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14.: Influence of the Aristocracy 9 DECEMBER, 1825 - 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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Influence of the Aristocracy
MS, Mill-Taylor Collection, II/1/5. Inscribed in Mill’s hand, “Speech on the Influence of the Aristocracy. / London Union Society 9th December 1825” (at the head), and “Speech at / the London Union / 9th December 1825 / on the Influence / of the Aristocracy” (on f. 9, otherwise blank). Typescript, Fabian Society. Edited by Harold J. Laski, as “Speech on the Influence of the Aristocracy,” Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik, LXII (1929), 239-50. This is Mill’s first speech in the London Union Debating Society, renamed the London Debating Society on 3 February, 1826. Mill opened for the negative in this, the second debate of the Society, proposed by W.J. Walter, “That the Influence of the Aristocracy in the Government of this Country is beneficial.” The affirmative carried, 63 to 17. As not published in Mill’s lifetime, not listed in his bibliography.
the society has been informed of the unlucky circumstance in consequence of which I am so unexpectedly called upon to open the question: a circumstance which I regret the more, as it is not a question which, if I had any option, I should have chosen to open, or perhaps even to speak upon. But it was necessary that some body should undertake the office; and as no other person has presented himself, I shall endeavour to discharge it as well as I can, without losing time in idle apologies; satisfied that however badly I may speak no apology would make me speak one jot better.
In appointing this question to be discussed by the Society at so early a period of its existence, the late Committee has taken no bad method of trying the good sense and good feeling of the Society. As there is no question of greater importance, so there is none on which different persons differ more widely in their opinions: and the interest which so many persons feel in the question individually, in addition to the general interest which is common to every member of the community, has given to the discussions on this subject a character of bitter hostility, which it is deeply to be regretted that a sincere difference of opinion on any question should excite. It is for the members of this Society to shew, by the mode in which they carry on the debate that they are capable of discussing the most important interests of their country, without departing from that calmness of temper which is alone suitable to him whose sole aim is truth: that they can abstain from any unnecessary introduction of topics calculated to rouse animosities, and from vague and unmeaning vituperation of those whose sentiments are opposed to theirs; and that every member is charitable enough to suppose it possible that his own side of the question does not possess an entire monopoly of sincerity and good intentions. For my own part, although I feel that confidence in the soundness of my opinions, which is natural to one who has maturely considered them, I am perfectly ready to abjure them, if they can be proved to be erroneous; and I beg of any gentleman who may be inclined to treat me and my opinions with severity, to consider that I have no interest in being in the wrong; and that therefore, if I am so, it is probably because I cannot help it, and not because I am in love with error, or indifferent to truth.
In the observations which I have to offer I shall endeavour to set the example of confining myself strictly within the limits of the question: and with that view I wish it to be distinctly understood, that, when I speak of the influence of the aristocracy, I do not mean any kind of influence, but that kind of influence alone, which is mentioned in the question. I shall not touch upon the moral influence of the members of the aristocracy as individuals; not only because I think it extraneous to the question, but also because it would be idle to enquire whether that be good or bad in general, which is in no two individual instances the same; which varies with the innumerable varieties of individual character, with the innumerable varieties of individual pursuits, and with a hundred other ever varying elements, none of them capable of being comprehended in one general expression: I shall therefore leave this subject, first however taking the opportunity, as my subsequent remarks may seem to bear hard upon the aristocracy, of testifying thus much in their favour: that I think, in the matter of private character, they have not always had justice done them; and that exception has been taken, a little too readily, to the nature of some of their habitual occupations. Thus I have repeatedly heard it advanced as matter of reproach against that respectable class of society the country gentlemen, that some of them betray a stronger attachment to the innocent amusement of foxhunting, than is consistent with the ideas which some persons entertain of perfect wisdom. But I hold these strictures to be extremely illiberal: for I declare on my conscience that I never heard of any person taking to foxhunting as an occupation, who appeared to me to be fit for any other: and if the case be so, they are surely deserving of commendation rather than of blame, in having selected for themselves the only employment, to which the wisdom of their Creator had adapted them. An employment, too, so admirably fitted to keep their constitutions in repair,—and themselves out of mischief: for I am persuaded that the whole Society will agree with me in the opinion, that it is much better they should torment foxes, than men; and that hunting is a far more proper pastime for such persons, than judging or legislating.
To confine ourselves, then, to the topic which is particularly under discussion, I shall endeavour to shew, that the influence of the aristocracy in the government is not only no benefit, but a positive evil. That there should be a class of rich men, I care not how rich, if they become so no otherwise than by the natural operation of the laws of property, is clearly not an evil. That this class should form a society of their own, and should observe certain conventional forms in their intercourse with one another; that they should be distinguished from one another by titles, or any other artificial distinctions of a merely honorary kind—all this, as it hurts no one, no one is entitled to object to: and a class of persons thus circumstanced may call themselves an aristocracy, or any word that is most agreeable to them: I do not quarrel with a name. What I do object to, and very strongly, is, that any such body should possess a monopoly of political power: or if the word monopoly be too strong, I will say a predominance. So long as they are satisfied with pursuing their own happiness in whatever way pleases them best, without interfering with that of other persons, so long I have no quarrel with them; I complain of them only when they seek for power, power to oppress others.
I do not think it necessary, for the purpose of the present debate, to enter very deeply into the science of politics, or to lay down any new or alarming general principle. If indeed I were to speak my entire sentiments upon the subject I should say, that I do not think it desirable that an aristocracy, as such, should possess any political power, or, in the words of the question, exercise any influence in the government, beyond that to which their personal qualifications may entitle them: but to narrow the discussion I will waive this point, and will concede that good government is promoted by endowing the aristocracy with some portion of political power. I know not what quantity some gentlemen may deem sufficient: but I presume all will allow that there ought to be some limit to the quantity; and this is the only principle to which I shall demand their assent. I lay down no other postulate—I ask for no other admission at their hands: I shall be satisfied if they will only grant that the power of the aristocracy ought to have a limit. This admission however I do require: it is the foundation of my whole argument: and I shall not be contented with a mere verbal assent: they must have a full and distinct apprehension of the whole extent of the admission: they must be prepared to follow it out even to its remotest consequences: their assent must be given, not to the words alone, but to the sense; they must imbibe the whole spirit and scope of the principle: they must not only confess it with their lips, but they must feel it in their hearts.
There is no more common error among unthinking persons than to imagine, that whatever is good in a certain quantity must be good in any quantity: and the admirers of aristocratic rule, who are in general very little alive to any political evils except those which emanate from a seditious rabble, are apt to imagine, or to talk as if they imagined, that we never could by possibility have enough of so very good a thing. No doubt, they would be ready enough to say, that a pure aristocracy, which is generally on these occasions called an oligarchy, is not exactly a good thing: that is to say, that although it is not quite so bad as a pure monarchy, and a fortiori not so bad as that monster which is not to be thought of without trembling, a pure democracy, yet there is not very much to be said in its praise. That oligarchy is one of the three simple, and therefore bad, forms of government, is a proposition which people are accustomed to repeat (as they are accustomed to repeat so many other things) because they have heard it when at school: But all those associations of badness, which are connected in their minds with the Greek word oligarchy, depart when that hard word is banished and the more courtly term aristocracy substituted in its place: Under this change of denomination, what had been so loudly reprobated is as loudly applauded, and though oligarchy is no better than it should be, aristocracy is every thing that heart can desire. If there be any persons of this sort in the room, it may be of use to point out to them what are the consequences of giving too much power to an aristocracy.
The materials of which a government is composed, are not Gods, nor angels, but men. Now rather an extensive observation of the conduct of men in all ages has shewn that, extraordinary instances of heroism excepted, which of course are not to be reckoned upon, their actions are pretty constantly governed by their interests: insomuch that if you know what it is a man’s interest to do, you can make a pretty good guess at what he will do. Now as men in power do not cease to be men, by being in power, the same rules, which govern the conduct of other men, govern theirs likewise: and therefore, when the interest of those who are placed under them, clashes, as it is very apt to do, with their own, it is not difficult to see which must give way to the other.
A few examples will shew in what a variety of ways the interest of a ruling few is liable to be in opposition to the interest of the subject many.
It is the interest of the many that the taxes should be as light as possible: because it is the many who pay them: of the few, that they should be as heavy as possible: because it is the few who receive them.
It is the interest of the few that they and theirs should receive as much money, and render in return for it as little service, as possible: and with this view, it is their interest to create the greatest possible number of useless offices, in order that the pretence of service may be rewarded with the reality of salary. It never can be the interest of the many that any service should be paid for, which is not given; or given, which is not required.
It is the interest of the few that all public situations should be held by their sons and nephews, however unfit, to the exclusion of John Brown or Tom Smith or any such vulgar person who has no other recommendation than his fitness. It is the interest of the many that the best qualified person should in all cases be preferred, whatever breed he may come of.
It is the interest of the few to keep up an enormous army and navy, for the twofold purpose of making incomes for sons and nephews, and forging chains for the many. It is the interest of the many that neither army nor navy should exceed the lowest scale consistent with security.
It is the interest of the few, to be engaged in continual wars: and this for more reasons than one: 1st, for the glory of the thing, 2ndly for the power it gives them, 3rdly as an excuse for increasing the army and navy, and making more incomes for sons and nephews; and lastly, because in time of war, people think so much of doing harm to others that they have no leisure to think of doing good to themselves: from which cause a period of war is a period of security for political abuses of all sorts, sizes, and denominations. As for the many, it is scarcely ever their interest to engage in a war; and never in any that is called a just and necessary one: by which, so far as my observation goes, is always meant, a war that has for its object something either contemptibly silly or detestably wicked: the honours of the flag, the balance of power, or to prevent the establishment of free institutions in foreign countries.
It is the interest of the few to assume to themselves, in the character of justices of peace, unlimited power of vexing and annoying the many. It is the interest of the many that no such power should be exercised over them by any persons.
Lastly, for although there is no end to the subject, it is necessary that there should be an end to my enumeration; it is the interest of the few to enact corn laws in order to raise their rents, game laws to protect their amusements, and vagrant laws to punish those who, being guilty of poverty, obtrude the spectacle of their misery upon the delicate senses of the few.1 Now it is not, nor can be, the interest of the many, that any one of all these things should be done.
Of course I do not pretend that this picture of misgovernment has ever been realized in any civilized country. I have only been speaking of what is possible, not of what is real: and few will deny that even in the present state of the human mind in Europe, an aristocracy might do all this without endangering its existence. But if we look not to what any aristocracy is now, or is ever likely to be again, but to what it has a constant tendency to become, and would actually be at this moment in every country where it exists, were it not restrained by its fears; if in short we view the sinister interest2 of the ruling body in its fullest extent and endeavour to conceive the effects of a perfectly unchecked aristocracy, the picture is far more deplorable still.
It is the interest of an aristocracy to extract from the people in all ways, the greatest possible quantity of money, and the greatest possible quantity of power. When they have got this money and power it is of course their interest to keep it: which they have no chance of doing but by preventing the people from finding out that it is their interest to take it away. Two modes of action present themselves as conducive to this end: the one, calculated to operate upon the understanding of the people, the other to operate upon their will. Upon their understanding by debasing it down to the lowest stage of debasement by means of bad education, the fruits of which are, bad morals, bad religion, and almost every thing that is bad under the sun. Upon their will, by inspiring them with the greatest possible degree of terror, which is only to be done by the greatest possible degree of cruelty. A despotic aristocracy, therefore, would be exactly what a despotic monarchy, in its worst shape, is: with this difference, that a despotic monarch, being one man, may be a man of extraordinary virtue; but it would be worse than idle to expect extraordinary virtue from a body of men, a whole class, an aristocracy.
If it be proved that any set of men, placed in the situation of an aristocracy, and having power to oppress and misgovern, will oppress and misgovern, I presume an exception is not to be made of the British aristocracy. They are not, I take it for granted, cast in a different mould from the rest of their species, nor is their conduct governed by a different set of principles from those which govern the conduct of other aristocracies. I do not say that they are worse than other men: they may for aught I know be better, but still they are men. I must deprecate, therefore, all arguments in defence of the political power of the aristocracy, which are founded upon the bright examples of individual virtue in their number. There are, in what are called the higher classes, many excellent men, men whose influence as individuals I should be extremely sorry to see diminished; but though they were every one of them so many Cato’s and Fabricius’s,3 I should still think it possible that they might have too much power. I would not give absolute power even to one man, because he was virtuous; unless I meant to corrupt and destroy his virtue: yet it would be ten times more reasonable to give absolute power to one man, because he is virtuous, than to a body of men because some of them are so. Individuals have been known to make great sacrifices of their private interest to the good of their country: but bodies of men, never. When the glory of doing right and the shame of doing wrong are to be shared among so many that the share of each man is a trifle, no principle remains of sufficient strength to counteract the united force of the two great springs of human action, the love of money and the love of power. I say no principle; for as to their morality, that is regularly pressed into the service of their interest. When a set of men are numerous enough to keep one another in countenance, and high enough to be above the necessity of regarding any body’s opinion but their own, they generally find little difficulty in manufacturing a morality for their own private use: of which homemade morality the fundamental principle is, that they are of such unspeakable importance to the whole community, that the community ought to be but too happy in suffering them to take, at its expense, as much money and power as they have a mind to: and this morality they preach to the people, aye! and believe it themselves, and teach it to their children; for it is wonderful how easy a matter it is to believe that to be right which we know to be pleasant.
I have now got through one half of my argument—and have shewn what sort of a thing an unchecked aristocracy is, or would be, I should rather say, for no aristocracy is, was, or ever will be totally unchecked. The worst government is under some restraint; the fear of rebellion is always something; and there is no government over which that fear has not some influence. This check, which exists under the most odious tyrannies upon the face of the earth, is not, nor ever would be wanting in this country. It is even more of a check in this country than elsewhere, because the British is a more determined and a better instructed people than most, and therefore, when it does rebel, more likely to rebel with success. While this is the case, and long may it continue so, we must be better governed than other nations had we a Nero, or a Muley Ismael,4 for our absolute sovereign.
With the exception of this check, which exists alike under the best governments and under the worst, I am prepared to maintain that the power of the British aristocracy is totally unchecked.
For if it be checked, it is clear that there must be something to check it; and this something, let us see what it is. According to the fashionable doctrine about the British Constitution,5 there are two checks, two counterpoises; the influence of the Crown, and the influence of the people. Let us examine these checks one after the other: and we will begin with the last, because it is the most to the purpose.
If the people have any influence in the government of this country, the seat of that influence must be the House of Commons; for that is always said to be the democratic branch of our Constitution, being supposed to be chosen by the people. One thing, however, I take it for granted few will deny: that, in order to form a counterpoise to the power of the aristocracy, or to be itself any thing but an aristocracy, it is necessary not only that it should be supposed to be chosen by the people, but moreover that it should actually be chosen by them. Now when I look to things, which in general are of more importance than the names which they are called by, I find that there are not more than four or five members of the House of Commons, of whom it can be said with any colour of truth that they are chosen by the people. A majority of that House, including the members for the greater part of the counties, and for all the smaller towns, except those which are called rotten burghs, are chosen by about 180 families, most of them great landed proprietors. The remainder of the county members are chosen by the smaller landholders, and the rotten burghs, which in my opinion are the least bad part of the system, are disposed of by purchase and sale, to those who can afford to pay for them, the electors selling their consciences once in seven years or oftener, at so much per conscience. About 99 therefore out of every 100 members hold their seats either at their own pleasure, or at the pleasure of a lord or country gentleman, or at the pleasure of several lords or country gentlemen: they are either themselves a part of the aristocracy, or they are the tenants at will, the mere servants of the aristocracy: and to talk of them as a counterpoise to the power of the aristocracy in the state is much the same sort of absurdity as if Mr. Canning’s butler and footman were said to be a counterpoise to him in the family.
Now, if I were acquainted with any arithmetical process by which 1 could be proved to be greater than 99, or of any rhetoric by which the hundredth man in an assembly could persuade the other ninety nine to act as he pleased, and not as they pleased, I might admit that the influence which the people enjoy in the House of Commons, by means of the five or six members whom they elect, is a sufficient counterpoise to the influence of the aristocracy: always supposing that those five or six members were not, by reason of the long duration of parliaments, rendered very nearly as independent of their constituents as those members who never had any constituents at all. But until some such wonder working process be made known to me, I hope to be pardoned for adhering to the opposite opinion.
As for the other supposed check, the influence of the Crown, it is but the influence of the aristocracy in disguise. The King indeed is not responsible to Parliament, but his ministers are; and he can do nothing without ministers. Can any ministry stand against a hostile Parliament? No one now ever imagines that they can. By offending the Parliament, a ministry incurs the risk of impeachment—that however is a trifle—but at any rate the loss of their places—which is no trifle. Now although, by means of what I believe are called the Treasury burghs, they can put a certain number of members into Parliament, they cannot put many;6 so that their influence over the Parliament is in reality very small: and instead of being, what they are so often represented to be, the masters of the Parliament, they are in reality its slaves bound hand and foot and under an utter impossibility of acting otherwise than according to the will of Parliament, that is, of its constituents the Aristocracy. The power of the King is therefore subordinate to that of the Aristocracy, and cannot be exercised except in subservience to them. What then is the King? A mere officer of the Aristocracy: environed indeed by external splendour, because his splendour is their splendour, but in reality nothing more than a carver, who is permitted by them to carve the wealth and power which they have jointly extracted from the people giving a piece to one, and a piece to another, and the large pieces to whomsoever he likes best. It is strongly the interest of the aristocracy to have a carver. If they did not entrust the division of the precious matter to some fixed individual,—if the whole were left to be settled by a general scramble, the disputes and tumults and civil wars that would ensue would be troublesome. This the aristocracy know; and they prefer to take their chance of getting what they can from the carver: while those who are not served to their liking rail at those who are, and call themselves a Constitutional Opposition.
For these reasons, the supposed balance of the British Constitution appears to me to be a nonentity. For my part I never had much faith in these mathematical governments. The hopes and fears of men, the materials of which political power is made, do not admit of being cut out into equal parts, or measured out by a rule and a pair of compasses, with geometrical precision. Besides in the perpetual mutability of human affairs, the nicest equilibrium of powers would require to be readjusted before it had been established a twelvemonth. And after all—if the balance be not really, what to me it appears, visionary and chimerical: it still remains to be proved that it would be good. That a government compounded of the three simple forms must unite all their excellencies, surely is not self-evident. It is at least a possible case that it may unite all their defects. But it has usually been deemed sufficient to point to the British Constitution, and to beg the three following questions in relation to it: 1. that it is a balance, 2. that it is good, and 3. that it is good, because it is a balance: which three premisses being taken for granted, the conclusion, that a balance must be good, follows, it must be owned, quite easily and naturally.
If I have succeeded in proving that as far as depends upon institutions, the aristocracy of this country are possessed of unlimited power and that we are indebted to their fears alone, to their fears of popular resistance, for that share of good government which we enjoy, all that remains is to examine what this security amounts to: and we shall not fail to perceive, that it amounts to very little. Any resistance, short of a general rebellion, would expose the aristocracy to no material danger. But those great convulsions which overthrow established governments; those gigantic efforts of physical strength by which a people that has been sunk for ages in slavery shakes off its fetters and rids itself of bad rulers and bad institutions, are of rare occurrence and when they do occur, they are in general called forth by striking instances of individual oppression, by those crimes which awaken sympathy, and shake each man’s confidence in his own personal security. From such crimes it costs the aristocracy but little to abstain: and then, what has it to fear? The people may cry, but if they only cry, who will attend to their cries? In this country, fortunately, the fears of the aristocracy are out of all proportion to their danger. They tremble at the very thought of facing public opinion. All their actions prove how ill at ease they are when they fancy that public opinion is against them: yet as often as the temptation is tolerably strong, they do encounter it point blank: and their fears, on these occasions, make them only the more dogged in their resistance. Of this we have a striking exemplification in the pertinacity with which they cling to the Corn Laws and to the Game Laws. Public opinion is unanimous on these two questions, or it never was unanimous upon any thing: and to make the matter still more remarkable, there is not the same unanimity among the aristocracy: for these laws are as obnoxious to the manufacturing and commercial part of the aristocracy, as they are even to the people themselves. It is the landed interest alone which upholds them. From this we learn the plenitude of the power of the aristocracy, since even when they are divided, one portion is strong enough to maintain these laws against the other portion and the body of the people combined. The use they make of their power is also strikingly illustrated by these same laws: in the one case, they tax the people to the extent of several millions a year, for the disinterested purpose of putting a few hundred thousands of pounds, for it is positively no more, into their pockets; in the other case, the amusements of the aristocracy having to be protected, protection is afforded to them by establishing in every village a nursery of crime where persons are first made fit for the gallows and then sent to it, besides stocking the hulks and the plantations, which however as it is for the service of his Majesty is on that account the less to be regretted.
Having pointed out, as I conceive, the nature and magnitude of the evil, I think it best not to enter upon the controverted subject of the remedy. The discussion would take up much time; and the present question may be fully and satisfactorily answered without it. There is no one here, I imagine, who thinks that any government can be good, which is purely aristocratic, without any mixture of popular: Now it has been my endeavour to shew that our government is so: whoever, then, disapproves of a pure aristocracy must disapprove of ours, if I have made out my case. Everything turns upon the mere question of fact. I have endeavoured to make that question as plain as I could: if I have failed, I have no doubt that some gentleman will refute me: but if I have succeeded, I hope to induce the partizans of a mixed as well as those of a purely popular government, to join with me in negativing the question.
[1 ]The most recent of the Vagrancy Laws (which go back to the mediaeval period) were the temporary Consolidating Act, 3 George IV, c. 40 (1822), and 5 George IV, c. 83 (1824).
[2 ]For the phrase, see No. 5, n7.
[3 ]Marcus Porcius Cato (234-149 ) and Gaius Luscinus Fabricius (fl. 282 ) were models of patrician integrity.
[4 ]Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus Nero (37-68 ), Roman Emperor, and Ismail Ibn Al-Sharif (1645-1727), Sultan of Morocco, were models of tyrannical despotism.
[5 ]For the authorities, see No. 5, n2.
[6 ]In a handful of port towns, naval centres, and dockyard towns, the economic weight of the Treasury or the Admiralty was sufficient to ensure government control of the representation.