Front Page Titles (by Subject) 413.: ROMILLY'S PUBLIC RESPONSIBILITY AND THE BALLOT READER, 29 APR., 1865, PP. 474-5 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXV - Newspaper Writings December 1847 - July 1873 Part IV
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413.: ROMILLY’S PUBLIC RESPONSIBILITY AND THE BALLOT READER, 29 APR., 1865, PP. 474-5 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXV - Newspaper Writings December 1847 - July 1873 Part IV 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, XXV - Newspaper Writings December 1847 - July 1873 Part IV, 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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ROMILLY’S PUBLIC RESPONSIBILITY AND THE BALLOT
Mill’s review is of Public Responsibility and Vote by Ballot. By an Elector (London: Ridgway, 1865), by Henry Romilly (1805-84), businessman and magistrate, son of Sir Samuel Romilly and brother of John, 1st Baron Romilly. Romilly included Mill’s review (calling it a “letter,” perhaps because it was signed with Mill’s initials) in the 2nd ed. of his pamphlet, which had the subtitle: To Which Are Appended, A Letter from John Stuart Mill to the Editor of the Reader, 29 Apr., 1865, and Observations Thereon (London: Ridgway, 1867). (A copy is in SC, without marks.) Mill’s only contribution to the Reader, this notice is in the “Current Literature” section, headed “Public Responsibility and the Ballot,” with the subhead, “Public Responsibility and Vote by Ballot. By an Elector. (Ridgway.) 1865.” It is described in Mill’s bibiliography as “Review of a pamphlet on the Ballot (by Mr. Henry Romilly) in the Reader of April 29, 1865; afterwards reprinted by Mr. Henry Romilly, in a pamphlet replying to it”
(MacMinn, p. 96).
this pamphlet is a defence of the Ballot, or, rather, an answer to the objections to it. The writer is evidently a man of intelligence and knowledge, and accustomed to discussion. It is always fortunate when disputed questions are treated, not in a rhetorical, but in a dialectical spirit. The pamphlet contains incidentally many true and useful thoughts, and some others which excite surprise that the writer can have gone through the process of putting them on paper without perceiving their untenableness. To the present reviewer (who must be understood as speaking for himself only) the discussion appears, as to its main object, a failure.
The arguments for and against the Ballot are so trite and familiar, that the world is excusably tired of them. But in the answers to them there is still room for novelty, and it is in these that the main stress of the practical controversy lies. The author of the pamphlet directs his principal efforts against one of the anti-Ballot arguments, which he is quite right in regarding as the strongest; namely, that the franchise is a trust for the public, and the voter should be responsible to the public for the use made of it.
There are two ways in which a writer might meet this argument. He might admit the moral responsibility of the elector, and the beneficial effect on his mind of fulfilling his trust under the eye and criticism of those who are interested in its right fulfilment; but, he might say, the voters are in such a state of helpless dependence—each of them, so to speak, has a tyrant with eyes so fiercely glaring on him—that since his vote, if known to his friends and family, will be known to his master, the salutary influences of honour and shame cannot be admitted without letting in, along with them, the more powerful ones of terror. Darkness is the only element in which the voter can be free to do his duty; and we must trust, for a good vote, to such spontaneous feelings of conscience and patriotism as may not need the support of publicity. This would reduce the question to one of fact, on which every one would form his own opinion. He who thinks that the electors, or a large proportion of them, are in this state of compulsory subjection, will probably be a supporter of the Ballot; though, even then, he ought to ask himself whether this slavish dependence is likely to last, whether the whole of the changes now taking place in society do not tend to its diminution, and even extinction. There might be a good case against its being yet time to abolish the Ballot, if we had always had it, and yet no case in favour of introducing, for a temporary purpose, a novelty which, when the time comes for which we ought to be looking, will be mischievous, and which has a decided tendency to unfit men for that coming time.
This, however, in our judgment, is the only line of defence for the Ballot which can ever be, to a certain extent, tenable. The author of the pamphlet has not chosen this mode. He prefers to reject the principle of electoral responsibility altogether. He does not deny the voter to be discharging a duty, for which he is accountable to conscience; on the contrary, a high sense of duty to the public is always present to the author’s mind. But he thinks that responsibility to public opinion will seldom operate with much force; that, when it does, it will as often operate on the wrong side as on the right; and that the voter is more likely to vote well if left to his personal promptings, uninfluenced by praise or blame from anyone. For, “if you place him by the Ballot quite beyond the reach of the improper control of other men, you leave to the elector no intelligible interest except that of the body of which he is a member—his interest as a citizen.” (P. 12.) It would hardly be fair to hold the author to this dictum, to which, we are sure, he could not, on consideration, adhere. Has no elector any private interest but what other people’s bribes or threats create for him? We will not take advantage, against the author, of his own exaggerations. We will give his argument a liberal construction. He means, and in many places says, that in the absence of other motives to an honest vote, we may safely rely on the voter’s interest as a citizen; his share of the public interest.
Now, we venture to say that this motive, in the common course of things, does not operate at all, or only in the slightest possible degree, on the mind either of an elector or of a member of Parliament. When he votes honestly, he is thinking of voting honestly, not of the fraction of a fraction of an interest which he, as an individual, may have in what is beneficial to the public. That minute benefit is not only too insignificant in amount, but too uncertain, too distant, and too hazy, to have any real effect on his mind. His motive, when it is an honourable one, is the desire to do right. We will not term it patriotism or moral principle, in order not to ascribe to the voter’s state of mind a solemnity that does not belong to it. But he votes for a particular man or measure because he thinks it the right thing to do, the proper thing for the good of the country. Once in a thousand times, as in a case of peace and war, or of taking off taxes, the thought may cross him that he shall save a few pounds or shillings in his year’s expenditure if the side he votes for prevails. But these cases are few, and, even in them, the interested motive is not the prevailing one. It is possible, indeed, that he or his class may have a private interest acting in the same direction with the public interest, as a man who has speculated for a fall in corn has an interest in a good harvest; and this may determine his conduct. But, in that case, it is the private interest that actuates him, not his share of the public interest.
Since, then, the real motive which induces a man to vote honestly is, for the most part, not an interested motive in any form, but a social one, the point to be decided is, whether the social feelings connected with an act, and the sense of social duty in performing it, can be expected to be as powerful when the act is done in secret, and he can neither be admired for disinterested, nor blamed for mean and selfish conduct. But this question is answered as soon as stated. When, in every other act of a man’s life which concerns his duties to others, publicity and criticism ordinarily improve his conduct, it cannot be that voting for a member of Parliament is the single case in which he will act better for being sheltered against all comment.
The author, indeed, says with truth, and it is his strongest point, that public opinion is itself one of the misleading influences. In the first place, the public opinion nearest to the voter may be that of his own class, and may side with, instead of counteracting, the class interest. Besides, the opinion of the general public has its aberrations, too, and its most violent action is apt to be its worst. “At periods of political excitement, the practical sense to an elector of the phrase, ‘Responsibility to public opinion,’ is too often this: Go up to that polling-booth and, at your peril, vote for any candidate but the popular candidate.” (P. 42.) Such cases of physical violence are not what we have here to consider. If voters are liable to be mobbed, and if the state of society, as at Rome in the time of Cicero, is so lawless that the public authorities cannot protect them, cadit quaestio the Ballot is indispensable; though, in that case, even the Ballot is a feeble protection. We are for leaving the voter open to the penalties of opinion, but not to those of brute force. The author overlooks what, under this limitation, is the most important feature of the case; he supposes that, if public opinion acts on the elector at all, it must act by dictating his vote. When it is violently exerted, it does so; but its more ordinary operation consists in making the voter more careful to act up to his own sincere opinion. It operates through the quiet comments of relatives, neighbours, and companions; noting instances of variance between professions and conduct, or in which a selfish private purpose or a personal grudge prevails over public duty. In countries used to free discussion, it is only in times of fierce public contention that a man is really disliked for voting in conformity to the opinion he is known to hold. If he is reproached even by opponents, it is for something paltry in the motive; and, if there is a paltry motive, it is generally no recondite one, but such as the opinion of those who know him can easily detect, and therefore may be able to restrain.
The author deems it a fallacy to distinguish between the election of members of a club and that of members of Parliament, on the ground that the voters in a club have no public duty. [Pp. 4-12.] They have a duty, he says, to the members of the club. This we altogether dispute. A club is a voluntary association, into which people enter for their individual pleasure, and are not accountable to one another. What is there wanted is, that each should declare by his vote what is agreeable to himself; whatever has then a majority is proved to be agreeable to the majority, and whoever dislikes it can leave the association. But if we were all born members of a club, and had no means, except emigration, of exchanging our club for any other, then, indeed, the voter would really be bound to consult the interests of the other members, the case would be assimilated to that of an election to Parliament, and the Ballot, accordingly, would be objectionable.
There is no room to follow the writer though all his arguments, but we cannot leave unnoticed the answer he makes to the objection that the Ballot would lead to lying. To this he replies, that lies are of very different degrees of criminality; that there are many greater moral delinquencies than “the lie of legitimate self-defence;” [p. 67] that a dishonest vote, given from a selfish motive, is worse; that such a vote ought to be called a falsehood; and that to think so rigorously of the mere breach of verbal truth, and so gently of a grave violation of public duty, is shallow and false morality. In all this we heartily concur; but the fact remains, that the majority of mankind do feel the lie an offence and a degradation, and do not so feel respecting the breach of public duty. We would gladly make them think a dishonest vote as bad as a lie, but it is to be feared we should only succeed in making them think a lie no worse than a dishonest vote. When people have only a few of the moral feelings they ought to have, there is the more danger in weakening those few. This is a truth which many moral saws in general circulation overlook. We are often told, for example, that an equivocation is as bad as a lie. It is well for mankind that everybody is not of this opinion, and that not all who will equivocate will lie. For the temptation to equivocate is often almost irresistible; indeed, the proposition, that everything which can be termed an equivocation is necessarily condemnable, is only true in those cases and those relations in life in which it is a duty to be absolutely open and unreserved. But to confine ourselves to what is really culpable: a person may be a habitual equivocator of a bad kind, he may have no scruple at all in implying what is not true, and yet, if when categorically questioned he shrinks from an express falsehood, this ultimate hold on him makes it still possible for his fellow-creatures to trust his word. Let no one underrate the importance of what mankind would gain if the precise literal meaning of men’s assertions could be kept conformable to fact. There may be much unworthy cunning and treachery notwithstanding, but the difference for all human purposes is immense between him who respects that final barrier and those who overleap it.
Did space permit, we might point out some cases in which the author, though habitually candid, yields to the temptation of caricaturing an opponent’s argument; as in charging a writer (pp. 31-2 and 48) with arguing as if all votes, given under the shelter of the Ballot, would be base or selfish, when the only thing asserted, or needed was that some would.1 But we prefer to quote a passage which tells strongly against the writer, and in favour of our own case:
A century ago, before the virtuous example of the first William Pitt had made it dishonourable in members of Parliament to hold their votes at the disposal of the dispensers of the public money, it might almost have been a question whether the incontestable advantages of publicity were not too dearly bought at the cost of that mass of political turpitude which it would have been possible, by means of the Ballot, to sweep from within the walls of Parliament.
If, at the time spoken of, our ancestors, to get rid of this mass of turpitude, had introduced the Ballot into the House of Commons, they would have done the exact parallel of what we should do if we adopted it in Parliamentary elections. And ought not the fact that all this profligacy has been got rid of without the Ballot to be a lesson to us for the other case? We see that the progress of the public conscience could and did, in the space of a single generation, correct political immoralities more gross and mischievous than those which now remain, and apparently harder to remove, because affecting the élite, socially speaking, of the nation. Such an example in times when the public conscience was much less alive, and its improvement far less rapid than now, ought to reassure us, to say the least, as to the necessity of the Ballot, and should deter us from putting on the badge of slavery at the very time when a few more steps and a very little additional effort will land us in complete freedom.
[1 ]The opponent was Mill himself, whose argument in Considerations on Representative Government (1861) was attacked (for the passage, see CW, Vol. XIX, pp. 488-95). Romilly’s other targets were Sydney Smith and Lord Palmerston.