Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION IX. On taking Advantage of popular Commotions, accidental Excesses, and foreign Revolutions, to extend Prerogative and Power, and encroach on the Liberties of the People. - The Works of Vicesimus Knox, vol. 5
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SECTION IX. On taking Advantage of popular Commotions, accidental Excesses, and foreign Revolutions, to extend Prerogative and Power, and encroach on the Liberties of the People. - 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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On taking Advantage of popular Commotions, accidental Excesses, and foreign Revolutions, to extend Prerogative and Power, and encroach on the Liberties of the People.
The riots in London, which, to the disgrace of magistracy, and the boasted vigilance of ministers, (richly paid as they are, to guard the public safety,) arrived from contemptible beginnings to a formidable magnitude in the year 1780, have been considered by courtiers, and those who are continually labouring to exalt prerogative at the expense of liberty, as extremely favourable to their purpose. They caused an universal panic. The cowardice, folly, and perhaps wickedness of certain public functionaries, were the true cause of the extensive mischief; but the excesses of a few most wretched rioters, who scarcely knew what they were doing; children, women, and drunken persons, were attributed to the people. Arguments were drawn from the event against popular characters, popular books, popular assemblies, and in favour of military coercion. Military associations in the capital were encouraged, and the bank of England became a barrack. Liberty has few votaries in comparison with property. The alarm was artfully increased, and the spirit of despotism grew under its operation. The Tory and Jacobite party exulted over the ruins, and would have rejoiced in building a Bastille with the dilapidations. “See,” said they, as they triumphed over the scene, “the effects of power in the hands of the people!”
But the truth is, the people, the grand mass of the community, were not at all concerned in effecting the mischief; for I cannot call a fortuitous assemblage of boys, beggars, women, and drunkards, the people. The first irregularities might have been suppressed by the slightest exertions of manly spirit. But those who were possessed of efficient places and their emoluments, enjoying the sweets of office without suffering a sense of its duties to imbitter them, displayed no spirit, and left it to be fairly inferred that they had it not. The people at large were not to be blamed for these unfortunate events; the whole of the culpability belonged to the appointed ministers of the law, in whom the people trusted and were deceived. The blame, however, was laid on the people; and those who, from their arbitrary principles, wished to discredit all popular interference in government, rejoiced at the calamity, as an auspicious event, confirming all their theories and justifying their practice.
The artful encroachers on liberty were not deceived in calculating the effects resulting from this total dereliction of duty on the part of the civil magistrate. Almost immediately a damp was cast on the generous ardour, which, under a Wyvill, a Richmond, a Portland, and a Pitt, was seeking the salvation of the country, in a well-timed and deliberate reform of the House of Commons. A few, indeed, remained equally zealous in the virtuous cause; but the minds of the many were palsied by the panic, and seemed ready to acquiesce under every corruption attended with tranquillity, rather than risk a reform, which, they were taught to believe, could not be effected without popular commotion. Toryism saw the change with delight, and employed all its influence in augmenting and continuing the political torpor.
In a few years the public mind seemed to have relinquished its intentions of effecting a speedy reform. It seemed to adopt the physician's maxim, Malum bene∗positum ne moveto; and hesitated to undertake the removal of a local pain, lest it should throw the morbid matter over the whole habit. The fear of exciting a general inflammation prevented men from probing and cleaning the inveterate ulcer. In the mean time, the sore is growing worse, and if not stopped in its progress, must terminate in a mortification.
Thus important and extensive were the consequences of a popular tumult, dangerous indeed and terrible in itself, but artfully exaggerated and abused by interested courtiers, for the prevention of parliamentary reform, and the discredit of all popular proceedings. When any appeal to the people was in agitation, on any business whatever, it was sufficient to say, “Remember the riots,” and the intended measure was immediately relinquished. A glorious opportunity for the growth of despotic opinions! The high-church and high-government bigots rejoiced as if they had gained a complete victory. They already sang Te Deum.
But in the midst of their triumphs, as human affairs are seldom long stationary, the French revolution commenced. Every honest and enlightened mind exulted at it; but the news was like a death-bell to the ears of the sycophants. So large, so powerful a part of Europe emancipated from the fangs of despotism, blasted all the budding hopes of those who were rather meditating the establishment than the demolition of absolute rule. Aristocratical pride was mortified. Every sullen sentiment, every angry passion, rose in the disappointed bosom of that ambition, which seeks its own elevation on the depression of the people. But liberty and humanity sympathized in the joy of millions, restored to the rights which God and nature gave them; and which had been gradually stolen from them by the spirit of despotism, acting, for mutual aid, in alliance with superstition.
But the morning which rose so beautifully in the political horizon of France was soon overclouded. The passions of leaders, jealous of each other, menaced from within and from without, hunted by surrounding enemies till they were driven to phrensy, burst forth in tremendous fury. Cruelties, which even despots would shudder to perpetrate, were the effects of a situation rendered dangerous in the extreme, and almost desperate, by the general attack of all neighbouring nations. The friends of liberty and humanity wept; but the factors of despotism triumphed once more. “Here,” said they, “we have another instance of the unfitness of the people for the possession of power, and the mischievous effects of excessive liberty.” Every art which ingenuity can practise, and influence assist in its operation, was exerted to abuse and vilify the French revolution. Associations were formed to disseminate childish books, favouring the spirit of despotism, addressed to the meanest of the people, who yet had too much sense to be seduced by sentiments, doctrines, and language calculated only for the meridian of the nursery. Prosecutions and persecutions abounded; and it became sedition to hint the propriety of parliamentary reformation. The alarmists, as they were called, were so successful in propagating the old tory tenets, under the favourable influence of the panic of real danger, and the detestation and horror which French murders had justly occasioned, that some of the staunchest friends of the people, men brought into the country at the revolution, owing all their honours and emoluments to it, and hitherto professed and zealous whigs, deserted the standard of liberty, and took distinguished posts under the banners of the enemy.
The spirit of despotism now went forth with greater confidence than it had ever assumed since the expulsion of the Stuarts. Its advocates no longer sculked; no longer walked in masquerade. They boasted of their principles, and pretended that they alone were friends to law, order, and religion. They talked of the laws of England not being severe enough for the punishment of sedition, and boldly expressed a wish that the laws of Scot land might be adopted in their place. Active promoters of parliamentary reform were now accused of treasonable intentions by the very persons who were once loudest in their invectives against the corruption of the house of commons. Newspapers were hired to calumniate the best friends of freedom. Writers appeared in various modes, commending the old government of France; and pouring the most virulent abuse on all who promoted or defended its abolition. Priests who panted for preferment preached despotism in their pulpits, and garretteers who hungered after places or pensions, racked their invention to propagate its spirit by their pamphlets. Fear in the well-meaning, self-interest in the knavish, and systematic subtility in the great party of tories, caused a general uproar in favour of principles and practices hostile to constitutional liberty.
It is, however, the nature of all violent paroxysms to be of transient duration. The friends of man may therefore hope that panic fears, servile sycophantism, and artful bigotry, will not long prevail over cool reason and liberal philanthropy. The drunken delirium will pass off, and sober sense will soon see and acknowledge, that the accidental evils, (dreadful as they have been,) which have arisen in a neighbouring nation, during a singular struggle for liberty, can be no arguments in favour of despotism, which is a constant evil of the most destructive nature. The body in high and robust health is most subject to the heat of an inflammatory fever; but no man in his senses will therefore cease to wish for high and robust health.
Sensible men, and true friends to the constitution, and therefore to the king, who forms so considerable a part of it, will be on their guard against false alarms excited by courtiers; lest in the fear of some future evil, from popular commotion, they lay aside that everwaking vigilance which is necessary to guard the good in possession, their constitutional liberty, from the secret depredation of the artful spoiler, who is always on the watch to encroach on popular rights and privileges.
Riots, tumults, and popular commotions, are indeed truly dreadful, and to be avoided with the utmost care by the lovers of liberty. Peace, good order, and security to all ranks, are the natural fruits of a free constitution. True patriots will be careful to discourage every thing which tends to destroy them; not only because whatever tends to destroy them tends to destroy all human happiness, but also because even an accidental outrage in popular assemblies and proceedings, is used by the artful to discredit the cause of liberty. By the utmost attention to preserving the public peace, true patriots will defeat the malicious designs of servile courtiers; but, whatever may happen, they will not desert the cause of human nature. Through a dread of licentiousness, they will not forsake the standard of liberty. It is the part of fools to fall upon Scylla in striving to avoid Charybdis. Who but a fool would wish to restore the perpetual despotism of the old French government, through a dread of the transient outrages of a Parisian tumult? Both are despotic while they last. But the former is a torrent that flows for ever; the latter only a land flood, that covers the meadows to-day, and disappears on the morrow.
Dr. Price has a passage so applicable to the present subject, that I shall beg leave to close this section by the citation of it: and on the mention of his name, I must pay a trifling tribute to his memory, which is the more necessary, as his character has been scandalously aspersed by those who are ever busy in discrediting the people and their friends, and who, pretending a love of goodness and religion, blacken with their foulest calumny those who are singularly remarkable for both, for no other reason than that, under the influence of goodness and religion, such persons espouse the cause of freedom, and prefer the happiness of millions to the pomp and pride of a few aspirants to unlimited dominion. Meek, gentle, and humane; acute, eloquent, and profoundly skilled in politics and philosophy; take him for all and all, the qualities of his heart, with the abilities of his head, and you may rank Price among the first ornaments of his age. Let his enemies produce from all their boasted despots and despotical Satraps, any one of his contemporaries whom, in the manner of Plutarch, they may place by his side as a parallel. Posterity will do him the justice of which the proud have robbed him, and snatch him from the calumniators, to place him in the temple of personal honour, high among the benefactors of the human race.
But I return from the digression, into which I was led by an honest indignation against the vilest of calumnies against one of the best of men. These are the words of Dr. Price:
“Licentiousness and despotism are more nearly allied than is commonly imagined. They are both alike inconsistent with liberty, and the true end of government; nor is there any other difference between them, than that one is the licentiousness of great men, and the other the licentiousness of little men; or that by one, the persons and property of a people are subject to outrage and invasion from a king, or a lawless body of grandees; and that by the other, they are subject to the like outrage from a lawless mob. In avoiding one of these evils, mankind have often run into the other. But all well-constituted governments guard equally against both. Indeed, of the two, the last is, on several accounts, the least to be dreaded, and has done the least mischief. It may truly be said, if licentiousness has destroyed its thousands, despotism has destroyed its millions. The former having little power, and no system to support it, necessarily finds its own remedy; and a people soon get out of the tumult and anarchy attending it. But a despotism, wearing a form of government, and being armed with its force, is an evil not to be conquered without dreadful struggles. It goes on from age to age, debasing the human faculties, levelling all distinctions, and preying on the rights and blessings of society. It deserves to be added, that in a state disturbed by licentiousness, there is an animation which is favourable to the human mind, and puts it upon exerting its powers; but in a state habituated to despotism, all is still and torpid. A dark and savage tyranny stifles every effort of genius, and the mind loses all its spirit and dignity.”
Heaven grant, that in guarding against a fever, we fall not into a palsy!
[∗]Though this evil is malum malè positum.