Front Page Titles (by Subject) 20.: The British Constitution  19 MAY, 1826 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVI - Journals and Debating Speeches Part I
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20.: The British Constitution  19 MAY, 1826 - 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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The British Constitution 
MS, Mill-Taylor Collection, II/1/6 (first part); typescripts, Fabian Society (three parts). The MS and typescript of the first part are not headed; the typescript of the second part is headed: “[A fragment of one page]”; that of the final part is headed: “Speech on the British Constitution / containing an apologue against the class representation / spoken in 1826.” Edited by Harold J. Laski: the first part is in his edition of Mill’s Autobiography, pp. 275-87, entitled, “Speech on the British Constitution”; the third, with the same title, in Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik, LXII (1929), 460-6. This speech is a revised version of No. 19, both having evidently been prepared for the second session on 19 May, 1826, of the debate that began on 5 May, “That the practical Constitution of Great Britain is adequate to all the Purposes of good Government.” The text of No. 19, which contains passages paralleling all parts of No. 20, justifies, with the continuity of argument, linking the three parts of the latter, which are joined at 380.2 and 380.21. The first version (No. 19) was evidently not used, but this, the second, was delivered by Mill as the fourth speaker in the negative; the vote was 9 to 9. Because the manuscript of the third part has not been located, the typescript and printed versions have been collated; so too has the portion of the speech reprinted in Mill’s “Rationale of Representation,” London Review, I (July 1835), 29n-30n (CW, Vol. XVIII, pp. 44n-5n). As not published in Mill’s lifetime, not listed in his bibliography.
by the word constitution, Sir, I understand, the institutions which exist for the purpose or with the supposed effect of affording securities for good government. The question, therefore, concerning the goodness of our Constitution, is the question whether, in so far as depends upon institutions, good government is practically attained. It will I think be allowed that as long as we suffer under any evil of which government is the cause, good government in the practical sense of the word is not attained. The first question, therefore, is, Do any evils exist; the second, are any of them to be imputed to our government.
To most persons it would appear very unnecessary to prove that evils of some sort or another do exist, and impossible to suppose the contrary opinion capable of being entertained by any rational being. So much language has however been held which if it has not this meaning has none at all, that I am compelled to regard even this point as not out of the reach of controversy. If we believe some gentlemen, England is a perfect Utopia. The happiness of the golden age was nothing to that we enjoy. Luxury pervades the upper classes, comfort and knowledge diffuse themselves among the middle, competence and contentment among the lower. We are great in war, honoured and powerful in peace, no man in his senses could hope for any thing better, and no honest man would. If this be true, it certainly puts an end to the question. If no evils exist, none, it is evident, can be occasioned by our practical Constitution. If we are already enjoying the whole of the happiness which we are to look for in this world, it is very obvious that we have nothing better to do than just to remain as we are. I must confess however that my aspirations do not stop short at that degree of felicity to which we have at present attained, and that rather a higher standard of competence and contentment than six shillings a week will afford, seems to me greatly to be desired for our agricultural population. Prosperity, Sir, is the test of good government, but the prosperity must first be proved.
We have flourished under the Constitution. Who has flourished under the Constitution? These gentlemen are apt to fall into the mistake, a very natural one I admit, of supposing that all the world has flourished because they have. Do they mean to allege that the great body of the people has flourished? But the people is not a word in their vocabulary. Instead of the people, they talk of the country: the wealth power and glory of the country: by which is to be understood the wealth power and glory of one man in a hundred, and the misery of the remaining 99. By this word country, they always mean the aristocracy. Whenever they talk of the prosperity of the country, it is the prosperity of the aristocracy that is meant. When they say country read aristocracy, and you will never be far from the truth. They tell you that the Constitution has worked well: you ask them particulars, and they answer that it has brought us a great deal of money and a great deal of glory: So much the better for those who have got it, I am sure we have got none: They may talk as they please about our being the richest nation in the world. The richest nation, in one sense of the word, we certainly are, but then it is like Mr. Alexander Baring and me: between us, we certainly have a very handsome fortune. But what illustrates more than any thing else the peculiar view which they take of national prosperity, is their talk about military and naval renown. They have particularly selected as a proof of good government exactly what I should have chosen as a specimen of bad. I have as little respect, Sir, for a fighting nation as I have for a fighting individual, and I am by no means anxious that my country should be considered the Tom Cribb of Europe.1
They talk of the last war, and seem to think it highly honourable to our Constitution that having first got us into what they call an arduous struggle, it afterwards at the expense of many myriads of lives got us out again. But let me ask, what was gained by the last war, and who gained it? We knocked down one despot, and set up a score; this was their concern not ours. Then as to the substantial part of the gain, the money and glory. The generals and admirals and colonels and lieutenant colonels and all the rest of them got money, and most of them a little glory, some a great deal. The poor privates who took the disagreeable part of the business, and who were sent home when it was over to loiter about Chelsea hospital with one leg2 or follow the plough with two, they got no glory; any more than those at home who paid the piper. The contractors who had the fingering of the loans got no glory, but they got what was much better, many millions of pounds sterling which made them very comfortable at our expense. Sir, I grudge nobody his glory, if he would pay for it himself. I have a great respect for Sir Arthur Wellesley, and ceteris paribus I would much rather that he should be, as he is, a hero and a duke, than not:3 but when I consider that every feather in his cap has cost the nation more than he and his whole lineage would fetch if they were sold for lumber, I own that I much regret the solid pudding which we threw away in order that he might obtain empty praise.
Those who have called in question the goodness of our Constitution never thought of denying that it was good for some persons. The British Constitution is the Constitution of the rich. It has made this country the paradise of the wealthy. It has annexed to wealth a greater share of political power, and a greater command over the minds of men, than were ever possessed by it elsewhere. It has given us rich merchants, and extensive landholders. It has given to those who have money already, great facilities for making it more. It has produced a fine breed of country gentlemen, and to support the breed, it has charged us with an additional 3d. on the quartern loaf. All this, Sir, is very fine, but I cannot help reflecting that the peasant of Languedoc eats his three meals of meat a day and cultivates his vineyard, he has cheap justice at his doors, he may go where he pleases, engage in any trade that he pleases, and tread upon as many partridge eggs as he pleases,4 and need not fear to find himself next day on the treadmill, a victim of the unpaid patriotism of a game-eating squire. We are a free country, Sir, but it is as Sparta was free: the Helots are overlooked.
Whenever the honourable opener5 sees so much as a scrap of good, he gives the credit of it to the Constitution. By this rule, we ought to impute to it our evils likewise. I might say that our manufacturers are starving by reason of the Constitution. I might say that our peasantry is the poorest in Europe, because our Constitution is the worst. I believe a greater number of individuals suffer capital punishment in this country than in all the rest of Europe put together, and I might thence infer that our Constitution is a complication of all the vices of all the Governments in Europe. But I do not think myself justified in reasoning unfairly because the honourable opener has set me the example. I impute to the Constitution no evils which do not naturally follow from the interests to which it has given birth. But when there is an obvious connexion between the evil suffered, and the interests of the governors, I think it reasonable to place the evil to the account of the Constitution, because it is the Constitution which suffers the interests of the governors to be paramount to those of the governed. Such is the case with those evils which were depicted in perhaps more unmeasured language than was necessary by my honourable friend opposite6 on a former evening and if I were to swell the list as I might do I should perhaps be betrayed into language still more intemperate than his. But as this part of our case has already been so well stated, I shall allow it to rest upon his statements and proceed to another.
I thought, Sir, that the question related to the practice of the Constitution, but the defenders of the Constitution have thought otherwise: they seem determined to prove à priori the goodness of the Constitution, finding themselves unable to prove it à posteriori: and they have been good enough to reveal to us their several theories of the Constitution, with the view as I suppose of convincing us that if we are not very well off, yet upon correct principles we ought to be. Now though I myself care very little by what machinery my pocket is picked, the beauty of the machinery has sometimes the effect of persuading people that their pocket is not picked when in fact it is: and it may therefore conduce somewhat to the understanding of the question if their theories be cleared away. The commonplace theories have all had their supporters in the Society. We are told by one, that our Constitution is a balance, by another that it is a representation of classes, by a third that it is an aristocratical republic, sufficiently checked by public opinion. To this I will add my theory, that it is an aristocratical republic, insufficiently checked by public opinion. If I seem to dismiss these theories in a summary manner, want of time must be my apology.
The class representation theory requires most words, as it is the most modern, and the most plausible. It has been very fully, though not very distinctly, stated this evening, and amounts to this, that if the landed interest, the mercantile interest, the army, the law, the manufacturing interest, and all the other great interests are represented, and the people represented, enough is done for good government, and that under our Constitution this is actually the case.
Now it seems to be forgotten in this view of the subject, that every one of these classes has two interests, its separate interest and its share of the general interest. That which ought to be represented is the latter. What really is represented is the former. Most true it is that the separate interests of a great number of classes are represented in the House of Commons: and so perfectly is the system adapted to ensure the predominance of these interests, that there is hardly any class of plunderers (pickpockets and highwaymen excepted) which has not a greater number of representatives in the House of Commons than the whole body of the plundered. The consequence is that there is hardly ever a job proposed for the benefit of any set of persons at the expense of the community, which does not find in that assembly somebody or other who is interested in supporting it; and as there is a natural alliance among jobs of every description, one interest plays into the hands of another, hodie mihi cras tibi is the word,7 and the upshot of it is, that taking the great jobs with the little ones there is not on the face of God’s earth such another jobbing assembly as the House of Commons. Sir, this is the very thing we complain of. The amount of misrule is not diminished by the multitude of the sharers. According to our notions, the House of Commons should represent only one interest—the general interest. As for those particular interests which are opposed to the general one, as nobody ought to attend to them, I suppose nobody need represent them.
Fable, Sir, as we are taught by the ancients, sometimes throws light upon truth. I will tell you a fable and you shall judge for yourself whether or not it is in point.8
Once upon a time there happened an insurrection among the beasts. The little beasts grew tired of being eaten by the great ones. The aswinish, goatish and sheepisha multitude9 grew weary of the sway of the bintellectual and virtuous.b They demanded to be governed by cjust andc equal laws and as a security for dthesed laws, to ebe subject toe a representative government. The Lion, finding himself hard pressed, called together the aristocracy of the forest, and they jointly offered a rich reward to whoever could devise a scheme for extricating them from their embarrassment. The Fox offered himself, and his offer being accepted, went forth to the assembled multitude, and addressed them thus. “fSurely my friends you would not deny to others the advantage which you seek to partake of yourselves. The only true representation is representation by classes.f The tigrish interest should be represented, the wolfish interest should be represented, all the other ginterestsg should be represented, and the great body of the beasts should be represented. h My royal master has an objection to anarchy, but he is no enemy to a rational and well regulated Freedom: iany other sort of representation he never will agree to, but a class representation he consents to granti .” The people, delighted to have got the name of a representation, quietly dispersed, and writs were issued to the different interests to jchusej their representatives. The tigers chose six tigers, the panthers six panthers, the khyaenas six hyaenask and the wolves six wolves. The remaining beasts, who were only allowed to chuse six, chose by common consent six dogs. The parliament was opened by a speech from the Lion, recommending unanimity. When this was concluded, the Jackal, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer, introduced the subject of the Civil List: and after a llongl panegyric on the royal virtues, proposed a grant, for the support of those virtues, of m1,000m sheep a year. The proposition was received with acclamations from the ministerial benches. The Tiger, nhappening to be in then opposition, made an eloquent speech, in which he enlarged omucho upon the necessity of economy, inveighed pbitterlyp against the profusion of ministers, and qended by movingq that His Majesty rmustr be humbly requested to content himself with s999s . The Dogs declared that as kings must eat, they had no objection to His tMajestyt devouring as many dead sheep as he pleased; but usolemnlyu protested against his consuming any of their constituents alive. This remonstrance vhad its natural effectv . The first impulse of the representatives of the aristocracy was to fall tooth and nail upon the representatives of the people. The Lion however representing that such conduct would be dishonourable, and the Fox that it might provoke a renewal of the insurrection, they abandoned the intention of worrying these demagogues, and contented themselves with always outvoting them. The sequel may be guessed. The Lion got his wthousandw sheep; the Fox his pension of x100 ducksx a year, yandy the Panthers, Wolves, and the other members of the aristocracy got as many kids and lambs in a quiet way, as they could devour.z
With this allegory, which is worth a thousand syllogisms, I shall dismiss the subject of the class representation.
The gentleman10 who first propounded to us the theory of the balance,11 will forgive me for saying that he seems to have studied the Constitution chiefly in the writings of its panegyrists. The balance of King Lords and Commons I have met with in books, and it has a very pretty appearance upon paper: but even those who maintain that it existed once acknowledge that it has no existence now: the Commons, it is allowed, have complete possession of the Government, and the only balance now contended for, is a balance in the House of Commons itself. That there is such a balance, I do not deny, since a balance is still a balance, although the weights may be unequal. But if anybody maintains that the weights are equal, he should first find means of explaining away the fact, that the aristocracy alone commands twice as many members of parliament as the King and the people together. The parliament is just as effectual an instrument of the aristocracy, if they have a majority of the votes, as it would be if they had the whole. With the fact that the parliament is made by the aristocracy staring us in the face, it would be useless to enter into the speculative question whether the balance is possible, or whether if possible it would be good. Possible or not, at any rate it does not exist. If there be any counterpoise to the power of the Aristocracy, it cannot come from within the House of Commons, it must come from without.
With that class of the defenders of our Constitution, who consider public opinion as expressed by petitions, public meetings, and a free press, as the one and sufficient check, I am less widely at issue. The question between us is merely a question of degree. We both allow that the House of Commons requires a check, we both agree that public opinion is the proper check. They think that the check is sufficient if the public are allowed to speak freely, I think that it is not sufficient unless they are allowed to act as well as speak. Now I do not see how the question between us can be tried, except by looking about us and seeing what this free speaking has done. That it has done much I allow. It is probably the cause that we are not at this moment the slaves of a military despotism. But has it abolished the Corn Laws? Has it abolished the Game Laws? Did it prevent the Six Acts? Did it prevent the Manchester Massacre12 —or did it prevent the House of Commons from approving of it? Has it cut down our civil, military, and naval establishments? Has it reformed the Magistracy, the Church, and the Law? It has been said by the gentleman who started this theory, that the laws of England are deserving of absolute condemnation. If this be true, what a satire is it upon the Constitution which he applauded! For my part, I do not think the laws of England deserving of absolute condemnation, but I think that they require many and great ameliorations; ameliorations which I am persuaded that none but a reformed parliament will have the courage, I will not say the inclination to make.
What is the influence of public opinion? Nothing at bottom, but the influence of fear. Of what consequence is it to a minister what the public say so long as they content themselves with saying? When it comes to blows it becomes a serious matter. I do not deny the influence of character, of the opinion of others, even independently of fear. The opinion of others is a powerful check upon every man, but then it must be the opinion of his own class. Experience has shewn that there is no action so wicked that even an honest man will not do, if he is borne out by the opinion of those with whom he habitually associates. Was there ever a more unpopular minister than Lord Castlereagh?13 Was there ever a minister who cared so little about it? The reason was that although he had the people against him, the predominant portion of the aristocracy was for him, and all his concern about public dissatisfaction was to keep it below the point of a general insurrection. Things are a little better now, because we accidentally have a ministry14 who knowing themselves to be no favourites with the bulk of the aristocracy, and feeling that to use a homely expression it is touch and go with their places, court the people as a sort of makeweight, though an inconsiderable one, to that portion of the aristocracy who are on their side. But should they be turned out and should we for our sins be visited with another Castlereagh, we shall be governed by the new one exactly as we were governed by the old, in spite of the public opinion check, the dread of insurrection, which it seems we have, and which the Turks have likewise. The Constitution of Turkey may be defined to be the fear of the bowstring: and the Constitution of Great Britain it seems according to this view of it, may be defined to be the fear of the guillotine. Let who will be satisfied with this check: I, for one, have a most decided objection to it.
I fear that my observations on the theories of the Constitution have been dull: but I must crave the indulgence of the Society for a short time longer. There is another subject which must not be altogether passed over. Gentlemen have not merely enlarged upon the goodness of our Constitution, they have expatiated upon the exceeding badness of every other. More especially a popular government has been the theme of their invectives, nor have they by any means spared the people themselves. This, Sir, is the way with them. If we believe some people, the many who are interested in good government are the determined enemies of good government, and the only persons who are its friends are the few, who are interested against it. They are always fearing evil to the many from the many, never from the few. Now I beg you to remark how many advantages these gentlemen have over me. We are always ready to believe what we fear. The orator who has the fears of his audience on his side, has only to awaken the emotion by a few frightful words, and persuasion follows of itself. Very different is the task of him who has the fears of his audience against him. Having to work conviction by means of evidence, in minds ill prepared to receive it, to have any chance of success he must heap proof upon proof—he must add argument to argument—his discourse lengthens into prolixity, he has wearied the patience of his audience before he has triumphed over their apprehensions, and to the misfortune of failing in his object, he adds that of being voted a bore. Sir, it is among the disadvantages of my present situation, that I am compelled to be prolix. Misrepresentation is always beautifully brief; refutation always tediously long. There are single sentences in the speech of the honourable opener, each containing half a score of assumptions, each assumption requiring a long detail of facts or train of reasoning to refute it.15
He asserts that the people are desirous of destroying property. I shall not enter into this question for I consider it to be irrelevant, but I cannot refrain from saying if the people desire to destroy property why do they not destroy it now? Have they not the physical power that they must always have? It must be then because they see that it is not their interest: and will they not see it still? It must be because you teach them not to meddle with it: and cannot you teach them so still?
The honourable gentleman endeavours to work upon our fears. So it is always with the political party of which the honourable gentleman seems to have constituted himself the representative in this Society. Is anything proposed to benefit the few at the expense of the many, they are bold enough. Is anything proposed to take away any of the power which the few have of injuring the many, then is the time for fear. Sir, I cannot have confidence in those whose fears always seem to me to lie in the wrong place. Nothing is so much to be feared as a habit of fearing whenever anything is proposed for the benefit of mankind. Fear, Sir, is a bad counsellor, and it is no great proof either of wisdom or of virtue to take counsel from nothing but fears when any good is to be done. But the honourable gentleman seems to be one of those who are always apprehending evil to the many from the many, never from the few. Such a man appears to me to be an object of very rational fear.16
Sir, I am no admirer of popular wisdom. The bulk of the people at least who have arrived at the age of manhood are stupid, obstinate and incurably ignorant. I would back Sir Edward Knatchbull17 for all those qualities against the most unlettered clown, and I am acquainted with a weaver who for talents and understanding would leave the first names in the House of Commons but little to be proud of. Nonsense verses, it is true, he cannot write, but if he is inferior to the country gentlemen in prosody and fox-hunting, in all useful attainments he far excels them. There are individuals in the higher class inferior to any in the lower, but the inferiority does not extend to the class. The elite of them all is in the House of Commons, and we see what stuff they are made of. If Hercules may be known ex pede, much more may he be known exacapitea . An average carpenter has no ideas beyond the workshop, an average merchant has none beyond the counting-house, nor an average country gentleman beyond the dog kennel.
Sir, I am not partial to stupid, obstinate and incurably ignorant persons of any description. It is satisfactory to think that there are fewer of them now than formerly. It is satisfactory to think that knowledge and intelligence are making their way even to the lowest of the species, and that the time is coming, though I fear it is far distant, when even the Irish peasant and his landlord shall partake of the attributes of humanity. Until, however, this millenium shall arrive I fear we must resign ourselves to be governed by incapables of some sort: do what we may, our only choice is whether we will be governed by incapables who have an interest in good government, or incapables who have an interest in bad. Now I could point out more than one reason for chusing rather to be governed by the former sort of incapables than by the latter, by an incapable people than by an incapable aristocracy. One reason is that an incapable people are in general guided by the wisest persons among them; an incapable aristocracy never is. Nor is this wonderful. The people are in earnest about the interest of the people. What a man is really in earnest about, if it be not very difficult, he generally succeeds in. To chuse a good representative is not very difficult. The aristocracy are not in earnest about the interest of the people, and they therefore have no occasion to look for that wisdom by which the interest of the people may be served. It is enough for them if they can hire a man of talent to make out the best case he can for them and their abuses. Of any higher kind of talent than this they have no idea. It would be of no use to them if they had it. Not being wanted, it is not produced; and if it grows up among them by accident, it is not valued. The country gentlemen do not vote with Lord Milton and Mr. Whitmore, they vote with Sir Thomas Lethbridge and Mr. Holme Sumner.18
Another reason for preferring stupid, obstinate and ignorant persons who have not a sinister interest, to stupid, obstinate and ignorant persons who have, is that the former acting under the dictation of their interest will do as much good as their limited faculties will permit, the latter as much harm. And though it requires some capacity to do good, unfortunately it requires none to do mischief. The veriest reptile that ever crawled can consume as much of other people’s beef and bread, turbot and turtle soup, as Solomon or Sir Isaac Newton himself. The most drivelling dolt who can set a spring gun, or sign an order of commitment for a man who is poor enough to be deemed a vagrant, has talents sufficient to be the tyrant and the scourge of his neighbourhood. On the other hand the United States of America are a standing proof that under democratic ascendancy a country may be very well governed with a very small portion of talent. For all that I can learn of that country leads me to the conclusion that the first men in it are far inferior to men of the same relative superiority in this country. It requires but little talent to be honest, and the cases are few in politics in which plain honesty is not a sufficient guide. The man who aims steadily at the public good will rarely have much difficulty in attaining it. The fundamental principles of politics lie on the surface, and it requires no genius to apprehend them.
I have a third reason for preferring the government of the people, however stupid and ignorant they may be. I am persuaded that a stupid and ignorant people cannot be a happy one, and I am therefore desirous that they should be stupid and ignorant no longer. There is a natural tendency in the human mind to improve, and no government but the very worst can counteract this tendency altogether. But it is easily proved that under an aristocratic government the progress of the human mind must necessarily be slow.
It will not, I think, be disputed that those who acquire talent acquire it chiefly for the consideration which it brings. But talent cannot be acquired without trouble. Now it is with consideration as with most other things, the greater share of it a man can get without trouble, the less trouble will he be disposed to take in order to get more. Rank we know gives consideration. Property we know gives consideration; and when these two sources of consideration, rank and property, carry along with them the great source of consideration, political power, the consideration resulting is in general sufficient to take off the edge of any ordinary appetite. When a man can have as much consideration, without deserving it, as he could if he did, if his stupidity is no bar to his consideration, depend upon it he will cling to both with equal pertinacity. Now it is a fact, and a well-known one, that people who are not stupid are not apt to have much consideration for people who are. When the great body of the people emerge from stupidity their betters are obliged either to deserve consideration or to sacrifice it. The latter alternative is mortifying; the former troublesome. One might therefore predict without the gift of prophecy that if the man of rank or property observes in the people any tendency to improvement, the whole energies of his body and of whatever portion of mind he possesses, with whatever other bodies or minds he can set in motion, will all be exerted to keep the people stupid in order that he, on his side, may revel without disgrace in all the luxury of stupidity. So accordingly it has been, and is to this day, and every step which the people have gained in intelligence from one end of the world to the other has been gained in spite of the most strenuous resistance which the stupid part, that is the bulk of the aristocracy, could oppose.
Thus stands the case if the people are as bad as is represented. But the people are not so bad as is represented, and this piece of imposture is exactly upon a level with the rest. True, they are bigoted and prejudiced and stupid and ignorant enough. With all the pains that have been taken to make them so, it would be wonderful indeed if they were not. But their prejudices, as might be expected from the tuition which they have been under, are all of them on the contrary side to that which is asserted. They are prejudiced in favour of things as they are, not prejudiced against them. I deny that they have any of the mischievous propensities which are imputed to them. I deny that the people of this country, or any country, have or ever had a desire to take away property. If it be maintained that they had, let any one show me one instance, as much as one single instance, in which such a desire has been manifested by them. The gentleman19 who talked about the Agrarian law20 only showed his utter unacquaintance with history. The Agrarian law had nothing to do with private property: it was a law for the resumption and division among the poorer citizens of the property, the usurped property, of the public, the conquered lands which by law ought to have been divided, and which by a flagrant violation both of property and of law the patricians had taken to themselves. It is remarkable too that even amid the horrors of the French Revolution, though blood was shed like water, property was untouched. Except the property of the emigrés, who almost to a man had emigrated in order to make war upon their country, not a rood of land, not a sixpence of private property was touched. So much for the hostility of the people to property. It is the same with the other charges against the people. They tell you that the people are jealous of rank and fortune, and I tell you that a blind confidence in men of rank and fortune has always been the chief failing of the people. Celebrated demagogues, from the Gracchi to Mirabeau,21 have almost always been men either of rank or fortune. In democratic Athens a rich man could commit excesses which even in aristocratic England would drive him from society. They tell you next that the people are prone to change and fond of throwing down one thing and setting up another. I deny the fact. It is contrary to the most extensive experience of human nature. In the crisis of a revolution the people may be prone to change, because having once begun they are hurried on and know not when to stop. But at all other times they are proverbially attached to old usages, however absurd, and to everything which existed when they were born. Dr. Robertson was aware of this. In his Charles V he speaks of attachment to ancient forms and aversion to innovation as being strikingly characteristic of popular assemblies.22 Dr. Robertson lived before the days of Pitt and Burke and Wyndham and the alarmists.23 In his time people had not been frightened into dishonesty, and it was the fashion to speak the truth. Every Athenian orator whose speeches are preserved was accustomed in addressing the people to lay particular stress upon the wisdom of their ancestors,24 and the excellence of their old laws and institutions; topics insisted upon with an earnestness and a frequency which leave no doubt that they were as popular as Lord Eldon himself could have desired.25 Those who think the people fickle and inconstant have observed a mob and not the people. A mob is fickle, unsteady, inconstant. The people individually are not so. And a multitude, though it were composed of Newtons, must be a mob. There is not now time, nor is it necessary, to enquire into that principle of human nature in consequence of which men who individually seem so rooted in old habits that a tempest cannot shake them are blown about by every breath of wind when assembled together. But the fact is unquestionable. Let him who doubts it go among the people; let him see them, hear them, talk to them. Let him try to persuade the Surrey peasant who ploughs the sandy soil of the vale of Albury with three horses, that in Scotland they plough with two, and if he succeed in convincing him that to plough as his forefathers did is not a law of nature, an immovable part of the scheme of providence, b I will say he is a conjuror. The people capricious!
For my part I do not say that those who think the people incapable think themselves still more incapable. But one cannot help picking up a few observations, and when one does, there is no harm in stating them. I observe then that my Lord, though extremely ready to relieve the public from the management of the public estate, yet when it comes to managing his own he invariably selects one of the people to manage it for him. I do not pretend to say that it is because he considers such a person more competent to the task than himself: of course he must be aware that his own concerns, like those of the public, cannot fail of going to ruin in such hands. But he is a disinterested citizen and knows how vastly more important the public affairs are than his own, and how ill his abilities can be spared from the management of these; and he generously consents, even at some risk to himself, to leave his private affairs in the hands of the plebian while he condescends to look after those of the state. I have made another observation on these persons, which is that their sentiments seem to veer round with every turn of their interest. They can flatter when they have a point to gain, as they can rail when they have not. Twenty or thirty ragamuffins from the very dregs of the people are the worthy, patriotic and independent electors of a Cornish burgh. While praise is thus given to the worst of the people, the abuse and scorn are heaped upon the people collectively.
Sir, it has been so much the practice of the powerful in all ages to carry out the proverb “Give a dog a bad name and hang him,” and the powerful have till lately been so exclusively in possession of all the organs of public sentiment, that a general opinion against the people got up by such means is very bad evidence against them. There is a passage in Machiavel so much to the purpose that I will quote it, though quotations have become so ridiculous that I shall not venture upon the original. “The opinion against the people arises from this cause, that of them everyone may speak ill without danger, even where the people reign.”26 Most true it is that where the people reign they have never curtailed the liberty of speaking ill of themselves. At Athens Aristophanes was permitted to hold up the collective body of the people, in the character of Demos, to the most poignant satire on the stage, and with impunity.27 In this country there are gagging bills28 and penalties severe enough for those who speak ill of the aristocracy, and places and pensions enough, God knows, for those who speak ill of the people. And the consequence is that men who have no other earthly merit daily make a merit of insulting the great body of the people; and there is not so drivelling an idiot with a good coat upon his back, though inferior in every valuable quality to the man who blacks his shoes, who does not think himself entitled to sneer at a working mechanic. There will be abundance of railers against the people where it is the fashion to rail, and where railers are so well paid. But we must learn to look, not to what these railers assert, but to what they prove.
[1 ]Tom Cribb (1781-1848) was a famed pugilist who kept a public house after retirement.
[2 ]The Chelsea Royal Hospital for invalid soldiers, initiated by Charles II, was opened in 1694.
[3 ]Arthur Wellesley (1769-1852), hero of the Napoleonic Wars, was created Duke of Wellington in 1814.
[4 ]For the sense of the allusion, see No. 6, n27.
[5 ]William O’Brien; see No. 19.
[6 ]Not identified.
[7 ]A proverb, sometimes used as an epitaph, perhaps deriving from a play of words on Ecclesiastes, 38:22.
[8 ]The following fable was later used by Mill as a footnote to his “Rationale of Representation” (1835); see CW, Vol. XVIII, pp. 44n-5n. It is a variation on “The Kingdom of the Lion,” in Aesop’s Fables, trans. Vernon Stanley Vernon Jones (London: Heinemann; New York: Doubleday, 1912), p. 145.
[a-a]35 goatish, sheepish, and swinish
[9 ]See No. 6, n12 for the allusion.
[b-b]35 ‘intellectual and virtuous’
[e-e]35 have the protection of
[f-f]35 You demand a representative government: nothing can be more reasonable—absolute monarchy is my abhorrence. But you must be just in your turn. It is not numbers that ought to be represented, but interests.
[g-g]35 great interests of the country
[h]35 Would you, because you are the majority, allow no class to be represented except yourselves?
[i-i]35 if you forthwith submit, he grants you his gracious pardon and a class representation
[k-k]35 crocodiles six crocodiles,
[m-m]35 a million of
[n-n]35 who was at that time in
[s-s]35 half a million
[v-v]35 was received with a general howl
[w-w]35 million of
[x-x]35 a thousand geese
[z]35 Even the Dogs, finding resistance useless, solicited a share of the spoil; and when they were last heard of, they were gnawing the bones which the Lion had thrown to them from the relics of his royal table.
[10 ]Not identified.
[11 ]See No. 5, n2.
[12 ]See No. 6, n4.
[13 ]Robert Stewart (1769-1822), Lord Castlereagh, 2nd Marquis of Londonderry, leader of the House of Commons, was exceedingly unpopular as the main instrument of the repressive measures after the Napoleonic Wars, and as an instigator of the divorce proceedings against Queen Caroline in 1820; his demeanour was notoriously unresponsive and unfeeling.
[14 ]The Tory ministry, headed by Robert Banks Jenkinson (1770-1828), Lord Liverpool, had been in office since 1812. Some aristocrats disliked Canning, the leader of the House of Commons and Foreign Secretary, because they saw him as a political adventurer and inveterate intriguer, and because they were opposed to his liberal attitudes to Catholic emancipation and foreign policy.
[15 ]The manuscript ends here, at the bottom of the page. The next two paragraphs are from the second typescript.
[16 ]The second typescript ends here; the rest of the text is based on the third typescript.
[17 ]Edward Knatchbull (1781-1849), Tory M.P. for Kent 1819-30 and 1832-45, was an opponent of corn-law reform and a leader of the Protestant resistance to Catholic Emancipation.
[a-a]L] TS capet [transcriber’s error?]
[18 ]William Wolryche Whitmore (1787-1858), then M.P. for Bridgnorth, Speech on the State of the Corn Laws (18 Apr., 1826), PD, n.s., Vol. 15, cols. 318-35, had called for the relief of distress through a revision of the Corn Laws. He had been supported by Charles William Wentworth Fitzwilliam (Lord Milton, later 3rd Earl Fitzwilliam) (1786-1857), ibid., cols. 351-5. George Holme-Sumner, then M.P. for Surrey, had spoken against Whitmore and for “the landed gentlemen of England,” ibid., cols. 355-8. Thomas Buckler-Lethbridge (1778-1849), M.P. for Somerset 1806-12 and 1820-30, Speech on the Corn Laws (2 May, 1826), ibid., cols. 784-91, had specifically responded to Fitzwilliam’s remarks, on behalf of those whose interest in the land was “much deeper and dearer” than Fitzwilliam’s.
[19 ]Not identified.
[20 ]The first Agrarian Law in Rome, effected in 376 , limited anyone’s holding of public land confiscated from an enemy to 500 acres. The most important of the laws, instituted in 133 , was designed to counter the power of large landholders by enabling freemen to cultivate holdings, which were more equitably distributed by appointed commissioners.
[21 ]The brothers, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (163-133 ) and Gaius Sempronius Gracchus (153-122 ) were both Tribunes of the plebeians who sought public favour by liberal reforms such as the Agrarian Laws; both died in revolts against the civil power. Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau (1749-91), popular and violent orator, attempted vainly to guide the French National Assembly when the Revolution began in 1789.
[22 ]For the reference, see No. 19, n18.
[23 ]William Pitt (1759-1806) was Prime Minister during the first years of the French wars; his government instituted legislation against supposed seditious and treasonous behaviour, especially of a republican kind. Edmund Burke and William Windham were allied in vehement opposition to the French Revolution and its British sympathizers.
[24 ]For references, see No. 4, n3, and No. 19, nn19 and 20.
[25 ]For references, see No. 19, n21.
[b]TS and [transcriber’s error?]
[26 ]For the reference, see No. 19, n23. The quotation marks are added in ink to the typescript; they appear in Archiv.
[27 ]For the reference, see No. 19, n24.
[28 ]For the references, see No. 19, n25.