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ON THE RIGHT OF PARLIAMENTARY SUFFRAGE. * - Sir James Mackintosh, The Miscellaneous Works 
The Miscellaneous Works. Three Volumes, complete in One. (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1871).
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ON THE RIGHT OF PARLIAMENTARY SUFFRAGE.*
What mode of representation is most likely to secure the liberty, and consequently the happiness, of a community circumstanced like the people of Great Britain? On the elementary part of this great question, it will be sufficient to remind the reader of a few undisputed truths. The object of government, is security against wrong.—Most civilized governments, tolerably secure their subjects against wrong from each other. But to secure them, by laws, against wrong from the government itself, is a problem of a far more difficult sort, which few nations have attempted to solve,—and of which it is not so much as pretended that, since the beginning of history, more than one or two great states have approached the solution. It will be universally acknowledged, that this approximation has never been affected by any other means than that of a legislative assembly, chosen by some considerable portion of the people.
The direct object of a popular representation is, that one, at least, of the bodies exercising the legislative power being dependent on the people by election, should have the strongest inducement to guard their interests, and to maintain their rights. For this purpose, it is not sufficient, that it should have the same general interests with the people; for every government has, in truth, the same interests with its subjects. It is necessary that the more direct and palpable interest, arising from election, should be superadded. In every legislative senate, the modes of appointment ought to be such as to secure the nomination of members the best qualified, and the most disposed, to make laws conducive to the well-being of the whole community. In a representative assembly this condition, though absolutely necessary, is not of itself sufficient.
To understand the principles of its composition thoroughly, we must divide the people into classes, and examine the variety of local and professional interests of which the whole is composed. Each of these classes must be represented by persons who will guard its peculiar interest, whether that interest arises from inhabiting the same district, or pursuing the same occupation,—such as traffic, or husbandry, or the useful or ornamental arts. The fidelity and zeal of such representatives, are to be secured by every provision which, to a sense of common interest, can superadd a fellow-feeling with their constituents. Nor is this all: in a great state, even that part of the public interest which is common to all classes, is composed of a great variety of branches. A statesman should indeed have a comprehensive view of the whole: but no one man can be skilled in all the particulars. The same education, and the same pursuits, which qualify men to understand and regulate some branches, disqualify them for others. The representative assembly must therefore contain, some members peculiarly qualified for discussions of the constitution and the laws,—others for those of foreign policy,—some for those of the respective interests of agriculture, commerce, and manufactures,—some for those of military affairs by sea and land,—and some also who are conversant with the colonies and distant possessions of a great empire. It would be a mistake to suppose that the place of such representatives could be supplied by witnesses examined on each particular subject. Both are not more than sufficient;—skilful witnesses occasionally, for the most minute information,—skilful representatives continally, to discover and conduct evidence, and to enforce and illustrate the matters belonging to their department with the weight of those who speak on a footing of equality.
It is obvious, that as long as this composition is insured, it is for the present purpose a matter of secondary importance whether it be effected by direct or indirect means. To be a faithful representative, it is necessary that such an assembly should be numerous,—that it should learn, from experience, the movements that agitate multitudes,—and that it should be susceptible, in no small degree, of the action of those causes which sway the thoughts and feelings of assemblies of the people. For the same reason, among others, it is expedient that its proceedings should be public, and the reasonings on which they are founded, submitted to the judgment of mankind. These democratical elements are indeed to be tempered and restrained by such contrivances as may be necessary to maintain the order and independence of deliberation: but, without them, no assembly, however elected, can truly represent a people.
Among the objects of representation, two may, in an especial manner, deserve observation:—the qualifications for making good laws, and those for resisting oppression.
Now, the capacity of an assembly to make good laws, evidently depends on the quantity of skill and information of every kind which it possesses. But it seems to be advantageous that it should contain a large proportion of one body of a more neutral and inactive character,—not indeed to propose much, but to mediate or arbitrate in the differences between the more busy classes, from whom important propositions are to be expected. The suggestions of every man relating to his province, have doubtless a peculiar value: but most men imbibe prejudices with their knowledge; and, in the struggle of various classes for their conflicting interests, the best chance for an approach to right decision, lies in an appeal to the largest body of well-educated men, of leisure, large property, temperate character, and who are impartial on more subjects than any other class of men. An ascendency, therefore, of landed proprietors must be considered, on the whole, as a beneficial circumstance in a representative body.
For resistance to oppression, it is peculiarly necessary that the lower, and, in some places, the lowest classes, should possess the right of suffrage. Their rights would otherwise be less protected than those of any other class; for some individuals of every other class, would generally find admittance into the legislature; or, at least, there is no other class which is not connected with some of its members. But in the uneducated classes, none can either sit in a representative assembly, or be connected on an equal footing with its members. The right of suffrage, therefore, is the only means by which they can make their voice heard in its deliberations. They also often send to a representative assembly, members whose character is an important element in its composition,—men of popular talents, principles, and feelings,—quick in suspecting oppression,—bold in resisting it,—not thinking favourably of the powerful,—listening, almost with credulity to the complaints of the humble and the feeble,—and impelled by ambition, where they are not prompted by generosity, to be the champions of the defenceless.
In all political institutions, it is a fortunate circumstance when legal power is bestowed on those who already possess a natural influence and ascendant over their fellow-citizens. Wherever, indeed, the circumstances of society, and the appointments of law, are in this respect completely at variance, submission can hardly be maintained without the odious and precarious means of force and fear. But in a representative assembly, which exercises directly no power, and of which the members are too numerous to derive much individual consequence from their stations, the security and importance of the body, more than in any other case, depend on the natural influence of those who compose it. In this respect, talent and skill, besides their direct utility, have a secondary value of no small importance. Together with the other circumstances which command respect or attachment among men,—with popularity, with fame, with property, with liberal education and condition,—they form a body of strength, which no law could give or take away. As far as an assembly is deprived of any of these natural principles of authority, so far it is weakened both for the purpose of resisting the usurpations of government and of maintaining the order of society.
An elective system tends also, in other material respects, to secure that free government, of which it is the most essential member. As it calls some of almost every class of men to share in legislative power, and many of all classes to exercise the highest franchises, it engages the pride, the honour, and the private interest as well as the generosity, of every part of the community, in defence of the constitution. Every noble sentiment, every reasonable consideration, every petty vanity, and every contemptible folly, are made to contribute towards its security. The performance of some of its functions becomes part of the ordinary habits of bodies of men numerous enough to spread their feelings over great part of a nation.
Popular representation thus, in various ways, tends to make governments good, and to make good governments secure:—these are its primary advantages. But free, that is just, governments, tend to make men more intelligent, more honest, more brave, more generous. Liberty is the parent of genius,—the nurse of reason,—the inspirer of that valour which makes nations secure and powerful,—the incentive to that activity and enterprise to which they owe wealth and splendour, the school of those principles of humanity and justice which bestow an unspeakably greater happiness, than any of the outward advantages of which they are the chief sources, and the sole guardians.
These effects of free government on the character of a people, may, in one sense, be called indirect and secondary; but they are not the less to be considered as among its greatest blessings: and it is scarcely necessary to observe, how much they tend to enlarge and secure the liberty from which they spring. But their effect will perhaps be better shown by a more particular view of the influence of popular elections on the character of the different classes of the community.
To begin with the higher classes:—the English nobility, who are blended with the gentry by imperceptible shades, are the most opulent and powerful order of men in Europe. They are comparatively a small body, who unite great legal privileges with ample possessions, and names both of recent renown and historical glory. They have attained almost all the objects of human pursuit. They are surrounded by every circumstance which might seem likely to fill them with arrogance,—to teach them to scorn their inferiors, and which might naturally be supposed to extinguish enterprise, and to lull every power of the understanding to sleep. What has preserved their character? What makes them capable of serving or adorning their country as orators and poets, men of letters and men of business, in as great a proportion as in any equal number of the best educated classes of their countrymen? Surely only one solution can be given of these phenomena, peculiar to our own country.* Where all the ordinary incentives to action are withdrawn, a free constitution excites it, by presenting political power as a new object of pursuit. By rendering that power in a great degree dependent on popular favour, it compels the highest to treat their fellow-creatures with decency and courtesy, and disposes the best of them to feel, that inferiors in station may be superiors in worth, as they are equals in right. Hence chiefly arises that useful preference for country life, which distinguishes the English gentry from that of other nations. In despotic countries they flock to the court, where all their hopes are fixed: but here, as they have much to hope from the people, they must cultivate the esteem, and even court the favour of their own natural dependants. They are quickened in the pursuit of ambition, by the rivalship of that enterprising talent, which is stimulated by more urgent motives. These dispositions and manners have become, in some measure, independent of the causes which originally produced them, and extend to many on whom these causes could have little operation. In a great body, we must allow for every variety of form and degree. It is sufficient that a system of extensively popular representation has, in a course of time, produced this general character, and that the English democracy is the true preservative of the talents and virtues of the aristocracy.
The effects of the elective franchise upon the humbler classes, are, if possible, still more obvious and important. By it the peasant is taught to “venerate himself as a man”—to employ his thoughts, at least occasionally, upon high matters,—to meditate on the same subjects with the wise and the great,—to enlarge his feelings beyond the circle of his narrow concerns,—to sympathise, however irregularly, with great bodies of his fellow-creatures, and sometimes to do acts which he may regard as contributing directly to the welfare of his country. Much of this good tendency is doubtless counteracted by other circumstances. The outward form is often ridiculous or odious. The judgments of the multitude are never exact, and their feelings often grossly misapplied: but, after all possible deductions, great benefits must remain. The important object is, that they should think and feel,—that they should contemplate extensive consequences as capable of arising from their own actions, and thus gradually become conscious of the moral dignity of their nature.
Among the very lowest classes, where the disorders of elections are the most offensive, the moral importance of the elective franchise is, in some respects, the greatest. As individuals, they feel themselves of no consequence;—hence, in part, arises their love of numerous assemblies,—the only scenes in which the poor feel their importance. Brought together for elections, their tumultuary disposition, which is little else than a desire to display their short-lived consequence, is gratified at the expense of inconsiderable evils. It is useful that the pride of the highest should be made occasionally to bend before them,—that the greatest objects of ambition should be partly at their disposal; it teaches them to feel that they also are men. It is to the exercise of this franchise, by some bodies of our lowest classes, that we are to ascribe that sense of equality,—that jealousy of right,—that grave independence, and calm pride, which has been observed by foreigners as marking the deportment of Englishmen.
By thus laying open some of the particular modes in which representation produces its advantages to the whole community, and to its separate classes, we hope that we have contributed somewhat to the right decision of the practical question which now presents itself to our view. Systems of election may be of very various kinds. The right of suffrage may be limited, or universal; it may be secretly, or openly exercised; the representatives may be directly, or indirectly, chosen by the people; and where a qualification is necessary, it may be uniform, or it may vary in different places. A variety of rights of suffrage is the principle of the English representation. In the reign of Edward the First, as much as at the present moment, the members for counties were chosen by freeholders, and those for cities and towns by freemen, burgage tenants, householders or freeholders. Now, we prefer this general principle of our representation to any uniform right of suffrage; though we think that, in the present state of things, there are many particulars which, according to that principle, ought to be amended.
Our reasons for this preference are shortly these:—every uniform system which seriously differs from universal suffrage, must be founded on such a qualification, as to take away the elective franchise from those portions of the inferior classes who now enjoy it. Even the condition of paying direct taxes would disfranchise many. After what we have already said, on the general subject of representation, it is needless for us to add, that we should consider such a disfranchisement as a most pernicious mutilation of the representative system. It has already been seen, how much, in our opinion, the proper composition of the House of Commons, the justice of the government and the morality of the people, depend upon the elections which would be thus sacrificed.
This tendency of an uniform qualification is visible in the new French system. The qualification for the electors, is the annual payment of direct taxes to the amount of about 12l. When the wealth of the two countries is compared, it will be apparent that, in this country, such a system would be thought a mere aristocracy. In France, the result is a body of one hundred thousand electors;* and in the situation and temper of the French nation, such a scheme of representation may be eligible. But we mention it only as an example, that every uniform qualification, which is not altogether illusory, must incline towards independent property, as being the only ground on which it can rest. The reform of Cromwell had the same aristocratical character, though in a far less degree. It nearly excluded what is called the “populace;” and, for that reason, is commended by the most sagacious† of our Tory writers. An uniform qualification, in short, must be so high as to exclude true popular election, or so low, as to be liable to most of the objections which we shall presently offer against universal suffrage. It seems difficult to conceive how it could be so adjusted, as not either to impair the spirit of liberty, or to expose the quiet of society to continual hazard.
Our next objection to uniformity is, that it exposes the difference between the proprietors and the indigent, in a way offensive and degrading to the feelings of the latter. The difference itself is indeed real, and cannot be removed: but in our present system, it is disguised under a great variety of usages; it is far from uniformly regulating the franchise; and, even where it does, this invidious distinction is not held out in its naked form. It is something, also, that the system of various rights does not constantly thrust forward that qualification of property which, in its undisguised state, may be thought to teach the people too exclusive a regard for wealth.
This variety, by giving a very great weight to property in some elections, enables us safely to allow an almost unbounded scope to popular feeling in others. While some have fallen under the influence of a few great proprietors, others border on universal suffrage. All the intermediate varieties, and all their possible combinations, find their place. Let the reader seriously reflect how all the sorts of men, who are necessary component parts of a good House of Commons, could on any other scheme find their way to it. We have already sufficiently animadverted on the mischief of excluding popular leaders. Would there be no mischief in excluding those important classes of men, whose character unfits them for success in a canvass, or whose fortune may be unequal to the expense of a contest? A representative assembly, elected by a low uniform qualification, would fluctuate between country gentlemen and demagogues:—elected on a high qualification, it would probably exhibit an unequal contest between landholders and courtiers. All other interests would, on either system, be unprotected: no other class would contribute its contingent of skill and knowledge to aid the deliberations of the legislature.
The founders of new commonwealths must, we confess, act upon some uniform principle. A builder can seldom imitate, with success, all the fantastic but picturesque and comfortable irregularities, of an old mansion, which through a course of ages has been repaired, enlarged, and altered, according to the pleasure of various owners. This is one of the many disadvantages attendant on the lawgivers of infant states. Something, perhaps, by great skill and caution, they might do; but their wisdom is most shown, after guarding the great principles of liberty, by leaving time to do the rest.
Though we are satisfied, by the above and by many other considerations, that we ought not to exchange our diversified elections for any general qualification, we certainly consider universal suffrage as beyond calculation more mischievous than any other uniform right. The reasons which make it important to liberty, that the elective franchise should be exercised by large bodies of the lower classes, do not in the least degree require that it should be conferred on them all. It is necessary to their security from oppression, that the whole class should have some representatives: but as their interest is every where the same, representatives elected by one body of them are necessarily the guardians of the rights of all. The great object of representation for them, is to be protected against violence and cruelty. Sympathy with suffering, and indignation against cruelty, are easily excited in numerous assemblies, and must either be felt or assumed by all their members. Popular elections generally insure the return of some men, who shrink from no appeal, however invidious, on behalf of the oppressed. We must again repeat, that we consider such men as invaluable members of a House of Commons;—perhaps their number is at present too small. What we now maintain is, that, though elected by one place, they are in truth the representatives of the same sort of people in other places. Their number must be limited, unless we are willing to exclude other interests, and to sacrifice other most important objects of representation.
The exercise of the elective franchise by some of the labouring classes, betters the character, raises the spirit, and enhances the consequence of all. An English farmer or artisan is more high-spirited and independent than the same classes in despotic countries; but nobody has ever observed that there is in England a like difference between the husbandman and mechanic, who have votes, and who have not. The exclusion of the class degrades the whole: but the admission of a part bestows on the whole a sense of importance, and a hold on the estimation of their superiors. It must be admitted, that a small infusion of popular election would not produce these effects: whatever might seem to be the accidental privilege of a few, would have no influence on the rank of their fellows. It must be considerable, and,—what is perhaps still more necessary,—it must be conspicuous, and forced on the attention by the circumstances which excite the feelings, and strike the imagination of mankind. The value of external dignity is not altogether confined to kings or senates. The people also have their majesty; and they too ought to display their importance in the exercise of their rights.
The question is, whether all interests will be protected, where the representatives are chosen by all men, or where they are elected by considerable portions only, of all classes of men. This question will perhaps be more clearly answered by setting out from examples, than from general reasonings. If we suppose Ireland to be an independent state, governed by its former House of Commons, it will at once be admitted, that no shadow of just government existed, where the legislature were the enemies, instead of being the protectors, of the Catholics, who formed a great class in the community. That this evil was most cruelly aggravated by the numbers of the oppressed, is true. But, will it be contended, that such a government was unjust, only because the Catholics were a majority? We have only then to suppose the case reversed;—that the Catholics were to assume the whole power, and to retaliate upon the Protestants, by excluding them from all political privilege. Would this be a just or equal government? That will hardly be avowed. But what would be the effect of establishing universal suffrage in Ireland? It would be, to do that in substance, which no man would propose in form. The Catholics, forming four-fifths of the population, would, as far as depends on laws, possess the whole authority of the state. Such a government, instead of protecting all interests, would be founded in hostility to that which is the second interest in numbers, and in many respects the first. The oppressors and the oppressed would, indeed, change places;—we should have Catholic tyrants, and Protestant slaves: but our only consolation would be, that the island would contain more tyrants, and fewer slaves. If there be persons who believe that majorities have any power over the eternal principles of justice, or that numbers can in the least degree affect the difference between right and wrong, it would be vain for us to argue against those with whom we have no principles in common. To all others it must be apparent, that a representation of classes might possibly be so framed as to secure both interests; but that a representation of numbers must enslave the Protestant minority.
That the majority of a people may be a tyrant as much as one or a few, is most apparent in the cases where a state is divided, by conspicuous marks, into a permanent majority and minority. Till the principles of toleration be universally felt, as well as acknowledged, religion will form one of these cases. Till reason and morality be far more widely diffused than they are, the outward distinctions of colour and feature will form another, more pernicious, and less capable of remedy. Does any man doubt, that the establishment of universal suffrage, among emancipated slaves, would be only another word for the oppression, if not the destruction, of their former masters? But is slavery itself really more unjust, where the slaves are a majority, than where they are a minority? or may it not be said, on the contrary, that to hold men in slavery is most inexcusable, where society is not built on that unfortunate foundation,—where the supposed loss of the labour would be an inconsiderable evil, and no danger could be pretended from their manumission? Is it not apparent, that the lower the right of suffrage descends in a country, where the whites are the majority, the more cruel would be the oppression of the enslaved minority? An aristocratical legislature might consider, with some impartiality, the disputes of the free and of the servile labourers; but a body, influenced chiefly by the first of these rival classes, must be the oppressors of the latter.
These, it may be said, are extreme cases;—they are selected for that reason: but the principle which they strikingly illustrate, will, on a very little reflection, be found applicable in some degree to all communities of men.
The labouring classes are in every country a perpetual majority. The diffusion of education will doubtless raise their minds, and throw open prizes for the ambition of a few which will spread both activity and content among the rest: but in the present state of the population and territory of European countries, the majority of men must earn their subsistence by daily labour. Notwithstanding local differences, persons in this situation have a general resemblance of character, and sameness of interest. Their interest, or what they think their interest, may be at variance with the real or supposed interests of the higher orders. If they are considered as forming, in this respect, one class of society, a share in the representation may be allotted to them, sufficient to protect their interest, compatibly with the equal protection of the interests of all other classes, and regulated by a due regard to all the qualities which are required in a well-composed legislative assembly. But if representation be proportioned to numbers alone, every other interest in society is placed at the disposal of the multitude. No other class can be effectually represented; no other class can have a political security for justice; no other can have any weight in the deliberations of the legislature. No talents, no attainments, but such as recommend men to the favour of the multitude, can have any admission into it. A representation so constituted, would produce the same practical effects, as if every man whose income was above a certain amount, were excluded from the right of voting. It is of little moment to the proprietors, whether they be disfranchised, or doomed, in every election, to form a hopeless minority.
Nor is this all. A representation, founded on numbers only, would be productive of gross inequality in that very class to which all others are sacrificed. The difference between the people of the country and those of towns, is attended with consequences which no contrivance of law can obviate. Towns are the nursery of political feeling. The frequency of meeting, the warmth of discussion, the variety of pursuit, the rivalship of interest, the opportunities of information, even the fluctuations and extremes of fortune, direct the minds of their inhabitants to public concerns, and render them the seats of republican governments, or the preservers of liberty in monarchies. But if this difference be considerable among educated men, it seems immeasurable when we contemplate its effects on the more numerous classes. Among them, no strong public sentiment can be kept up without numerous meetings. It is chiefly when they are animated by a view of their own strength and numbers,—when they are stimulated by an eloquence suited to their character,—and when the passions of each are strengthened by the like emotions of the multitude which surround him, that the thoughts of such men are directed to subjects so far from their common callings as the concerns of the commonwealth. All these aids are necessarily wanting to the dispersed inhabitants of the country, whose frequent meetings are rendered impossible by distance and poverty,—who have few opportunities of being excited by discussion or declamation, and very imperfect means of correspondence or concert with those at a distance. An agricultural people is generally submissive to the laws, and observant of the ordinary duties of life, but stationary and stagnant, without the enterprise which is the source of improvement, and the public spirit which preserves liberty. If the whole political power of the state, therefore, were thrown into the hands of the lowest classes, it would be really exercised only by the towns. About two-elevenths of the people of England inhabit towns which have a population of ten thousand souls or upwards. A body so large, strengthened by union, discipline, and spirit, would without difficulty domineer over the lifeless and scattered peasants. In towns, the lower part of the middle classes are sometimes tame; while the lowest class are always susceptible of animation. But the small freeholders, and considerable farmers, acquire an independence from their position, which makes them very capable of public spirit. While the classes below them are incapable of being permanently rendered active elements in any political combination, the dead weight of their formal suffrages would only oppress the independent votes of their superiors. All active talent would, in such a case, fly to the towns, where alone its power could be felt. The choice of the country would be dictated by the cry of the towns, whereever it was thought worth while to take it from the quiet influence of the resident proprietors. Perhaps the only contrivance, which can in any considerable degree remedy the political inferiority of the inhabitants of the country to those of towns, has been adopted in the English constitution, which, while it secures an ascendant of landholders in the legislature, places the disposal of its most honoured and envied seats in the hands of the lowest classes among the agricultural population, who are capable of employing the right of suffrage with spirit and effect.
They who think representation chiefly valuable, because whole nations cannot meet to deliberate in one place, have formed a very low notion of this great improvement. It is not a contrivance for conveniently collecting or blindly executing all the pernicious and unjust resolutions of ignorant multitudes. To correct the faults of democratical government, is a still more important object of representation, than to extend the sphere to which that government may be applied. It balances the power of the multitude by the influence of other classes: it substitutes skilful lawgivers for those who are utterly incapable of any legislative function; and it continues the trust long enough to guard the legislature from the temporary delusions of the people. By a system of universal suffrage and annual elections, all these temperaments would be destroyed. The effect of a crowded population, in increasing the intensity and activity of the political passions, is extremely accelerated in cities of the first class. The population of London and its environs is nearly equal to that of all other towns in England of or above ten thousand souls. According to the principle of universal suffrage, it would contain about two hundred and fifty thousand electors; and send fifty-five members to Parliament. This electoral army would be occupied for the whole year in election or canvass, or in the endless animosities in which both would be fertile. A hundred candidates for their suffrages would be daily employed in inflaming their passions. No time for deliberation,—no interval of repose in which inflamed passions might subside, could exist. The representatives would naturally be the most daring, and for their purposes, the ablest of their body. They must lead or overawe the legislature. Every transient delusion, or momentary phrensy of which a multitude is susceptible, must rush with unresisted violence into the representative body. Such a representation would differ in no beneficial respect from the wildest democracy. It would be a democracy clothed in a specious disguise, and armed with more effective instruments of oppression,—but not wiser or more just than the democracies of old, which Hobbes called “an aristocracy of orators, sometimes interrupted by the monarchy of a single orator.”
It may be said that such reasonings suppose the absence of those moral restraints of property and opinion which would temper the exercise of this, as well as of every other kind of suffrage. Landholders would still influence their tenants,—farmers their labourers,—artisans and manufacturers those whom they employ;—property would still retain its power over those who depend on the proprietor. To this statement we in some respects accede; and on it we build our last and most conclusive argument against universal suffrage.
It is true, that in very quiet times, a multiplication of dependent voters would only augment the influence of wealth. If votes were bestowed on every private soldier, the effect would be only to give a thousand votes to the commanding officer who marched his battalion to the poll. Whenever the people felt little interest in public affairs, the same power would be exercised by every master through his dependants. The traders who employ many labourers in great cities would possess the highest power; the great consumers and landholders would engross the remainder; the rest of the people would be insignificant. As the multitude is composed of those individuals who are most incapable of fixed opinions, and as they are, in their collective capacity, peculiarly alive to present impulse, there is no vice to which they are so liable as inconstancy. Their passions are quickly worn out by their own violence. They become weary of the excesses into which they have been plunged. Lassitude and indifference succeed to their fury, and are proportioned to its violence. They abandon public affairs to any hand disposed to guide them. They give up their favourite measures to reprobation, and their darling leaders to destruction. Their acclamations are often as loud around the scaffold of the demagogue, as around his triumphal car.
Under the elective system, against which we now argue, the opposite evils of too much strengthening wealth, and too much subjecting property to the multitude, are likely, by turns, to prevail. In either case, in may be observed that the power of the middle classes would be annihilated. Society, on such a system, would exhibit a series of alternate fits of phrensy and lethargy. When the people were naturally disposed to violence, the mode of election would inflame it to madness. When they were too much inclined of themselves to listlessness and apathy, it would lull them to sleep. In these, as in every other respect, it is the reverse of a wisely constituted representation, which is a restraint on the people in times of heat, and a stimulant to their sluggishness when they would otherwise fall into torpor. This even and steady interest in public concerns, is impossible in a scheme which, in every case, would aggravate the predominant excess.
It must never be forgotten, that the whole proprietary body must be in a state of permanent conspiracy against an extreme democracy. They are the natural enemies of a constitution, which grants them no power and no safety. Though property is often borne down by the torrent of popular tyranny, yet it has many chances of prevailing at last. Proprietors have steadiness, vigilance, concert, secrecy, and, if need be, dissimulation. They yield to the storm: they regain their natural ascendant in the calm. Not content with persuading the people to submit to salutary restraints, they usually betray them, by insensible degrees, into absolute submission.
If the commonwealth does not take this road to slavery, there are many paths that lead to that state of perdition. “A demagogue seizes on that despotic power for himself, which he for a long time has exercised in the name of his faction;—a victorious general leads his army to enslave their country: and both these candidates for tyranny too often find auxiliaries in those classes of society which are at length brought to regard absolute monarchy as an asylum. Thus, wherever property is not allowed great weight in a free state, it will destroy liberty. The history of popular clamour, even in England, is enough to show that it is easy sometimes to work the populace into “a sedition for slavery.”
These obvious consequences have disposed most advocates of universal suffrage to propose its combination with some other ingredients, by which, they tell us, that the poison will be converted into a remedy. The composition now most in vogue is its union with the Ballot. Before we proceed to the consideration of that proposal, we shall bestow a few words on some other plans which have been adopted or proposed, to render uniform popular election consistent with public quiet. The most remarkable of these are that of Mr. Hume, where the freeholders and the inhabitants assessed to the poor, elect those who are to name the members of the Supreme Council;—that lately proposed in France, where a popular body would propose candidates, from whom a small number of the most considerable proprietors would select the representatives;—and the singular plan of Mr. Horne Tooke, which proposed to give the right of voting to all persons rated to the land-tax or parishrates at 2l. 2s. per annum, on condition of their paying to the public 2l. 2s. at the time of voting; but providing, that if the number of voters in any district fell short of four thousand, every man rated at 20l. per annum might give a second vote, on again paying the same sum; and making the same provision, in case of the same failure, for third, fourth, fifth, &c. votes for every additional 100l. at which the voter is rated, till the number of four thousand votes for the district should be completed.
This plan of Mr. Tooke is an ingenious stratagem for augmenting the power of wealth, under pretence of bestowing the suffrage almost universally. To that of Mr. Hume it is a decisive objection, that it leaves to the people only those subordinate elections which would excite no interest in their minds, and would consequently fail in attaining one of the principal objects of popular elections. All schemes for separating the proposition of candidates for public office from the choice of the officers, become in practice a power of nomination in the proposers. It is easy to leave no choice to the electors, by coupling the favoured candidates with none but such as are absolutely ineligible. Yet one reasonable object is common to these projects:—they all aim at subjecting elections to the joint influence of property and popularity. In none of them is overlooked the grand principle of equally securing all orders of men, and interesting all in the maintenance of the constitution. It is possible that any of them might be in some measure effectual; but it would be an act of mere wantonness in us to make the experiment. By that variety of rights of suffrage which seems so fantastic, the English constitution has provided for the union of the principles of property and popularity, in a manner much more effectual than those which the most celebrated theorists have imagined. Of the three, perhaps the least unpromising is that of Mr. Tooke, because it approaches nearest to the forms of public and truly popular elections.
In the system now established in France, where the right of suffrage is confined to those who pay direct taxes amounting to twelve pounds by the year, the object is evidently to vest the whole power in the hands of the middling classes. The Royalists, who are still proprietors of the greatest estates in the kingdom, would have preferred a greater extension of suffrage, in order to multiply the votes of their dependants. But, as the subdivision of forfeited estates has created a numerous body of small land-owners, who are deeply interested in maintaining the new institutions, the law, which gives them almost the whole elective power, may on that account be approved as politic. As a general regulation, it is very objectionable.
If we were compelled to confine all elective influence to one order, we must indeed vest it in the middling classes; both because they possess the largest share of sense and virtue, and because they have the most numerous connections of interest with the other parts of society. It is right that they should have a preponderating influence, because they are likely to make the best choice. But that is not the sole object of representation; and, if it were, there are not wanting circumstances which render it unfit that they should engross the whole influence. Perhaps there never was a time or country in which the middling classes were of a character so respectable and improving as they are at this day in Great Britain: but it unfortunately happens, that this sound and pure body have more to hope from the favour of Government than any other part of the nation. The higher classes may, if they please, be independent of its influence; the lower are almost below its direct action. On the middling classes, it acts with concentrated and unbroken force. Independent of that local consideration, the virtues of that excellent class are generally of a circumspect nature, and apt to degenerate into timidity. They have little of that political boldness which sometimes belongs to commanding fortune, and often, in too great a degree, to thoughtless poverty. They require encouragement and guidance from higher leaders; and they need excitement from the numbers and even turbulence of their inferiors. The end of representation is not a medium between wealth and numbers, but a combination of the influence of both. It is the result of the separate action of great property, of deliberate opinion, and of popular spirit, on different parts of the political system.
“That principle of representation,” said Mr. Fox, “is the best which calls into activity the greatest number of independent votes, and excludes those whose condition takes from them the powers of deliberation.” But even this principle, true in general, cannot be universally applied. Many who are neither independent nor capable of deliberation, are at present rightly vested with the elective franchise,—not because they are qualified to make a good general choice of members,—but because they indirectly contribute to secure the good composition and right conduct of the legislature.
The question of the Ballot remains. On the Ballot the advocates of universal suffrage seem exclusively to rely for the defence of their schemes: without it, they appear tacitly to admit that universal suffrage would be an impracticable and pernicious proposal.
But all males in the kingdom, it is said, may annually vote at elections with quiet and independence, if the Ballot enables them to give their votes secretly. Whether this expectation be reasonable, is the question on which the decision of the dispute seems now to depend.
The first objection to this proposal is, that the Ballot would not produce secrecy. Even in those classes of men who are most accustomed to keep their own secret, the effect of the Ballot is very unequal and uncertain. The common case of clubs, in which a small minority is generally sufficient to exclude a candidate, may serve as an example. Where the club is numerous, the secret may be kept, as it is difficult to distinguish the few who reject: but in small clubs, where the dissentients may amount to a considerable proportion of the whole, they are almost always ascertained. The practice, it is true, is, in these cases, still useful; but it is only because it is agreed, by a sort of tacit convention, that an exclusion by Ballot is not a just cause of offence: it prevents quarrel, not disclosure. In the House of Commons, Mr. Bentham allows that the Ballot does not secure secrecy or independent choice. The example of the elections at the India House is very unfortunately selected; for every thing which a Ballot is supposed to prevent is to be found in these elections: public and private canvass,—the influence of personal friendship, connexion, gratitude, expectation,—promises almost universally made and observed;—votes generally if not always known,—as much regard, indeed, to public grounds of preference as in most other bodies,—but scarcely any exclusion of private motives, unless it be the apprehension of incurring resentment, which is naturally confined within narrow limits, by the independent condition of the greater part of the electors. In general, indeed, they refuse the secrecy which the legislature seems to tender to them. From kindness, from esteem, from other motives, they are desirious that their votes should be known to candidates whom they favour. And what is disclosed to friends, is speedily discovered by opponents.
If the Ballot should be thought a less offensive mode of voting against an individual than the voice, this slight advantage is altogether confined to those classes of society who have leisure for such fantastic refinements. But are any such influences likely, or rather sure, to act on the two millions of voters who would be given to us by universal suffrage? Let us examine them closely. Will the country labourer ever avail himself of the proffered means of secrecy? To believe this, we must suppose that he performs the most important act of his life,—that which most flatters his pride, and gratifies his inclination,—without speaking of his intention before, or boasting of his vote when he has given it. His life has no secrets. The circle of his village is too small for concealment. His wife, his children, his fellow-labourers, the companions of his recreations, know all that he does, and almost all that he thinks. Can any one believe that he would pass the evening before, or the evening after the day of election, at his alehouse, wrapt up in the secrecy of a Venetian senator, and concealing a suffrage as he would do a murder? If his character disposed him to secrecy, would his situation allow it? His landlord, or his employer, or their agents, or the leaders of a party in the election, could never have any difficulty in discovering him. The simple acts of writing his vote, of delivering it at the poll, or sending it if he could not attend, would betray his secret in spite of the most complicated Ballot ever contrived in Venice. In great towns, the very mention of secret suffrage is ridiculous. By what contrivance are public meetings of the two hundred and fifty thousand London electors to be prevented? There may be quiet and secrecy at the poll; but this does not in the least prevent publicity and tumult at other meetings occasioned by the election. A candidate will not forego the means of success which such meetings afford. The votes of those who attend them must be always known. If the Council of Ten were dispersed among a Westminster mob while candidates were speaking, they would catch its spirit, and betray their votes by huzzas or hisses. Candidates and their partisans, committees in parishes, agents in every street during an active canvass, would quickly learn the secret of almost any man in Westminster. The few who affected mystery would be detected by their neighbours. The evasive answer of the ablest of such dissemblers to his favoured friend or party, would be observably different, at least in tone and manner, from that which he gave to the enemy. The zeal, attachment, and enthusiasm, which must prevail in such elections, as long as they continue really popular, would probably bring all recurrence to means of secrecy into discredit, and very speedily into general disuse. Even the smaller tradesmen, to whom the Ballot might seem desirable as a shield from the displeasure of their opulent customers, would betray the part they took in the election, by their ambition to be leaders in their parishes. The formality of the Ballot might remain: but the object of secrecy is incompatible with the nature of such elections.
The second objection is, that if secrecy of suffrage could be really adopted, it would, in practice, contract, instead of extending, the elective franchise, by abating, if not extinguishing, the strongest inducements to its exercise. All wise laws contain in themselves effectual means for their own execution: but, where votes are secret, scarcely any motive for voting is left to the majority of electors. In a blind eagerness to free the franchise from influence, nearly all the common motives for its exercise are taken away. The common elector is neither to gain the favour of his superiors, nor the kindness of his fellows, nor the gratitude of the candidate for whom he votes: from all these, secrecy must exclude him. He is forbidden to strengthen his conviction,—to kindle his zeal,—to conquer his fears or selfishness, in numerous meetings of those with whom he agrees; for, if he attends such meetings, he must publish his suffrage, and the Ballot, in his case, becomes altogether illusory. Every blamable motive of interest,—every pardonable inducement of personal impartiality, is, indeed, taken away. But what is left in their place? Nothing but a mere sense of public duty, unaided by the popular discipline which gives fervour and vigour to public sentiments. A wise lawgiver does not trust to a general sense of duty in the most unimportant law. If such a principle could be trusted, laws would be unnecessary. Yet to this cold feeling, stripped of all its natural and most powerful aids, would the system of secret suffrage alone trust for its execution. At the poll it is said to be sufficient, because all temptations to do ill are supposed to be taken away: but the motives by which electors are induced to go to a poll, have been totally overlooked. The inferior classes, for whom this whole system is contrived, would, in its practice, be speedily disfranchised. They would soon relinquish a privilege when it was reduced to a troublesome duty. Their public principles are often generous, but they do not arise from secret meditation, and they do not flourish in solitude.
Lastly, if secret suffrage were to be permanently practised by all voters, it would deprive election of all its popular qualities, and of many of its beneficial effects. The great object of popular elections is, to inspire and strengthen the love of liberty. On the strength of that sentiment freedom wholly depends, not only for its security against the power of time and of enemies, but for its efficiency and reality while it lasts. If we could suppose a people perfectly indifferent to political measures, and without any disposition to take a part in public affairs, the most perfect forms and institutions of liberty would be among them a dead letter. The most elaborate machinery would stand still for want of a moving power. In proportion as a people sinks more near to that slavish apathy, their constitution becomes so far vain, and their best laws impotent. Institutions are carried into effect by men, and men are moved to action by their feelings. A system of liberty can be executed only by men who love liberty. With the spirit of liberty, very unpromising forms grow into an excellent government: without it, the most specious cannot last, and are not worth preserving. The institutions of a free state are safest and most effective, when numerous bodies of men exercise their political rights with pleasure and pride,—consequently with zeal and boldness,—when these rights are endeared to them by tradition and by habit, as well as by conviction and feeling of their inestimable value,—and when the mode of exercising privileges is such as to excite the sympathy of all who view it, and to spread through the whole society a jealous love of popular right, and a proneness to repel with indignation every encroachment on it.
Popular elections contribute to these objects, partly by the character of the majority of the electors, and partly by the mode in which they give their suffrage. Assemblies of the people of great cities, are indeed very ill qualified to exercise authority; but without their occasional use, it can never be strongly curbed. Numbers are nowhere else to be collected. On numbers, alone, much of their power depends. In numerous meetings, every man catches animation from the feelings of his neighbour, and gathers courage from the strength of a multitude. Such assemblies, and they alone, with all their defects and errors, have the privilege of inspiring many human beings with a per feet, however transient, disinterestedness, and of rendering the most ordinary men capable of foregoing interest, and forgetting self, in the enthusiasm of zeal for a common cause. Their vices are a corrective of the deliberating selfishness of their superiors. Their bad, as well as good qualities, render them the portion of society the most susceptible of impressions, and the most accessible to public feelings. They are fitted to produce that democratic spirit which, tempered in its progress through the various classes of the community, becomes the vital principle of liberty. It is very true, that the occasional absurdity and violence of these meetings, often alienate men of timid virtue from the cause of liberty. It is enough for the present purpose, that in those long periods to which political reasonings must always be understood to apply, they contribute far more to excite and to second, than to offend or alarm, the enlightened friends of the rights of the people. But meetings for election are by far the safest and the most effective of all popular assemblies. They are brought together by the constitution: they have a legal character; they display the ensigns of public authority; they assemble men of all ranks and opinions; and, in them, the people publicly and conspicuously bestow some of the highest prizes pursued by a generous ambition. Hence they derive a consequence, and give a sense of self-importance, to their humblest members, which would be vainly sought for in spontaneous meetings. They lend a part of their own seriousness and dignity to other meetings occasioned by the election, and even to those which, at other times are really, or even nominally, composed of electors.
In elections, political principles cease to be mere abstractions. They are embodied in individuals; and the cold conviction of a truth, or the languid approbation of a measure, is animated by attachment for leaders, and hostility to adversaries. Every political passion is warmed in the contest. Even the outward circumstances of the scene strike the imagination, and affect the feelings. The recital of them daily spreads enthusiasm over a country. The various fortunes of the combat excite anxiety and agitation on all sides; and an opportunity is offered of discussing almost every political question, under circumstances in which the hearts of hearers and readers take part in the argument: till the issue of a controversy is regarded by the nation with some degree of the same solicitude as the event of a battle. In this manner is formed democratical ascendency, which is most perfect when the greatest numbers of independent judgments influence the measures of government. Reading may, indeed, increase the number and intelligence of those whose sentiments compose public opinion; but numerous assemblies, and consequently popular elections, can alone generate the courage and zeal which form so large a portion of its power.
With these effects it is apparent that secret suffrage is absolutely incompatible: they cannot exist together. Assemblies to elect, or assemblies during elections, make all suffrages known. The publicity and boldness in which voters give their suffrage are of the very essence of popular elections, and greatly contribute to their animating effect. The advocates of the Ballot tell us, indeed, that it would destroy canvass and tumult. But after the destruction of the canvass, elections would no longer teach humility to the great, nor self-esteem to the humble. Were the causes of tumult destroyed, elections would no longer be nurseries of political zeal, and instruments for rousing national spirit. The friends of liberty ought rather to view the turbulence of the people with indulgence and pardon, as powerfully tending to exercise and invigorate their public spirit. It is not to be extinguished, but to be rendered safe by countervailing institutions of an opposite tendency on other parts of the constitutional system.
The original fallacy, which is the source of all erroneous reasoning in favour of the Ballot, is the assumption that the value of popular elections chiefly depends on the exercise of a deliberate judgment by the electors. The whole anxiety of its advocates is to remove the causes which might disturb a considerate choice. In order to obtain such a choice, which is not the great purpose of popular elections, these speculators would deprive them of the power to excite and diffuse public spirit,—the great and inestimable service which a due proportion of such elections renders to a free state. In order to make the forms of democracy universal, their plan would universally extinguish its spirit. In a commonwealth where universal suffrage was already established, the Ballot might perhaps be admissible as an expedient for tempering such an extreme democracy. Even there, it might be objected to, as one of these remedies for licentiousness which are likely to endanger liberty by destroying all democratic spirit;—it would be one of those dexterous frauds by which the people are often weaned from the exertion of their privileges.
The system which we oppose is established in the United States of America; and it is said to be attended with no mischievous effects. To this we answer, that, in America, universal suffrage is not the rule, but the exception. In twelve out of the nineteen states* which compose that immense confederacy, the disgraceful institution of slavery deprives great multitudes not only of political franchises, but of the indefeasible rights of all mankind. The numbers of the representatives of the Slave-states in Congress is proportioned to their population, whether slaves or freemen;—a provision arising, indeed, from the most abominable of all human institutions, but recognising the just principle, that property is one of the elements of every wise representation. In many states, the white complexion is a necessary qualification for suffrage, and the disfranchised are separated from the privileged order by a physical boundary, which no individual can ever pass. In countries of slavery, where to be free is to be noble, the universal distribution of privilege among the ruling caste, is a natural consequence of the aristocratical pride with which each man regards the dignity of the whole order, especially when they are all distinguished from their slaves by the same conspicuous and indelible marks. Yet, in Virginia, which has long been the ruling state of the confederacy, even the citizens of the governing class cannot vote without the possession of a freehold estate. A real or personal estate is required in New England,—the ancient seat of the character and spirit of America,—the parent of those seamen, who, with a courage and skill worthy of our common forefathers, have met the followers of Nelson in war,—the nursery of the intelligent and moral, as well as hardy and laborious race, who now annually colonize the vast regions of the West.
But were the fact otherwise, America contains few large, and no very great towns; the people are dispersed, and agricultural; and, perhaps, a majority of the inhabitants are either land-owners, or have that immediate expectation of becoming proprietors, which produces nearly the same effect on character with the possession of property. Adventurers who, in other countries, disturb society, are there naturally attracted towards the frontier, where they pave the way for industry, and become the pioneers of civilization. There is no part of their people in the situation where democracy is dangerous, or even usually powerful. The dispersion of the inhabitants, and their distance from the scene of great affairs, are perhaps likely rather to make the spirit of liberty among them languid, than to rouse it to excess.
In what manner the present elective system of America may act, at the remote period when the progress of society shall have conducted that country to the crowded cities and unequal fortunes of Europe, no man will pretend to foresee, except those whose presumptuous folly disables them from forming probable conjectures on such subjects. If, from the unparalleled situation of America, the present usages should quietly prevail for a very long time, they may insensibly adapt themselves to the gradual changes in the national condition, and at length be found capable of subsisting in a state of things to which, if they had been suddenly introduced, they would have proved irreconcilably adverse. In the thinly peopled states of the West, universal suffrage itself may be so long exercised without the possibility of danger, as to create a national habit which may be strong enough to render its exercise safe in the midst of an indigent populace. In that long tranquillity it may languish into forms, and these forms may soon follow the spirit. For a period far exceeding our foresight, it cannot affect the confederacy further than the effect which may arise from very popular elections in a few of the larger Western towns. The order of the interior country wherever it is adopted, will be aided by the compression of its firmer and more compact confederates. It is even possible that the extremely popular system which prevails in some American elections, may, in future times, be found not more than sufficient to counterbalance the growing influence of wealth in the South, and the tendencies towards Toryism which are of late perceptible in New England.
The operation of different principles on elections, in various parts of the Continent, may even now be discerned. Some remarkable facts have already appeared. In the state of Pennsylvania, we have* a practical proof that the Ballot is not attended with secrecy. We also know,† that committees composed of the leaders of the Federal and Democratic parties, instruct then partisans how they are to vote at every election; and that in this manner the leaders of the Democratic party who now predominate in their Caucus‡ or committee at Washington, do in effect nominate to all the important offices in North America. Thus, we already see combinations formed, and interests arising, on which the future government of the confederacy may depend more than on the forms of election, or the letter of its present laws. Those who condemn the principle of party, may disapprove these associations as unconstitutional. To us who consider parties as inseparable from liberty, they seem remarkable as examples of those undesigned and unforeseen correctives of inconvenient laws which spring out of the circumstances of society. The election of so great a magistrate as the President, by great numbers of electors, scattered over a vast continent, without the power of concert, or the means of personal knowledge, would naturally produce confusion, if it were not tempered by the confidence of the members of both parties in the judgment of their respective leaders. The permanence of these leaders, slowly raised by a sort of insensible election to the conduct of parties, tends to counteract the evil of that system of periodical removal, which is peculiarly inconvenient in its application to important executive offices. The internal discipline of parties may be found to be a principle of subordination of great value in republican institutions. Certain it is, that the affairs of the United States have hitherto been generally administered, in times of great difficulty and under a succession of Presidents, with a forbearance, circumspection, constancy, and vigour, not surpassed by those commonwealths who have been most justly renowned for the wisdom of their councils.
The only disgrace or danger which we perceive impending over America, arises from the execrable institution of slavery,—the unjust disfranchisement of free Blacks,—the trading in slaves carried on from state to state,—and the dissolute and violent character of those adventurers, whose impatience for guilty wealth spreads the horrors of slavery over the new acquisitions in the South. Let the lawgivers of that Imperial Republic deeply consider how powerfully these disgraceful circumstances tend to weaken the love of liberty,—the only bond which can hold together such vast territories, and therefore the only source and guard of the tranquillity and greatness of America.
[* ] From the Edinburgh Review, vol. xxxi. p. 1/4.—Ed.
[* ] To be quite correct, we must remind the reader, that we speak of the character of the whole body, composed, as it is, of a small number. In a body like the French noblesse, amounting perhaps to a hundred thousand, many of whom were acted upon by the strongest stimulants of necessity, and, in a country of such diffused intelligence as France, it would have been a miracle if many had not risen to eminence in the state, and in letters, as well as in their natural profession of arms.
[* ] The population of France is now [1818, Ed.] estimated at twenty-nine millions and a half.
[† ] Clarendon, Hume, &c.
[* ] This was written in 1819. In 1845 the proportion is thirteen Slave to fourteen Free states exclusive of Texas.—Ed.
[* ] Fearon, Travels in North America, p. 138. How could this intelligent writer treat the absence of tumult, in such a city and country, as bearing any resemblance to the like circumstance in Europe?
[† ] Ibid. p. 320.
[‡ ] The following account of this strange term, will show its probable origin, and the long-experienced efficacy of such an expedient for controlling the Ballot:—“About the year 1738, the father of Samuel Adams, and twenty others who lived in the north or shipping part of Boston, used to meet, to make a Caucus, and lay their plan for introducing certain persons into places of trust. Each distributed the ballots in his own circle, and they generally carried the election. In this manner Mr. S. Adams first became representative for Boston. Caucusing means electioneering.”—(Gordon, History of the American Revolution, p. 216, note.) It is conjectured, that as this practice originated in the shipping part of Boston. ‘Caucus’ was a corruption of Caulkers’ Meeting. For this information we are indebted to Pickering’s American Vocabulary (Boston, 1816); a modest and sensible book, of which the principal fault is, that the author ascribes too much importance to some English writers, who are not objects of much reverence to a near observer. Mr. Pickering’s volume, however, deserves a place in English libraries.