Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION IV. Corruption of Manners has a natural Tendency to promote the Spirit of Despotism. - The Works of Vicesimus Knox, vol. 5
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SECTION IV. Corruption of Manners has a natural Tendency to promote the Spirit of Despotism. - Vicesimus Knox, The Works of Vicesimus Knox, vol. 5 
The Works of Vicesimus Knox, D.D. with a Biographical Preface. In Seven Volumes (London: J. Mawman, 1824). Vol. 5.
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Corruption of Manners has a natural Tendency to promote the Spirit of Despotism.
When man ceases to venerate virtue in himself, he soon loses all the sense of moral beauty in the human species. His taste becomes gross; and he learns to consider all that is good and great, as the illusion of simple minds, the unsubstantial phantom of a young imagination. Extreme selfishness is his ruling principle, and he is far from scrupulous in following its dictates. Luxury, vanity, avarice, are his characteristics. Ambition indeed takes its turn; yet, not that noble ambition, which seeks praise and honours by deserving them, but the low spirit of intrigue and cunning, which teaches to secure high appointments, titular distinctions, or whatever else can flatter avarice and pride, by petty stratagem, unmanly compliance, the violation of truth and consistency, and at last the sacrifice of a country's interest and safety.
In nations enriched by commerce, and among families loaded with opulence by the avarice of their forefathers, the mere wantonness of unbounded plenty will occasion a corruption of manners, dangerous to all that renders society happy, but favourable to the despotic principle. Pleasure of the meanest kind will be the first and last pursuit. Splendour, external show, the ostentatation of riches, will be deemed objects of prime consequence. A court will be the place of exhibition; not of great merits, but of fine garments, graceful attitudes, and gaudy equipages, every frivolous distinction, which boldly claims the notice due to virtue, and assumes the dignity which public services ought solely to appropriate.
The mind of man, still wanting in the midst of external abundance, an object in futurity; and satiated even to loathing with the continual banquet of plenty, longs to add titular honours, or official importance, to the possession of superfluous property. But these, if they mean any thing, are naturally the rewards of virtuous and useful exertion; and such exertion is incompatible with the habitual indolence, the ignorance, the dissipation, the vice of exorbitant wealth, gained only by mean avarice, and expended in enjoyments that degrade, while they enervate. Men, distinguished by riches only, possess not, amidst all their acquirements the proper price that should purchase civil distinctions, if they were disposed of only to merit. There they are bankrupts. They have no claims on society; for their purposes have been selfish, and their conduct injurious: yet the distinctions must be obtained, or they sicken in the midst of health, and starve, though surrounded with plenty. How then shall they be obtained? They must be bought with money; but how bought? Not directly, not in the market-place, not at public sale. But is there a borough hitherto anti-ministerial, and to convert which from the error of its ways, a very expensive election must be engaged in? The ambitious aspirant to honours is ready with his purse. By money he triumphs over opposition, and adds the weight of his wealth to ministerial preponderance. He assists others in the same noble and generous service of his country. Though covetous, he perseveres regardless of expense, and at last richly merits, from his patron, the glittering bauble which hung on high, and led him patiently through those dark and dirty paths which terminate in the temple of prostituted honour. His brilliant success excites others to tread in his steps with eager emulation; and though many fail of the glorious prize, yet all contribute, in the selfish pursuit, to increase and to diffuse the spirit of despotism.
Men destitute of personal merit, and unrecommended by the plea of public services, can never obtain illustrious honours, where the people possess a due share of power, where liberty flourishes, unblighted by corruption; and therefore such men will ever be opposed to the people, and determined enemies to liberty. The atmosphere of liberty is too pure and defecated for their lungs to inhale. Gentles and other vermin can exist only in filth and putrefaction. Such animals, if they possessed reason, would therefore endeavour to contaminate every healthy climate, to destroy the vital salubrity of the liberal air, and diffuse corruption with systematic industry. Are there not political phenomena, which would almost justify a belief in the existence of such animals in the human form; and is not mankind interested, as they value their health, in impeding the progress of infectious pollution?
Corruption does not operate, in the increase of the despotic spirit, on the highest orders only, and the aspirant to political distinction and consequence, but also on the crowded ranks of commercial life. In a great and rich nation, an immense quantity and variety of articles is ever wanted to supply the army and navy. No customers are so valuable as the public. The pay is sure and liberal, the demand enormous, and a very scrupulous vigilance against fraud and extortion seldom maintained with rigid uniformity. Happy the mercantile men who can procure a contract! The hope of it will cause an obsequious acquiescence in the measures of the ruling minister. But it happens that such acquiescence, in such men, is peculiarly dangerous, in a commercial country, to the cause of freedom. The mercantile orders constitute corporate bodies, rich, powerful, influential; they therefore have great weight in elections. Juries are chiefly chosen from mercantile life. In state trials, ministers are anxious to obtain verdicts favourable to their retention of emolument and place. If the hope of contracts and other douceurs should ever overcome the sanctity of oaths, in an age when religion has lost much of its influence, then will the firmest pillar of freedom be undermined, and courts of justice become mere registers of ministerial edicts. Thus both senatorial and judicial proceedings will be vitiated by the same means; and liberty left to deplore a declining cause, while corruption laughs from a Lord Mayor's coach, as he rides in triumph to court, to present, on her knees, the address of sycophancy.
When the public mind is so debauched as to consider titles and money as the chief good of man, weighed with which, honesty and conscience are but as dust in the balance, can it be supposed that a due reverence will be paid to the obsolete parchments of a magna charta, to bills of rights, or to revolutions which banished the principles of the Stuarts, together with their families, which broke their despotism in pieces together with their sceptres, and trampled their pride under foot with their crowns and robes of purple? The prevalence of corruption may hereafter call back to life the race of jacobites and tories, and place, in future times, on the throne of liberty, an imaginary Stuart. It was not the person, but the principles, which rendered the old family detestable to a people who deserved liberty, because they dared to claim it. The revival of those principles (if ever unhappily it should take place) might render a successor, though crowned by liberty herself, equally detestable.
To avoid such principles, the corruption that infallibly leads to them must be repelled. The people should be tinctured with philosophy and religion; and learn, under their divine instruction, not to consider titular distinction and enormous riches as the chief good, and indispensably requisite to the happiness of life. A noble spirit of personal virtue should be encouraged in the rising race. They should be taught to seek and find resources in themselves, in an honest independence, in the possession of knowledge, in conscious integrity, in manliness of sentiment, in contemplation and study, in every thing which adds vigour to the nerves of the mind, and teaches it to deem all honours disgraceful, and all profits vile, which accrue, as the reward of base compliance, and of a dastardly desertion from the upright standard of truth, the unspotted banner of justice.