Front Page Titles (by Subject) 61.: PROSPECTS OF FRANCE, VII EXAMINER, 28 NOV., 1830, PP. 756-7 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXII - Newspaper Writings December 1822 - July 1831 Part I
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61.: PROSPECTS OF FRANCE, VII EXAMINER, 28 NOV., 1830, PP. 756-7 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXII - Newspaper Writings December 1822 - July 1831 Part I 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXII - Newspaper Writings December 1822 - July 1831 Part I, ed. Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson, Introduction by Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986).
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PROSPECTS OF FRANCE, VII
This is the final article in the series beginning with No. 44, q.v.
of the great constitutional questions, about to become the subject of discussion, and, it is in vain to disguise the fact, of acrimonious dispute, between the men of the restoration and the men of the new revolution, only one remains to be noticed—the inheritableness of the peerage.
We anticipate some difficulty in making perceptible to the English public, of how little comparative importance this matter is; in fact, we foresee that it will be the source of more misapprehension, and more groundless alarms, than questions of ten times as much consequence as really belongs to it. Men in whose eyes a large extension of the right of suffrage would be no more than what Mr. Canning would have called the infusion of a popular spirit into the constitution,1 will consider the attempt to dispense with a hereditary peerage as a dangerous innovation, establishing the unqualified and formidable ascendancy of the democratic principle. To such a degree are men governed by words rather than things, by forms rather than substance. A house of peers is not necessarily an aristocracy because it is so styled in the traditional phraseology of the British constitution: and the question, whether the French chamber of peers shall be hereditary, does not concern the democratic principle, nor any principle at all except this, that if there be any use in a house of peers, there is use in having one which shall be an object of respect, and not of contempt.
It is well known that for a century or more, the sole idea which the continental nations had of a constitutional government, consisted of the British constitution misunderstood. They took our own word for the theory of our constitution; and were entirely unaware, that the British constitution has no theory. The works of design and intelligence have their laws, but the fortuitous concourse of atoms has no law. Where means have been used to attain an end, an account of the means may be written down, and the record may serve other agents to produce a similar effect: but the seeds of the British constitution fell, sprouted, and grew up, as it pleased God; and the means having pre-existed, ends were found for them by gentlemen in their closets, who seldom proceeded upon any other principle than that of sharing, as fairly as they could, the praises due to all possible forms of government, among the constituent parts of that of England. The doctrine, that the British constitution was a compound of the three simple forms of government, monarchy being represented by the king, aristocracy by the upper house of parliament, and democracy by the lower, a conceit which never could have issued from any head but that of a pedant,2 passed off among ourselves in a manner characteristically national, that is to say, it served as well as any other form of words to swear by, but never assumed a sufficiently definite signification in our minds, to determine the slightest of our actions. To foreign nations, however, this went forth as the true theory and approved explanation of the British government, and became the received formula for making a constitution. Accordingly (not to lose time in irrelevant examples) the framers of the charter of Louis XVIII having a constitution to make, and desiring to make it properly, called together a number of gentlemen, gazetted them as dukes, barons, and counts, settled pensions on them from the public purse, and said, There is an aristocracy.3
This impromptu parody on our House of Lords possesses not one of the attributes from which the political importance of its prototype originates. The House of Lords is one of the oldest institutions of England: it is identified with all our historical recollections, and recognized by the traditional doctrines of our government as an essential part of the most stable constitution which ever existed. Its members are likewise the possessors of enormous wealth, in a country in which wealth exercises over the minds of men a command which it possesses among no other people. We are moreover continually told, and most by the greatest admirers of the institution, that all these sources of moral influence are not enough, and that the House of Lords would be in practice reduced to a cypher, if it did not, besides all this, send, by means of corrupt influence, nearly a majority of members to the lower house. If there be a particle of truth in this asseveration, and even though there be none, we have only to suppose that our peerage were but of yesterday, with incomes averaging from five hundred to a thousand a-year, and a reformed House of Commons, and from the political weight which would attach to such a body, we may approximate to a just conception of the present importance which belongs to the mock-aristocratic branch of the French legislature.
If you nickname three hundred gentlemen in various ways,4 and then declare that they are a branch of the sovereign legislature, equal and co-ordinate with the assembly which represents the people, you must be supposed to intend that they should have a will of their own occasionally, and are not to vote always exactly as the other assembly bids. Now, if they refuse to concur with the Commons in any measure which the latter have much at heart, what is to prevent the lower house from voting the upper one a nuisance, and declaring the law to be a law notwithstanding their dissent? The question reduces itself to this: would the people obey? Has the chamber of peers, or can any hereditary chamber, in the situation of France, have a sufficient hold upon the popular mind, for the people to regard a law as less a law because it has not received the concurrence of that chamber? No one, who has any knowledge of France, will answer in the affirmative.
Every thing is new in France, and neither the chamber of peers nor any other institution has any of that stability which belongs to antiquity. It has none of that weight which is derived from the possession of wealth. There is only one remaining source of moral influence, and that is, personal merit and reputation; and of this the chamber is fast losing the little which it ever had. A hereditary body may be as select as an elective one, when first created; and the French chamber did contain some men of mathematical and chemical celebrity, and some of the very few politicians of honourable notoriety whom the revolution and the empire had left:5 but these are mostly dead, or so old as to be hors de combat, and as mathematical and chemical knowledge are not hereditary though the peerage is, their sons are neither wiser nor better than any other men (English eldest sons excepted): the chamber, therefore, would, by this time, have been rather deficient in notabilités, had it not been a practice since the restoration to elevate to the peerage every minister to whom it was desired to give an honourable dismissal, and had not the statesmen who were in this predicament been luckily very numerous.6 The debates, therefore, of the chamber of peers, now that they are open to the public, and reported in the newspapers, display a list of speakers, the perspective of which ten years ago, considering that a revolution has intervened, would have not a little astonished the parties concerned, nearly all of them being of one or more of the many ministries of Louis XVIII. The president of the chamber is Pasquier, the inévitable, as he is called, a man celebrated for falling always upon his feet, whatever be the turn in affairs: sometime prefect of police under Buonaparte, and orator to every ministry from the restoration to the commencement of the Villèle government.7 The principal speakers are Lainé, Decazes, Portalis, Siméon, Roy, Dubouchage, and, we may add, the late Minister of Foreign Affairs, Molé;8 men highly unpopular when they were formerly in office, and not less so now, saving that the more recent oppressors eclipse the hatred borne to men, some of whom had the redeeming merit (our Shaftesbury had it too)9 of resisting the worst acts of ministers still worse than themselves.
There are so few people who can see an effect after it has come to pass, that we must not be extremely severe on those who merely cannot foresee it while it is yet to come. Therefore we should not, perhaps, quarrel with the Bourbons for having rien appris before the Restoration, if they were found capable of learning any thing thereafter.10 Now this really was the case: for, in a short time after the formation of the chamber of peers, it occurred to its founders, that it somehow was not so influential a body as the British House of Lords. It struck them that the cause of this must be, that the House of Lords possessed large property, and that the Chamber of Peers was possessed of none. If the seat of the evil was that the peers were without property, this might be cured by giving them property; but it is part of the lot of man that he cannot give what he has not got. The Bourbons, nevertheless, determined to do all they could; and it was enacted that majorats, or entails, might be created in the families of peers, and that the peerage should not in future descend to the son of the possessor, unless there had first been created in favour of the son, a majorat of a prescribed amount. But to require a man to transmit to his descendants what he never had, did not seem a very efficacious contrivance for enriching the family. The tarif, therefore, of the peerage, was perforce adapted to the actual fortunes of the peers; and as these did not on the average exceed what would be considered in England a moderate provision for clerks in a public office, the endowment of a baron was fixed at four hundred pounds a-year, and those of the higher grades of nobility in a corresponding proportion.11 Being now the assured possessors of incomes upon this scale, the peers, it seems to have been supposed, had no longer to fear any want of importance arising from want of wealth. Such was the clumsiness of the original work, and such the clumsy attempt to mend it; but any other remedial application would equally have failed to give life or reality to an institution radically incompatible with the circumstances of France, and of which nothing can ever exist in that country except the forms and the name.
The great error was the original error, of imagining that law-makers are like God, who can create matter as well as arrange it and mould it into form. This extent of power is not conceded to man: he cannot create something out of nothing. It is easy to make the charter of a country assert that an aristocracy exists, but that will not make it exist, if materials are not contained in the country for forming one: the maxim holds equally good of governments and of coats, that they must be cut according to your cloth. There do not exist in France any enormously wealthy families. There exist a large number of persons of moderate wealth. By clubbing these together, you might form a tolerably compact basis for an oligarchical representation, but you are merely ridiculous when you single out a few hundred at random, and affect to call them by the name of peers. The moment when, by adopting the hereditary principle, you give yourself only the ordinary chances of meeting with personal merit, there is not the slightest reason why any three hundred whom you encounter in the street should not have been taken instead of those whom you now have.
It is considered desirable, in France, and in most other countries, that there should exist a second legislative chamber, less democratically constituted than the first, in order that it may be less liable to be acted upon by temporary excitement; strong enough to withstand sudden and hasty impulses of the lower house, but not to resist its deliberate and mature conviction, supported by the public voice. Considered as a general principle of politics, it does not belong to us either to enforce or to combat this maxim: it is sufficient that such are the grounds upon which the institution of a house of peers is commonly defended. Now, in contriving means for this end, it must never be lost sight of, that, in a government which is really, and not nominally representative, the body which the upper house is intended to check is one in which the public will, of necessity, have almost unlimited confidence. It will generally comprise the men of whose talents and of whose integrity the people at large entertain the highest opinion; and the people, moreover, feel the full assurance at each instant, that, if they should see reason to alter their favourable opinion, they will have an opportunity of getting rid of the individual before he has time to betray his trust. Unless, therefore, the upper house shall also possess a moral ascendancy, capable, upon occasion, of counteracting and counterbalancing that of the lower, it will, if new, only be suffered to exist on condition of being absolutely inoperative; although, if old, it might be borne with, as so many other things are borne with, for the toleration of which their age is the only reason.
In order to possess this ascendancy, it must conform to the conditions to which the attainment of moral influence is subject in France. Now, respect is not transmitted from father to son, in France, like an heir-loom. Wealth, by the laws of all countries, is hereditary, and, therefore, where the grand source of respect is wealth, respect also descends in the hereditary line. Where the main source of respect is ancestry, respect is, of course, hereditary. But, in France, wealth is not what confers respect, because it never was what conferred political power; and the respect for ancestry, along with its power in the state, foundered in the storms of the revolution. No nation so utterly despises hereditary distinctions. On the other hand, no people, perhaps, ever set a greater value upon personal ones. Yet, instead of endeavouring to accumulate in the upper chamber the greatest amount of personal distinction possible, the Bourbons, in a spirit of blind imitation, founded it upon a hereditary distinction; and, to complete its insignificance, dubbed its members by the titles of the old noblesse, titles so contemned, that perhaps a majority of those who have inherited them, are ashamed to wear them.
If the idea of a peerage necessarily implies hereditary descent, call it a senate: but of this be sure, that it will be efficacious for the purposes for which it is defensible if for any, exactly in proportion as it can be made to consist exclusively of men of established and high reputation. A writer in the Edinburgh Review appears to us to misunderstand the matter, when he is afraid that the senators will generally be the tools of the court, in the hope of being rewarded with the fee-simple of their peerage.12 It has never been observed that the marshals of France, or our knights of the garter, however able to serve the court, or however willing to do it for hire, have claimed as wages that their bâton or their ribbon should descend to their heirs; and this for an obvious reason, that it is easy to bribe them in ways which would excite far less of popular odium. When the chances of birth no longer introduce into the upper chamber, in spite of the greatest purity in the new appointments, a majority of the feeble or of the disreputable, it will evidently be far more difficult than now, for the creator of peers to agglomerate other such particles to the same body. But the objection is not only mistaken in principle, it is also singularly inapplicable in point of fact, since it is generally agreed, in France, that the royal prerogative of creating peers,13 so grossly abused on more than one occasion by the Bourbons, must be subjected to great restrictions, if not entirely done away. More interesting questions having hitherto engrossed the public mind, specific plans have not as yet been suggested for the composition of the senate, but the qualification will probably be that of having served for a given number of years in certain offices, or been re-elected deputy a given number of times; or any other mark which may seem, on consideration, more certainly indicative of the confirmed good opinion of the people.
We have now accomplished our task. The design of these papers was to prepare the English public, or such part of it as might be pleased to listen to us, for the struggle which we knew was approaching between the new oligarchy and the people; to arm them against the misapprehensions, and strengthen them against the false alarms, which were sure to be industriously propagated, and which, in themselves, were not unnatural; to supply facts which we knew that the public were not likely to hear from any other quarter, and without which we are aware that they could not possibly understand the true character of the events which were coming. While we have been thus engaged, the contest has already begun; and all who read the daily newspapers must have seen enough to be convinced that our undertaking was not a useless one. Of the value of our opinions, others must judge, but to the correctness of our facts in every material circumstance, we are certain that any candid person will bear witness who takes the proper means of verifying them. And if, in the mean time, we have only assisted in making it known that France is a subject on which our newspapers, with their vapouring, are profoundly ignorant, and thoroughly to be distrusted, we have not laboured in vain.
[1 ]Corrected Report of the Speech of the Right Honourable George Canning, in the House of Commons, 25th April, 1822, on Lord John Russell’s Motion for a Reform of Parliament (London: Hatchard, 1822), p. 59.
[2 ]Actually from that of William Blackstone (1723-80), British legal writer; see his Commentaries on the Laws of England, 4 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1765-69), Vol. I, pp. 50-2.
[3 ]When the Charter was proclaimed on 4 June, 1814, it provided for a Chamber of Peers (Arts. 24-34), and subsequently the Chancellor read out a list of names of peers appointed by Louis XVIII to constitute it.
[4 ]There were approximately 300 French peers in the late 1820s, created by various means with various titles.
[5 ]Among the former were Pierre Simon, marquis de Laplace (1749-1827), the great mathematician, and Claude Louis, comte de Berthollet (1748-1822), the celebrated chemist; among the latter were François Antoine de Boissy d’Anglas (1756-1828), member of the States General, the National Assembly, and a centrist in the Convention, who was made a peer in 1814 after voting for Napoleon’s abdication, and Louis Gustave le Doulcet, comte de Pontécoulant (1764-1853), a moderate in the Convention who was outlawed as a Girondin but later became President of the Convention, who was also elevated to the peerage in 1814.
[6 ]Figaro in a parody of the Charter included an Article 24: “Tout ministre chassé par le voeu de la nation est nommé de droit à la pairie” (27 June, 1830, pp. 1-2).
[7 ]Duc Etienne Denis Pasquier (1767-1862) held high office under Napoleon, Louis XVIII, and Louis Philippe. Napoleon made him a baron; Louis Philippe made him a duke as well as President of the Chamber of Peers.
[8 ]Joseph Louis Joachim, vicomte Lainé (1767-1835), supporter of Napoleon, then of the Restoration, who, dismayed by the policies of Charles X, supported Louis Philippe in 1830. Joseph Marie, comte Portalis (1778-1858), lawyer, a moderate during the Revolution, held both diplomatic and administrative office under Napoleon and under Louis XVIII, who made him a peer in 1819. Joseph Jérôme, comte Siméon (1749-1842), lawyer, opposed the Revolution and was exiled; he supported Napoleon, and then the Restoration, and was made a peer in 1821. Gabriel Gratet, vicomte Dubouchage (1777-1872), ultra-royalist, succeeded to the peerage in 1823 and became notorious for his right-wing opposition, especially during the reign of Louis Philippe. Louis Mathieu, comte Molé (1781-1855), a moderate royalist, prefect and judge under Napoleon, was made a peer in 1815, and a minister in 1817, but then went into opposition; appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs by Louis Philippe, he had resigned on 2 Nov., 1830.
[9 ]Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury (1621-83), after a varied career, but usually supporting Cromwell, became a member of the notorious Cabal during the Stuart Restoration. Although constantly involved in intrigue and strife, he was a staunch supporter of the supremacy of Parliament and of religious toleration.
[10 ]Adapted from Napoleon’s characterization of the Bourbons: “ils n’ont rien oublié ni rien appris” (see No. 44, n4).
[11 ]Bull. 171, No. 2686 (25 Aug., 1817), required a duke to settle 30,000 francs on his heir, a count 20,000 francs, and a baron 10,000 francs; in 1824 circumstances forced the requirements to be halved (Bull. 688, No. 17462 [10 Feb., 1824]).
[12 ]“The Late Revolution in France,” Edinburgh Review, LII (Oct. 1830), 14-15, by Henry Peter, Lord Brougham (1788-1868), legal reformer, jurist, political leader, and prolific writer.
[13 ]See the Charter of 1814, Art. 27.