Front Page Titles (by Subject) 115.: THE PEERAGE QUESTION IN FRANCE EXAMINER, 4 SEPT., 1831, PP. 563-4 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIII - Newspaper Writings August 1831 - October 1834 Part II
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115.: THE PEERAGE QUESTION IN FRANCE EXAMINER, 4 SEPT., 1831, PP. 563-4 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIII - Newspaper Writings August 1831 - October 1834 Part II 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIII - Newspaper Writings August 1831 - October 1834 Part II, 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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THE PEERAGE QUESTION IN FRANCE
The article, headed as title, appears in the “Political Examiner,” and is described in Mill’s bibliography as “An article headed ‘The Peerage Question in France’ in the Examiner of 4th September 1831” (MacMinn, p. 17). It is listed as title and enclosed in square brackets in the Somerville College set; that edition includes the subheading, “(From a Correspondent),” that is not in other sets.
the french ministry has proposed the abolition of the Hereditary Peerage.1
M. Casimir Périer does not disguise that this is a concession, extorted from him, contrary to his individual inclinations, by the spirit of the times. This avowal has brought upon him the severe reprehension of the more vehement partisans on both sides. They treat him as one who abandons his political creed, from motives of convenience: a censure in which we cannot join. Principles of government are not laws of eternal nature, but maxims of human prudence, fluctuating as the mind of man and the exigencies of society. A truth, in politics, which is no longer suited to the state of civilization and the tendencies of the human mind, has ceased to be a truth. The will of the majority is not to be obeyed as a law, but it is to be attended to as a fact: the opinions and feelings of the nation are entitled to consideration, not for their own sake, but as one of the circumstances of the times; one of the elements of that existing state of society, upon which your laws have to operate; an important part of the situation of the country: a cause, which produces effects not to be overlooked; a power, which so largely modifies and interferes with all you do, that unless it is allowed for in your calculations, you can predict nothing.
M. Périer is at liberty to think that it is the faults, and not the virtues, of his countrymen, which render a hereditary peerage unfit for them: it is enough that he perceives that institution to be radically incompatible with the feelings and habits of the French people. Solon has not been accused of tergiversation, for saying that he had given to the Athenians, not the best possible laws, but the best which they were capable of receiving;2 and M. Périer, apparently, considers himself to be following in the footsteps of the Athenian lawgiver.
Though we cannot join with the French Minister in lamenting that state of public opinion which renders a hereditary peerage no longer possible in France; its expediency, like that of most other political institutions, is, with us as with him, a question of time, place, and circumstance. This is not the place for determining, with precision, the conditions which are required to render that institution eligible. The consideration would lead us far beyond the present subject, and we are not writing a treatise on the art of government. But, that the most indispensable of those conditions is wanting in France, the most superficial knowledge of that country is sufficient to evince.
All arguments in favour of an Upper Chamber assume that the Lower one is liable to be too much under the immediate influence of public opinion; that it is too accessible to sudden gusts of popular feeling; and if not held in check by another body, would vacillate between opposite extremes, and innovate too frequently and too suddenly. Suppose, therefore, a people liable to these sudden gusts, and a Lower House so constituted as not to be likely to resist them: where shall the Upper House find strength to withstand the united impulse of the people and the Chamber of Deputies?—Not in the sword: for the sword, without some one to wield it, is but cold iron. Mankind, in these days, are not ruled by the sword, but by opinion; and a power which will dare resist the people, must be conscious of a moral ascendancy over them. But birth and wealth confer no moral ascendancy in France; and the French Peerage, moreover, possess, for the most part, neither the one nor the other.
Persons who have never lived out of England imagine that the respect of mankind attaches itself to riches and genealogy by an inherent virtue; and the conception of those extrinsic advantages existing apart from unbounded deference and homage, is more than they are able to figure to themselves. Frenchmen, on the other hand, are no less astonished at finding that in this country the Duke of Northumberland3 is a greater man than Sir Humphrey Davy, and Mr. Baring than Sir Walter Scott. This is one of those broad and all-pervading differences between nations, which render it absurd to transfer institutions ready-made from one country to another. The only moral ascendancy in France is that of personal qualities; and personal qualities are not hereditary.
There is no great difference of opinion in France respecting the ends to be aimed at in the composition of a Second Chamber. The Courrier Français, one of the ablest and most stedfast of the popular journals, in a sober and well-reasoned article on the peerage question, lays down these principles: That the well-being of society depends upon the due intermixture of the conservative and the progressive spirit; that the progressive tendency is naturally predominant in an assembly purely popular in its constitution: and it is consequently desirable, that, in the other branch of the legislature, the balance should incline to the conservative side.4 A doctrine precisely similar was laid down by M. Casimir Périer, in his speech introducing the ministerial project. He said, that to each of the two Chambers was confided, in a more peculiar degree, the guardianship of one of the two principles, on the apt combination of which good government depends: to the Peers, the element of stability—to the Deputies, the element of improvement. The parties being thus sufficiently agreed on the question of principle, all that remains open to debate is a question of fact; namely, what are the materials in France for forming an assembly, which, with a decided overbalance of the conservative spirit, shall unite the greatest attainable amount of wisdom and virtue? With this view the popular party are ready to admit of rather a high qualification in age, and even in property, because the tendencies of age, and of riches, are generally adverse to change. And they contend that the Second Chamber should be exclusively composed of “les illustrations nationales;”5 of men of established reputation in all the greater concerns of mankind, in politics, judicature, literature, science, and war. Such persons, having little to gain in reputation and much to lose, have an interest against rash experiments, similar to that which men of large fortune have; while they possess also (what men of large fortune have not) tried abilities, to prevent their tardiness from degenerating into a stupid dread of innovation; and a natural influence on the public mind, which gives weight to their opinions, and ensures, as far as any thing can ensure, a willing acquiescence in their decrees. New men, on the contrary, who have their reputation to acquire, and who, having less of the self-distrust which is the fruit of experience, are supposed to be more easily fired by vast schemes of improvement, and less alive to difficulties and dangers, would find their fit place in the Chamber of Deputies, where this faulty excess of valuable qualities could do no harm, as all their acts would be subject to the revision of the more cautious body.
It is a great mistake, therefore, to suppose that the contest against the inheritableness of the Peerage arises from a levelling spirit, or a reckless impatience of any obstacle to the omnipotence of the popular will. It is an affair of philosophy and reflection, not of blind passion; although doubtless, in France, the hatred of unearned distinctions is a passion, and an almost universal one. Glad should we be, nevertheless, if we thought, that in our own country, such a question would be argued on either side with so impartial a judgment, or upon principles so unambiguous, definite, and comprehensive.
The project of M. Casimir Périer includes no change in the constitution of the Second Chamber, beyond the suppression of the hereditary principle. The Peers are to hold their seats for life, to be unlimited in their numbers, and to be named solely by the King. To the first of these three propositions, the popular party do not object; but the other two will be strongly opposed, and an attempt made for a partial introduction of the principle of popular election, either by requiring the King to select from candidates presented by the electors or by the Chamber of Deputies, or by giving the absolute nomination of a certain proportion to the King, and a certain proportion to the people.
On this occasion, as on almost every other, it will be found on trial how much easier it is to destroy than to rebuild; how much more obvious it commonly is, what is bad, than what is good. Yet we incline to the opinion that M. Périer’s plan has the advantage over every other which has been proposed. We are convinced that no functionary who holds his place for life, ought to be chosen by popular election. A numerous body (and the people are the most numerous of all bodies), is essentially unfit to perform any act that is to be irrevocable. Nothing but a keen sense of undivided responsibility is a guarantee for the degree of forethought and deliberation which such an act demands. What renders popular election endurable, and even causes it to work well upon the whole (more than this cannot yet be said of any government, in so imperfect a state of the human mind), is the frequent opportunities which the people have of correcting a first error. If they were held by an indissoluble tie to their first choice, how bitterly they would often repent of it. The public are scarcely judges of a man’s qualifications until he has been tried; and impostors, who knew that what was once gained could no more be lost, would exhaust all the resources of deception. On the other hand, if the election is for short periods, the Second Chamber is but another First Chamber, and may very well be spared.
Men who are nominated for life are, of course, irresponsible when once appointed; the utmost you can do is to secure a considerate choice: and this you are more likely to obtain from an officer responsible to the people, than from the people themselves. The King, it is true, is not responsible, but his Ministers are; that is to say (the only true meaning of ministerial responsibility), they incur more or less danger of losing their places by a misuse of this power, or of any other. If the constitution of the Lower House is not sufficient to prevent the systematic misapplication of the royal power, it is good for very little. The privilege of creating Peers is not more liable to abuse, under an adequately representative government, than that of appointing judges or general officers. The true wisdom of the people is, to take every possible security that whatever power is given to their supreme government shall not be abused to selfish ends, and then to let the measure of that power be large and liberal.
But the popular party in France are at present in a position which renders complete impartiality impossible. They are biassed by a well-grounded distrust of the present Ministry and King; who, during the transitional state of the national institutions, and the wavering and unsettled disposition of the representative Chamber, are sure to throw the whole weight of all the powers which may be entrusted to them, into the scale opposite to improvement. And it is feared, not altogether without reason, that the hereditary principle, though eliminated from the laws, may practically survive its nominal abrogation, in the hands of a King and Ministry avowed adherents of it, and empowered to confer the peerage, if it so please them, upon the lineal heir of every deceased Peer. If so, the new system will have all the disadvantages of the old one, together with the additional one of rendering the peerage still more dependant upon the Crown.
This danger, however, will probably be obviated by an amendment, which the Committee of the Chamber of Deputies, though composed almost entirely of adherents of the Minister, is expected to introduce, and by which the King, in his nominations to the peerage, will be restricted to persons of certain classes, or of a certain definite description. The limitations, no doubt, will leave ample scope for improper choice. But the promotions of the Dupin’s, and Jars’s, and Rambuteau’s,6 from one Chamber to the other, will at least have this advantage, that their places in the more influential body will be better filled; for the same electors who will not cashier an old representative, will often elect a fitter one in his place when he retires. And France will at least have gained the extinction of the hereditary principle; a good in itself, and an important step in the progress of constitutional improvement.
[1 ]Périer introduced on 27 Aug. the proposal to abolish the hereditary peerage and substitute regal appointments for life of men who had served the state or came from the upper ranks of society (Moniteur, 1831, pp. 1477-8). His speech is followed by the text of Projet de loi destiné à remplacer l’article 23 de la charte constitutionnelle. As enacted, the law specified service to the state (Bull. 54, No. 130 [29 Dec., 1831]).
[2 ]For the comment by Solon (ca. 638-559 ), Athenian reformer, see Plutarch, Lives (Greek and English), trans. Bernadotte Perrin, 11 vols. (London: Heinemann, 1914-26), Vol. I, p. 442 (XV, 2).
[3 ]Hugh Percy, 3rd Duke of Northumberland (1785-1847), Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland 1829-30, ambassador extraordinary at his own expense to the coronation of Charles X.
[4 ]“Effet de l’exposé des motifs de M. Périer,” Courrier Français, 29 Aug., pp. 1-2.
[5 ]See Périer, speech of 27 Aug., p. 1478.
[6 ]Mill is probably referring both to André Dupin and his brother, Charles Pierre François, baron Dupin (1784-1873), a liberal deputy from 1827, but not of Mill’s economic opinions. Antoine Gabriel Jars (1774-1857), an opposition deputy from 1822, one of the 221, but now a member of the stationary party and a supporter of an hereditary peerage. Claude Philibert de Barthelot, comte de Rambuteau (1781-1869), administrator, a deputy from 1827, had also voted with the 221.