Front Page Titles (by Subject) 5.: Parliamentary Reform  AUGUST 1824 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVI - Journals and Debating Speeches Part I
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5.: Parliamentary Reform  AUGUST 1824 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVI - Journals and Debating Speeches Part I 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVI - Journals and Debating Speeches Part I, ed. John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1988).
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Parliamentary Reform 
MS, Mill-Taylor Collection, II/1/1. Inscribed in Mill’s hand: “Speech on / Parl. Reform / at the / Mut. Impr. Soc. / 1823 or 24.” Typescript, Fabian Society; published, ed. Harold J. Laski, in The Realist, I (July-Sept. 1929), 51-62. The speech is dated on the inference that the manuscript contains the opening argument in the debate continued in No. 6, which can be dated by a specific reference. As not published in Mill’s lifetime, not listed in his bibliography.
it is not every one, Sir, I am convinced, who can appreciate the difficulties of my present situation. To be the successful advocate of opinions, which are at once so important, and with a large class of society so unpopular, as those which I profess, is a task, for which all the logic of an Aristotle, and all the eloquence of a Demosthenes,1 would not be too much. But I who am not more conscious of the inexpressible importance of the question, than I am of my utter inability to do it justice; I who am so little habituated to public speaking, that even my thoughts, and my reasonings, feeble as they may be, will appear still feebler by my manner of expressing them;—and who to all my personal disadvantages, add the farther disadvantage, of not even being a member of the Society, upon whose indulgence I venture to throw myself,—I must indeed be arrogant, indeed vainly and presumptuously confident, if I did not feel great embarrassment in entering upon the task which I have undertaken.
Indeed where success is doubtful, and obloquy certain, I might well be permitted to hesitate; and whatever may be my other deficiencies I do give myself credit for some portion of courage, in braving the hard names which I know will be levelled at me. For it has been too common to consider the word Reform as a mere cover for sinister designs, and all who presume to doubt that our Constitution is perfect, as enemies to social order and to the existence of property. If then I should be so fortunate, as to overcome all the preliminary obstacles, and in spite of my own deficiencies, and the difficulty of the subject, to present an intelligible exposition of my views; I might possibly do no more than bring disrepute upon myself, without serving the cause in which I am engaged. I am content however that they should call me radical, revolutionist, anarchist, jacobin, if they please. I am content to be treated as an enemy to establishments, to institutions, and to order. For though I profess no attachment to bad institutions, I hope to prove that I am as sincerely a friend to good institutions, as any person here: and the attempt to cry down the truth, by applying bad names to its supporters, though it might have some success in a darker age, may in the present state of the human mind be regarded I think as nearly hopeless.
We all know, Sir, that the simple forms of government as they are called, are three: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Each of these is universally allowed to have its advantages: each of them has also its disadvantages: and it has been pretty generally the doctrine of British statesmen, and of British politicians, that in every one of them, the disadvantages preponderate. Of every one of them, it is affirmed that more may be said against it than for it: that more evil than good would be the consequence of its unqualified adoption: and in short, that a nation is almost sure to be ill governed, whether it be under a monarchy, a democracy or an aristocracy. All the simple forms of government being thus objectionable, the only chance for good government is to be found, they allege, in a mixture of the three: a mixture absurd, indeed, and inconsistent in theory, but which is said to be realized in the British Constitution; a Constitution which, according to them, combines all the advantages of democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy.
Granting for the present what I am fully prepared to deny, viz. first that a mixed government is possible, and next, that our own is a mixed government, I wonder it should never have occurred to them as a possible case, that some turbulent fellow might dispute the assumption, that if the three forms of government are thrown pell mell into the melting-pot, they would come out freed from all their defects, and retaining their advantages: that this same turbulent fellow might further maintain, that he had looked more closely into the melting-pot than they had, and that instead of coming out refined and corrected, all the pure spirit had evaporated, and nothing but the scum and dross remained: to use plainer language, Sir, that the British Constitution instead of combining the advantages, combined all the disadvantages of the simple forms of government. If this were said, I do not well see what on their own principles they could say against it, nor what means they would possess of silencing the turbulent fellow,—except by the old established method of knocking him down.
I have heard a great deal, Sir, about the balance of the Constitution.2 What this means, I confess myself to be in ignorance. One would think it must be something unspeakably excellent, judging from the encomiums which are heaped upon it. It is in truth a mere metaphor. There seems to be something singularly captivating in the word balance: as if, because any thing is called a balance, it must, for that reason, be necessarily good. I know no artifice of language, more pernicious than this: to invent a metaphorical expression, and then reason from it as if it was the name of something real, of something tangible. What is there, that may not be proved in this way? What form of government, what person, what thing may not be demonstrated to be excellent, if nothing is required but to call it by some fine high sounding name?
Even admitting the metaphor, one would think that if all the moving forces are in equilibrio, the machine must stand still. This inference seems to flow at least as naturally from the premises, as the former.
Stripped of its metaphorical language, the doctrine is that the British Constitution is a system of mutual checks; that each of the three branches when it oversteps its limits, and attempts to do wrong, is restrained by the other two. But why should the three branches check one another in doing wrong? Of three equal forces, any two must be stronger than the third. May not two of them unite in doing wrong and overthrow the third if it opposes them? What is to hinder the monarchical branch, and the aristocratic branch, from uniting for the overthrow of the democratic? Not only is this probable but certain. The reason why the monarch would unite with the aristocracy, rather than either of them with the people, is, that it can never be the interest of the people to unite with either of them. It must always be the interest of the people, that neither of them should enjoy more power than is absolutely necessary for good government. It is their interest, to take as much power as they can get. For this purpose, they are sure to conspire against their common enemy, or at least the common enemy of their sinister designs,—the people. Assertion, however, is so much easier than proof, that no attempt to prove it has yet come under my observation.3
But it is needless to enquire whether a mixed government is possible, or what would be its consequences if it were so. I contend, Sir, that whether a mixed government be possible or not, the British Constitution, at any rate, is not a mixed government. I am prepared to maintain, that the British government is an aristocracy: and I request the most serious attention of this society to the proof. I am prepared to make it appear, that there is not one of the distinguishing characteristics of an aristocracy, which the British Constitution does not possess: that it is controuled by a few; that it is administered by a few, that it is conducted wholly for the benefit of a few; and that there is no check, upon the conduct of those few, which would not equally exist under an Oriental despotism, if the subjects of that despotism were equally wise, virtuous, and enlightened with the people of Great Britain.
By the general admission of political writers in the present day, as well those who are enemies, as those who are friends to reform, the governing power in these kingdoms, the dominant authority under the British Constitution, is lodged in the House of Commons. The royal negative is become a mere name; and the Peers, though highly powerful by their influence over elections, do not, in their capacity of Peers exercise much influence on the legislation of the country.
But if this be true—if the supreme power is vested in the House of Commons, whoever chuses the House of Commons, possesses the supreme power. Now evidence was tendered at the bar of that House to prove that two thirds of its members were actually nominated and appointed by less than two hundred aristocratic families, mostly landholders.4 The offer not having been accepted, the proof was never given to the world: but from the circumstance that without being refuted an assertion like this was not permitted to be proved, I should be entitled to consider it as fully made out, even if it were not, as it is, notorious to all the world. It is an insult to our understandings to tell us that this is a mixed government. In every government the supreme power must be vested somewhere; if it is vested in one, the government is a monarchy: if in a few, it is an aristocracy; if in the people, through an assembly responsible to them, it is a democracy. In this country, the supreme power is vested in the House of Commons; and a great majority in the House of Commons is returned by two hundred families. Those two hundred families therefore, possess absolute control over the government: and if a government controuled by two hundred families, is not an aristocracy, then such a thing as an aristocracy cannot be said to exist.
They will call this theory, Sir: and so it is: but so also it is to be remembered that the doctrine of the balance is a theory: I will say more: I will say, that if ever there was a theory which deserved the epithets of wild and visionary, it is this: that there never was a balance; that there never can be a balance; and that every government which has ever been called a balance, has really been an aristocracy. It is not however necessary at present to speak of any other government than our own. It being proved that our own government is a government of two hundred families: and it being evident that according to the laws of human nature, a government of two hundred families cannot be otherwise than a bad one: any one may supply the conclusion. They may call this theory, Sir: but they cannot prove it to be false: they cannot detect a flaw in the reasoning which proves it to be true.
Let us endeavour for a moment, to conceive what it is possible for them to say. They cannot say without flying in the face of fact that the House of Commons is not controuled by a small number of families. Nor, one would think, can they say that absolute power, lodged in a few families, is not sure to be abused. This, however, is what they will say: I shall be accused of calumniating Honourable Gentlemen. The idea that such men should not be perfectly disinterested, will be scouted with disdain; and my venturing to suppose that they can abuse their power, will without doubt be treated as an insult.
Nothing, in fact, is easier, than to get rid of obnoxious opinions in this way. It is a compendious method of refutation. It is one of the most hackneyed artifices of those who have a bad cause to defend, to turn it into a personal question. With me, Sir, it is not a personal question. I am willing to admit that ministers, and members of parliament are as good as any other men. I will even grant that they are better than most. All I contend for is, that good as they may be, they are men: and would they have us believe that they are angels? Would they assert, that they are exempt from bias—superior to seductive motives—that their judgment is never warped by their interest? They may say so; but I hope and trust no one will believe them.
If uncontrouled power is not sure to be abused, give me despotism: let me have one master, who may be wise and honest, not a body of masters who cannot. The theory however of the British Constitution, is, that unchecked power is always abused: and it is because the King would be a tyrant, if he could, that a House of Commons is given us, to controul him. How absurd then to say that the same check which is required by a king, is not required by a House of Commons! Have a hundred despots ever been found to be a less evil than one?
Perhaps we shall be told, that the people though they have not a direct, have an indirect controul over parliament: that a ministry must be sensible that it cannot stand against the declared wishes of the people; and that this consciousness serves to keep them from all flagrant abuses of power: that in public opinion is to be found the real checking power, the real balance of the Constitution that is in appearance an aristocracy, but in truth is nevertheless a mixed government, and unites the advantages of democracy, aristocracy and monarchy.
If this be true, Sir, I say that we have no occasion for a parliament. To resort to this doctrine is to give up the theory of the Constitution. The Constitution supposes that the House of Commons is a check. But no! it seems, the House of Commons, instead of being a check, itself requires to be checked, and there is no check except public opinion. But if the governing body is neither elected by nor responsible to the people, and is only kept in awe by the partial and inefficient check of naked and disarmed public opinion, where is the use of keeping up a cumbrous and operose machinery to cheat the people by persuading them that they really have some security in the constitution of the House of Commons? If it comes to this at last, that the House of Commons are tyrants, but tyrants subdued and kept down by the dread of public opinion, methinks it were more honest to take off the mask, that the people might know henceforward to what they have to trust, and may look to nothing for security, but their own unassisted exertions.
No, Sir, it is a cruel mockery, to say that public opinion is a check upon the members of parliament when public opinion can neither remove them nor punish them. Carry this into practice. Let any one consider how far he would be inclined to trust to public opinion for the prevention and punishment of theft or robbery. Yet a thief is far more unpopular than a bad member of parliament. How absurd to bid us trust for the security of our happiness and of our lives, to a check that we would not confide in for the safety of a few shillings or pounds.
Driven from the theoretical ground, the defenders of the Constitution will take refuge in what they are pleased to call practice. The experience of ages, it will be said is in favour of the British Constitution. Notwithstanding some theoretical imperfections, so long as it has lasted, it has worked well, and still continues to do so. Why quit a certain good for one which is uncertain? Why substitute abstract theories for practical experience?
We are well as we are. This is their grand argument. What do they mean? Well as compared to better? But this is absurd. Well as compared to worse? Truly a stupendous merit. They must therefore mean, well as compared to what we once were. But this, far from being a reason for stopping short, is one of the strongest of all arguments for advancing. For if we look back and ask ourselves, why it is that we are well, as compared with what we were 300 years ago,—what is the cause to which we owe this prodigious difference,—we shall find it to be progression,—improvement,—amelioration. Then too we were well, as compared with our condition at a still earlier period; then too the certainty of present good and the chance of future evil, might have been urged as successfully as in the present day; then too we might have stopped short, and said We are well as we are; all farther progression is unnecessary. Nor were the aristocracies and hierarchies of those days more slack than those of the present in diffusing and inculcating those moderate, loyal, sober, experimental, practical opinions. Our ancestors disregarded their interested diatribes: improvement went on, and we are now in a situation as much preferable to theirs, as theirs was to that of their wise and venerable ancestors who painted their bodies and wandered naked in the forests. Let our rulers then who so frequently insist upon our imitating our forefathers in their crimes and in their follies imitate them also in their wisdom. Let them no longer attempt to fix a period when improvement has gone far enough, when mankind are sufficiently wise, and sufficiently happy: assured that they can discover no argument for stopping now, which would not have justified our ancestors in stopping long ago.
I will concede to them, if they please, that our Constitution is already a good one: but they shall not be allowed to assume that it is the best possible, and that all farther improvement is unnecessary. I will grant, if it be required, that some wonderful genius, soaring above the level of a barbarous age, was the inventor and framer of our Constitution. Was it by inspiration that he devised so perfect, so all-sufficing a plan? For if it was by human reason, how inconsistent is it to maintain, that reason ought not to criticize the work which reason has produced, and that to apply wisdom to the improvement of a monument of wisdom, is a presumptuous and uncalled for innovation!
I know not whether the contriver of our Constitution, if our Constitution really had a contriver, partook in or was exempt from the barbarism of his age. But this much I know, that if he was really wise, he would have delighted in nothing more than in the improvement of his work: that it is not from him that the cry of innovation would have proceeded, but from the unwise or interested supporters of the imperfections of the system. He knew well that his own work, when first it was devised, was an innovation, and that he could quote no argument against its improvers, which would not have been as much more strong against himself than against them, as the change from anarchy to a regular government is greater than from one form of government to another. Let not these worshippers of the wisdom of our ancestors, profess opinions which would stamp those ancestors with the grossest folly. Our forefathers, barbarous in all besides, in this alone were wise, that they were innovators. And their pretended admirers would snatch from their brows the only glory to which they are justly entitled, that of being sensible of their unfavorable situation, and desiring amendment.
It would be easy, indeed, if that were the question, to shew that the Constitution is far, very far, from working well. I might compute all the useless places, all the excessive salaries, all the unmerited pensions, which have been given under this admirable Constitution. I might calculate all the blood and treasure which has been spent in wars, for purposes entirely useless, if not mischievous: for the honours of the flag, for the interests of continental despots, or to prevent the establishment of free institutions in foreign countries—I might enumerate all the restraints under which commerce has laboured and still labours; all the oppressive powers lodged in aristocratical magistrates; all the laws which have been made to aid the rich in oppressing the poor;—above all I might call your attention to that barbarous and confused mass of precedents and of statutes to which the much abused name of Law is in this country applied.
But I will not occupy the time by detailing all the evils under which we groan. From the mere existence of these evils, nothing can be inferred. I should be as little justified in reprobating the Constitution, on the mere ground that evil exists, as my opponents are in applauding it, because every thing is not evil. And if no mischiefs at all had as yet resulted from the Constitution, the obligation to reform it, if it were proved to have a tendency to evil, would not be a whit less imperative. Contrivance, combination, foresight, are the characteristics of the philosopher: to wait for specific experience is that of the man who is incapable of doing more than groping in the dark.
What, then? (it will be said) Do you set up visionary theories as the rule of conduct? Is it not upon experience, and experience alone, that all human knowledge, is founded?—Yes. Experience is the only legitimate guide of human actions. By no other test can we determine what is good and what is bad. None but a madman would question the authority of experience.
But this experience, this infallible directive rule, to which we must adhere or perish, does not consist in judging after a model,—in never departing from what already exists—and in copying implicitly both the excellencies and the defects of some favorite system. If this be the meaning of the term, improvement in human affairs can only be effected by deviating from experience. In this sense, the savage had experience against him, when he first fixed his cabin in one spot, and commenced cultivating the earth. Very different is the experience of a philosopher. His is an experience which compares, which analyses: which takes to pieces a complicated machine, and distinguishes between the parts which promote and the parts which impede its operation. In this sense, experience is synonymous with sound and enlightened theory. By theory I mean general propositions; by sound theory, I mean theory conformable to experience: theory founded on observation. Not observation limited to a single field, but an enlarged view of the actions and motives of mankind.
A country with the natural resources, and with the capital of Great Britain, in a period of profound peace, and when commerce is subjected only to moderate restraints, must be ill governed indeed, if it does not rapidly increase in wealth; and before we ascribe any part of its prosperity to the goodness of its government, we must ascertain what are likely to be the effects of that government when no other causes of prosperity exist. And if we can obtain a practical experiment of the effects which that government produces when unassisted by favorable circumstances, it will go far towards the ultimate decision of the question.
Fortunately for our purpose, such an experiment presents itself in Ireland. That country which enjoys in so preeminent a degree the blessings of tranquillity and social order, admirably exemplifies the tendency of our institutions. The Irish are in the full enjoyment of the English Constitution; nor of that alone, but of the unspeakable blessings which we owe to it: our admirable system of law, an established Protestant Church,5 and a landed aristocracy. With all these glorious things, Ireland ought to be “the envy of surrounding nations, and the admiration of the world.”6 But what is it? The completest specimen upon record of the combined horrors of despotism and anarchy! These are the effects of the system which works well. If therefore England is more prosperous than Ireland—if we have not yet fallen quite so low—it is not to our institutions that we are to ascribe our superiority.
After all, when I consider attentively the situation of this country, I really cannot see what foundation there is for such unbounded self applause, nor what these astonishing advantages are, which distinguish us so preeminently above all other nations. We enjoy, it is true, a certain degree of security for person and property: but how deficient this security is, daily experience demonstrates. For greater security for person and property has existed under governments universally acknowledged to be bad. Under the Emperor Napoleon, the police was so efficient that scarcely any crime remained free from detection. Then as to cheapness, the other requisite of good government, no one, I apprehend, will attribute this quality to our Constitution. A debt of 800 millions, and an annual taxation of 60, (without counting tithes or poor rates) are indeed proud monuments of national prosperity! If frequent wars are a proof of misrule, we have been engaged, since the Revolution of 1688, in a greater number than any other nation in Europe. If the degree in which the body of Civil and Penal Law answers its purpose, be the circumstance chosen for the criterion of good government; in this respect no European nation is worse, and one, at least, in a remarkable degree is better, than ourselves. If discretionary powers entrusted to public officers be regarded as a symptom of misgovernment, our justices of peace may well be set off against the most arbitrary and oppressive authority which ever existed under the most despotic government.
I pity the man who can see any thing to admire in all this. I should prefer even the straightforward despot, who is not imbecil enough to be duped by his own fallacies but feels and acknowledges the power of sinister interest.7 He, I am sure, would ere long be convinced, that it is no longer for his advantage to hold out against popular feeling: that the age is gone by when he could hope to do so with success. For a time is approaching when the enquiry, What has been, shall no longer supersede the enquiry, What ought to be, and when the rust of antiquity shall no longer be permitted to sanctify institutions which reason and the public interest condemn. In vain do they who profit by misrule persist in shutting their eyes to the advancement of knowledge in the world. In vain do they judge of the future by the past, and hope to see the public sink back into the apathy in which they were plunged during the age of despotism and superstition. Never did the circumstances of the world bear the most distant resemblance to their present state. Never were the blessings of education so widely diffused, never were political questions so freely discussed. Never were so many men in existence whose enlarged and philosophic views will enable them, when reform takes place, to lead the public mind and guard it from going astray as heretofore. To prevent a change may, at the present day, be fairly pronounced impossible. The only question is, Shall it be effected by moderate or by violent means. The people have always been and still are peaceably inclined. They seek not violence; they avoid it. May they avoid it ever, unless they are driven to it. But moderate means have been tried. Petitions without number have been poured into Parliament. If our rulers still persist in their resistance, it is they and not the Reformers, who endeavour to excite insurrection. It is true, the Reformers do not consider tranquillity as absolutely the end of government, and if the greater good, a government responsible to the people, can only be obtained by means of a commotion, no weak and feminine humanity will induce me at least to deprecate such a result. But if (which God forbid) it should come at last to this; and if moderate means, after repeated trials, should fail to produce the desired effect; let all the evils necessarily occasioned by those commotions, which are the last and dangerous resort of the people, be on the heads of those eternal enemies of mankind, who, by their interested resistance to the spirit of the age,8 will have rendered such a crisis inevitable.
And now, Sir, before I conclude, let me request as a favor what I might fairly claim as a right of the gentlemen who will take a different view of the question from myself: and who will support their opinions, I have no doubt, with far greater ability than I have supported mine;9 I have one thing to request: let them consider that this is a question of argument: and that by argument only, can it fairly be met: let them consider also, that if their cause is good, it has nothing to fear from argument, and every thing to fear, if all the argument should seem to be on the other side. Let me not then be met by vague and general declamation; by appeals to the wisdom of our ancestors, or by angry denunciations against innovation. This is not argument, Sir, it is unworthy of the name. My case in fact, reduces itself into a very small compass. I rest it upon two assertions: that an aristocracy is bad, and that this government is an aristocracy. One or other of these assertions they must disprove, or give up the point. If they do not touch these propositions, they are talking in the air: whatever may be their plea, it is irrelevant, and ought to be dismissed.
Having asked this for my cause, I ask nothing for myself. That cause would indeed be ill served, if its supporters feared to encounter a few hard words, for the chance of doing it service. Let them but fairly grapple with my arguments; and they have my free permission to exercise as they please, their powers either of invective or of ridicule upon myself.
[1 ]The greatest Greek orator (384-322 ).
[2 ]Prominently supported in Bentham’s greatest target, William Blackstone (1723-80), Commentaries on the Laws of England, 4 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1765-69), Vol. I, pp. 50-2. A similar sentiment is found in Burke, e.g., Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, in Works, Vol. I, p. 489, and An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs (1791), ibid., Vol. III, pp. 417 and 512-13.
[3 ]In the manuscript this sentence appears in a box in the right-hand margin.
[4 ]On 6 May, 1793, Charles Grey (1764-1845; later Earl Grey) presented a motion to refer to Committee a Petition from the Society of the Friends of the People for a Parliamentary Reform; see The Parliamentary History of England, ed. William Cobbett and John Wright, 36 vols. (London: Bagshaw, Longmans, 1806-20), Vol. XXX, cols. 789-99. The evidence that Mill refers to is alluded to by Grey in cols. 789 and 795, but after debate (ibid., cols. 799-925), the motion was negatived by a large majority, and so the figures are not in the record.
[5 ]Originally by the Irish statutes, 2 Elizabeth, cc. 1 and 2 (1560), and then by Sect. 5 of the Act of Union, 39 & 40 George III, c. 67 (1800).
[6 ]Burke, “Speech on a Motion Made in the House of Commons” (7 May, 1782), in Works, Vol. V, p. 397.
[7 ]This catchphrase of the Philosophic Radicals is found, e.g., in Bentham’s Plan of Parliamentary Reform (1817), in Works, Vol. III, pp. 440 and 446.
[8 ]This term was apparently first used in English by William Hazlitt (1778-1830) in “The Drama. No. IV,” London Magazine (Apr. 1820), p. 433; Hazlitt had reviewed in 1816 Ernst Arndt’s Der Geist der Zeit, from which the term derives, and then used it as the title of a work in 1825. Mill later used “The Spirit of the Age” as title for a series in the Examiner in 1831; see CW, Vol. XXII, Nos. 73, 77, 82, 92, 97, 103, and 107.
[9 ]This clause [“and who . . . mine;”] written at the bottom of the page, is marked for insertion here.