Front Page Titles (by Subject) 6.: Parliamentary Reform  AUGUST 1824 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVI - Journals and Debating Speeches Part I
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6.: 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 
Typescript, private. Headed in ink: “[On Reform].” The provenance of this typescript is unclear (the Fabian Society Archive does not have a copy), but internal evidence places it unquestionably with Mill’s debating speeches generally, and with No. 5 specifically. It may be dated (see 282.28-9) to the week following 3 August, 1824, and appears to be Mill’s second contribution to the third session of the debate opened with No. 5. As not published in Mill’s lifetime, not listed in his bibliography.
if, Sir, when I rose to open this question,1 I felt myself to be in a difficult situation, the difficulty is greatly enhanced by the result of the debate. Contrary to my expectation, and not a little to my disappointment, there is not one among the ordinary speakers in this Society who has not differed more or less from me, and the only gentlemen from whom I have obtained unqualified support, have been those, who, like myself, stand in the situation of strangers and trespassers on your indulgence: while those speakers whose reputation stands highest in this Society, have embraced opinions irreconcilably at variance with mine. Thus circumstanced, I may be considered, like Atlas to carry the heavens on my shoulders; and I hope it will not be deemed unpardonable, if I should be unable to bear up against the weight.
Among the foremost of my opponents there is one gentleman,2 from whom it is always painful for me to differ: one whom I can never allude to without the most profound respect, and with whom, if this were a question of authority—I would rather go against this whole Society, than with this whole Society against him. I had hoped, Sir, that he would not have thrown his weight into that scale, which was already so much the heaviest. I had hoped that by his support he would have added authority to the cause which I advocate, that he would have supplied as he can so well do, the numberless omissions which in so vast a subject, I must necessarily have made, and aided me in refuting the objections with which I have been assailed. Disappointed of his aid, my labour will be the greater, but I must not shrink from it: that cause in which it would have been my proudest boast to fight by his side, I must now, when left alone, endeavour to the best of my ability to defend even against him.
A considerable part of his speech consisted of a statement of objections against one of the propositions of the reformers; the plan of secret suffrage. I have abstained, Sir, throughout, and shall still abstain, from discussing the merits of this, or that plan of reform. The question as it stands is surely weighty and difficult enough without mixing it up with a hundred of other questions. It is enough for me, if I can prove that the Constitution stands in need of reform: of what precise sort of reform it stands in need will be a fit subject for discussion on a future occasion. And if that occasion should ever come; and if the gentleman should there restate his objections against secret suffrage and give me a fair opportunity of answering them; then, Sir, in spite of that multiplicity of occupations which prevent and I fear will long prevent me from aspiring to the honour of being a member of this Society, I pledge myself to be present, and to show that of his objections there is not one which is not utterly devoid even of the shadow of plausibility.
Another large portion of the gentleman’s speech was devoted to the task of defending the King and the Peers, though it must be acknowledged at the same time, that he treated the latter body rather unceremoniously, for he described them as a parcel of old women. All this, too, Sir, he will forgive me for saying appears to me to be totally irrelevant. My argument has nothing to do with the King and Peers: I have my opinion as any one else may have, on the necessity or utility of these institutions. But I maintained and still maintain, nor would it be difficult to show from the Honourable Gentleman’s own words he agrees with me, that the whole power is centered in the House of Commons, and that according as that House is democratically or aristocratically constituted, the government is a democracy or an aristocracy. So true is this, Sir, that if the King and Peers were to be abolished to-morrow, the government would remain in all its substantials exactly as it is. Proclamations indeed would be no longer issued in the name of the King; laws would be no longer passed by the King, with the advice of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal and Commons; but the powers of government would be in exactly the same hands as they are now, and the government would to all practical purposes be equally bad.
The one proposition on which my case is supported, and the one proposition which the Honourable Gentleman should have refuted, is, that the majority in the House of Commons is returned by two hundred families.3 This proposition he has not denied. A man of his judgment and good sense, would scarcely venture to deny it. But he thinks that there is no harm in this, and unless all those who are so returned were to combine together; and as some of them are Whigs and some Tories he thinks they do not combine, but operate as a check upon one another. If this were true, Sir, it would be no argument against reform: Legislators are appointed to do good—not to check one another in doing evil. But it is a singular inference, that because they have these disputes among themselves, therefore they are a check upon one another. Is anything more common than for a band of robbers, to unite in perpetrating their robberies, and then quarrel about the division of the spoil? It does not require the intellect of the Honourable Gentleman to see that the aristocracy naturally divides itself into two parties: the one consisting of those who are contented with the share which they have got, or think they have most chance of getting more, by attaching themselves to the present ministry; this is the ministerial party: the other party, consisting of those who think they have a chance of getting a greater share of the spoil than they have got by expelling the present and putting in a different ministry; this is the opposition party. To court the public, and obtain their aid in effecting this object, the Opposition part of the aristocracy are compelled to raise a cry against the small abuser; but they are careful how they touch the great ones, by which, when they get into power, they themselves mean to profit. Accordingly that majority in the House of Commons, who are put in by the lords of the soil, and who are either landowners themselves, or the mere attornies and nominees of the landowners, if on the petty question of party they split into Whig and Tory—if those who are in abuse those who are out and those who are out abuse those who are in—it is very different when any great reform is to be opposed, or any great abuse to be upheld. Did not they almost all support the Six Acts? Do they not all support the Corn Laws? Who is it that supports the Usury Laws? The Landlords. Who is it that supports the Game Laws?4 The Landlords. Who was it that contracted the National Debt? But here the landlords were joined by all the rest of the aristocracy. But not to speak of anything else, is not the very greatest abuse for which our government has to answer, the unpaid magistracy, a mere creation for the benefit of the landlords? Who kicked out, without ever a hearing, the petition of an unfortunate man who complained of the misconduct of the unpaid magistrate Mr. Chetwinde?5 Who but the unpaid magistrates and their nominees in that house. In what other place would Mr. Holme Sumner have dared to say6 that no gentleman would undertake the office of a magistrate, unless his misdeeds were covered from the public eye, unless he was assured of impunity whether he was an Aristides or a Jefferies.7 Let me not hear then that there is no combination among the members of that house: there is combination enough: whenever there is mischief to be done.
The Honourable Gentleman further observed, that if our government is bad, we are not yet prepared for a better. For this we have his assertion it is true, but I am not aware that he attempted to give any evidence for it, or to shew why if we are not yet altogether so wise as could be wished, to be ill governed should be the best way to make us wiser. I have always been accustomed to think, Sir, that one of the worst qualities of an aristocratic government is, that it prevents men from becoming wiser: that it makes education an instrument, as witness our universities, not to emancipate the mind but to hold it in perpetual bondage, not to expand it but to keep it for ever shackled and debased. If I am to give up an opinion which I have considered to rest upon so large and so universal an experience as this, it must be on some better ground than the assertion of any men—even of the Honourable Gentleman.
I have begun, Sir, by replying to this gentleman because I consider him to be by far my most formidable antagonist. When he is disposed of, the task of dealing with my other opponents is comparatively an easy one.
I am greatly indebted to one gentleman,8 for the exemplary hardihood with which he has come forward to deny that the British Constitution is an aristocracy. Unfortunately however, what he denied in one part of his speech, he admitted in another; and not only admitted, but went on to justify it. After having declared the fact, that a majority of the House of Commons is returned by a few families, to rest upon no better evidence than the assertion of a few radicals, who offered to prove it, but never made good their promise,9 he went on to tell us, how admirable this majority of the House of Commons was, and how we ought to congratulate ourselves on being governed by such excellent men; they indeed seem to possess every virtue, their opponents every vice, and why? because the others are returned by the people, they by a few families: thus we see that the same fact can, when it suits his purpose be applauded as the highest of excellencies, or repelled as the most scandalous of insinuations. The beginning and end of this gentleman’s speech thus destroying one another, the beginning refuting the end, and the end refuting the beginning, it may seem unnecessary to take the task out of his own hands and presumptuous to suppose, that I can refute him, with greater ability than he has refuted himself. Some, indeed may think that he has shewn more skill, and been more successful in refuting himself than he has in refuting the radicals; our faith cannot stretch wide enough to include two contradictory assertions, which then are we to believe? Not the proposition which rests upon his ipse dixit alone, but the proposition which rests upon his ipse dixit also, and much better evidence besides.
The best men, he says, are sometimes returned for the rotten burghs; which is true; but which proves, not that the rotten burghs are good, but that everything else is still worse. The rotten burghs, Sir, in my opinion, are the very best part of the system: and I should be very sorry to see them abolished, if the rest of the system is to be retained. A man, if he has but a good purse, may be returned for a rotten burgh, without being a slave; but I defy any one who is not a slave, to be returned for a nobleman’s pocket burgh, or for a county.
Even radicals, the gentleman observes, have been put in by the aristocracy. This I think may fairly be doubted: but he quotes as instances, Sir S. Romilly and the great radical, Mr. Brougham.10 It must be acknowledged that the Honourable Gentleman selects his examples with singular judgment, and with a perspicacity quite peculiar to himself. I think he may justly claim the merit of having been the first to bring to light the radicalism of these gentlemen. I, for one, should never have found it out without his assistance. If he can prove that either of them ever made a speech or gave a vote on any side of any question, contrary to the interest of the great lord who put him in, I shall then say, he has done something, but till then, I shall certainly take the liberty to believe that a man is not necessarily a radical, because he opposes ministers: and that the nominee of a lord who hopes to get in is just as much an enemy to good government as the nominee of another lord who is in.
The Honourable Gentleman feels a very proper contempt for those members of parliament who are controlled by what he is pleased to call mob influence, or who can brook the slavery of being totally dependent upon their constituents. Vile tools. They are compelled to do their duty. They are restrained from abusing their power: how mean, how base, how despicable: can too much scorn possibly be felt for those who can submit to so miserable a servitude? This reminds one of the monarch, who said that if he could not do what he pleased, it was of no use being a king; to be sure, what was royalty good for, but to enable him to rob and murder as he pleased. The Honourable Gentleman is a great stickler for something called independence: he is for having members of parliament independent: I presume he would have the king too independent; although you had once a king who wished to be independent, and for this you sent him packing, to count his beads at home. It is a fine thing, Sir, this independence, but I should like to know, where is it to end? Is the Grand Seignor11 independent enough to suit the gentleman’s taste? I cannot say that I relish this species of independence. What I want is good government: and for this purpose I should prefer a king and parliament not independent but dependent upon the people, that there might be somebody to watch over them, and turn them out if they misbehave. I dare say the Honourable Gentleman would be very angry if I were to tell him that he is an anarchist: yet the only difference is that an anarchist is for making everybody independent, and he only the king and parliament. An anarchist, therefore, applies the Honourable Gentleman’s principles with greater consistency than the Honourable Gentleman himself.
Among other proofs of the excellence of our Constitution the Honourable Gentleman has assigned the excellence of our coats. I should have thought that was rather a proof of the excellence of our tailors; and might have been more appropriately urged, if any one had proposed a radical reform in that useful branch of industry. I cannot learn, however, that among the grievances complained of at the hands of the parliament, any one has yet included the cut of their coats, or that a petition imploring his majesty to change his ministers, has ever been coupled with a request that he would change his tailor: Even in tailoring, I doubt whether the Honourable Gentleman’s argument will hold water: He himself, for aught I know may be peculiarly fortunate in his tailor, but for my part I can assure him that I have philosophy enough to bear improvement even in this respect, with resignation; and though I certainly think it of more importance that we should be well governed than well clothed, yet if my tailor should offer to furnish me henceforward with cheaper or better coats than I have hitherto worn, I should be the last person in the world to find fault with him on that account.
As a further argument against reform, the Honourable Gentleman alleges the goodness of our roads: thinking apparently that in the event of a reform, they would infallibly be broken up by the hoofs of the swinish multitude.12 Far be it from me, Sir, to dispute the excellence of our roads, particularly when Macadamized,13 but I own I cannot precisely see the connexion between the Honourable Gentleman’s premises, and his conclusion, nor why, because our roads are good we should suffer our Constitution always to continue bad.
But it is not in our coats and roads alone that the beauty of our Constitution manifests itself to the world, it shines forth still more conspicuously in the beauty of our women: for every thing with this gentleman is a proof of the excellence of our Constitution, and I have no doubt that if our women were all ugly he would find the means of drawing the same conclusion from their ugliness, as he now does from their beauty, and certainly with as much reason. Sir, no one would lament more than myself, that any deterioration should take place in female beauty; but I must say, I think the Honourable Gentleman has failed in proving that our women would be less handsome, after parliamentary reform than before it, and I do say, Sir, that we have some reason to complain of the Honourable Gentleman for having attempted by scandalous insinuations, to prejudice the fair sex against us. If any lady after hearing the Honourable Gentleman’s speech should have gone away as I fear may be the case, with the impression that we wish to make a bonfire of all the fine women in the country, I hasten to undeceive her, and I beg that she will not believe such a charge, even if he should swear it.
But this is not all. Good dinners, it seems, are still to be had in this country, ergo, parliamentary reform is unnecessary. With all my admiration for the Honourable Gentleman I cannot quite go along with him in this inference: I see how it is: I see that we have been calumniated: the Honourable Gentleman’s mind has been poisoned against us: some insidious person has been practising upon his fears, and has persuaded him that as the French constituent assembly abolished titles,14 so a reformed House of Commons would abolish good dinners, would shut up the London tavern, and decree that we should all live upon bread and water. Sir, if I were at all apprehensive that parliamentary reform would lead to such consequences, I am not sure that I should not turn round and join with the Honourable Gentleman, though I hope I should not reason quite so ill; but I own I cannot participate in the Honourable Gentleman’s alarm: though the aldermen of the city of London might be deprived of some of their privileges, I do not believe that they would be deprived of their turtle soup: we wage no war on innocent enjoyment, though we would strongly recommend to them to beware of indigestion: and if the Honourable Gentleman be fond of French wines, I think I could promise him that in the event of a reform, they would be as cheap or cheaper than port, so that, on the whole, I think he may quiet his apprehension.
All these proofs of the excellence of our Constitution may perhaps prove rather more than he would wish. It is quite true that in this country there are fine women, good dinners and good coats for the rich: it is quite true that not only this but all foreign countries are ransacked, to pamper their appetites, or minister to their gratifications. That the rich man however is feasting upon venison and turtle is small consolation to the beggar who is starving at his door. It would be well if this gentleman whose imagination seems to riot so voluptuously in the luxuries of the rich, would bestow some commiseration on the sufferings of the poor. Let him withdraw his eyes for one moment from the palace and fix them on the hovel. There he will see rather a different spectacle: not a good dinner, or a good coat will he see there: nothing but rags and starvation: or let him visit our gaols: he will find that two thirds of the unhappy convicts date the loss of their innocence, of their character, and of every virtuous propensity, from the day when they were first incarcerated,15 the victims of those savage laws created for the sole purpose of supplying one viand more to the luxurious tables of the lords of the soil. If this were all, Sir, this would suffice to prove to us what an aristocracy is, and what value the man of power sets upon the virtue and happiness of thousands of his countrymen, in comparison with one paltry gratification of his own. I say this, Sir, for you, and for this society, not for the Honourable Gentleman. He is above being affected by the little miseries of little men: and he gave us on the last evening a specimen of the temper with which he regards the people and their wrongs. That triumphant laugh, which burst from that part of the room where the Honourable Gentleman was seated, when their wisdom and their virtue were mentioned in higher terms than he thought they deserved—That laugh by which he seemed to glory in the successful resistance which men like him have offered to the diffusion of knowledge among the mass of people, and in the ignorance and brutality which they have hitherto been able to perpetuate. If this is a sign of what he wishes to be considered his feelings; I hope they are not his real ones. If they are, I do not envy him. What renders others miserable makes him laugh: what causes the woes of nations excites his scorn. Sir, in the sacred writings it is said—Scornful men bring a city into a snare:16 and it is ill for one who can feel scorn where he ought to feel pity and indignation. It is well for the Honourable Gentleman that he holds so high a rank in this Society as he does: had it happened to any less eminent individual—had it happened to me, to do as he has done, never more could I have faced this Society—never more could I have shewn myself among a portion of that people, of whose dearest interests I had made a mockery, and whose wrongs had been to me a subject of laughter and merriment.
Perhaps, however, the Honourable Gentleman may plead ignorance: he may not have been aware that there are good dinners and good coats only for those who can pay for them. If so, I acquit him of inhumanity and I moreover admire the short and easy method which he has discovered of arriving at conclusions. We are very happy: we are the happiest people in the world: no nation ever came up to us in felicity: all this happiness we owe to change: all change therefore is wicked and abominable: a process of reasoning which, if not altogether logical, is at any rate convenient: but the Honourable Gentleman seems to think its conclusiveness not sufficiently manifest: for he backs it by another and a still stronger argument. I have read in books of logic that a reasoner after stating his proof sometimes brings an auxiliary syllogism, to prove the conclusiveness of the former one:17 the Honourable Gentleman’s auxiliary syllogism is a very short one and it amounts to this. My argument is conclusive: why? because all who dispute it are radicals and cut throat thieves, which is a very pretty way of arguing and a short cut to infallibility. The Honourable Gentleman seems to be well read in that facetious history The Tale of a Tub and to have taken some lessons from the celebrated Lord Peter. That worthy, as is well known, doubtless, to all who hear me, was accustomed to maintain some rather paradoxical opinions, among others that a crust of bread was a shoulder of mutton and claret, a proposition which an ordinary stomach might have had some difficulty in digesting. Lord Peter, however, had one very powerful argument, by the help of which he could establish that, or any thing else that he pleased: his astonished hearers were to believe it at their peril, and why? because, I give you his own words, damn their souls if they did not.18 To this irresistible mode of proof, the line of argument adopted by the Honourable Gentleman seems to bear no slight analogy.
The Honourable Gentleman has been called a political Goliath,19 and seems indeed to be a Goliath in assertion: but to some it may perhaps appear, that an apter analogy would have been that of Samson, who in his eagerness to overwhelm his enemies, pulled down an old house about his own ears.20
But enough of this: I pass to those gentlemen, whose arguments, if not more conclusive, are at any rate less ludicrous and require a more serious reply.
One gentleman21 admitted every evil of which I complained to be real, and joined with me in reprobating the system under which such evils could exist. But it was not the Constitution according to him, which was the cause of the evils but the abuses which had crept into the Constitution.
One might suppose from this, that the abuses were of recent origin and that there was a time when the Constitution existed in all its purity, and made manifest its goodness by the beauty of its effects. When was this time? Never. At all times, both in this and in every other nation, the powers of government have uniformly been monopolised in the hands of a privileged few, to whose interests, the interests of the many have uniformly been sacrificed: with only one difference, that of old, when the public were far more ignorant and prejudiced than they now are, misgovernment was proportionately more flagrant.
It were indeed strange, if at that period of our history, when all the other arts and sciences were in their infancy—when the earth was believed to be a flat surface in the centre of the universe, and the sea to flow round its outer circumference—when the philosopher’s stone and the universal medicine were the only object of chemistry, and to foretell events by the stars the sole purpose of astronomy—when our roads were inferior to the worst lanes of the present day and when navigators rarely trusted themselves out of sight of the shore: it were strange I say, if a people among whom such things were could, amid all their ignorance, superstition and barbarism, have taken an enlarged view of human nature and human society—have foreseen every possible mode of oppression and provided efficient securities against all—should in a word have established a Constitution which could secure in perpetuity the blessings of good government to mankind.
The word Constitution, Sir, is often used very loosely as it was by the Honourable Gentleman22 who on the last evening made it include I know not what fundamental laws and charters. Laws, Sir, without somebody to stand up for them are a dead letter: and as for charters if vague and general injunctions to govern well are sufficient to make a good Constitution, what country was ever without one? What I understand by the Constitution is, the securities which are taken for the good conduct of public functionaries. When those securities are insufficient, the Constitution is bad. In England, the Honourable Gentleman had acknowledged that the securities are insufficient, for he has acknowledged that public functionaries do misconduct themselves. This is to admit every thing that I require. It is to admit that the Constitution is inadequate to its end. Government may justly be held responsible for all the evils which it might and does not prevent.
I ought now to make some remarks upon the speech of my Honourable friend23 who opened the adjourned question on the former evening: but upon consideration, I do not know whether I have any fault to find with my Honourable friend: for all he professes to prove is, that if certain amendments were made in the British Constitution it would be the best possible government: now this is all that I say of the British Constitution: I will add, or of any Constitution whatever. There are few governments, even the most despotic, which might not be made exceedingly good, by one single addition: viz. that of a properly constituted representative organ, with the proper powers. Now, Sir, I shall be contented with this degree of reform in the British Constitution: give me but a real, instead of a sham representation of the people, and every thing else that is desirable will follow in its train.
One thing, however, my Honourable friend has said which imperiously calls for a reply. He has endeavoured to show that all governments however democratic in their forms, necessarily degenerate into aristocracies: that even in a debating society, there is always an aristocratic committee of management, and in the American democracy the President and the Representatives are chosen in a Committee of leading men called a Caucus.24 In using this argument give me leave to observe the Honourable Gentleman commits one of the most obvious of all mistakes: he confounds the influence of the understanding over the understanding, with the influence of the will over the will. The Caucus can only recommend; and if the landlord or the borough patron did no more than recommend, I, for one, should be far from wishing that influence of this kind should cease. What is more to be desired than that the wisest men, those who are most competent to decide, should meet and discuss the merits of the various candidates! So long as they cannot force the people to vote as they recommend, their influence is purely beneficial. Their object is to convince: for this purpose they must state in the clearest manner they can, the claims and pretensions of the candidate whose cause they expound; being clearly stated, these pretensions, if false, may be clearly refuted: but they cannot force down the throats of the people a man of whom they know nothing, or nothing but what is bad: from all mischievous kinds of influence they are debarred: the useful kinds are alone within their reach. And as for the allusion to a debating society I must say that my Honourable friend pays a very poor compliment to the understandings of this society, if he thinks they will suffer that Committee, in which my Honourable friend holds so distinguished a place to combine25 themselves into an aristocracy. I will do this Society the justice to believe, that they would resist such an attempt to the utmost of their means, and that if the Committee were to abuse their power or were to forget themselves so far as to endeavour to procure their re-election by any other than proper means, I say if so very unlikely an event were to take place, they would reap no fruit from it but the shame of the attempt.
It has been urged on us this evening that the British Constitution affords security to person and property: and that to secure person and property being the chief end of government, if this be attained, the government cannot be a bad one. This is so far true, that to secure person and property is one of the grand objects of government: but I take the liberty to suggest, that gold may be bought too dear: is there no difference between securing person and property at the expense of two or three millions a year and that of fifty or sixty millions? But I have more to say than this: I disrate the fundamental assumption. Person and property it is said enjoy security under the Constitution: but it is easy to cloak under a vague phrase the most pernicious of all fallacies. When we say that person and property are secure we may either mean that every individual is permitted to enjoy with the greatest possible certainty, the fruits of his labor, which is what constitutes good government, or we may only mean that our purses are secured from the pickpocket, our houses from the burglar, and our lives from the assassin. Even in this last sense of the word, it is far from being strictly true that we have security for person and property: and in the other sense it is not true at all. Look at the government of Napoleon Bonaparte: if security from robbery and murderers constituted good government, there never was a better government than his. But security from robbers and murderers is a small part of good government and includes only that very subordinate department called police. Why do we call Bonaparte’s government a bad one? Because if person and property were secure against individuals, they were not secure against the despot. He suppressed all robbers and murderers but himself. Here, Sir, we are far from having attained even this degree of excellence. Here, Sir, and under the British Constitution a rich landlord is free to oppress his poor neighbour almost without restraint: and if he cannot put him to death, he can however inflict upon him in the shape of imprisonment, torments worse than death, on the most frivolous pretexts.26 If any one doubts this, let him look at the recent convictions for breaking partridge’s eggs or cutting off the bough of a tree.27 I myself know an instance in Surrey in which a Whig lord kept a man in prison five months for picking up a stick in his park and another in Yorkshire in which a man suffered three months hard labour at the treadmill for being found in broad day on a public thoroughfare through a gentleman’s grounds and suspected of being a poacher.28 But why need I go further. I appeal to any one who has read in the Morning Chronicle of last Tuesday the case of John Franks, whether after such a case it is not a mockery to talk of English liberty! The law, indeed, is open to the poor man, and so said Horne Tooke, is the London tavern, if he will pay for it, but if he cannot, it is vain to expect a dinner at the one or justice at the other.29
And now, Sir, in what I have said, I have already anticipated the great part of what it is necessary to say, in answer to the very eloquent speech which we have heard this evening:30 since that speech, eloquent as it was, contained in it very few arguments which we had not heard before, and none which give me any great alarm as to the effect which they can produce on this Society. In truth, that speech is the most difficult to answer of any—for the difficulty of refutation is usually proportional to the insignificance of the arguments, and it is not easy to reply, where nothing has been adduced.
Yet there are some things even in that speech which it may be of use to notice and particularly the lesson which the gentleman recommends us to take from the Greek and Roman democracies. I maintain, Sir, and if it were required, I could prove that these democracies with which he frightens us never had any existence: that the ancient governments were all of them aristocracies, though sometimes with the forms of popular government, and whatever evil they did, is fairly chargeable, not upon democracy, but upon aristocracy. If however, the Honourable Gentleman should dispute this, and should affirm that these governments were real democracies, let it be as he pleases: but if they were democracies, it is not such a kind of democracies that I advocate: and I tell the Honourable Gentleman for his information, that what I want is a representative democracy, such as exists in the United States of America, and never existed any where else, giving him leave however, to tack a king and peers to it if he pleases, for I shall not enter upon this question at present.
The strong point of the Honourable Gentleman’s argument seems to be, that all I have urged is theory. If by calling it theory he means to allege that it is unfounded, this is precisely the question on which we are at issue. I dare him to the proof, but if by theory, he means general principles I agree with him: every opinion in politics involves a theory: the question is, not whether it is a theory, but whether it is true. After accusing me, however, of being governed by theory, he proceeded to inform us that he himself is governed by experience: and it may be so: but experience, Sir, is a word of double acceptation. The quack is guided by experience, as well as the philosopher: examine well the doctrines of this gentleman, and you will find that it is precisely the experience of the quack, which he is unconsciously passing off upon himself. Wherein consists the experience of the quack? He has tried his nostrum, and the patient has survived: he knows this, and it is evident that he knows no more. But he tells a different story; according to him, experience teaches, not only that the patient has survived, but that it is his drug which has saved him: all he really knows is that it has not killed him. Yet he calls this experience. It is the same sort of experience which has been quoted against me. The British Constitution is excellent: Why? because the country is prosperous; a bold assumption: but granting that the country is prosperous: what does it prove? Why, that the country is prosperous: of the cause it proves nothing: except that there must have been some cause: but when we go farther and endeavour to ascertain what that cause is, this is not fact, but inference; not practice, but theory. So much for the quack: now for the scientific physician. Is it enough for him that a medicine has been tried once, twice, or a hundred times? No, Sir, his experience is of a different sort: he reasons from the properties of the human body, and so, Sir, I reason from the properties of the human mind. Is there any better mode of reasoning? If there is, let the Honourable Gentleman point it out, but if not only there is no better mode of reasoning, but no other which is not sure to mislead, and if the Honourable Gentleman openly rejects the only correct mode of reasoning by proclaiming his aversion to theory, it only proves what we all knew before, that to be an orator, and to be a philosopher, are two very different things.
When I wish to foretel men’s actions, I endeavour to put myself in possession of the motives under which they act, and to see how other men would act in their situation.
Sir, I deny that we have experience of the British Constitution. In any sense in which experience can be said to prove any thing, we have no experience of it. It is not true, even between two forms of government both in actual operation, the one attended with happiness, the other with misery, that we could at once decide the one government to be good, the other bad. There are a thousand causes of prosperity besides good government. But even this sort of experience, inadequate and inconclusive as it is, is much better, much more deserving of the name experience, than any that we have of the British Constitution. You say, we are happy under the British Constitution—therefore no reform is needed. Do you know what it is you say when you assert that no reform is needed? You think, perhaps, that you are only affirming the British Constitution to be good: but you affirm a great deal more: you affirm that the proposed form of government is not so good. You hold up experience, specific experience, as the only ground of inference: and here you are found vituperating a Constitution of which you not only have no experience, but obstinately refuse to have any. You assume a great deal more than you would be entitled to assume, even if the reformers’ Constitution had been tried and failed: since even then it would have been premature to affirm that it had failed in consequence of its badness. On what ground do you affirm that the plan of the reformers is ineligible? From experience? but you have none: From its presumed tendency—This is something. Well then it is on this presumed tendency that we are willing to meet you. And I ask from what is the tendency of a government to be presumed, but from those general principles of human nature, and of political philosophy, which under the name of theory you cry down as visionary and chimerical.
I will not lengthen a speech already too long by going into any other of the gentleman’s arguments: but I think, on the whole, that the pleas of him and his supporters are remarkably curious and instructive. I have often thought that if all the arguments which have been urged against reform were noted down and collected together, they would form a singular exhibition. These arguments are numerous and cogent. First of all, they are all villains, who say that reform is necessary. This is sound and substantial: and why: because they are all villains, who dare to dispute it. Well! this is one argument, favour us with another. The Greeks, or, more properly speaking the Athenians, were all villains; and at a time when all the rest of the world was distinguished for civilization and morality they were sunk in the lowest brutality and barbarism. A third reason why the British Constitution needs no amendment is, that the people who say it does are called Radicals. A fourth reason is that Mr. Canning says it is not needed.31 A fifth which may be called the argumentum ad hominem, and which is the standing argument of the John Bull against great reform is that Mr. Hume’s name is Joseph, that he was a surgeon in India, and made a small fortune there; that he very often speaks scotch, and often makes grammatical blunders.32 A sixth reason is, that Robespierre cut throats.33 A seventh reason is that George IV is the best of princes. An eighth reason is, that Cobbett and Hunt34 are rather suspicious characters. A ninth reason is, that the world has always been very foolish, and therefore there is no reason it should improve. It was reserved for a member of this Society to furnish a tenth, viz. the goodness of our dinners and coats, and the beauty of our women. It remains to be seen whether this Society will give their votes in favour of a cause for which these are the choicest and best of the arguments which can be urged; or whether they will not rather pronounce that a Constitution which has produced the Game Laws, the Corn Laws, and the Court of Chancery,35 is more worthy of the barbarous age which gave it birth, than of the civilized age which is now called upon to gaze and worship without inquiry.
[1 ]See No. 5.
[2 ]Not identified.
[3 ]Cf. No. 5, n4.
[4 ]The repressive “Six Acts,” 60 George III & I George IV, cc. 1, 2, 4, 6, 8, and 9 (all 1819), were passed by Parliament after the armed suppression on 16 August of the crowd at St. Peter’s Field, Manchester (usually referred to as “Peterloo”); the most recent of the Corn Laws was 3 George IV, c. 60 (1822); the Usury Law still in force was 12 Anne, second session, c. 16 (1713); the most recent of the Game Laws (which go back to 22 & 23 Charles II, c. 25 ) was 57 George III, c. 90 (1817).
[5 ]For the debate of 27 February, 1824, on the behaviour towards Charles Flint, an attorney, of George Chetwynde (1783-1850), M.P. for Stafford (1820-26) and a magistrate, see PD, n.s., Vol. X, cols. 504-25.
[6 ]George Holme-Sumner (1760-1838), then M.P. for Surrey, Speech on Commitments by Magistrates (2 Mar., 1824), ibid., cols. 646-7, and Speech on Commitments and Convictions (27 May, 1824), ibid., Vol. XI, col. 908.
[7 ]Aristides (ca. 530-468 ), archon in Athens, 489/8 , known as “the Just,” the type of equitable judge; and George Jeffreys (1648-89), Lord Chief Justice in 1683, known as a “hanging judge,” prominent in the prosecutions for treason in the last years of Charles II’s reign.
[8 ]Not identified.
[9 ]See No. 5, n4.
[10 ]Samuel Romilly (1757-1818), a famous law reformer, was patronized by William Wyndham Grenville (1759-1834), Baron Grenville, and became M.P. for Queenborough; in 1812 Bernard Edward Howard (1765-1842), 12th Duke of Norfolk, brought him in for Arundel. Henry Peter Brougham (1788-1868) had been brought into the House for Camelford in 1810 through the influence of Henry Richard Vassal Fox (1773-1840), 3rd Baron Holland; in 1815 he was offered a seat for Winchelsea by William Harry Vane (1766-1842), 3rd Earl of Darlington.
[11 ]A common term for the Ottoman Sultans of Turkey.
[12 ]The “swinish multitude” became an ironic catchphrase of the Radicals following Burke’s use of the term in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), in Works, Vol. III, p. 114.
[13 ]Named for John Loudon McAdam (1756-1836), a Scottish inventor who devised a method of making all-weather roads from a thick, compressed layer of broken stones. His method was approved by a Committee of the House of Commons in 1823.
[14 ]By an unheaded decree of 20 June, 1790 (Gazette Nationale, ou Le Moniteur Universel, 21 June, p. 704).
[15 ]Cf. Thomas Fowell Buxton (1786-1845), An Inquiry Whether Crime and Misery Are Produced by Our Present System of Prison Discipline (London: Arch, 1818), p. 44.
[16 ]Cf. Proverbs, 29:8.
[17 ]E.g., Arnauld and Nicole, La logique, pp. 293-303 (Pt. III, Chap. ix); and Henry Aldrich (1647-1710), Artis logicae compendium (Oxford: Sheldonian Theatre, 1691), Sects. 6-7.
[18 ]Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), A Tale of a Tub (1704), in Works, ed. Walter Scott, 19 vols. (Edinburgh: Constable, 1814), Vol. XI, pp. 114-17.
[19 ]I Samuel, 17.
[20 ]Judges, 16:25-30.
[21 ]Not identified.
[22 ]Not identified.
[23 ]Not identified.
[24 ]That is, party caucuses limited the field by choosing candidates for election.
[25 ]The typescript reads “[combine]” presumably to indicate a gap or a doubtful reading.
[26 ]E.g., under 1 James I, c. 27 (1603).
[27 ]See the unheaded leader on the case of John Henry Franks (a Surrey labourer) in the Morning Chronicle, 3 Aug., 1824, pp. 2-3, to which Mill refers below, where these phrases are used. Penalties for taking or destroying eggs are found in Sect. 2 of 1 James I, c. 27 (1603); cf. No. 19, n11 below.
[28 ]Neither of these cases has been identified.
[29 ]Hazlitt, “The Spirits of the Age (No. III): The Late Mr. Horne Tooke,” New Monthly Magazine, X (Mar. 1824), 246, reports this remark by John Horne Tooke (1736-1812), the philologist and political radical.
[30 ]The speaker has not been identified.
[31 ]George Canning (1770-1827), then M.P. for Harwick, Foreign Secretary and leader of the House of Commons; for his opinion, see Corrected Report of the Speech of the Right Honourable George Canning, in the House of Commons, 25th April, 1822, on Lord John Russell’s Motion for a Reform of Parliament (London: Hatchard, 1822).
[32 ]Joseph Hume (1777-1855), M.P. for Montrose and a life-long friend of James Mill’s, was one of the best known Radicals in the House of Commons at this time.
[33 ]Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre (1758-94) was seen as the main instigator of the Terror during the French Revolution.
[34 ]William Cobbett (1762-1835), the “Tory Radical” writer and publicist, was constantly in the public eye because of his repeated broadsides against the government. Henry Hunt, who had been imprisoned after Peterloo for sedition, was released in 1822, but had little influence thereafter.
[35 ]Initially established under Edward III to allow equity a role in the law, the Court developed an immense body of procedural rules that made judgments costly and slow.