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CHAP. IV.: The Effect of Naval Laws and Customs on the Minds of the Officers. - Thomas Hodgskin, An Essay on Naval Discipline 
An Essay on Naval Discipline, Shewing Part of its evil Effects on the Minds of the Officers, on the Minds of the Men, and on the Community; with an Amended System, by which Pressing may be immediately abolished, by Lieut. Thomas Hodgskin, R.N. (London: Printed for the Author, by C. Squire, Furnival’s-Inn-Court, sold by Sherwood, Neely & Jones, Paternoster-Row 1813).
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The Effect of Naval Laws and Customs on the Minds of the Officers.
Distinctly to analyse the human character in any situation; to unfold the complicated motives for the actions of men, or trace the effects of laws and customs, in forming the character, requires the patient, but keen investigation, and the knowledge of a philosopher; all, therefore, I can hope to do, in pointing out the effect of naval laws and customs, is to direct the attention of men of genius and philanthropy to its serious consideration, and to furnish a brief sketch of some of the prominent causes of that difference of character discoverable between men in the habit of going to sea in a man of war and other portions of the community.
On shore, though young men may, in the prosecution of the affairs of life, be occasionally moved from the society of their parents or friends, they never mix with people accustomed to set religion at defiance, or regard the principles of morality as things tending to hinder the good of the country. These are yet looked upon as valuable in England; and, on shore, a young man cannot well be removed from a society, where shame will not be the consequence of their open violation.
The foregoing detail of naval discipline must have satisfactorily shewn, that it is directly opposite to the principles of justice that are derived from religion and morality; and as naval successes, of which the cause has never been enquired, have fully assured our rulers of the goodness of naval discipline; as principles of justice would prevent the exercise of this discipline, success has been, I apprehend, the primary cause why religion and morality are so much in disrepute in the navy. That they are so is a truth too notorious to be denied; they are alike the object of the profligate youngster’s scorn, as interfering with his pleasures; and of the older officer’s ridicule, as stepping between him and that fame, which is the result expected from naval discipline.
Into such a society it is, that, at the age of thirteen years, a young gentleman, intended to be an officer, is sent: as that age is now thought the most proper time to go to sea. At such a period of life it is a precocious genius that has formed habits of reflection, or that is then capable of distinguishing right from wrong. The youngster’s actions have, till now, been guided by a parent or a friend: he acts not from those principles which direct and pervade every movement, but performs all his duties from detailed instructions.
It is at this time of life that the passions of the man begin to open, that he daily feels wants unknown before, and that his former received instructions seldom direct him how properly to gratify. Thrown at once, from daily advice, amongst young men who, like himself, want every guiding restraint, amongst whom there is nothing ridiculed, but attention to religious precepts; nothing applauded but courage, to get rid of early prejudices. In such a society the youngster becomes, at once, an adept in dissipation, for he has no one to countenance him in the practice of virtue; and what boy can resist the frowns of censure, or who shuns the applause of his companions?
That vice is habitual to the rising officers of the navy, every man may be convinced by going to a sea port, where he will find it scarcely distinguishable from the name of a midshipman; they are already excluded from civil society, and a certainty of being unknown, except to companions employed like himself, is the surest preventive to shame, and the most certain incitement to every crime which the laws do not punish.
We have seen, in the detail of some of the naval laws and customs, that captains possess an unlimited and unrestrained power. A man who has heard of the excellency of the English constitution, who has been taught, from his earliest days, that justice and freedom were its bases, will immediately conclude, that, since the legislature found it necessary to entrust such a power to a set of men; that since they took them from their friends so young, they would endeavour, by education, to make each of these individuals a Somers, a Cowper, or a Thurlow; that they would early learn them to correct their passions; that, as the possession of power is known to corrupt the mind, they would, as much as possible, repress its effects by timely severities and instruction; but it is not so; the education of these rising legislators, or captains, like every thing else in his majesty’s naval service, is left to the will, or the natural disposition of the captains. The present state of naval society fully assures us that education is wholly neglected.’ If any man is not convinced, I can only wish him to go on board ship, and see the hours of the midshipmen alternately employed, sleeping, playing, and walking the decks, with their hands in their pockets, that he may hear their conversation and see their amusements; and, if he would afterwards make them judges of the actions of men, I should pronounce him mad. The admiralty have lately done something to improve their education, by the better appointments they have given to the chaplains; but while the discipline of the navy remains as it is, and while it is a general opinion that to this we owe our successes at sea, the better education the officers will receive at sea will only enable them more artfully to cover their caprice with the pretexts of justice. With an education totally neglected, and a mixture with a society already totally immoral, as soon as a young gentleman goes on board ship he has duties given him to do which imply command on his part, and obedience on the men’s; he sees the commands of his superiors given with arrogance, enforced by terror, and obeyed with fear; unrestrained by instruction, he imitates their example, and requires, like them, to be respected. His superiors enforce this respect; and I have known it carried so far, that a captain has declared, with all the solemnity of authority, that he would clothe a broomstick in the habits of a midshipman, and teach his men to respect it. The obedience they have to learn, as junior officers, is obedience to the capricious wills of their superiors; but as these often change, and obedience is not sanctioned or enforced by any other motive than that short-lived one,—terror, it is very imperfect. From this early possession of corruptive power, from the total neglect of education, and from the influence of already existing bad customs, from what natural cause will it arise, that the well-known influence of despotic power shall not operate in destroying the ideas of justice that might have been acquired in early life, or that might afterwards have been learnt from communications with the other parts of society. It does operate; ideas of justice are destroyed or not learnt, as the foregoing display of naval customs must have convinced every man.
Exclusive of these obvious causes for ignorance and pride, they cannot, like people on shore, have recourse to libraries for information and improvement; or, if they could, it is so well known that the knowledge acquired from the best English writers is opposed to the slavery the naval laws produce; that every effort is employed to repress knowledge that would not support oppression, or encourage passive obedience. Indeed, from the known hatred a superior’s ignorance bears to an inferior’s knowledge; from the oppression a man is sure to meet with who dares extend his thoughts to the sources of human actions; who attempts to philosophise, or let one idea wander beyond the precincts of discipline, a bounty is given upon ignorance, and the iron hand of despotism is employed to stop the growth of knowledge.
There are many virtues which are produced and supported by going to sea; these shall afterwards be mentioned. Taking this for granted, can any other cause but this neglected education, and the well known operations of a system of despotism and slavery, be assigned as the reason why, in the midst of a vast quantity of leisure, so few improvements have been made in the management or construction of ships by naval officers; why, when they have more communication with foreign countries than any other people, they should have added so little to the general stock of knowledge. When ships are considered as machines capable of almost infinite improvement, must it not excite surprise, that scarce one of the principles on which they are constructed or sailed, are known to the men who guide them; that scarce any improvements have been made in them these last 100 years. From a good deal of practice, we know some little better how to manage them, and this is all we can boast. Whenever abilities do exist, the effect of this system is to destroy them: no inferior can feel himself at ease, though conscious of zeal for the good of the service, when the conviction cannot escape him, that some man above him, capricious and unjust, has power to annoy and deeply injure him, without resistance or retribution. Will not the natural result of such a conviction be to employ the whole of the inferior’s time and attention to resist oppression, sensible, from their partial loss of the value of his political rights, he regards their possession as his greatest blessing. They are, to a reflecting mind, of primary importance; and, as they are not secure, they command its whole attention. The superior’s time is equally or worse occupied, from causes wholly arising out of this system; sensible that his authority hangs by the slenderest threads, all his employment is to preserve it.
Many of the captains live in daily and hourly dread of mutiny; their nights are sleepless with anxiety, and their days restless with care. With a mind so feverish, there can be no thoughts for improvement; nor can a moment vacant from fear be found.
From these naval laws and customs, which so expressly encourage a captain in submission to nothing but his own will, which allow him to practice injustice without restraint, a system of discipline would have arisen infinitely worse than it is, were these laws not fortunately opposed by the natural love of fame. Praise has so frequently been bestowed, by English writers, on humanity, that it does cause it sometimes to be practised.
It is to cruelty being, at all times, censured in England; and it is to its having, sometimes, been an object of parliamentary enquiry and general indignation; but, above all, it is to our national character, encouraged by our national institutions, we owe it that every captain is not much more a tyrant than he is; that our ships have acquired victories instead of plunging the nation in ruin.
The natural effect, then, of naval laws and customs on the minds of the officers will be to produce ignorance the most lamentable, and pride the most overbearing; to assert that they have operated so is to assert a fact too well known to need a comment. From so early an association with already existing immorality; from so total an absence of education, what knowledge can be hoped for? We may sow good principles in the seed-time of life, but if we fail to nurture the blossoms with the dew of instruction, and expose them to the pestilential effluvia of bad custom, what can we expect in the fruit season, but barrenness and sterility. It is under such barrenness and sterility that the characters, the happiness, and the honour of every junior officer and seaman have to repose for protection; it is to the judgment of captains alone, when forming courts martial, that every thing which is valuable to man, while serving in the navy, or can make the existence of an Englishman bearable, is submitted. As a strenuous believer in the theory, that there are no such things as innate ideas; that, consequently, there is no such thing as an intuitive moral sense in man; that we know right from wrong only through our acquired knowledge acting upon our sensations; I do not hesitate to assert, nor can it be far fetched, that, since religion and morality, the bases of right, are very generally laughed at in the navy; since custom sanctions the commission of injustice; since justice is universally thought a hindrance to the service, and is frequently censured,; and since the other avenues to knowledge are shut, that the minds of naval officers can not know what a well-informed Englishman would call justice, but to them the legislature have committed the right of making laws, or customs equal to laws, and punishing their transgressors.
Perhaps I shall be told to look for justice from naval people, from that spirit of honour which military institutions produce. I might trust to this spirit, had I never witnessed it encouraging cruelty the most depraved, and malice the most bitter. I was some time ago serving under the command of a young man who was particularly distingnished as a man of honour; one of the lieutenants had an appearance and a manner with him that was rather eccentric: To these was added, what is generally classed as a disease, a habit of walking and speaking in his sleep; but he was as upright and as amiable a young man, and as good an officer as is to be found among five hundred. His strange appearance and manner, with a spirit above obsequious submission, excited the dislike of this honourable captain, who, after trying various means to get rid of him, which were not effectual, he endeavoured to persuade him he was mad. Not content with that, he used means to persuade all the lieutenants, his messmates, that he was mad; and, had they not been perfectly assured of his rationality, the captain’s authority might have convinced them that he was. As this did not succeed, the spirit of honour stimulated the captain to employ the midshipmen as spies upon the lieutenant; they succeeded in discovering him neglect his duty, and the captain insisted upon his getting himself invalided, or he should try him by a court martial; he chose to be invalided, and had the spirit of honour stopped there, we might have passed a censure upon it as unhandsome; it is doubtful if I should have condemned it as malicious; but as some other spirit, it certainly could not be honour, told him his conduct would likely be reflected upon, he took special care to obviate it, by spreading a report, wherever he went, that he had been fortunate, at last, in getting rid of his mad lieutenant.
Thus, it is probable, every prospect this young man had in the world is sacrificed, by his loss of reputation for rationality, which, from this report, must certainly take place amongst the captains; and I know no way more ready to occasion lunacy, than for a man to live with people who suppose him, and treat him, as mad.
This single trifling instance (as was said of Mrs. Clarke’s business), is not one line of one page of one of the books of one of the volumes of the great history of cruelty, produced by the spirit of honour, being supposed fit to be trusted to guide the actions of men. What is this spirit of honour, but the gratification of every one of our passions, when it is not opposed by the loss of reputation. If I could discover any such principle in my own constitution, if I could find a single reason in any writer on human nature I have ever met with, to make me conclude there was such a principle distinct from the desire of praise, separate from the wish for reputation, I might rely upon it for protection; and had praise never been bestowed upon injustice, had chance success never received the rewards of merit, had cruelty not been applauded, and abilities united with vice, never had the praise which belongs to virtue; I would have relied upon this desire of praise, this wish for reputation, for justice. But naval society is not open to the correcting hand of the press, and in it no loss of reputation is incurred by cruelty. You are not degraded by the exhibition of malice, and you meet with no frowns for injustice.
The spirit of honour may satisfy the believers in sympathy or antipathy, as proper motives for the actions of men. It is fully sufficient for those people who feel this thing to be right, and know without a reason that the other is so, who rely without examination on the instructions of others to direct their actions, and who believe an institution to be perfectly just and true, because it has long received the sanction of mankind. But, as I do not feel any thing to be right without a reason, I require that this spirit of honour should be so directed by religious instruction, that captains should feel a thorough conviction of meeting punishment hereafter, if they not only practised the received ideas of justice, but took trouble to find out in what it consisted. I require that the laws should make injustice a crime, and punish its commission with severity, then, and not till then, I shall believe the captains have a motive to be just.
It is not only, as the education of captains regards the administering of justice, that it ought to become an object of legislative attention, but as it regards the character of the country. To their knowledge and their care its best interests are frequently committed.
Numerous have been the complaints of foreigners, of the treatment met with from our men of war, and from the attention that is paid to captains in their early life; they will not be supposed to have been made without foundation.
There is, throughout the navy, an avowed feeling of enmity against the Americans. It is to be accounted for, by their presevering constantly in pursuing their course when chaced: by their language, at all times, taking that tone of equality which is derived from the freedom of their own institutions, and from that language being used to men, who are at every other time accustomed to the most flattering submission, and who cannot, or who will not, distinguish the language of temperate and virtuous freedom from licentious impertinence. From the manner in which I have always seen American ships treated, I fear the Americans have complained with too much reason of the injustice of my country.