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SECTION V.: English admirers vindicated. - Sir James Mackintosh, The Miscellaneous Works 
The Miscellaneous Works. Three Volumes, complete in One. (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1871).
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English admirers vindicated.
It is thus that Mr. Burke has spoken of the men and measures of a foreign nation, where there was no patriotism to excuse his prepossession or his asperity, and no duty or feeling to preclude him from adopting the feelings of a disinterested posterity, and assuming the dispassionate tone of a philosopher and a historian. What wonder then if he should wanton in all the eloquence and virulence of an advocate against fellow-citizens, to whom he attributes the flagitious purpose of stimulating England to the imitation of such enormities. The Revolution and Constitutional Societies, and Dr. Price, whom he regards as their oracle and guide, are the grand objects of his hostility. For them no contumely is too debasing,—no invective too intemperate,—no imputation too foul. Joy at the downfall of despotism is the indelible crime, for which no virtue can compensate, and no punishment can atone. An inconsistency, however, betrays itself not unfrequently in literary quarrels:—he affects to despise those whom he appears to dread. His anger exalts those whom his ridicule would vilify; and on those whom at one moment he derides as too contemptible for resentment, he at another confers a criminal eminence, as too audacious for contempt. Their voice is now the importunate chirp of the meagre shrivelled insects of the hour,—now the hollow murmur, ominous of convulsions and earthquakes, that are to lay the fabric of society in ruins. To provoke against the doctrines and persons of these unfortunate Societies this storm of execration and derision, it was not sufficient that the French Revolution should be traduced; every record of English policy and law is to be distorted.
The Revolution of 1688 is confessed to have established principles by those who lament that it has not reformed institutions. It has sanctified the theory, if it has not insured the practice of a free government. It declared, by a memorable precedent, the right of the people of England to revoke abused power, to frame the government, and bestow the crown. There was a time, indeed, when some wretched followers of Filmer and Blackwood lifted their heads in opposition: but more than half a century had withdrawn them from public contempt, to the amnesty and oblivion which their innoxious stupidity had purchased.
It was reserved for the latter end of the eighteenth century to construe these innocent and obvious inferences into libels on the constitution and the laws. Dr. Price has asserted (I presume without fear of contradiction) that the House of Hanover owes the crown of England to the choice of their people, and that the Revolution has established our right “to choose our own governors, to cashier them for misconduct, and to frame a government for ourselves.”* The first proposition, says Mr. Burke, is either false or nugatory. If it imports that England is an elective monarchy, “it is an unfounded, dangerous, illegal, and unconstitutional position.” “If it alludes to the election of his Majesty’s ancestors to the throne, it no more legalizes the government of England than that of other nations, where the founders of dynasties have generally founded their claims on some sort of election.” The first member of this dilemma merits no reply. The people may certainly, as they have done, choose an hereditary rather than an elective monarchy: they may elect a race instead of an individual. It is vain to compare the pretended elections in which a council of barons, or an army of mercenaries, have imposed usurpers on enslaved and benighted kingdoms, with the solemn, deliberate, national choice of 1688. It is, indeed, often expedient to sanction these deficient titles by subsequent acquiescence in them. It is not among the projected innovations of France to revive the claims of any of the posterity of Pharamond and Clovis, or to arraign the usurpations of Pepin or Hugh Capet. Public tranquillity thus demands a veil to be drawn over the successful crimes through which kings have so often “waded to the throne.” But wherefore should we not exult, that the supreme magistracy of England is free from this blot,—that as a direct emanation from the sovereignty of the people, it is as legitimate in its origin as in its administration. Thus understood, the position of Dr. Price is neither false nor nugatory. It is not nugatory, for it honourably distinguishes the English monarchy among the governments of the world; and if it be false, the whole history of our Revolution must be a legend. The fact was shortly, that the Prince of Orange was elected King of England, in contempt of the claims, not only of the exiled monarch and his son, but of the Princesses Mary and Anne, the undisputed progeny of James. The title of William III. was then clearly not by succession; and the House of Commons ordered Dr. Burnet’s tract to be burnt by the hands of the hangman, for maintaining that it was by conquest. There remains only election: for these three claims to royalty are all that are known among men. It is futile to urge, that the Convention deviated only slightly from the order of succession. The deviation was indeed slight, but the principle was destroyed. The principle that justified the elevation of William III. and the preference of the posterity of Sophia of Hanover to those of Henrietta of Orleans, would equally, in point of right, have vindicated the election of Chancellor Jeffreys or Colonel Kirke. The choice was, like every other choice, to be guided by views of policy and prudence; but it was a choice still.
From these views arose that repugnance between the conduct and the language of the Revolutionists, of which Mr. Burke has availed himself. Their conduct was manly and systematic: their language was conciliating and equivocal. They kept measures with a prejudice which they deemed necessary to the order of society. They imposed on the grossness of the popular understanding, by a sort of compromise between the constitution and the abdicated family. “They drew a politic well-wrought veil,” to use the expression of Mr. Burke, over the glorious scene which they had acted. They affected to preserve a semblance of succession,—to recur for the objects of their election to the posterity of Charles and James,—that respect and loyalty might with less violence to public sentiment attach to the new Sovereign. Had a Jacobite been permitted freedom of speech in the Parliaments of William III. he might thus have arraigned the Act of Settlement:—“Is the language of your statutes to be at eternal war with truth? Not long ago you profaned the forms of devotion by a thanksgiving, which either means nothing, or insinuates a lie: you thanked Heaven for the preservation of a King and a Queen on the throne of their ancestors,—an expression which either alluded only to their descent, which was frivolous, or insinuated their hereditary right, which was false. With the same contempt for consistency and truth, we are this day called on to settle the crown of England on a princess of Germany, ‘because’ she is the granddaughter of James the First. If that be, as the phraseology insinuates, the true and sole reason of the choice, consistency demands that the words after ‘excellent’ should be omitted, and in their place be inserted ‘Victor Amadeus, Duke of Savoy, married to the daughter of the most excellent Princess Henrietta, late Duchess of Orleans, daughter of our late Sovereign Lord Charles I. of glorious memory.’ Do homage to royalty in your actions, or abjure it in your words: avow the grounds of your conduct, and your manliness will be respected by those who detest your rebellion.” What reply Lord Somers, or Mr. Burke, could have devised to this Philippic, I know not, unless they confessed that the authors of the Revolution had one language for novices and another for adepts. Whether this conduct was the fruit of caution and consummate wisdom, or of a narrow, arrogant, and dastardly policy, which regarded the human race as only to be governed by being duped, it is useless to inquire, and might be presumptuous to determine. But it certainly was not to be expected, that any controversy should have arisen by confounding their principles with their pretexts: with the latter the position of Dr. Price has no connection; from the former, it is an infallible inference.
The next doctrine of this obnoxious Sermon that provokes the indignation of Mr. Burke, is, “that the Revolution has established our right to cashier our governors for misconduct.” Here a plain man could have foreseen scarcely any diversity of opinion. To contend that the deposition of a king for the abuse of his powers did not establish a principle in favour of the like deposition, when the like abuse should again occur, is certainly one of the most arduous enterprises that ever the heroism of paradox encountered. He has, however, not neglected the means of retreat. “No government,” he tells us, “could stand a moment, if it could be blown down with anything so loose and indefinite as opinion of misconduct.” One might suppose, from the dexterous levity with which the word “misconduct” is introduced, that the partisans of democracy had maintained the expediency of deposing a king for every frivolous and venial fault,—of revolting against him for the choice of his titled or untitled valets,—his footmen, or his Lords of the Bedchamber. It would have been candid in Mr. Burke not to have dissembled what he must know, that by “misconduct” was meant that precise species of misconduct for which James II. was dethroned,—a conspiracy against the liberty of his country.
Nothing can be more weak than to urge’ the constitutional irresponsibility of kings or parliaments. The law can never suppose them responsible, because their responsibility supposes the dissolution of society, which is the annihilation of law. In the governments which have hitherto existed, the power of the magistrate is the only article in the social compact: destroy it, and society is dissolved. It is because they cannot be legally and constitutionally, that they must be morally and rationally responsible. It is because there are no remedies to be found within the pale of society, that we are to seek them in nature, and throw our parchment chains in the face of our oppressors. No man can deduce a precedent of law from the Revolution; for law cannot exist in the dissolution of government: a precedent of reason and justice only can be established in it. And perhaps the friends of freedom merit the misrepresentation with which they have been opposed, for trusting their cause to such frail and frivolous auxiliaries, and for seeking in the profligate practices of men what is to be found in the sacred rights of nature. The system of lawyers is indeed widely different. They can only appeal to usage, precedents, authorities, and statutes. They display their elaborate frivolity, and their perfidious friendship, in disgracing freedom with the fantastic honour of a pedigree. A pleader at the Old Bailey, who would attempt to aggravate the guilt of a robber or a murderer, by proving that King John or King Alfred punished robbery and murder, would only provoke derision. A man who should pretend that the reason why we had right to property is, because our ancestors enjoyed that right four hundred years ago, would be justly contemned. Yet so little is plain sense heard in the mysterious nonsense which is the cloak of political fraud, that the Cokes, the Blackstones, and the Burkes, speak as if our right to freedom depended on its possession by our ancestors. In the common cases of morality we should blush at such an absurdity. No man would justify murder by its antiquity, or stigmatize benevolence for being new. The genealogist who should emblazon the one as coeval with Cain, or stigmatize the other as upstart with Howard, would be disclaimed even by the most frantic partisan of aristocracy. This Gothic transfer of genealogy to truth and justice is peculiar to politics. The existence of robbery in one age makes its vindication in the next; and the champions of freedom have abandoned the stronghold of right for precedent, which, when the most favourable, is, as might be expected from the ages which furnish it, feeble, fluctuating, partial, and equivocal. It is not because we have been free, but because we have a right to be free, that we ought to demand freedom. Justice and liberty have neither birth nor race, youth nor age. It would be the same absurdity to assert, that we have a right to freedom, because the Englishmen of Alfred’s reign were free, as that three and three are six, because they were so in the camp of Genghis Khan. Let us hear no more of this ignoble and ignominious pedigree of freedom. Let us hear no more of her Saxon, Danish, or Norman ancestors. Let the immortal daughter of Reason, of Justice, and of God, be no longer confounded with the spurious abortions that have usurped her name.
“But says Mr. Burke, “we do not contend that right is created by antiquarian research. We are far from contending that possession legitimates tyranny, or that fact ought to be confounded with right. But (to strip his eulogies on English wisdom of their declamatory appendage) the impression of antiquity endears and ennobles freedom, and fortifies it by rendering it august and venerable in the popular mind.” The illusion is useful; the expediency of political imposture is the whole force of the argument;—a principle odious to the friends of freedom, as the grand bulwark of secular and spiritual despotism. To pronounce that men are only to be governed by delusion is to libel the human understanding, and to consecrate the frauds that have elevated despots and muftis, pontiffs and sultans, on the ruin of degraded and oppressed humanity. But the doctrine is as false as it is odious. Primary political truths are few and simple. It is easy to make them understood, and to transfer to government the same enlightened self-interest that presides in the other concerns of life. It may be made to be respected, not because it is ancient, or because it is sacred,—not because it has been established by barons, or applauded by priests,—but because it is useful. Men may easily be instructed to maintain rights which it is their interest to maintain, and duties which it is their interest to perform. This is the only principle of authority that does not violate justice and insult humanity; it is also the only one which can possess stability. The various fashions of prejudice and factitious sentiment which have been the basis of governments, are short-lived things. The illusions of chivalry, and the illusions of superstition, which have given to them splendour or sanctity, are in their turn succeeded by new modes of opinion and new systems of manners. Reason alone and natural sentiment are the denizens of every nation, and the contemporaries of every age. A conviction of the utility of government affords the only stable and honourable security for obedience.
Our ancestors at the Revolution, it is true, were far from feeling the full force of these sublime truths: nor was the public mind of Europe, in the seventeenth century, sufficiently enlightened and matured for the grand enterprises of legislation. The science which teaches the rights of man, and the eloquence that kindles the spirit of freedom, had for ages been buried with the other monuments of wisdom, and the other relics of the genius of antiquity. The revival of letters first unlocked,—but only to a few,—the sacred fountain. The necessary labours of criticism and lexicography occupied the earlier scholars; and some time elapsed bethe spirit of antiquity was transfused into its admirers. The first man of that period who united elegant learning to original and masculine thought was Buchanan;* and he too seems to have been the first scholar who caught from the ancients the noble flame of republican enthusiasm. This praise is merited by his neglected, though incomparable tract, De Jure Regni, in which the principles of popular politics, and the maxims of a free government, are delivered with a precision, and enforced with an energy, which no former age had equalled, and no succeeding one has surpassed. The subsequent progress of the human mind was slow. The profound views of Harrington were derided as the ravings of a visionary; and who can wonder, that the frantic loyalty which depressed Paradise Lost, should involve in ignominy the eloquent Apology of Milton for the People of England against a feeble and venal pedant. Sidney,
taught the principles which he was to seal with his blood; and Locke, whose praise is less that of being bold and original, than of being temperate, sound, lucid, and methodical, deserves the immortal honour of having systematized and rendered popular the doctrines of civil and religious liberty. In Ireland, Molyneux, the friend of Locke, produced The Case of Ireland,—a production of which it is sufficient praise to say, that it was ordered to be burnt by the despotic parliament. In Scotland, Andrew Fletcher, the scholar of Algernon Sidney, maintained the case of his deserted country with the force of ancient eloquence, and the dignity of ancient virtue. Such is a rapid enumeration of those who had before, or near the Revolution, contributed to the diffusion of political light. But their number was small, their writings were unpopular, their dogmas were proscribed. The habits of reading had only then begun to reach the great body of mankind, whom the arrogance of rank and letters has ignominiously confounded under the denomination of the vulgar.
Many causes too contributed to form a powerful Tory interest in England. The remnant of that Gothic sentiment, the extinction of which Mr. Burke so pathetically deplores, which engrafted loyalty on a point of honour in military attachment, formed one part, which may be called the “Toryism of chivalry.” Doctrines of a divine right in kings, which are now too much forgotten even for successful ridicule, were then supported and revered;—these may be called the “Toryism of superstition.” A third species arose from the great transfer of property to an upstart commercial interest, which drove the ancient gentry of England, for protection against its inroads, behind the throne;—this may be called the “Toryism of landed aristocracy.”† Religious prejudices, outrages on natural sentiments, which any artificial system is too feeble to withstand, and the stream of events which bore them along to extremities which no man could have foreseen, involved the Tories in the Revolution, and made it a truly national act: but their repugnance to every shadow of innovation was invincible.
Something the Whigs may be supposed to have conceded for the sake of conciliation; but few even of their leaders, it is probable, had grand and liberal views. What indeed could have been expected from the delegates of a nation, in which, a few years before, the University of Oxford, representing the national learning and wisdom, had, in a solemn decree, offered their congratulations to Sir George Mackenzie (infamous for the abuse of brilliant accomplishments to the most servile and profligate purposes) for having confuted the abominable doctrines of Buchanan and Milton, and for having demonstrated the divine rights of kings to tyrannise and oppress mankind! It must be evident, that a people who could thus, by the organ of its most learned body, prostrate its reason before such execrable absurdities, was too young for legislation. Hence the absurd debates in the Convention about the palliative phrases of “abdicate,” “desert,” &c., which were better cut short by the Parliament of Scotland, when they used the correct and manly expression, that James II. had “forfeited the throne.” Hence we find the Revolutionists perpetually belying their political conduct by their legal phraseology: hence their impotent and illusive reforms: hence their neglect of foresight* in not providing bulwarks against the natural tendency of a disputed succession to accelerate most rapidly the progress of Royal influence, by rendering it necessary to strengthen so much the possessor of the crown against the pretender to it.
But to elucidate the question more fully, “let us listen to the genuine oracles of Revolution policy;”—not to the equivocal and palliative language of their statutes, but to the unrestrained effusion of sentiment in that memorable conference between the Lords and Commons, on Tuesday the 5th of February, 1688, which terminated in establishing the present government of England. The Tories, yielding to the torrent in the personal exclusion of James, resolved to embarrass the Whigs, by urging that the declaration of the abdication and vacancy of the throne, was a change of the government, pro hâc vice, into an elective monarchy. The inference is irresistible: and it must be confessed, that though the Whigs were the better citizens, the Tories were the more correct logicians. It is in this conference that we see the Whig leaders compelled to disclose so much of those principles, which tenderness for prejudice, and reverence for usage, had influenced them to dissemble. It is here that we shall discover sparks kindled in the collision of debate sufficient to enlighten the “politic gloom” in which they had enveloped their measures.
If there be any names venerable among the constitutional lawyers of England, they are those of Lord Somers and Serjeant Maynard. They were both conspicuous managers for the Commons in this conference; and the language of both will more than justify the inferences of Dr. Price, and the creed of the Revolution Society. My Lord Nottingham, who conducted the conference on the part of the Tories, in a manner most honourable to his dexterity and acuteness, demanded of the managers for the Commons:—“Whether they mean the throne to be so vacant as to annul the succession in the hereditary line, and so all the heirs to be cut off? which we (the Lords) say, will make the crown elective.” Maynard, whose argument always breathed much of the old republican spirit, replied with force and plainness:—“It is not that the Commons do say the crown of England is always and perpetually elective; but it is necessary there be a supply where there is a defect.” It is impossible to mistake the import of these words. Nothing can be more evident, than that by the mode of denying “that the crown was always and perpetually elective,” he confesses that it was for the then exigency elective. In pursuance of his argument, he uses a comparison strongly illustrative of his belief in dogmas anathematised by Mr. Burke:—“If two of us make a mutual agreement to help and defend each other from any one that should assault us in a journey, and he that is with me turns upon me, and breaks my head, he hath undoubtedly abdicated my assistance, and revoked.” Sentiments of the kingly office, more irreverent and more correct, are not to be found in the most profane evangelist that disgraces the Democratic canon. It is not unworthy of incidental remark, that there were then persons who felt as great horror at novelties, which have since been universally received, as Mr. Burke now feels at the “rights of men.” The Earl of Clarendon, in his strictures on the speech of Mr. Somers, said:—“I may say thus much in general, that this breaking the original contract is a language that has not long been used in this place, nor known in any of our law books, or public records. It is sprung up but as taken from some late authors, and those none of the best received!” This language one might have supposed to be that of Mr. Burke: it is not however his; it is that of a Jacobite lord of the seventeenth century.
The Tories continued to perplex and intimidate the Whigs with the idea of election. Maynard again replies, “The word ‘elective’ is none of the Commons’ word. The provision must be made, and if it be, that will not render the kingdom perpetually elective.” If it were necessary to multiply citations to prove, that the Revolution was to all intents and purposes an election, we might hear Lord Nottingham, whose distinction is peculiarly applicable to the case before us. “If,” says he, “you do once make it elective, I do not say you are always bound to go to election; but it is enough to make it so, if by that precedent there be a breach in the hereditary succession.” The reasoning of Sir Robert Howard, another of the managers for the Commons, is bold and explicit:—“My Lords, you will do well to consider. Have you not yourselves limited the succession, and cut off some that might have a line of right? Have you not concurred with us in our vote, that it is inconsistent with our religion and our laws to have a Papist to reign over us? Must we not then come to an election, if the next heir be a Papist?”—the precise fact which followed. But what tends the most strongly to illustrate that contradiction between the exoteric and esoteric doctrine,—the legal language, and the real principles,—which forms the basis of this whole argument, is the avowal of Sir Richard Temple, another of the managers for the Commons:—“We are in as natural a capacity as any of our predecessors were to provide for a remedy in such exigencies as this.” Hence it followed infallibly, that their posterity to all generations would be in the same “natural capacity,” to provide a remedy for such exigencies.
But let us hear their statutes:—there “the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, do, in the name of all the people of England, most humbly and faithfully submit themselves, their heirs and posterity for ever,” &c. Here is the triumph of Mr. Burke;—a solemn abdication and renunciation of right to change the monarch or the constitution! His triumph is increased by this statutory abolition of the rights of men being copied from a similar profession of eternal allegiance made by the Parliament of Elizabeth. It is difficult to conceive any thing more preposterous. In the very act of exercising a right which their ancestors had abdicated in their name, they abdicate the same right in the name of their posterity. To increase the ridicule of this legislative farce, they impose an irrevocable law on their posterity, in the precise words of that law irrevocably imposed on them by their ancestors, at the moment when they are violating it. The Parliament of Elizabeth submit themselves and their posterity for ever: the Convention of 1688 spurn the submission for themselves, but re-enact it for their posterity. And after such a glaring inconsistency, this language of statutory adulation is seriously and triumphantly brought forward as “the unerring oracles of Revolution policy.”
Thus evidently has it appeared, from the conduct and language of the leaders of the Revolution, that it was a deposition and an election; and that all language of a contrary tendency, which is to be found in their acts, arose from the remnant of their own prejudice, or from concession to the prejudice of others, or from the superficial and presumptuous policy of imposing august illusions on mankind. The same spirit regulated,—the same prejudices impeded their progress in every department. “They acted,” says Mr. Burke, “by their ancient States:”—they did not. Were the Peers, and the Members of a dissolved House of Commons, with the Lord Mayor of London, &c. convoked by a summons from the Prince of Orange, the Parliament of England?—no: they were neither lawfully elected, nor lawfully assembled. But they affected a semblance of a Parliament in their Convention, and a semblance of hereditary right in their election. The subsequent Act of Parliament is nugatory; for as that Legislature derived its whole existence and authority from the Convention, it could not return more than it had received, and could not, therefore, legalise the acts of the body which created it. If they were not previously legal, the Parliament itself was without legal authority, and could therefore give no legal sanction.
It is, therefore, without any view to a prior, or allusion to a subsequent revolution, that Dr. Price, and the Revolution Society of London, think themselves entitled to conclude, that abused power is revocable, and that corrupt governments ought to be reformed. Of the first of these Revolutions,—that in 1648,—they may, perhaps, entertain different sentiments from Mr. Burke. They will confess that it was debased by the mixture of fanaticism; they may lament that History has so often prostituted her ungenerous suffrage to success; and that the commonwealth was obscured and overwhelmed by the splendid profligacy of military usurpation: but they cannot arrogate to themselves the praise of having been the first to maintain,—nor can Mr. Burke support his claim to have been the first to reprobate,—since that period, the audacious heresy of popular politics.
The prototype of Mr. Burke is not a less notorious personage than the predecessor he has assigned to Dr. Price. History has preserved fewer memorials of Hugh Peters than of Judge Jeffries. It was the fortune of that luminary and model of lawyers to sit in judgment on one of the fanatical apostles of democracy. In the present ignominious obscurity of the sect in England, it may be necessary to mention, that the name of this criminal was Algernon Sidney, who had, it is true, in his own time acquired some renown,—celebrated as the hero, and deplored as the martyr of freedom. But the learned magistrate was above this “epidemical fanaticism:” he inveighed against his pestilential dogmas in a spirit that deprives Mr. Burke’s invective against Dr. Price of all pretensions to originality. An unvarnished statement will so evince the harmony both of the culprits and the accusers, that remark is superfluous:—
“And that the aforesaid Algernon Sidney did make, compose and write, or cause to be made, composed and written, a certain false, scandalous and seditious libel, in which is contained the following English words:—‘The Power originally in the people is delegated to the Parliament. He (meaning the King) is subject to the laws of God, as he is a man, and to the people that made him a king, inasmuch as he is a king.’ And in another place of the said libel he says, ‘We may therefore take away kings without breaking any yoke, or that is made a yoke, which ought not to be one; and the injury therefore is making or imposing, and there can be none in breaking it,’ &c.”—Indictment of Algernon Sidney, State Trials, vol. iii. p. 716.
“We have a right to choose our own governors, to cashier them for misconduct, and to frame a government for ourselves.”—Dr. Price’s Sermon.
Thus we see the harmony of the culprits: the one is only a perspicuous and precise abridgment of the other. The harmony of the judges will not be found less remarkable: Mr. Burke, “when he talks as if he had made a discovery, only follows a precedent:”—
“The King, it says, is responsible to them, and he is only their trustee. He has misgoverned, and he is to give it up, that they may be all kings themselves. Gentlemen, I must tell you, I think I ought, more than ordinarily, to press this on you, because I know the misfortunes of the late unhappy rebellion; and the bringing of the late blessed King to the scaffold was first begun by such kind of principles.”—Jeffries’ Charge.
“The Revolution Society chooses to assert, that a king is no more than the first servant of the public, created by it, and responsible to it.” “The second claim of the Revolution Society is cashiering the monarch for misconduct.”—“The Revolution Society, the heroic band of fabricators of governments, electors of sovereigns.”—“This sermon is in a strain which has never been heard in this kingdom in any of the pulpits which are tolerated or encouraged in it since 1648.”—Mr. Burke’s Reflections.
Thus does Mr. Burke chant his political song in exact unison with the strains of the venerable magistrate: they indict the same crimes; they impute the same motives; they dread the same consequences.
The Revolution Society felt, from the great event which they professedly commemorated, new motives to exult in the emancipation of France. The Revolution of 1688 deserves more the attention of a philosopher from its indirect influence on the progress of human opinion, than from its immediate effects on the government of England. In the first view, it is perhaps difficult to estimate the magnitude of its effects. It sanctified, as we have seen, the general principles of freedom. It gave the first example in civilized modern Europe of a government which reconciled a semblance of political, and a large portion of civil liberty, with stability and peace. But above all, Europe owes to it the inestimable blessing of an asylum for freedom of thought. Hence England became the preceptress of the world in philosophy and freedom: hence arose the school of sages, who unshackled and emancipated the human mind; from among whom issued the Lockes, the Rousseaus, the Turgots, and the Franklins,—the immortal band of preceptors and benefactors of mankind. They silently operated a grand moral revolution, which was in due time to ameliorate the social order. They had tyrants to dethrone more formidable than kings, and from whom kings held their power. They wrested the sceptre from Superstition, and dragged Prejudice in triumph. They destroyed the arsenal whence Despotism had borrowed her thunders and her chains. These grand enterprises of philosophic heroism must have preceded the reforms of civil government. The Colossus of tyranny was undermined, and a pebble overthrew it.
With this progress of opinion arose the American Revolution; and from this last, most unquestionably, the delivery of France. Nothing, therefore, could be more natural, than that those who, without blind bigotry for the forms, had a rational reverence for the principles of our ancestors, should rejoice in a Revolution, in which these principles, long suffered to repose in impotent abstraction in England, are called forth into energy, expanded, invigorated, and matured. If, as we have presumed to suppose, the Revolution of 1688 may have had no small share in accelerating the progress of light which has dissolved the prejudices that supported despotism, they may be permitted, besides their exultation as friends of humanity, to indulge some pride as Englishmen.
It must be confessed that our ancestors in 1688, confined, in their practical regulations, their views solely to the urgent abuse. They punished the usurper without ameliorating the government; and they proscribed usurpations without correcting their source. They were content to clear the turbid stream, instead of purifying the polluted fountain. They merit, however, veneration for their achievements, and the most ample amnesty for their defects; for the first were their own, and the last are imputable to the age in which they lived. The true admirers of the Revolution will pardon it for having spared useless establishments, only because they revere it for having established grand principles. But the case of Mr. Burke is different; he deifies its defects, and derides its principles: and were Lord Somers to listen to such misplaced eulogy, and tortured inference, he might justly say, “You deny us the only praise we can claim; and the only merit you allow us is in the sacrifices we were compelled to make to prejudice and ignorance. Your glory is our shame.” Reverence for the principles, and pardon of the defects of civil changes, which arise in ages but partially enlightened, are the plain dictates of common sense. Admiration of Magna Charta does not infer any respect for villainage; reverence for Roman patriotism is not incompatible with detestation of slavery; nor does veneration for the Revolutionists of 1688 impose any blindness to the gross, radical, and multiplied absurdities and corruptions in their political system. The true admirers of Revolution principles cannot venerate institutions as sage and effectual protections of freedom, which experience has proved to be nerveless and illusive.
“The practical claim of impeachment,”—the vaunted responsibility of ministers,—is the most sorry juggle of political empiricism by which a people were ever attempted to be lulled into servitude. State prosecutions in free states have ever either languished in impotent and despised tediousness, or burst forth in a storm of popular indignation, that has at once overwhelmed its object, without discrimination of innocence or guilt. Nothing but this irresistible fervor can destroy the barriers within which powerful and opulent delinquents are fortified. If it is not with imminent hazard to equity and humanity gratified at the moment, it subsides. The natural influence of the culprit, and of the accomplices interested in his impunity, resumes its place. As these trials are necessarily long, and the facts which produce conviction, and the eloquence which rouses indignation, are effaced from the public mind by time, by ribaldry, and by sophistry, the shame of a corrupt decision is extenuated. Every source of obloquy or odium that can be attached to the obnoxious and invidious character of an accuser is exhausted by the profuse corruption of the delinquent. The tribunal of public opinion, which alone preserves the purity of others, is itself polluted; and a people wearied, disgusted, irritated, and corrupted, suffer the culprit to retire in impunity and splendour.*
Such has ever been the state of things, when the force of the Government has been sufficient to protect the accused from the first ebullition of popular impetuosity. The democracies of antiquity presented a spectacle directly the reverse; but no history affords any example of a just medium. State trials will always either be impotent or oppressive,—a persecution or a farce.
Thus vain is the security of impeachment: and equally absurd, surely, is our confidence in “the control of parliaments,” in their present constitution, and with their remaining powers. To begin with the last:—they possess the nominal power of impeachment. Not to mention its disuse in the case of any minister for more than seventy years, it is always too late to remedy the evil, and probably always too weak to punish the criminal. They possess a pretended power of withholding supplies: but the situation of society has in truth wrested it from them. The supplies they must vote: for the army must have its pay, and the public creditors their interest. A power that cannot be exercised without provoking mutiny, and proclaiming bankruptcy, the blindest bigot cannot deny to be purely nominal. A practical substitute for these theoretical powers existed till our days in the negative exercised by the House of Commons on the choice of the Minister of the Crown. But the elevation of Mr. Pitt has establised a precedent which has extirpated the last shadow of popular control from the government of England:—
In truth, the force and the privileges of Parliament are almost indifferent to the people; for it is not the guardian of their rights, nor the organ of their voice. We are said to be “unequally represented.” This is one of those contradictory phrases that form the political jargon of half-enlightened periods. Unequal freedom is a contradiction in terms. The law is the deliberate reason of all, guiding their occasional will. Representation is an expedient for peacefully, systematically, and unequivocally collecting this universal voice:—so thought and so spoke the Edmund Burke of better times. “To follow, not to force the public inclination, to give a direction, a form, a technical dress, and a specific sanction to the general sense of the community, is the true end of legislature:”† —there spoke the correspondent of Franklin,‡ the champion of America, the enlightened advocate of humanity and freedom! If these principles be true, and they are so true that it seems almost puerile to repeat them, who can without indignation hear the House of Commons of England called a popular representative body? A more insolent and preposterous abuse of language is not to be found in the vocabulary of tyrants. The criterion that distinguishes laws from dictates, freedom from servitude, rightful government from usurpation,—a law being an expression of the general will,—is wanting. This is the grievance which the admirers of the Revolution of 1688 desire to remedy according to its principles. This is that perennial source of corruption which has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished. If the general interest is not the object of our government, it is—it must be because the general will does not govern.
We are boldly challenged to produce our proofs; our complaints are asserted to be chimerical; and the excellence of our government is inferred from its beneficial effects. Most unfortunately for us,—most unfortunately for our country, these proofs are too ready and too numerous. We find them in that “monumental debt,” the bequest of wasteful and profligate wars, which already wrings from the peasant something of his hard-earned pittance,—which already has punished the industry of the useful and upright manufacturer, by robbing him of the asylum of his house, and the judgment of his peers,* —to which the madness of political Quixotism adds a million for every farthing that the pomp of ministerial empiricism pays,—and which menaces our children with convulsions and calamities, of which no age has seen the parallel. We find them in the black and bloody roll of persecuting statutes that are still suffered to stain our code;—a list so execrable, that were no monument to be preserved of what England was in the eighteenth century but her Statute Book, she might be deemed to have been then still plunged in the deepest gloom of superstitious barbarism. We find them in the ignominious exclusion of great bodies of our fellow-citizens from political trusts, by tests which reward falsehood and punish probity,—which profane the rights of the religion they pretend to guard, and usurp the dominion of the God they profess to revere. We find them in the growing corruption of those who administer the government,—in the venality of a House of Commons, which has become only a cumbrous and expensive chamber for registering ministerial edicts,—in the increase of a nobility degraded by the profusion and prostitution of honours, which the most zealous partisans of democracy would have spared them. We find them, above all, in the rapid progress which has been made in silencing the great organ of public opinion,—that Press, which is the true control over the Ministers and Parliaments, who might else, with impunity, trample on the impotent formalities that form the pretended bulwark of our freedom. The mutual control, the well-poised balance of the several members of our Legislature, are the visions of theoretical, or the pretext of practical politicians. It is a government, not of check, but of conspiracy,—a conspiracy which can only be repressed by the energy of popular opinion.
These are no visionary ills,—no chimerical apprehensions: they are the sad and sober reflections of as honest and enlightened men as any in the kingdom. Nor are they alleviated by the torpid and listless security into which the people seem to be lulled. “Summum otium forense non quiescentis sed senescentis civitatis.” It is in this fatal temper that men become sufficiently debased and embruted to sink into placid and polluted servitude. It is then that it may most truly be said, that the mind of a country is slain. The admirers of Revolution principles naturally call on every aggrieved and enlightened citizen to consider the source of his oppression. If penal statutes hang over our Catholic brethren,* —if Test Acts outrage our Protestant fellow-citizens,—if the remains of feudal tyranny are still suffered to exist in Scotland,—if the press is fettered,—if our right to trial by jury is abridged,—if our manufacturers are proscribed and hunted down by excise,—the reason of all these oppressions is the same:—no branch of the Legislature represents the people. Men are oppressed because they have no share in their own government. Let all these classes of oppressed citizens melt their local and partial grievances into one great mass. Let them cease to be suppliants for their rights, or to sue for them like mendicants, as a precarious boon from the arrogant pity of usurpers. Until the Legislature speaks their voice it will oppress them. Let them unite to procure such a Reform in the representation of the people as will make the House of Commons their representative. If, dismissing all petty views of obtaining their own particular ends, they unite for this great object, they must succeed. The co-operating efforts of so many bodies of citizens must awaken the nation; and its voice will be spoken in a tone that virtuous governors will obey, and tyrannical ones must dread.
This tranquil and legal Reform is the ultimate object of those whom Mr. Burke has so foully branded. In effect, this would be amply sufficient. The powers of the King and the Lords have never been formidable in England, but from discords between the House of Commons and its pretended constituents. Were that House really to become the vehicle of the popular voice, the privileges of other bodies, in opposition to the sense of the people and their representatives, would be but as dust in the balance. From this radical improvement all subaltern reform would naturally and peaceably arise. We dream of no more; and in claiming this, instead of meriting the imputation of being apostles of sedition, we conceive ourselves entitled to be considered as the most sincere friends of tranquil and stable government. We desire to avert revolution by reform,—subversion by correction.* We admonish our governors to reform, while they retain the force to reform with dignity and security; and we conjure them not to await the moment, which will infallibly arrive, when they shall be obliged to supplicate that people, whom they oppress and despise, for the slenderest pittance of their present powers.
The grievances of England do not now, we confess, justify a change by violence: but they are in a rapid progress to that fatal state, in which they will both justify and produce it. It is because we sincerely love tranquil freedom,† that we earnestly deprecate the arrival of the moment when virtue and honour shall compel us to seek her with our swords. Are not they the true friends to authority who desire, that whatever is granted by it “should issue as a gift of her bounty and beneficence, rather than as claims recovered against a struggling litigant? Or, at least, that if her beneficence obtained no credit in her concessions, they should appear the salutary provisions of wisdom and foresight, not as things wrung with blood by the cruel gripe of a rigid necessity.”‡ We desire that the political light which is to break in on England should be “through wellcontrived and well-disposed windows, not through flaws and breaches,—through the yawning chasms of our ruin.”§
Such was the language of Mr. Burke in cases nearly parallel to the present. But of those who now presume to give similar counsels, his alarm and abhorrence are extreme. They deem the “present times” favourable “to all exertions in the cause of liberty.” They naturally must: their hopes in that great cause are from the determined and recording voices of enlightened men. The shock that has destroyed the despotism of France has widely dispersed the clouds that intercepted reason from the political and moral world; and we cannot suppose, that England is the only spot that has not been reached by this “flood of light” that has burst upon the human race. We might suppose, too, that Englishmen would be shamed out of their torpor by the great exertions of nations whom we had long deemed buried in hopeless servitude.
But nothing can be more absurd than to assert, that all who admire wish to imitate the French Revolution. In one view, there is room for diversity of opinion among the warmest and wisest friends of freedom,—as to the amount of democracy infused into the new government. In another, and a more important one, it is to be recollected, that the conduct of nations is apt to vary with the circumstances in which they are placed. Blind admirers of Revolutions take them for implicit models. Thus Mr. Burke admires that of 1688: but we, who conceive that we pay the purest homage to the authors of that Revolution, not in contending for what they then did, but for what they now would do, can feel no inconsistency in looking on France, not to model our conduct, but to invigorate the spirit of freedom. We permit ourselves to imagine how Lord Somers, in the light and knowledge of the eighteenth century,—how the patriots of France, in the tranquillity and opulence of England, would have acted. We are not bound to copy the conduct to which the last were driven by a bankrupt exchequer and a dissolved government, nor to maintain the establishments, which were spared by the first in a prejudiced and benighted age. Exact imitation is not necessary to reverence. We venerate the principles which presided in both events; and we adapt to political admiration a maxim which has long been received in polite letters,—that the only manly and liberal imitation is to speak as a great man would have spoken, had he lived in our times, and had been placed in our circumstances.
But let us hear the charge of Mr. Burke. “Is our monarchy to be annihilated, with all he laws, all the tribunals, all the ancient corporations of the kingdom? Is every landmark of the kingdom to be done away in favour of a geometrical and arithmetical constitution? Is the House of Lords to be useless? Is episcopacy to be abolished?”—and, in a word, is France to be imitated? Yes! if our governors imitate her policy, the state must follow her catastrophe. Man is every where man: imprisoned grievance will at length have vent; and the storm of popular passion will find a feeble obstacle in the solemn imbecility of human institutions. But who are the true friends of order, the prerogative of the monarch, the splendour of the hierarchy, and the dignity of the peerage?—those most certainly who inculcate, that to withhold Reform is to stimulate convulsion,—those who admonish all to whom honour, and rank, and dignity, and wealth are dear, that they can only in the end preserve them by conceding, while the moment of concession remains,—those who aim at draining away the fountains that feed the torrent, instead of opposing puny barriers to its course. “The beginnings of confusion in England are at present feeble enough; but with you we have seen an infancy still more feeble growing by moments into a strength to heap mountains upon mountains, and to wage war with Heaven itself. Whenever our neighbour’s house is on fire, it cannot be amiss for the engines to play a little upon our own.” This language, taken in its most natural sense, is exactly what the friends of Reform in England would adopt. Every gloomy tint that is added to the horrors of the French Revolution by the tragic pencil of Mr. Burke, is a new argument in support of their claims; and those only are the real enemies of the Nobility, the Priesthood, and other bodies of men that suffer in such convulsions, who stimulate them to unequal and desperate conflicts. Such are the sentiments of those who can admire without servilely copying recent changes, and can venerate the principles without superstitiously defending the corrupt reliques of old revolutions.
“Grand, swelling sentiments of liberty,” says Mr. Burke, “I am sure I do not despise. Old as I am, I still read the fine raptures of Lucan and Corneille with pleasure.” Long may that virtuous and venerable age enjoy such pleasures! But why should he be indignant that “the glowing sentiment and the lofty speculation should have passed from the schools and the closet to the senate,” and no longer only serving
“To point a moral or adorn a tale,”*
should be brought home to the business and the bosoms of men? The sublime genius, whom Mr. Burke admires, and who sung the obsequies of Roman freedom, has one sentiment, which the friends of liberty in England, if they are like him condemned to look abroad for a free government, must adopt:—
[* ] A Discourse on the Love of our Country, delivered on Nov. 4th, 1789, at the Meeting-house in Old Jewry, to the Society for commemorating the Revolution in Great Britain. London, 1789.
[* ] It is not a little remarkable, that Buchanan puts into the mouth of his antagonist, Maitland, the same alarms for the downfall of literature that have been excited in the mind of Mr. Burke by the French Revolution. We can smile at such alarms on a retrospect of the literary history of Europe for the seventeenth of eighteen centuries: and should our controversies reach the enlightened scholars of a future age, they will probably, with the same reason, smile at the alarms of Mr. Burke.
[* ] Thomson’s Summer.
[† ] Principle is respectable, even in its mistakes; and these Tories of the last century were a party of principle. There were accordingly among them men of the most elevated and untainted honour. Who will refuse that praise to Clarendon and Southampton, to Ormonde and Montrose? But Toryism, as a party of principle, cannot now exist in England; for the principles on which we have seen it to be founded, exist no more. The Gothic sentiment is effaced; the superstition is exploded; and the landed and commercial interests are completely intermixed. The Toryism of the present day can only arise from an abject spirit, or a corrupt heart.
[* ] This progress of Royal influence from a disputed succession has, in fact, most fatally taken place. The Protestant succession was the supposed means of preserving our liberties; and to that means the end has been most deplorably sacrificed. The Whigs, the sincere though timid and partial friends of freedom, were forced to cling to the throne as the anchor of liberty. To preserve it from utter shipwreck, they were forced to yield something to its protectors;—hence a national debt, a septennial Parliament, and a standing army. The avowed reason of the two last was Jacobitism;—hence the unnatural coalition between Whiggism and Kings during the reigns of the two first princes of the House of Hanover. which the pupilage of Leicester House so totally broke.
[* ] Part of this description is purely historical. Heaven forbid that the sequel should prove prophetic!—When this subject [the late trial of Warren Hastings.—Ed.] presents Mr. Burke to mind, I must say, “Talis cum sis, utinam noster esses.”
[† ] Juvenal, Sat. i.
[* ] Pharsalia, lib. ix.
[† ] Burke’s “Two Letters to Gentlemen in the City of Bristol” (1778), p. 52.
[‡ ] Mr. Burke has had the honour of being traduced for corresponding, during the American war, with this great man because he was a rebel!
[* ] Alluding to the stringent provisions of the “Tobacco Act.”—Ed.
[* ] No body of men in any state that pretends to freedom have ever been so insolently oppressed as the Catholic majority of Ireland. Their cause has been lately pleaded by an eloquent advocate, whose virtues might have been supposed to have influenced my praise, as the partial dictate of friendship, had not his genius extorted it as a strict tribute to justice. I perceive that he retains much of that admiration which we cherished in common, by his classical quotation respecting Mr. Burke:—“Uni quippe vacat, studiisque odiisque carenti,Humanum legere genus.”Pharsalia, lib. ii.
See “The Constitutional Interests of Ireland with respect to the Popery Laws,” (Dublin, 1791,) part iv.
[* ] Let the governors of all states compare the convulsion which the obstinacy of the Government provoked in France, with the peaceful and dignified reform which its wisdom effected in Poland. The moment is important, the dilemma inevitable, the alternative awful, the lesson most instructive.“Manus hæc inimica tyrannisEnse petit placidam sub libertate quietem.”
[† ] [The lines inserted by Algernon Sidney in the Album of the University of Copenhagen.—Ed.]
[‡ ] Burke, Speech at Bristol.
[§ ] Ibid.
[* ] Vanity of Human Wishes.—Ed.
[† ] Pharsalia, lib. vii.