populace in their frenzy, as if the excess of their affection no longer left them masters of themselves: nothing of this kind could take place in a free country. The King, in the capacity of magistrate, was protector of his assassin from a feeling of justice, and no Englishman imagined it was possible to please his sovereign by the sacrifice of the immutable law which represents the will of God on earth.
Not only was the course of justice not hastened a single hour, but we shall see, by the preamble to the pleading of Mr. Erskine, now Lord Erskine,5 what precautions are adopted in favor of a state criminal. Let us add that in trials for high treason, the defender of the accused has a right to plead in his defense. In ordinary cases of felony, he can only examine witnesses and call the attention of the jury to their answers. And what a defender was he who was given to Hatfield? Erskine, the most eloquent lawyer in England, the most ingenious in the art of pleading. It was thus that his speech began:*
Gentlemen of the Jury. The scene which we are engaged in, and the duty which I am not merely privileged but appointed by the authority of the court to perform, exhibits to the whole civilized world a perpetual monument of our national justice.
The transaction, indeed, in every part of it, as it stands recorded in the evidence already before us, places our country, and its government, its inhabitants, and its laws upon the highest pinnacle of moral elevation that social order can attain. It appears that, on the 15th day of May last, His Majesty, after a reign of forty years, not merely in sovereign power but spontaneously in the very hearts of his people, was openly shot at (or to all appearance shot at), in a public theater in the center of his capital, and amidst the loyal plaudits of his subjects; yet not a hair of the head of the supposed assassin was touched. In this unparalleled scene of calm forbearance, the King himself, though he stood first in personal interest and feeling, as well as in command, gave an example of calmness and moderation equally singular and fortunate.
Gentlemen, I agree with the Attorney General (indeed there can be no possible doubt) that if the same pistol had been maliciously fired by the prisoner in the same theater at the meanest man within its walls, he would have been brought to immediate trial and, if guilty, to immediate execution. He would have heard the charge against him for the first time when the indictment was read upon his arraignment. He would have been a stranger to the names and even to the existence of those who were to sit in judgment upon him, and of those who were to be witnesses against him; but upon the charge of even this murderous attack upon the King himself, he is entirely covered with the armor of the law. He has been provided with counsel by the King’s own judges, and not of their choice but of his own. He has had a copy of the indictment ten days before his trial. He has had the names, descriptions, and abodes of all the jurors returned to the court; he has enjoyed the important privilege of peremptorily rejecting them without assigning the motive of his refusal. He has had the same description of every witness who could be received to accuse him; and there must at this hour be twice the testimony against him that would be legally competent to establish his guilt on a similar prosecution by the meanest and most helpless of mankind.
Gentlemen, when this unfortunate catastrophe happened, I remember to have said to some now present that it was, at first view, difficult to go back to the principle of those indulgent exceptions to the general rules of procedure, and to explain why our ancestors extended to conspiracies against the king’s person the precautions which concern treasons against government. In fact, in cases of political treason, passions and interests of great bodies of powerful men being engaged and agitated, a counterpoise became necessary to give composure and impartiality to criminal tribunals; but a mere murderous attack upon the king’s person, not at all connected with his political character, seemed a case to be ranged and dealt with like a similar attack upon any private man.
But the wisdom of the law is greater than any man’s wisdom; how much more, therefore, than mine! An attack upon the king is considered to be parricide against the state; and the jury and the witnesses, and even the judges, are its children. It is fit, on that account, that there should be a solemn pause before we rush to judgment; and what can be a more sublime spectacle of justice than that of a whole nation declared disqualified from judging during a limited period? Was not a fifteen days’ quarantine necessary to preserve the mind from the contagion of so natural a partiality?
What a country is that in which such words are only the plain and accurate exposition of the existing state of things!
The civil jurisprudence of England is much less entitled to praise; the suits in it are too tedious and too expensive. It will certainly be ameliorated in course of time, as it has already been in several respects; for what, above all things, characterizes the English government is the possibility of improving itself without convulsion. There remain in England old forms, originating in the feudal ages, which surcharge the civil administration of law with a number of useless delays; but the constitution was established by engrafting the new on the old, and if the result has been the keeping up of certain abuses, it can, on the other hand, be said that liberty has in this way received the advantage of claiming an ancient origin. The condescension for old usages does not extend in England to anything that concerns individual security and liberty. In that respect, the ascendancy of reason is complete, and it is on the basis of reason that all reposes.
Before we proceed to the consideration of political powers, without which civil rights would possess no guarantee, we must speak of the only infraction of individual liberty with which England can be reproached—the impressment of seamen.6 I will not urge the motives founded on the great interest which a country whose power is maritime has to maintain itself in this respect in strength; nor will I say that this kind of violence is confined to those who have already served either in the mercantile or in the Royal Navy, and who consequently know, as soldiers do on land, the kind of obligation to which they are subjected. I shall prefer to admit frankly that it is a great abuse, but an abuse which will doubtless be reformed in some way; for in a country in which the thoughts of all are turned toward the improvement of the state of society, and where the liberty of the press is favorable to the extension of public spirit, it is impossible that truths of every kind should not, in the long run, attain effectual circulation. We may predict that at a period more or less remote, we shall see important changes in the mode of recruiting the navy of England.
“Well!” exclaim the enemies of all public virtue, “supposing the good that is said of England to be well founded, the only result is that it is a country ably and wisely governed, as every other country might be; but it is by no means free in the way that philosophers understand freedom, for ministers are masters of everything in that as in other countries. They purchase votes in Parliament in such a way as to obtain constantly a majority; and the whole of this English constitution, which we hear spoken of with so much admiration, is nothing but the art of bringing political venality into play.” Mankind would be much to be pitied were the world thus stripped of all its moral beauties, and it would then be difficult to comprehend the views of the Divinity in the creation of man; but happily these assertions are combated by facts as much as by theory. It is inconceivable how ill England is known on the Continent, in spite of the little distance that separates the two. Party spirit rejects the light which it would receive from this immortal beacon; and people refuse to look at anything in England but her diplomatic influence, which is not, as I shall explain in the sequel, the fair side of that country.
Can people in good faith persuade themselves that the English ministers give money to the members of the House of Commons or to members of the House of Peers to vote on the side of government? How could the English ministers, who render so exact an account of the public money, find sums of sufficient magnitude to bribe men of such large fortune, to say nothing whatever of their character? Mr. Pitt, several years ago, threw himself on the indulgence of the House in consequence of having lent 40,000 livres to support some commercial establishments during the last war; and what is called secret service money is of too small amount to command the least political influence in the interior of the country. Moreover, would not the liberty of the press, the torch which sheds light on the smallest details of the life of public men, would it not expose those presents of corruption which would forever ruin those who had received them as well as the ministers who had bestowed them?
There did, I confess, exist under Mr. Pitt’s predecessors some examples of bargains concluded for government in such a way as to give an indirect advantage to members of Parliament; but Mr. Pitt abstained altogether from expedients so unworthy of him; he established a free competition for loans and contracts; and yet no man exercised a greater sway over both houses. “Yes,” it will be said, “peers and members of the commons are not gained by money, but their object is places for themselves and their friends; and corruption in this way is as effectual as in the other.” Doubtless, the favors at the disposal of the Crown form a part of the prerogative of the king, and consequently of the constitution. This influence is one of the weights in the balance so wisely combined; and moreover, it is as yet very limited. Never would ministry have either the power or the idea of making any change in what regards the constitutional liberties of England. Public opinion presents in that respect an invincible barrier. Public delicacy consecrates certain truths as above attack; and the opposition would no more think of criticizing the institution of the peerage than the ministerial party would presume to blame the liberty of the press. It is only in the circle of momentary circumstances that certain personal or family considerations can influence the direction of some minds; but never to a degree to cause the infraction of constitutional laws. Even if the King wanted to exempt himself from these laws, the responsibility of ministers would not permit them to support him in it: and those who compose the majority in the two houses would be still less disposed to renounce their real rights as lords, representatives, and citizens to acquire the favor of a court.
Fidelity to a party is one of the virtues founded on respect for public spirit, from which the greatest advantages result to English liberty. If tomorrow the ministers go out of office, those who voted with them and to whom they have given places quit those places along with them. A man would be dishonored in England were he to separate himself from his political friends for his own particular interest. Public opinion in this respect is so strong that a man of a very respectable name and character was known, not very long ago, to commit suicide because he reproached himself to have accepted a place independent from his party. Never do you hear the same mouth give utterance to two opposite opinions; and yet, in the existing state of things in England, the differences lie in shades, not colors. Tories, it has been said, approve of liberty and love monarchy, while Whigs approve of monarchy and love liberty; but between these two parties, no question could arise about a republican or a regal form of government, about the old or the new dynasty, liberty or servitude; in short, about any of those extremes and contrasts which we have seen professed by the same men in France, as if we ought to say of power as of love that the object is of no consequence provided one be always faithful to the sentiment, that is, to devotedness to power.
Dispositions of a very opposite character are the objects of admiration in England. For nearly half a century the members of the opposition have been in place only three or four years; yet party fidelity has not been shaken among them; and even recently, at the time I was in England, I saw lawyers refuse places of 7 or 8000 livres a year, which were not immediately connected with politics, only because they had engagements of opinion with the friends of Fox. Were a man in France to refuse a place of 8000 livres a year, truly his relations would think it high time to take out against him a statute of lunacy.
The existence of a ministerial and opposition party, although it cannot be prescribed by law, is an essential support of liberty founded on the nature of things. In every country where you see an assembly of men constantly in accord, be assured that despotism exists, or that despotism, if not the cause, will be the result of unanimity. Now, as power and the favors at the disposal of power possess attraction for men, liberty could not exist but with this fidelity to party, which introduces, if we may use the phrase, a discipline of honor into the ranks of members enrolled under different banners.
But if opinions are formed beforehand, how can truth and eloquence operate on the assembly? How can the majority change when circumstances require it, and of what avail is discussion if no one can vote according to his conviction? The case is not so: what is called fidelity to your party consists in not separating your personal interests from those of your political friends, and in your not treating separately with men in power. But it often happens that circumstances or arguments influence the mass of the assembly, and that the neutral party, whose number is considerable, that is, the men who do not take an active part in politics, produce a change in the majority. It is in the nature of the English government that ministers cannot remain in office without having this majority in their favor; yet Mr. Pitt, although he lost it for an interval during the first illness of the King, was enabled to keep his place because public opinion, which was in his favor, enabled him to dissolve Parliament and have recourse to a new election.7 In short, public opinion bears the sway in England, and it is public opinion that constitutes the liberty of a country.
The jealous friends of this liberty desire a reform in Parliament and maintain that there is no truth in the existence of a representative government so long as the elections shall be so managed as to put the choice of a great number of deputies at the disposal of the ministry. The ministry, it is true, can influence a number of elections, such as those of the Cornish boroughs and some others of the same nature, in which the right of electing has been preserved although the electors have, in a great measure, disappeared; while towns of which the population is greatly increased have not so many deputies as their population would require, or have even none at all.8 We may reckon, in the number of the prerogatives of the Crown, the right of introducing by its influence sixty or eighty members into the House of Commons out of six hundred and fifty-eight who compose it; but this abuse, for it is one, has not, down to the latest times, altered the strength and independence of the English Parliament.
The bishops and archbishops, who have seats in the House of Peers, vote likewise almost always with the ministry, except in points relative to religion. It is not from corrupt motives but from a sense of propriety that prelates appointed by the king do not in general attack ministers; but all these different elements that enter into the composition of the national representation do not prevent it from proceeding under the eye of public opinion; nor prevent men of importance in England, whether for talent, fortune, or personal respectability, from being in general members of the House. There are great proprietors and peers who dispose of certain seats in the House of Commons in the same way as ministers; and when these peers are in the opposition, the members whom they have caused to be elected vote in like manner on their side. All these accidental circumstances make no change in the nature of the representative government. What, above all, is of importance is the publicity of debate and the admirable forms of deliberation which protect the minority. Deputies elected by lot would, with the liberty of the press, represent the national opinion in a country more faithfully than the most regularly elected deputies, if they were not guided and enlightened by that liberty.
It would, however, be desirable to make a gradual suppression of elections that have become illusory, and that, on the other hand, a fairer representation be given to population and property in order to re-animate a little the spirit of Parliament which the reaction against the French Revolution has rendered in some respects too docile toward the executive power.9 But there exists a dread of the strength of the popular element composing the third branch of the legislature, although modified by the discretion and dignity of the members of the House of Commons. There are, however, some men in that assembly whose opinions are very decided in favor of democracy. Not only must that be the case wherever opinion is free, but it is even desirable that the existence of such opinions should remind the grandees of the country that they cannot preserve the advantages of their rank otherwise than by consulting the rights and welfare of the nation. Yet it would be a great error to imagine on the Continent that the opposition party is democratic. What strange democrats would be the Duke of Devonshire, the Duke of Bedford, the Marquis of Stafford! On the contrary, it is the high aristocracy of England which serves as a barrier to royal authority. Opposition are, it is true, more liberal than ministers in their principles: to combat power is sufficient to give a new temper to the mind and heart. But how could one fear a revolutionary commotion on the part of individuals possessed of every kind of property which order causes to be respected; of fortune, rank, and, above all, of knowledge? For knowledge, when real and profound, gives men a consistency equal to that of wealth.
In the House of Commons in England, no attempts are made at that kind of eloquence which excites the multitude; discussion predominates in that assembly, the spirit of business presides there, and there prevails perhaps too great a strictness in regard to oratorical display. Even Burke, whose political writings are now so much admired, was not listened to with attention when speaking in the Lower House, because he introduced into his speeches ornaments foreign to his subject and belonging properly to literature. Ministers are often required to give, in the House of Commons, particular explanations which do not at all enter into the debates. The deputies from the different towns or counties apprise the members of government of the abuses which may occur in local administration, of the reforms and improvement of which it is susceptible; and these habitual communications between the representatives of the people and the heads of the executive power produce the happiest results.
“If the majority of Parliament is not bribed by ministers,” say those who think they are pleading their own cause by demonstrating the degradation of mankind, “at least you will admit that candidates expend enormous sums on their elections.” It cannot be denied that in certain elections there exists venality, notwithstanding the severity of the law. The greatest part of the cost consists in traveling expenses, that is, in bringing to the place of election voters who live at a great distance. The consequence is that none except very opulent persons can venture to run the risk of coming forward as candidates for such places, and that the expense of elections is sometimes carried to a foolish extreme in England, like expense of every kind in other monarchies. Yet in what country can popular elections exist without endeavors to win the favor of the people? This is precisely the grand advantage of the institution. It happens then for once that the rich stand in need of the class which in general is dependent on them. Lord Erskine told me that in his career of counselor and member of the House of Commons, there was perhaps not one inhabitant of Westminster to whom he had not occasion to speak; so great are the political relations between the citizens and men of the highest rank. Nominations by a court are almost always influenced by the most narrow motives; the broad day of popular election cannot be borne but by individuals remarkable for some quality or other. Merit will always triumph at last in countries where the public is called on to point it out.
That which is particularly characteristic of England is a mixture of chivalrous spirit with an enthusiasm for liberty, the two most noble sentiments of which the human heart is susceptible. Circumstances have brought about this fortunate result, and we ought to admit that new institutions would not suffice to produce it: the recollection of the past is necessary to consecrate aristocratic ranks; for if they were all of the creation of power, they would be subject, in part, to the inconveniences experienced in France under Bonaparte. But what can be done in a country where the nobility should be inimical to liberty of every kind? The Third Estate could not form a union with them; and as it would be the stronger of the two, it would incessantly threaten the nobility until the latter had submitted to the progress of reason.
The English aristocracy is of a more mixed kind in the eyes of a genealogist than that of France; but the English nation seems, if we may say so, one entire body of gentlemen. You see in every English citizen what he may one day become, since no rank lies beyond the reach of talent, and since high ranks have always kept up their ancient splendor. It is true that that which, above all, constitutes nobility, in the view of an enlightened mind, is being free. An English nobleman or gentleman (taking the word “gentleman” in the sense of a man of independent property) exercises, in his part of the country, some useful employment to which no salary is attached: as a justice of the peace, sheriff, or lord lieutenant in the county where his property is situated; he influences elections in a manner that is suitable, and that increases his credit with the people; as a peer or member of the House of Commons, he discharges a political function and possesses a real importance. This is not the idle aristocracy of a French nobleman, who was of no consideration in the state whenever the king refused him his favor; it is a distinction founded on all the interests of the nation. And we cannot avoid being surprised that French nobles should have preferred the life of a courtier, moving on the road from Versailles to Paris, to the majestic stability of an English peer on his estate, surrounded by men to whom he can do a thousand acts of kindness, but over whom he can exercise no arbitrary power. The authority of law is in England predominant over all the powers of the state, as Fate in ancient mythology was superior to the authority of the gods themselves.
To the political miracle of a respect for the rights of everyone founded on a sentiment of justice, we must add the equally skillful and fortunate union of equality under the law to the advantages arising from the separation of ranks. Everyone in that country stands in need of others for his comfort, yet everyone is there independent of all by his rights. This Third Estate, which has become so prodigiously aggrandized in France and in the rest of Europe, this Third Estate, the increase of which necessitates successive changes in all old institutions, is united in England to the nobility, because the nobility itself is identified with the nation. A great number of peers owe the origin of their dignity to the law, some to commerce, others to a military career, others to political eloquence; there is not one virtue nor one kind of talent which has not its place, or which may not flatter itself with attaining it; and everything in the social edifice conduces to the glory of that constitution which is as dear to the Duke of Norfolk as to the meanest porter in England, because it protects both with the same equity.
These verses are by a poet of admirable talents, but whose happiness was destroyed by his extreme sensibility.10 He was laboring under a mortal disease of melancholy; and when love, friendship, philosophy, everything added to his sufferings, a free country yet awakened in his soul an enthusiasm which nothing could extinguish.
All men are more or less attached to their country; the recollections of infancy, the habits of youth form that inexpressible love of the native soil which we must acknowledge as a virtue, for all true feeling constitutes its source. But in a great state, liberty and the happiness arising from that liberty can alone inspire true patriotism: nothing accordingly is comparable to public spirit in England. The English are accused of selfishness, and it is true that their mode of life is so well regulated that they generally confine themselves within the circle of their habits and domestic affections; but what sacrifice is too great for them when the interest of their country is at stake? And among what people in the world are services rendered, felt, and rewarded with more enthusiasm? When we enter Westminster Abbey, all those tombs, sacred to the men who have been illustrious for centuries past, seem to reproduce the spectacle of the greatness of England among the dead. Kings and philosophers repose under the same roof: it is there that quarrels are appeased, as has been well observed by the celebrated Walter Scott.* You behold the tombs of Pitt and Fox beside each other, and the same tears bedew both; for they both deserve the profound regret which generous minds ought to bestow on that noble elite of our species who serve to support our confidence in the immortality of the soul.
Let us recollect the funeral of Nelson,11 when nearly a million persons scattered throughout London and the neighborhood contemplated in silence the passage of his coffin. The multitude were silent, the multitude evinced as much respect in the expression of its grief as might have been expected from the most polished society. Nelson had given as a signal, on the day of Trafalgar, “England expects every man to do his duty”; he had accomplished that duty, and when expiring on board his vessel, the honorable obsequies which his country would grant him presented themselves to his thoughts as the beginning of a new life.
Nor yet let us be silent on Lord Wellington, although in France we cannot but suffer by the recollection of his glory. With what transport was he not received by the representatives of the nation, by the Peers and by the Commons! No ceremony was required to convey this homage rendered to a living man; but the transports of the English people burst forth on all sides. The acclamations of the crowd resounded in the lobby before he entered the House; when he appeared, all the members rose with a spontaneous motion, unrequired by any formality. The homage which is dictated elsewhere was here inspired by emotion. Yet nothing could be more simple than the reception of Lord Wellington: there were no guards, no military pomp to do honor to the greatest general of the age in which Bonaparte lived; but the day was celebrated by the voice of the people, and nothing like it could be seen in any other country upon earth.
Ah! what a fascinating enjoyment is that of popularity! I know all that can be said on the inconstancy, and even the caprice of popular favor; but those reproaches are more applicable to ancient republics, where the democratic forms of government led to the most rapid vicissitudes. In a country governed like England, and, moreover, enlightened by that torch without which all is darkness, the liberty of the press, men and things are judged with great equity. Truth is submitted to the observation of everyone, while the various constraints that are employed elsewhere produce necessarily great uncertainty in judgments. A libel that glides across the compulsory silence to which the press is condemned may change public opinion in regard to any man, for the praise or the censure ordered by government is always suspicious. Nothing can be clearly and solidly settled in the minds of men but by free discussion.
“Do you pretend,” it may be said, “that there is no mutability in the judgment of the English people, and that they will not offer incense today to him whom they would perhaps tear in pieces tomorrow?” Doubtless, those who are at the head of government should be subject to lose the favor of the people if they are not successful in the management of public affairs. The depositaries of authority ought to be fortunate; that is one of the conditions of the advantages that are granted to them. Besides, power having always a tendency to deprave those who possess it, it is always to be wished, in a free country, that the same men should not remain too long in office; and it is right to change ministers, were it only for the sake of changing. But reputation, once acquired, is very durable in England, and public opinion may be considered as the conscience of the state.
If anything can seduce the English nation from equity, it is misfortune. An individual, persecuted by any power whatever, might inspire an undeserved, and consequently a fleeting interest. But this noble error belongs, on the one hand, to the generosity of the English character, and on the other, to that sentiment of liberty which makes all feel the desire of defending themselves mutually against oppression; for it is in that respect especially that, in politics, we should treat our neighbor as ourselves.
The state of information and the energy of public spirit are more than a sufficient answer to the arguments of those men who pretend that the army would overpower the liberty of England if England were a Continental state. It is, without doubt, an advantage to England that her strength consists rather in her marine than in her land forces. It requires more knowledge to be a captain of a ship than a colonel; and none of the habits acquired at sea lead one to desire to interfere in the interior affairs of the country. But were nature, in a lavish mood, to create ten Lord Wellingtons, and were the world again to witness ten battles of Waterloo, it would never enter the heads of those who so readily give their lives for their country to turn their force against it; or, if so, they would encounter an invincible obstacle among men as brave as themselves, and more enlightened, who detest the military spirit although they know how to admire and practice warlike virtues.
That sort of prejudice which persuaded the French nobility that they could serve their country only in the career of arms does not exist at all in England. Many sons of lords are counselors; the bar participates in the respect that is felt for the law; and in every career civil occupations are held in esteem. In such a country there is nothing as yet to be feared from military power: only ignorant nations have a blind admiration for the sword. Bravery is a superb quality when we expose a life dear to our family, and when, with a mind filled with virtue and knowledge, a citizen becomes a soldier to maintain his rights as a citizen. But when men fight only because they will not take the trouble to employ their minds and their time in some steady pursuit, they cannot be long admired by a nation where industry and reflection hold the first rank. The satellites of Cromwell overthrew a civil power which had neither strength nor dignity; but since the existence of the constitution, and of public spirit which is its soul, princes or generals would only excite in the whole nation a feeling of contempt for their folly were they at any time to dream of enslaving their country.
[1. ] Calas was a prominent Protestant condemned to death in 1762 for allegedly having murdered his son in Toulouse. The Royal Council found him not guilty in 1765.
[2. ] Wrongly condemned to death (for having surrendered Pondichéry to the English) and executed in 1766.
[3. ] See note 3, p. 342, above.
[4. ] In January 1757.
[5. ] Thomas Erskine (1750–1823), a prominent lawyer and Whig politician, served as chancellor in 1806–7 and was an acquaintance of Madame de Staël.
[* ] I cannot too strongly recommend to French readers the collection of the speeches of Erskine, who was raised to the rank of chancellor after a long and distinguished career at the bar. Descended from one of the oldest families in Scotland, he set out in life as an officer; and afterward, being without fortune, entered on the profession of the law. The particular circumstances to which the pleadings of Lord Erskine relate are all opportunities for displaying, with unrivaled strength and sagacity, the principles of criminal jurisprudence which ought to serve as a model to every people.
[6. ] A random and arbitrary means of recruitment used by the Royal Navy until the middle of the nineteenth century.
[7. ] Pitt was in power during the periods 1783–1801 and 1804–6.
[8. ] The so-called rotten boroughs. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the English electoral system did not adequately reflect the country’s new social, political, and economic conditions. Three major industrial cities—Manchester, Birmingham, and Leeds—with a total population of approximately half a million did not send a single representative to the House of Commons. In addition to many “rotten” boroughs in which there were hardly any voters left, there were many pocket boroughs in which elections were tightly controlled by a single individual or family. For more information, see Brock, The Great Reform Act.
[9. ] This was the goal of the famous Reform Act of 1831–32.
[* ] Cowper.
[10. ] William Cowper (1731–1800) was an English poet and hymnodist. His works include Olney Hymns (1779) and translations of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.
[11. ] Horatio Nelson (1758–1805) was a famous English admiral who died in the battle of Trafalgar on October 21, 1805.