Front Page Titles (by Subject) 174.: PLEDGES  EXAMINER, 1 JULY, 1832, PP. 417-18 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIII - Newspaper Writings August 1831 - October 1834 Part II
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174.: PLEDGES  EXAMINER, 1 JULY, 1832, PP. 417-18 - 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 final version of the Reform Bill, “A Bill to Amend the Representation of the People in England and Wales,” 2 William IV (12 Dec., 1831), PP, 1831-32, III, 1-54, had been enacted on 7 June. Thereafter, major campaigns to bind candidates to their constituents’ views were waged by thorough Radicals. Writing to Carlyle on 17 July, Mill says his two articles opposing pledges (this and No. 177) are “in very bad odour with some of our radicals”; he praises “the honest and brave character” of Fonblanque for including them, and hints that the circulation of the Examiner may have suffered as a result (EL, CW, Vol. XII, pp. 112-13). Late in 1835 he makes the same comment to Tocqueville, saying the articles “offensèrent beaucoup le public radical et lui fit perdre plusieurs de ses abonnés,” and adding that James Mill agrees with him (ibid., p. 288; 11 Dec.). In a note to the early draft of his Autobiography (later excised) he admits that the articles were ill-timed. They had been, he says, based on a mistaken impression that the fight for democracy had now been won: “The doctrine of these articles was right in itself, and very suitable to democratic institutions when firmly established and rooted in the habits of the people: then no doubt it would be wise in the electors to look out for the most honest and most instructed men whom they could induce to undertake the office of legislators, and refrain from binding them beforehand to any definite measures: but I did not sufficiently consider that the transition from bad to good institutions was only commencing” (CW, Vol. I, p. 180n). This is the first leader in the “Political Examiner,” headed as title. It is described in Mill’s bibliography as “An article headed ‘Pledges’ in the Examiner of 1st July” (MacMinn, p. 21). In the Somerville College set of the Examiner, it is listed as “Pledges” and enclosed in square brackets.
after the passing of the reform bill, the next thing to be thought of is how to make use of it. The steed is at the door, saddled and bridled, and it is time to mount and journey onward. The machine is in the people’s hands, but how to work it skilfully is the question.
The people of England have acquired by their own energies, the faculty of naming those who manage their affairs; they desire to name the fittest men, for what have they to gain by choosing wrong? But how shall they know who is the fittest? This leads to the question of pledges. On that all-important question we desire to state our sentiments; uncertain how far they will be acceptable to those who are most interested in the matter, and certain that we shall offend many of all parties; yet firmly convinced of the concurrence of all who understand and value the true principles of popular representation.
We have read of few things in the annals of insincerity more offensive to any person of the commonest moral perceptions, than the cant which has been canted by the enemies of the popular cause, ever since the last general election, against the exacting of pledges from candidates for seats in Parliament. Quis tulerit Gracchos de seditione querentes?1 To see venting a high moral indignation against the “delegates” of the British people, men who were themselves delegates of some single Boroughmonger, as much as his errand-boy, and much more so than his butler or his groom; to hear men who were put into Parliament solely in order that somebody might fatten himself and his family on the produce of their votes, insulting the plundered nation because it also sent men to the same place, commissioned solely to do the one thing which should put an end to all such plunder—was past all human endurance. Ikey Solomons inveighing against public robbers, would be the only suitable comparison.2
On the other hand, we have seen principles avowed, and to a certain extent acted upon, by professed Reformers, which if generally received would put an end to the very existence of a representative government. It is most important for the success of the great experiment upon which we are about to enter, not to forget what a popular government really means. The true idea of popular representation is not that the people govern in their own persons, but that they choose their governors. In a good government public questions are not referred to the suffrages of the people themselves, but to those of the most judicious persons whom the people can find. The sovereignty of the people is essentially a delegated sovereignty. Government must be performed by the few, for the benefit of the many: and the security of the many consists in being governed by those who possess the largest share of their confidence, and no longer than while that confidence lasts.
We deem it of the utmost importance at the present unprecedented epoch in English history, that this principle, together with the restrictions with which it must be taken to be applicable to existing circumstances, should be thoroughly understood and felt. We therefore urgently invite discussion on the subject, and shall begin by stating our own opinion upon it very fully and explicitly. We maintain that when the legislature is properly constituted, no pledges ought in any case whatever to be exacted from representatives: or never but in such rare and peculiar cases, as cannot be anticipated, and probably may never occur:—That, nevertheless, in the actual condition of Great Britain, pledges on some subjects may be, and ought to be, exacted; solely because, notwithstanding the Reform Bill, the Parliament is not yet properly constituted, and will be far from securing to the affairs of the public the best services of the best men in the nation.
The objection to pledges as an interference with the personal independence of the candidate, is good for nothing. If his personal independence stands in the way of his duty, he has no business there. Nobody is obliged to be a Member of Parliament. The electors do not impress a private gentleman as he walks the streets, and drag him obtorto collo3 to St. Stephen’s. If he undertakes the trust, it is quite optional, and if he cannot conscientiously perform it, his honesty is in his own keeping; nobody wishes him to be a scoundrel; he has only to resign. If it were really for the interest of the people that their representatives should go to Parliament not to judge and act for the best, but to execute a mandate already decided upon,—a man who of his own choice seeks an office, which it is no injury to any one not to obtain, has no right to quarrel with the conditions on which it is bestowed.
Our disapprobation of pledges is for the sake of the constituents; the representatives may take care of themselves.
If the House of Commons were constituted in the most perfect manner, whom would it consist of? Surely of the wisest and best men in the nation, or those whom the people believe to be such. Now, if I vote for a person because I think him the wisest man I know, am I afterwards to set myself up as his instructor, as if I were wiser than he? The wisest men are, we suppose, wiser than any one else. If you knew anybody wiser, why did you not choose him? If there is nobody wiser, why set the smaller wisdom to instruct the greater? Can you hope for more than to have your affairs managed according to the best judgment of the best and ablest men? What is the use of hankering after something better than the best?
Let those who, with Mr. Williams of the City of London, require a representative to “act agreeably to the wishes and instructions of a majority of his constituents, or resign his seat,”4 consider whether there is not at the bottom of this a little remnant of aristocratic vanity. Let them ask themselves whether it is not the fact, that they have no real intention of voting for the best and wisest man. They have no proper sense of the inappreciable value of honesty and wisdom; but they would like exceedingly to have a rich man or a man of rank to obey their commands, and they know that such are a kind of wild animals, who are not to be trusted unless you have first drawn their teeth and claws. They would rather choose a man in whom they have no confidence, so he be rich or a lord, than the ablest and most trustworthy person in the nation, who is no better, that is to say no richer, than themselves.
We suspect also, that the people have not yet completely found out how much hard study it requires to make a wise legislator. A people never understands until it has felt. Till now the English have never known what it was to have a government in whose honesty they could confide: and they have not yet learned what enormous mischief is capable of being effected by mere blundering. It has been one of the qualities of our legislature, as of all other selfish men and selfish bodies of men, that even its blunders have almost uniformly been on the selfish side. Being accustomed to so much selfishness, it is natural for the people to take securities chiefly against that: and to think that they cannot tie up the hands of their legislators too strictly. Experience must as usual be the mother of wisdom; we must learn the value of intellect as we have partly learnt that of honesty, by suffering for want of it. There is a period before us, in which, peradventure, we shall have opportunity enough to learn how wretchedly a country may be misgoverned by ignorant good intentions.
“Wisdom cometh by opportunity of leisure.”5 No man is fit to be a legislator whose whole life has been occupied with gaining his daily bread by quite other pursuits. We shall never have wise legislators, until legislation is a profession, and men study for it as any man now studies for the business of his life. Such men, indeed, are seldom now to be met with, and in the meantime we must be satisfied with an approximation. Since those who have their whole time upon their hands, have found no leisure for the systematic study of politics, the man who has spared some one or two hours a day from his countinghouse or his chambers for reading and reflecting on public questions, must meet with joyful acceptance. But when the value of knowledge is adequately felt, a man will choose his legislator as he chooses his physician. No man pretends to instruct his physician. No man exacts a pledge from his physician that he shall prescribe for him a particular treatment. Nobody pretends that it is the duty of a physician to act “according to the wishes and instructions” of his patient, or of a majority of his patients. Why should we have one rule for the body politic, another and an opposite one for the body natural? Politics is an uncertain science; but so is medicine: your representative may be a quack or an ignoramus; so may your physician. But though your physician, or your legislator, may cheat you, it is worth while purchasing his professional acquirements at that risk: and though he may not know every thing, if you have chosen him wisely, he will probably know much more than you: just as you probably know more than he does of your particular calling or profession.
At present men’s notions are quite rational about the choice of a physician. Nobody would endure hereditary medicine; nor would choose to have a physician named for him by the Government, whose advice he should be bound to take whether he would or not. But when you have chosen your medical adviser, you let him take his own way, until you are convinced from his ill success, or from his conversation and demeanour, that he does not understand your case; and then you try another. We wish to see the same rule acted upon in the choice of a Member of Parliament. It is singular, if nobody thinks himself a better tailor than his tailor, or a better shoemaker than his shoemaker, that yet everybody is a better legislator than his legislator, and cannot, do what he will, find any person who knows more about that subject that he himself.
But, how, then, it may be asked, are the people to judge of an untried man? Very easily. Inform yourselves of his previous life—learn in what manner his time has been spent; whether in idle dissipation, or in sober and severe study; learn whether he has been a jobber in vestries or corporations, or on the bench of magistrates; or an enemy of jobs: whether he has ever stopped up a path, or set a spring gun: whether he keeps game preserves, to decoy his poorer neighbours to their ruin. Enquire if he ever professed liberal opinions, before it could be his private interest to do so; if he ever professed any one opinion in favour of anything by which he could be a loser; or if his judgment has been always the humble servant of his interest. Find out whether he pays his tradesmen: if he be a landlord, whether his farmers have leases, or are kept as tenants-at-will for the sake of political power; ask if he ever turned out a tenant for voting against him at an election; if he keeps his farmers at a rack rent; if he has remitted his rents when they could not be paid without encroaching upon the tenant’s capital.—Prefer a man who has made himself known by giving his time or his money for any patriotic object; or whose speeches or writings, while they evince zeal for improvement and personal purity of motive, also show that he has bestowed thought and labour on great public questions. Next to such a person, prefer the man whom such persons recommend. When all other things are equal, give your votes to him who refuses to degrade himself and you by personal solicitation. To entrust a man with a burthensome duty (unless he means to betray it) is a compliment indeed, but no favour. The man who manifests the highest opinion of the electors, is not he who tries to gain them over individually by civil speeches, but he who assumes that their only object is to choose the fittest man, and abstains from all canvassing, except by laying his pretensions before them collectively, on the hustings, at public meetings, or through the press.
By these and a hundred other means, it is not difficult for the people to discern who it is that deserves enough of their confidence to be thought worthy of a trial. We believe that these means of selection, fairly used, would very seldom miscarry; and would generally give us a body of representatives whom we could trust without pledges, and whose opinion would deservedly carry weight with us, even when it was opposed to our own; if the representative system were properly constituted.
But with a representative system so imperfect as ours still is, we stand in need of some further security; chiefly on account of the enormity of the seven years lease of legislation6 —which removes the sense of responsibility to such a distance as to be evanescent; gives the people no opportunity till it is too late, of correcting a first error; and gives time even for highly deserving persons to degenerate and become corrupt, from what has corrupted so many men, the long enjoyment of power.
Till short parliaments are restored, no representatives, however chosen, upon such imperfect knowledge as the electors can possibly have of them before trial, are to be depended upon for fidelity to their trust. If at suitable intervals they had to render an account of their acts after performance, it would be unnecessary to fetter them before. A liberal confidence should be, and naturally will be, given to a faithful trustee, to execute the trust according to his own judgment: but if he has time to ruin you long before it is in your power to get rid of him, you will trust him with nothing that you can by possibility keep in your own hands. A man who is his own physician, generally has a fool for his patient; but it is better that he prescribe for himself, than obey a physician whom he believes to have been bribed by his heir.
A pledge therefore should be exacted from every popular candidate, for shortening the duration of parliaments: and for any other measures, if they be so urgent that they cannot safely wait till after the repeal of the septennial act.
As a general rule, we would lay it down that pledges are allowable where there is a demand for changes in the constitution, or where, from any cause whatever, the people feel themselves obliged to choose an unfit man.
Of the propriety of changes in the constitution, the only proper judges are the people themselves. The trustee is to judge how he can best discharge his trust, but not upon what terms it is to be confided to him. It would be absurd that the members of the legislature should determine the conditions of their own power. The very supposition that a constitutional change can be necessary, implies that the present governors are not the best men, or that the system is not such as to secure their best services. Either way their judgment is not to be relied on, and least of all in what so nearly affects themselves. Whoever, therefore, on mature deliberation, with the proper means of knowledge, has made up his mind that the ballot, or annual parliaments, or any other change in the composition of the legislature, is desirable, cannot be blamed for annexing to the promise of his vote a stipulation for supporting these measures.
So again if the people are unable to find a really qualified candidate: which will doubtless be the case in many instances, and for a long time to come. Reform or no reform, the people must in fact continue to make their selection chiefly from a very narrow class; the class possessed of leisure, that is to say, of considerable property. Even of that class the majority are for the present disqualified by a rooted aversion to popular institutions; and the remainder too often by confirmed indolence; incapacity for mental exertion; a life spent in mere amusement, instead of any manly pursuit; ignorance of the world and of business, and a consequent timidity which makes them shrink from difficulty or responsibility instead of facing it bravely. Yet such will frequently be the persons in whose hands the electoral bodies must be fain to place their affairs, until the working of a free government shall have inspired our opulent classes with the ambition of earning honours by deserving them. For, as long as one of the highest and most arduous services which man can render to man, that of making laws for him to obey, shall be almost the only service which goes unremunerated, except by jobbing or underhand methods; as long as no indemnity is allowed to legislators for the value of their time, and, unless they are already rich, they have only to choose between corrupt gains and painful sacrifices; so long government will not be carried on by the wisest and best men. In France the case is somewhat different: for in France narrow circumstances are only an inconvenience, not a disgrace: a man who has but two rooms to live in, may enjoy as much respect, and may even, in those two rooms, receive as much of the best society of the capital, as if he lived in a palace. But here, while the income which is esteemed necessary to respectability is so great as few can inherit, and as scarcely any one can earn without devoting to that sordid pursuit every moment of his life; and while it requires the heroism of an Andrew Marvel,7 to maintain dignity of character in honourable poverty,—there will certainly be many representatives, in every parliament, whom it would be ridiculous to treat as if they were wiser, or even half so wise, as the general public when its opinion is deliberately formed. To such persons very strict instructions may properly be given. But it should be ever present to the mind both of the candidates and of the electors, that the exaction of pledges is always a testimony of the extreme unfitness of the representative. It is either a proof that no fit person is to be found, or it implies the disgraceful supposition, that the electors, having fit persons at command, prefer such as they themselves believe to be unfit.
[1 ]Juvenal, Satire II, 24; in Juvenal and Persius, p. 18.
[2 ]Isaac Solomons (b. 1787?) was notorious as a fence and a swindler.
[3 ]Cicero, “Pro A. Cluentio habito oratio,” lix, 5; in Cicero: The Speeches. Pro lege Manilia, Pro Caecina, Pro Cluentio, Pro Rabiro, Perduellionis (Latin and English), trans. H. Grose Hodge (London: Heinemann, 1966), p. 282.
[4 ]William Williams (1789-1865), Radical London merchant, Letter to the Editor (26 June, 1832), The Times, 28 June, p. 6.
[5 ]Ecclesiasticus, 38:24.
[6 ]The “Septennial Act” of 1716, 1 George I, Stat. 2, c. 38, giving parliaments a seven-year term, had repealed 6 & 7 William and Mary, c. 2 (1694), which provided a three-year term.
[7 ]Andrew Marvell (1621-78), the poet, satirist, and Commonwealth politician, was reported to have preferred to live humbly rather than accept the patronage of Charles II.