Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAP. VIII.: An Amended System—General Observations. - An Essay on Naval Discipline
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CHAP. VIII.: An Amended System—General Observations. - 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).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
An Amended System—General Observations.
From the definition of discipline in the foregoing chapter; from the necessity there is that one mind should direct every exertion to which zeal would give birth, it may be clearly deduced, that the power of commanding is materially necessary properly to fulfil the duties of a captain; and as I have clearly shewn, in the details; that the power of punishing is destructive of discipline, no officer ought to be entrusted with it except in some trifling cases hereafter to be explained; and in these cases the laws should strictly define the crime, the mode of punishment, and the quantity the captain was allowed to inflict. Rigid and severe punishments should be ordered, did he ever trespass on the bounds prescribed; and all these things should be known to every man, that, if any captain committed himself in this way, it would be immediately discovered; he would then have to pay attention to his general conduct towards the people; for, it is probable, that might determine them to prosecute him or not, was he in any case tyrannical.
This distinction between the power of commanding and of punishing should be made the foundation of an amended system; to execute which, properly, the naval code of laws must undergo a compleat revision, as many of them are now a perfect dead letter, from the severities of punishment attached to them, and from a want of minuteness in discriminating degrees of guilt. The first should, certainly, be remedied, for the certainty of a small punishment is much more efficacious in preventing crimes, than providing a much severer one, and leaving an opening for escape. The last of these faults of the naval code would best be remedied by having recourse to the punishment-books now transmitted to the admiralty? The crimes seamen are most guilty of may then be discovered, and each crime should, by the legislature, have an appropriate punishment affixed to it; there should be nothing left to be punished at the caprice or discretion of members of courts martial, according to any customs they might ever have seen practised. If a crime occurred for which no punishment was ordered, none should, in any case, be inflicted without the sanction of the legislature. I know that it is a general opinion in the navy, that, to take from captains the power of punishment is to take from the people every motive for obedience. This follows, of course, from terror being alone the motive that is allowed in the navy for action; but he may safely be pronounced a wretched legislator who attempts to govern men by one passion when there exists two,—fear and hope. It is not less absurd than a captain contending against a superior force with half his own. It may be said that I wish to destroy my country, by promoting disorganization and disorder in our fleets; but I wish to promote order and obedience; I wish to see them established upon principles agreeing with our nature as men, and with our ideas of happiness as Britons; I wish that my country may look to the opinions of her subjects for support, for that is the surest foundation of obedience, and never try, by legislative enactments, in opposition to opinion, to impose it.
But let us enquire what is this military obedience, in what it ought to differ from the obedience practised by the civil inhabitants of our country, that terror is required to enforce it.
The difference now discoverable between military obedience and what is practised by the civil inhabitants of our country is, that the former is obedience to an individual, the latter to the laws; and this is the difference that ought to exist between them, but it ought to be as small as possible. The authority of the legislature should prescribe, as much as they can, the actions of seamen that are necessary to promote the end of discipline (conquering the enemies of our country); and when it has done that disobedience to individual legal commands, as well as disobedience to the laws, should be punished as a crime. But the required military obedience differs in nothing from the obedience differs in nothing from the obedience required from a servant by his master; and the good sense of society has long exploded that terror which was once employed to produce domestic obedience. Every tradesman who obeys his employer, every servant who complies with his master’s regulations, is as obedient as military obedience can possibly be required to be. Long established opinion of the value of this obedience makes it so universally practised; and the conviction of a necessity of military obedience would be much stronger than this long established opinion, in as much, as the end, which can only be accomplished by it, may be proportionally seen clearer (the defence of our country), and is of infinite more importance.
Perhaps it may be advanced, that this domestic obedience, as well as resulting from opinion, is enforced by considerations of individual interest; that the tradesman is obedient because he fears losing his employment, by which, perhaps, he maintains a wife and family; and the servant, because he fears losing his place. With a voluntary service, the exact same hold would be had of the seamen; their individual interest would suffer as much from disobedience as the servants or mechanics; for, from the prospect of an honourable provision, there is, in the navy, for old age, from the pay and food the seamen receive, it appears to me not at all doubtful, that (taking away the present absurd laws) going to sea is a much better occupation, and possesses greater advantages than what can be enjoyed by three fourths of the community. But there is another and a very strong hold of sailors individual interest to make them obedient: if I understand this word right, it does not mean pecuniary rewards, so much as the pleasure arising from gratifying some of our desires. Now the desire of fame is strong enough in the whole community to produce the greatest part of their actions; I have shewn it is particularly strong in seamen; removed from the society of women, the dress of sailors occupies but little of their attention; it is an object productive of little hope and less fear; but this, among the lower and younger classes of our community, is a conspicuous motive for most of their actions, for much of their desire for wealth. Sailors have food and lodging provided for them, and therefore the common necessaries of life can occupy but very little of their attention, of their hopes or their fears. Every man knows, that when the mind is left quite free from desires, life becomes a perfect blank; the sailors can have none then of the common hopes and fears of that class of the community to which they belong; they have but one desire, and that is fame. To gratify this, every faculty of their minds and bodies is employed, for it is a well known and true observation, that when we have but one desire, all the powers of the man are employed to gratify it. No man who has been on board ship, or who has ever heard of military duties, can escape the conviction, that obedience to one directing mind is absolutely necessary to ensure that success wherein centers all the seaman’s hopes. With a voluntary service this desire of fame would be stronger than it is now; it, indeed, would be the primary, if not the only motive for every man serving his country.
With this strong hold of their individual interest, and to the conviction, that to gratify it they must be obedient, might our community be left to practise military obedience; and this will be the most perfect obedience, for it will have its foundation in opinion, the source of the actions of all mankind; but military men will not, or cannot see this, though the most perfect kind of obedience; it requires reflection to discover its cause. Military men are not much given to this; but the obedience that springs from painful terror is obvious to every man. From this clearness of being perceived, it alone is discovered and adopted; though the obedience that springs from opinion is so perfect in its effects, so diffusive in its example, our rulers will not suffer it to operate; they will intrude between the wish to obey and the power to execute commands, that worst of all possible motives for action,—terror, that is not less confined in its example than it is short-lived in its effects. In speaking of the perfect obedience that springs from opinion, it must not be supposed, that it requires arguments or language to produce this opinion in the people’s minds, it already exists. Turbulence is only so observable in the navy, from the obedience there required being in perfect opposition to the obedience we are in the habit of paying, and which was taught us, in early life, by our parents, when we practised obedience to them; it was enforced at school, when we submitted, without knowing why, to our masters; and it is confirmed, by every day’s practice, of our obedience to the laws and customs of the society in which we live, without asking ourselves the question, why are we obedient. The value of obedience has been so long established, that it has become, like one of the affections of the heart, one universal motive for the conduct of men.
There is an opinion afloat in the world from which, it is probable, it may be thought Englishmen cannot practise this requisite virtue of military obedience,—it is, that they are altogether a disobedient people; but I deny that such a character justly belongs to my countrymen. During years of privation and hardship, while the nations of the continent have suffered every convulsion, our country has remained quietly at rest, scarce an instance has occurred of disobedience or of partial revolt; it is only when the pride and vanity of our rulers require obedience to commands destructive of freedom and of general happiness, that our people have been disobedient; and who that reflects, that our present glorious constitution has arisen out of resistance to such commands, would not pray, that to them they may always be disobedient, may always resist them. An opinion is formed, that sailors would not be obedient, because they are now turbulent, because they are now disposed to resistance; but this arises from the opposition of the present system to every feeling of our nature; to every idea of a Briton; to that obedience we are all accustomed to pay to general opinion, particularly to that opinion universally acquiesced in,—that liberty is essential to the happiness of mankind. The little education a labouring man receives, almost convinces him that such resistance is a virtue; but let commands be given with reason; let them not exact more than is necessary for the service, and obedience will be as prompt as the most ardent can wish.
I am happy, on this subject, to have an authority to support my opinion; its respectability I cannot judge of, but it proceeds from one of a body of men who, of all others, are, perhaps, less disposed to give human nature more credit than it deserves.—Vide A Treatise on the Offence of Libel, by John George, page 196, where it is laid down, as a first principle, “that mankind have, in their nature, a willingness to submit and lend their support to good government.” I have endeavoured to account above for this willingness to obey, from the habits of obedience that are constantly inculcated in the early seasons of life. Experience supports this opinion; for no nation have willingly overturned a good government, and permanently continued in a state of anarchy; and so strong is the habit of obedience, so great is this willingness to obey in human nature, that men submit to the very worst governments rather than live in anarchy. From it, at this very moment, is the continent of Europe submitting to deprivations, miseries, and partial ruin; from it, at this very time, are many of the lieutenants of his majesty’s navy patiently acquiescing under the destruction of every hope, quietly submitting to the unjust deprivation of every right years of toil have given them. As an individual I can assert, that I have more than once before suffered oppression in the navy, and reason told me that submission was wrong; yet so strong was the obedience I was accustomed to pay to opinion, so willingly did I obey, that it was not till my superiors had destroyed every rational hope, and produced a temporary despair, that I could surmount my obedience to this opinion, that I could get over my fears, and sensible no worse evil could happen to me, venture to resist.
If there was a disposition in human nature to resist more powerful than that which impels them to obey, would our seamen, so long as they have quietly submitted to the greatest cruelties, to the most barbarous injustice, to a system of laws directly opposed to the fundamental articles of our constitution; for they violate that personal liberty which is the first privilege of a free man; they expose him to imprisonments and punishments without a trial; and they condemn him to death by tribunals composed of men who are more frequently offended than the laws, before whom, from habitual terror, fear prevents him from pleading; and who, so far from being peers of his, stand, in the relation to him, of a superior order of beings. It cannot be the system of terror which keeps them in this obedience, as many men suppose; for when that is extended, as in the cases of the Danae, Hermione, and Africaine, human nature will no longer bear it; and, in every ship where this greater degree of the so much boasted terror is employed, obedience is, at all times, imperfect; and late occasions have shewn, that, so far from producing obedience, the men have invariably remonstrated against it with too little success, or I should not have had the occasion of directing public attention to the subject.
The perfection of obedience, which opinion produces, is clearly discerned in the navy, when every individual’s hope of gratifying his love of fame gives birth, in the moment of battle, to those arduous endeavours which have brought us victory; that prompt obedience which outstrips the orders, and even the wishes of the officers. But the obedience that we learn in early life, and that springs from opinion, is, in our society, directly opposed, and, I trust, ever will be, to many of the absurd commands of naval captains, to which no terror that could be employed would ever ensure a quiet and prompt obedience.
These commands have no motive, no end, but individual gratification, and cause to the seamen inexpressible pain; and shall we continue such a system of terror as this, so ridiculously absurd, so terribly destructive, for the gratification of a few individuals’ vanity; forbid it, reason; forbid it, justice; and policy alike forbids it.
The captains, without terror, have still another strong hold of the obedience of the people; many are the little offices in a ship which are objects of the seaman’s ambition; the captain possesses the power of bestowing these, and he should still continue to enjoy it. On his giving them to deserving men, the order of the ship, in a great measure, and, consequently, his reputation, will depend; and, were they always bestowed on obedience and on merit, merit and obedience would never be wanted. There is one little part connected with the present system which here deserves notice; it is that from boatswains’' mates, who are petty officers, being the instruments employed to punish the men. Good men have an aversion to the office, and it is very frequently given to the greatest reprobates that can be found; can a more efficacious mode be adopted to encourage vice than in rewarding it with honour, and bestowing on it authority?
I trust that my readers are as fully convinced as I am, that there is no occasion to entrust the power of punishing men to captains to produce the virtue of obedience; the authority of opinion is great, and this is decidedly in favour of obedience; we have seen that it, with the love of fame, (as in time of battle) enforces exertions, confessedly some of the greatest, which man is capable of making. It appears not less absurd, therefore, to assert, that these are not capable of creating all the minor virtues of regularity which are required to keep a ship in order, than to assert that the man who could lift a hundred weight was unable to move a pound. To make obedience perfect then, the laws which regulate our navy should resemble, as much as possible, those to which every man is in the habit of paying quiet obedience; and, under such an opinion, I shall proceed to point out some amendments positively wanted. It is not, for a moment, thought they are the best that can be made, but it is supposed, that the principles of their foundation must be adopted before any material improvement can take place in the situation of our seamen; before the service of my country can become strictly honourable, and obedience perfect; before that disgrace to our country,—pressing,—can be wholly abolished.
It is to be observed, and it cannot be too strongly enforced, that the principal virtues which are necessary to accomplish the end of naval discipline already exist, in a large proportion, in every part of the community.