Front Page Titles (by Subject) LETTER VIII.: TO THE EDITOR OF THE SCOTS CHRONICLE. - Letters of Sidney, on Inequality of Property. To which is added, a Treatise of the Effects of War on Commercial Prosperity
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LETTER VIII.: TO THE EDITOR OF THE SCOTS CHRONICLE. - John Millar, Letters of Sidney, on Inequality of Property. To which is added, a Treatise of the Effects of War on Commercial Prosperity 
Letters of Sidney, on Inequality of Property. To which is added, a Treatise of the Effects of War on Commercial Prsoperity (Edinburgh: the Office of the Scots Chronicle, 1796).
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TO THE EDITOR OF THE SCOTS CHRONICLE.
September 23. 1796.
It will be at least as difficult to find any traces of a levelling spirit in modern as in ancient times. The Feudal System introduced opinions highly favourable to the gentry, to those who were born to opulence, and who could boast a descent from a line of renowned ancestors. In a few countries of Europe, these prejudices are now in some measure exploded; but they lent, and still continue to lend, a powerful support to inequality, both of property and of rights. The people have always been satisfied, if they were in some degree screened from the oppressions of their superiors; and, so far from demanding an unjust equalisation of property, have never, till very lately, asserted their undoubted rights. Modern Europe exhibits a disgusting picture, not of the turbulence of the lower people, but of the oppressions exercised by the rich.
Switzerland was the first of the modern nations, that, spurning all authority but that of reason, dared to be free. Roused by the most insolent oppression, trusting to her mountains and the valour of her sons, she threw off all foreign yoke, and defeated the numerous armies of her enemies. But even during this violent struggle, when the minds of men were exasperated to the utmost, no scheme of levelling was ever proposed. Six of the Cantons are now pure Republics, in which the whole citizens assemble to deliberate on public affairs* ; the others have some mixture of aristocracy, but having established a general militia, without keeping in pay any regular forces, must be essentially free; yet in the whole history of Switzerland, no attempt at equalisation of property can be discovered. There does not indeed exist either so much luxury or so much misery, as in many other countries of Europe; but sufficient inequality prevails to induce the poor, who have the power in their hands, to attack the possessions of the rich, if they were not restrained by those obvious rules of morality which teach them, that such measures would be criminal, and by that degree of reflection, which shows them, that they would be ruinous.
The same remark applies to the Revolution in Holland. The subversion of all established authority, the long war against the power of Spain, and the difficulties and distresses to which the people were often reduced, afforded opportunities for executing a scheme of levelling, had it not been repugnant to the common feelings of mankind. The government afterwards established in Holland, was no doubt aristocratical; but the people have at several times overawed the administration, and even changed the form of government, without showing the smallest tendency towards those measures, which we are now told, with an effrontery only to be equalled by its absurdity, are inseparable from popular rule.
During the civil wars in England, a few enthusiasts, as has happened occasionally in other countries, and even lately in Scotland* , misinterpreting texts of scripture, pretended that a community of goods was ordered by the Christian religion. Even if this opinion had become much more general than it really was, it could form the ground of no just inference respecting the danger of any future prevalence of levelling principles. It arose altogether from religious fanaticism, not from political speculation, nor even from self-interested motives. It can with no greater justice be charged to republican government, than the fires of Smithfield to monarchical: the one arose under the commonwealth, the other during the monarchy, but neither had its origin in the forms of government then established. Those, however, who preached, or believed in the propriety of using goods in common, were extremely few. The tenet was never admitted by the great body of the Independents, who had possessed themselves of the whole powers of the state, nor even by that faction who have been denominated Levellers. When the Independents first aspired to the chief direction of public affairs, they found it necessary to overbalance the influence that the Presbyterians had acquired in Parliament, by the terrors which an army, attached to their principles, might inspire. They accordingly instituted a council of war, consisting of deputies, called Agitators, chosen by the common soldiers* . But after they had succeeded in overawing the Parliament, the Independents themselves became afraid of those councils which they had formed, and sought to terminate their deliberations† . The soldiers, on the other hand, sensible of their own strength, claimed an equal power with their generals in regulating the government; and from insisting on a perfect equality of political privileges, contrary to the established distinctions of rank, acquired the name of Levellers‡ . So far from there being the least attempt made by this party to equalise property, they, in all their petitions, confined their demands to the establishment of a just and free government; and, in one of the publications by Lilbourne, a leading man in the party, intituled, “An Agreement of the free People of England,” it was expressly declared, that it should not be in the power of the representative to level men’s estates, destroy property, or make all things common* . This accusation of levelling, in the meaning now attached to the word, probably originated after they had yielded to the superior courage and ability of Cromwell; and, although it has been repeated both by Rapin and Hume, yet we may oppose to them the superior authority of Harrington† , who, writing only six or seven years after the Levellers were quelled, asserts, that it is impossible for the people ever to wish to equalise property, and takes no notice whatever of this attempt, which, had it really taken place, must have been fresh in the memories of all his readers. Even, however, if we were to allow that the Levellers entertained the views ascribed to them; we may contend, without any danger of being contradicted, that they met with no extensive support either from the army or the nation, and that they were quickly and easily suppressed.
I shall pass over the American Revolution, because, indigence being almost unknown in that happy country, the people had no inducement to attack the possessions of the rich; but it may be necessary, Sir, to submit to you a few observations respecting the Revolution in France. The declarations of the Rights of Man, prefixed to the different constitutions which have been adopted in France, prove, beyond the possibility of contradiction, that the word equality merely related to political power and civil rights, and that it never was in the contemplation of those who formed these constitutions, to extend it to property. “Property being a right inviolable and sacred,” says the Constitution 1791* , “no person can be deprived of it, except when the public necessity, legally ascertained, shall evidently require it, and on condition of a just indemnification.” The Constitution 1795 is not less explicit† ; “No man can be deprived of his property without his own consent, unless when public necessity, legally proved, requires it, and upon condition of a just indemnification.” It seems impossible to conceive that these repeated declarations would have been made, if the French nation had ever entertained the idea of equalising property. That, during the revolution, a few individuals, heated by desire of innovation, and inexperienced in political discussion, should have avowed this opinion, is no way surprising; but that we should, on that account, be told that it was the principle of the revolution, and the ultimate end of all political innovation, must equally excite our astonishment and contempt. As well might these reasonings gravely assert, that, because Sir Thomas More published his Eutopia during the reign of Henry VIII. that jealous tyrant intended to institute a community of goods. The inference drawn from the injustice of that faction, which for some time oppressed the nation, is equally weak. Robespierre undoubtedly paid little attention to the rules of justice and morality; he often plundered individuals, and not unfrequently put them to death in order to seize their possessions. These enormities, however, were committed under the colour of other pretences; he never asserted any right to equalise property; but, on he contrary, involved the supposed abettors of such doctrines in instant destruction* . His injustice proceeded from no theories, from no principles subversive of the right of property; it was the result of the public necessities, and of his private ambition. His uniform object was to support his own authority by the popularity attached to success; the expences incurred in defence of the country were enormous, and he preferred those means of raising the public supplies, which, though altogether unjust, were by far the most expeditious, and the most certain. His mode of proceeding was similar to that of the robber who presents a pistol to the breast of the traveller; he was actuated by no motive, but the desire of plunder. To ascribe views of levelling to Robespierre, is as absurd as it would be to infer that the Grand Signior, when he strangles a Bashaw, and seizes his possessions, is actuated by a sense of the evils attending inequality of property.
The view, Sir, which I have now taken of the different popular revolutions and governments, both of ancient and modern times, may assist in allaying that chimerical fear of levelling, which has already produced so much mischief in this country. It may show that the danger is much less than has been apprehended; that there are principles in the human breast which have at all times formed a sure defence against the factious views of individuals; and that property has always been safe, under the protection of the good sense and the upright intentions of the people. I am, Sir,
[* ]Viz. Uri, Switz, Underwald, Zug, Glaris, and Appenzell.
[* ]Among the Buchanites.
[* ]Rapin, Book XXI.
[‡ ]Macaulay, Smollett, Harris.
[* ]See Macaulay’s Hist. particularly a Note in Vol. V. Chap. I.
[† ]Prerogative of Popular Government, Book I. Chap 8. “By levelling,” says the same author, “those who use the word seem to understand, when a people rising invades the lands and estates of the richer sort, and divides them equally among themselves; as for example—no where in the world; this being that, both in the way and in the end, which I have already demonstrated to be impossible.” Ib. Chap. 11.
[* ]Article 17th.
[† ]Article 16th.
[* ]The faction of Hebert and Chaumette are said, I know not with what justice, to have entertained levelling principles.