Front Page Titles (by Subject) 177.: PLEDGES  EXAMINER, 15 JULY, 1832, PP. 449-51 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIII - Newspaper Writings August 1831 - October 1834 Part II
Return to Title Page for The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIII - Newspaper Writings August 1831 - October 1834 Part II
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
177.: PLEDGES  EXAMINER, 15 JULY, 1832, PP. 449-51 - 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).
About Liberty Fund:
The online edition of the Collected Works is published under licence from the copyright holder, The University of Toronto Press. ©2006 The University of Toronto Press. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced in any form or medium without the permission of The University of Toronto Press.
Fair use statement:
For the context, see the first part, No. 174. Mill’s observations had been contested in the Morning Chronicle, 10 July, 1832, pp. 2-3, by John Black, to whom he now replies. Like No. 174, this is a first leader, headed as title. It is described in Mill’s bibliography as “A sec. article headed ‘Pledges,’ in the Exam. of 15th July 1832” (MacMinn, p. 22). In the Somerville College set of the Examiner, it is listed as “Pledges” and enclosed in square brackets.
we have been surprised to find from an article in the Morning Chronicle of Tuesday, that the editor of that journal dissents wholly from the observations on the subject of Pledges in our last paper but one. It is from no deficiency of respect towards our excellent contemporary, or disposition to undervalue the great help he has rendered to the common cause, that we profess our inability to see anything in the arguments which he has brought against us, worthy either of himself or of the gravity of the subject. They have not even, as is usual with him, the appearance of being drawn from a matured and strong conviction, but rather resemble the first crude outpourings of a mind to which Thought, on the great questions of government, is new and unfamiliar. We learn at least one thing from our contemporary’s article; how much need there was and is, that the elementary and fundamental truths of politics should be frequently brought forward and insisted upon; for they have been kept out of view until they seem strange and unfashionable, and, if they remain longer in the background, are in positive danger of being forgotten. And in particular we see that it was high time to speak a few reasonable words on this subject of Pledges; when opinions so remote from all we deem true and useful, are professed even as axioms in politics, not by the unthinking vulgar of any rank, which would be less surprising, but by a public writer who has claims much higher than most men to be placed in the class of philosophic reformers.
We shall put first in order a few explanations, necessary to prevent ourselves from being misunderstood.
We acknowledge, as we did most fully in our preceding article, that the immediate application of the true principle of Representative Government, is complicated with a number of considerations arising from the surviving evil consequences of the vicious system under which we have hitherto lived. The state of society and manners in Great Britain almost compels the electors to make their selection from persons in whom it would not be natural that they should confide; persons to a great degree corrupted by aristocratic institutions. The leisured class, the class which ought to furnish statesmen and philosophers, has been bred in a very different school, and trained to far other occupations. The circumstances of their education were not such as to make them love wisdom or virtue for its own sake; and in the pursuit of power or distinction, both the one and the other were rather obstructions than helps. For a legislator, the sole qualification required was having bought the office, or being born to it; even in a minister, talents for government meant nothing but address in finding a colour for benefiting the few at the cost of the many, and in quieting the exorbitance of those among the few who demanded more than their share. Capacity for government, in any sense implying the good of the governed, was to such a degree unknown and unthought of, that the tradition of its having ever existed, and the opinion of its being required, were gradually dying away, and are all but absolutely extinct.
The evils of centuries are not to be remedied in a day. Great statesmen cannot be called out of the ground by stamping upon it.1 But there are still some men wiser than others. And let us here clearly understand whether this, among other things, is to be contested. Are all men possessed of an equal quantity of political knowledge and political foresight, aye or no? Let us have a categorical answer to this one question. If the Morning Chronicle, or any one else, maintains the affirmative, he shall hear further from us. But, for the present, we take it for granted, that according to the old proverb, “some are wise, and some are otherwise.” Now, all we contend for, all we have ever contended for, is, that the people ought to have the benefit of having their affairs managed by the wise, rather than by those who are otherwise. We will join with any one who pleases in deploring that the wise are not more wise, and shall be happy to unite with all the world in making both it and ourselves as wise as our faculties and opportunities will permit. Still, we return to our original position; there may be a wiser government in the moon, perhaps, than the government of the wisest persons that can be had, but how, in the name of reason, is it to be got at? Shall we mend the matter by setting a less wisdom to dictate to a greater? And, mind, we do not, like the Tories, first inculcate the necessity of wisdom, then quietly assume that a long purse is wisdom, and conclude for the government of the longest purse. There shall be no question between us and the people as to who is wisest; we will have no other arbiter of the matter than themselves: for our present purpose the wisest are whomsoever the people consider such; we own the people, not certainly as infallible judges, but as the only safe ones, and submit to them not from a blind confidence, but from the motive which we ourselves urge, namely, that they are the best that can be had. We only say, let them judge of the workman both before and after, but let them not attempt to teach him the way of his work. They are employing skilled labour; and they cannot as a body be more skilled than the most skilful labourer whom they have it in their power to choose.
In this, however, we are always supposing that a skilful and honest labourer is to be had. We acknowledge that the case is altered, when the people either cannot choose a sufficient person to serve them in Parliament, or will not.
While the office of a member of Parliament is unpaid, and while even those who have something, cannot be content without making it more, there will be a great reluctance among men of abilities to offer themselves for the people’s suffrages, unless they are already in what are called independent, that is, in affluent, circumstances. Now all such persons lie under a prima facie suspicion of sympathizing more strongly with the aristocracy than with the mass of the people. It ought never to be believed without the most positive experience, of any English gentleman, that the interests and feelings of gentlemen do not count with him for more than their just value, and the interests and feelings of all the other members of the community for less. There are different degrees of this caste-spirit, but those who have least of it in reality will not be the most confident and eager in their disclaimer of it. As the feelings proper to a free government gain the strength which time and habit alone can give, these wrongful partialities will wear away. But in the meantime they are to be presumed, and guarded against, in almost every case: and every candidate who cannot effectually rebut the presumption, is so far wanting in one of the most essential ingredients of a just title to that confidence, which, some time hence, all the representatives of the people will habitually deserve.
There is also another very important concession to be made. In general the people are better judges of men than of measures; naturally: since we commonly judge of men from past experience, of measures from what is so much more uncertain, prospective anticipation. But now, in some particulars, the case is reversed; there being various measures which, from long and earnest discussion, and the little difficulty of the subjects, the people have come to a tolerably correct understanding of; while in respect to men, the old bad habits which grew up under the exploded system, still subsist, and the fitness of a man is judged by a wrong criterion. This will partly account for the reluctance which we have seen evinced by some persons whom we greatly respect, to admit the true principle on the subject of pledges, as applicable to the present time. It is felt, justly enough, that any pledges which the people are disposed, just now, to exact, are mostly such as almost any candidate well affected to the popular cause could conscientiously give, while yet the same electors, if called upon to point out the man whom they think properest in the abstract to represent them in Parliament, would probably name the greatest landholder in the neighbourhood, if they are satisfied with his personal manners, and kindness as a landlord or a magistrate; though, perhaps, every act of his Parliamentary life might be hostile to their cause.
These are the considerations which can alone lead us to view with complacency the copious exaction of pledges which is taking place at this period. We regard it as a palliative for the consequences of a vicious state of mind both in the electors and in the candidates. As long as the personal prepossessions of the electors are in favour of the richest rather than of the ablest and most honest candidate, and as long as nine-tenths of the candidates may be suspected of being at heart insincere, or at least but cold, reformers, so long we must tolerate or approve the chaining up of the representative by much tighter bonds than would be allowable, if it were easier finding unexceptionable men, or if the people knew better how to distinguish them. If, therefore, we could think of any pledge to be tendered to a candidate, his acceptance or refusal of which would decide whether he is with us or against us,—whether he is for the Movement or the Resistance,—whether he voted for the Reform Bill as a prop to all our remaining institutions, or as a means of beating down such of them as are bad, and repairing such as are decaying,—we should not be averse to see such a test propounded. But, unhappily, there is no single question, nor small number of questions, which places this point out of doubt. The Ballot, or the Taxes on Knowledge,2 perhaps come nearest to a test, but not near enough. It cannot, however, be pretended that a man’s spontaneous professions, the style of his addresses, his own previous character and that of his leading supporters, commonly leave any doubt as to the main direction of his politics. We may be sure it will seldom be uncertain who is the Conservative, and who the Reforming candidate; or who is the most in earnest of two professed reformers. But if there should be any doubt, this is what justifies us in requiring pledges; this is the point which our pledges should be shaped to ascertain; and we should endeavour to ascertain it with the least possible restraint upon the discretion of the man whom we are employing to judge for us as well as to act.
The exaction of pledges should be felt as a slur upon the candidate; a slur which should never be inflicted except where it is deserved. When the pledge is not a slur upon the candidate, its exaction is a slur upon the electors; to be justified only if the electors are in reality bad judges of the fittest man.
Thus much by way of explanation and enforcement of our own opinion. We must now have a few words with the Morning Chronicle.
Our contemporary has very needlessly confounded two ideas, than which it is difficult to conceive any more perfectly distinct; he has supposed that because we object to tying up the representative from acting upon his own opinions, we must therefore be against asking him any questions about them. So remote is this from our sentiments, that we should regard any candidate, who did not explicitly state his present opinion without reserve or disguise, on any political question on which his constituents desired to know it, as disqualified by that single circumstance from being a good Member of Parliament. Because we feel the superiority of matured wisdom, does it follow that we are enemies to discussion? Because we think another man wiser than ourselves, does it follow that we think ourselves fools, and deem that he can learn nothing by talking over the subject with us? Let him tell us his own opinions and hear ours; but let us as well as him, hold and declare our opinions with becoming modesty; let us not suppose that we know everything and he nothing, because we happen to be the electors and he the candidate. By a free communication we may learn much from him, and he something from us: he will moreover learn the public opinion for the time being, which as a fact it is most important that he should know, howsoever as a rule of conduct it may occasionally be improper that he should be guided by it. “But,” it is said, “if the candidate is to tell all his opinions, this will be tantamount to exacting pledges.” We answer, no doubt it will, with all electors who are so narrow-minded and conceited, as to judge of a man’s intellect and virtue by the single test of his agreeing in opinion with themselves: but this is the very thing which we are contending that they ought not to do: we are maintaining that they ought to choose somebody whose opinion, if sincere, is more likely to be right than their own: and that it is only if they cannot find such a person, that they ought to send somebody as a mere instrument to execute their own decree: just as it is sometimes necessary to send instructions to a General or an Admiral how and when to fight; but only when he deserves to be superseded, and you have no means of immediately supplying his place.
The Chronicle does not well know what to do with our illustration of choosing a physician; he has found out fifty differences between the two cases, every one of which is altogether beside the purpose. He says that the patient cannot always understand the physician’s reasons! And can the citizen always understand the legislator’s reasons? Are all questions of legislation, then, so extremely simple? As is forcibly remarked by the Times, (whose powerful co-operation on this subject gives us much pleasure), what shall we say to the poor-laws, or the currency, or the mode of reforming the law, or the mode of reforming the Courts of Justice, or emigration, or the law of primogeniture, or the best principle of taxation, all subjects on which thinking and honest men are divided in opinion?3 Does it follow that a question is really simple, because the electors may happen to think it so? All questions appear simple while they are looked at only on one side. But though we cannot always judge of either the physician’s reasons, or the legislator’s, it is always advisable to hear them. Though we may not know much about the matter ourselves, we may generally give a shrewd guess from what a man says, whether he is speaking of a subject which he understands, or one which he is ignorant of. A wise man will have nothing to do either with a physician, or a representative, who conceals the principles of his treatment. Concealment is the refuge of quackery; a manly avowal is one of the signs both of true knowledge and of integrity.
The Chronicle also finds out that a physician differs from a legislator, because a physician has only to satisfy his patient, but a legislator the whole nation. One would think our contemporary was speaking of an actor, or a rope-dancer. The physician has not to satisfy his patient, he has to cure him. No doubt, if satisfaction were all, every man knows best what will satisfy him. But medicine, and government, are not a mere affair of taste. The reason why wisdom is required, either in a physician or a legislator, is because what satisfies a man to-day is not always best for his interest to-morrow. And why, because a nation’s good is at stake instead of a single person’s, the nation should not be guided by the same maxim of common sense which the individual members of it follow in every analogous case, our contemporary has not succeeded in shewing us.
But all this is nothing to what follows. The Chronicle next gives us his notion of a Representative Government. He says it is by the vote of each member, voting as the mere organ of his constituents, that we collect the opinion of the majority, and ensure the conformity of the acts of government to the general will. This is a step beyond Robespierre’s democratic constitution of 1793; for in that, although all laws were referred to the express sanction of the electors after they were passed, the electors were not consulted first, and each legislator gave his provisional vote according to the best of his judgment.4 If even this latitude is not to be allowed to a representative, we cannot see much use in the complex machinery of a representation. If the power of changing your representative every three years, or even every year, does not suffice you, but, in order that you may feel secure, the advantages of knowledge and deliberation must be sacrificed, government by a select body be given up, and government by the people en masse introduced, then it would be cheaper, more certain, and more expeditious for the electors to send their votes to town on every measure, under an official frank, through the post-office. A few clerks would then suffice to do the business of Parliament, and all danger of jobbing or encroachment on the part of the legislature would be effectually provided against. Nothing short of this will do. You will never be quite safe from Scylla till you are whirling round in the midst of Charybdis. You will always be in some danger of striking against the wall of rock on your right, till you have fallen down the precipice on your left.
For our part, we avow, that when the Tory prints accused the Reformers of seeking to set up a government of mere numbers, instead of one of intelligence, our denial of the imputation was sincere. Such never was our object. A government of honesty and intelligence was all we sought, and our quarrel with the old government was, that its character was the very reverse. We know that the will of the people, even of the numerical majority, must in the end be supreme, for as Burke says, it would be monstrous that any power should exist capable of permanently defying it:5 but in spite of that, the test of what is right in politics is not the will of the people, but the good of the people, and our object is, not to compel but to persuade the people to impose, for the sake of their own good, some restraints on the immediate and unlimited exercise of their own will. One of our reasons for desiring a popular government was, that men whom the people themselves had selected for their wisdom and good affections, would have authority enough to withstand the will of the people when it is wrong. And it is surely some presumption that the people are in the wrong, if they cannot find any man of ability who will do as they wish him, without being pledged to it. We ourselves do not think that the public opinion, except where it has adhered to the impressions of early education, has often gone far wrong heretofore; but this is because the people have for the most part acted upon our principle, and have not yet learnt the doctrine that they are to hear appeals on all subjects, from the decision of the most competent judges. We must recollect, however, that the people are now the sovereign: as such, it is they who will now be the objects of flattery; it is to them that the interested, the discontented, and the impatient, will henceforth carry their complaints. Every factious minority, every separate class, every adventurer who seeks to rise by undermining those above him, will endeavour to obtain, not as before from the oligarchy, but from the people, what has been refused by the people’s representatives: and the grand instrument of success will be, persuading the people, that no thought, no study, no labour, give any superiority in judging of public measures, and that the question immediately on the tapis, whatever it be, no matter how complicated, is level to every man’s capacity. Where the popular mind is not kept steady by confidence in superior wisdom, these tactics will frequently succeed. The man who says, Judge for yourself, you are wise enough, has an immense advantage over him who can only say, I speak from study and experience, and I know better than you. An ignoramus in politics may deem lightly of this danger; all things appear easy to him, because he sees little in them, and cannot conceive that anything is to be seen, except what he can see. But a man who has thought and read as much as the Editor of the Chronicle, must know that the correct view of a political question is very often not the superficial one.
We here conclude for the present our answer to the Chronicle. We have heard ourselves assailed by another objection, from which, to his credit, the writer in the Chronicle has abstained; that our doctrine is untimely. Untimely! why? Because this is a good opportunity for extorting by means of pledges a great number of good measures. According to this doctrine, we ought to withhold what we deem the truth, until by the production of it we can serve our immediate ends; to make our profit of error as long as we can, and first turn against it when it turns against ourselves. With what face could we shew ourselves before the public, or what opinion could we expect them to entertain of our sincerity, if we countenanced the practice of unlimited pledges now when it suits our convenience, and found out its impropriety only when it came to be put in force against our own opinions? Let those act upon such principles who relish them; they shall not be ours. We have never been able to discover any better or more universal maxim of expediency, than honesty, nor know we any occasion upon which the truth is untimely, if it is the truth, and not merely a little bit of the truth, worse than no truth at all. But if there be a time which is fittest of all for combatting errors, it is before they have strengthened into prejudices; and the best of occasions for putting forth the truth, is when it must be seen that we propound it because it is the truth, though something else, it might seem, would better serve our immediate turn. We may add too, that there are few persons from whom the objection to pledges can come with a better grace than from ourselves, since perhaps no pledge has yet been called for, by any considerable portion of the people, in favour of any measures but such as we in the main approve.
Not that we shall in reality carry these measures a day sooner, by violating for them the true principles of a representative government. They are all of them such as the people are sure to obtain, if they choose thorough reformers; and we have already allowed the utmost latitude of pledging, if you are obliged to choose men whom you do not know to be thorough reformers. If the pledges now proposed were to be the last ever asked, we should be as strong advocates of them as any one, for they accord with our own opinions: but how is a practice to be kept within due limits? Surely no otherwise than by pointing out, as often as the subject engages public attention, what the due limits are. It is the part of wisdom to look after as well as before; and not to let those doctrines and feelings which are the only permanent securities for good government, be played away for the mere stake of the moment. Once gone, they are not so easily recovered. And when able men have wandered so far from them as we now see, truly it was not too soon to put in our caveat for the established truths.
We did not expect that our view of the subject would find favour with the unreflecting; not because there was anything abstruse, or refined, or paradoxical, in it, for it was the broad common-sense view, which strikes a man of plain understanding as soon as the question is placed before him. But we were exhorting men to two things, either of which is more than a great number of persons are capable of; to doubt their own infallibility, and to forego an exercise of power.
It was for this reason; it was because we knew the formidable array of human weaknesses and passions which would be perpetually at work to make a Representative Democracy (what it has so often been asserted to be in its own essence) a mere mob-government; that we deemed it necessary thus early to call upon the intelligent leaders of the people that they might join in stemming the torrent before it becomes irresistible. And it disappoints and mortifies us that one who ranks so high among those leaders as the Editor of the Morning Chronicle, one who has done more in a few short years to extirpate abuses than any other periodical writer whatever, should have given the sanction of his authority to the most deplorable misapprehension of the nature of representative government, which can possibly prevail; an error of which the Tories have always delighted to accuse the reformers, but which we would gladly have believed that not one of the enlightened reformers really held, and which the Editor of the Chronicle may live to deplore his having ever, even for a moment, countenanced by the weight of his authority.
We wind up by a summary of the conclusions of our former article.
Pledges may be exacted for all organic, in other words, all constitutional, changes; such as the Ballot, and Triennial Parliaments:—
Also for all measures of immediate urgency, which cannot conveniently wait for the repeal of the septennial act:—
And finally, if the electors are obliged to choose a candidate of doubtful judgment, or of doubtful affections, any pledges may be taken, which they in their suspicion may deem necessary.
In all other cases, pledges ought not to be required.
[1 ]See Plutarch, Life of Pompey, lvii, 5; in Lives, Vol. V, p. 266.
[2 ]The term “taxes on knowledge” was used with reference to a variety of statutes that imposed duties on newspaper sheets, on advertisements, and on paper, and put various other impediments in the way of inexpensive journals. The statutes included 10 Anne, c. 19 (1711), 11 George I, c. 8 (1724), 55 George III, c. 185 (1815), and 60 George III & 1 George IV, c. 9 (1819).
[3 ]Leading article on pledges, The Times, 11 July, 1832, p. 2.
[4 ]Acte constitutionnel de la république (24 June, 1793), Art. 53 (and see also Art. 19), Moniteur, 1793, pp. 765-6.
[5 ]Burke, Letter to the Chairman of the Buckinghamshire Meeting (1780), in Works, Vol. V, p. 229.