Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION XI. Indifference of the middle and lower Classes of the People to public Affairs, highly favourable to the Encroachments of the Tory Principle, and therefore to the Spirit of Despotism. - The Works of Vicesimus Knox, vol. 5
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SECTION XI. Indifference of the middle and lower Classes of the People to public Affairs, highly favourable to the Encroachments of the Tory Principle, and therefore to 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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Indifference of the middle and lower Classes of the People to public Affairs, highly favourable to the Encroachments of the Tory Principle, and therefore to the Spirit of Despotism.
The opinion, that the majority of the people have no concern in political disquisitions, is at once insulting and injurious. They who maintain it, evidently mean to make a separation in the minds of men between the government and the nation. It is insulting to the nation, as it insinuates that they are either incapable or unworthy of interfering; and it is injurious to the government and the whole community, as it renders that power, which ought to be an object of love, an object of terror and jealousy.
Such an opinion is fit only for a country subject to absolute power, and in which the people, considered only as conquered slaves, hold their lives and all their enjoyments at the will of the conqueror. As it originates in despotic principles, so it tends to produce and diffuse them.
As to the intellectual abilities of the people, it is certain that some of the ablest statesmen, lawgivers, and men of business, have originated from that order which is called plebeian. There is a singular vigour of mind, as well as of body, in men who have been placed out of the reach of luxury and corruption by their poor or obscure condition; and when this vigour of mind has been improved by a competent education, and subsequent opportunities of experience and observation, it has led to very high degrees of mental excellence. Plebeians have arrived at the very first rank in all arts and sciences; and there is nothing in politics so peculiarly abstruse or recondite, as to be incomprehensible by intellects that have penetrated into the profoundest depths of philosophy.
As to the right of the people to think, let him who denies it, deny, at the same time, their right to breathe. They can no more avoid thinking than breathing. God formed them to do both; and though statesmen often act as if they wished to oppose the will of the Deity, yet happily they want the power. And since man must think, is it possible to prevent them from thinking of the government? upon the right conduct of which depend their liberty, their property, and their lives. It is their duty to watch over the possessors of power, lest they should be prevented, by the encroaching nature of power, from leaving to their posterity that freedom which they inherited; a natural right, preserved from the oppressor's infringement by the blood of their virtuous ancestors.
But such is the effect of political artifice, under the management of court sycophants, that the middle ranks of people are taught to believe, that they ought not to trouble themselves with affairs of state. They are taught to think that a certain set of men come into the world like demigods, possessed of right, power, and intellectual abilities, to rule the earth, as God rules the universe, without controul. They are taught to believe, that free inquiry and manly remonstrance are the sin of sedition. They are taught to believe, that they are to labour by the sweat of their brow to get money for the taxes; and when they have paid them, to go to work again for more, to pay the next demand without a murmur. Their children may starve; they may be obliged to shut out the light of heaven, and the common air which the beasts on the waste enjoy; they may be prevented from purchasing the means of artificial light in the absence of natural; they may be disabled from procuring a draught of wholesome and refreshing beverage after the day's labour which has raised the money to pay the tax; they may not be able to buy the materials for cleanliness of their persons, when defiled by the same labour; yet they must acquiesce in total silence. They must read no obnoxious papers or pamphlets, and they must not utter a complaint, at the house where they are compelled to go for refreshment, which the tax prevents them from enjoying at home with their little ones. Yet they have nothing to do with public affairs; and if they show the least tendency to inquiry or opposition, they suffer a double punishment, first from their lordly landlord and employer; and secondly, from prosecution for turbulence and sedition.
The legal punishments attending the expression of discontent, by any overt-act, are so severe, and the ill-grounded terrors of them so artfully disseminated, that rather than incur the least danger, they submit in silence to the hardest oppression.
Even the middle ranks are terrified into a tame and silent acquiescence. They learn to consider politics as a dangerous subject, not to be touched without hazard of liberty or life. They shrink therefore from the subject. They will neither read nor converse upon it. They pay their contribution to a war, and take a minister's word that it is just and necessary. Better part with a little money patiently, since part with it we must, say they, than by daring to investigate the causes or conduct of public measures, risk a prison or a gibbet.
Great and opulent landholders often exercise a despotism in their petty dominions, which stifles the voice of truth, and blinds the eye of inquiry. If tenants utter a sentiment in public, adverse to the courtly opinions of the great man, who is looking up to a minister for a douceur for himself, his sons, his natural sons, or his nephews, or cousins, the beneficial lease will not be renewed at its expiration. What has such a fellow to do with politics? Fine times, indeed, when rustics dare to have an opinion on the possibility of avoiding a war, which a minister has declared unavoidable! A thousand modes of harassing and embarrassing the subordinate neighbour, who dares think for himself, are practised by the slavish rich man, who, possessing enough to maintain a hundred poor families, is yet greedily grasping at a place or a pension; or, if he be too opulent to think of such addition, which is seldom the case, still views with eager eye and panting heart, at least a baronetage, and perhaps a coronet, glittering on high with irresistible brilliancy.
Gross ignorance, unmanly fear of punishment, and obsequiousness to overgrown aristocrats, at once servile and tyrannic, operate in conjunction to prevent the middle and lower ranks from attending to the concerns of the community, of which they are very important members; contributing to its support by their personal exertions, their consumption of taxed commodities, and the payment of imposts.
There is also an habitual indolence which prevents many from concerning themselves with any thing but that which immediately affects their pecuniary interest. Such persons would be content to live under the Grand Seignor, so long as they might eat, drink, and sleep in peace. But such must ever be the prevailing sentiment of a people, whose ancestors have left them in the inheritance of liberty, as an estate unalienable, and of more value than the mines of Peru. Such indolence is treachery to posterity: it is a base and cowardly dereliction of a trust, which they who confided it are prevented by death from guarding or withdrawing.
The middle and lower ranks, too numerous to be bribed by a minister, and almost out of the reach of court corruption, constitute the best bulwarks of liberty. They are a natural and most efficacious check on the strides of power. They ought therefore to know their consequence, and to preserve it with unwinking vigilance. They have a stake, as it is called, a most important stake, in the country. Let not the overgrown rich only pretend to have a stake in the country, and claim from it an exclusive privilege to regard its concerns. The middle ranks have their native freedom to preserve; their birth-right to protect from the dangerous attacks of enormous and overbearing affluence. Inasmuch as liberty and security are more conducive to happiness than excessive riches, it must be allowed, that the poor man's stake in the country is as great as the rich man's. If he should lose his stake, his poverty, which was consoled by the consciousness of his liberty and security, becomes an evil infinitely aggravated. He has nothing left to defend him from the oppressor's wrong and the proud man's contumely. He may soon degenerate to a beast of burden; for the mind sinks with the slavery of the condition. But while a man feels that he is free, and fills a respectable rank, as a freeman, in the community, he walks with upright port, conscious, even in rags, of comparative dignity.
While the middle and lower ranks acquaint themselves with their rights, they should also impress on their minds a sense of their duties, and return obedience and allegiance for protection.
To perform the part of good members of the community, their understandings must be duly enlightened, and they must be encouraged, rather than forbidden, to give a close attention to all public transactions. Disagreements in private life are often justly called misunderstandings. It is through want of clear conceptions that feuds and animosities frequently happen in public. The many are not so mad as they are represented. They act honestly and zealously according to their knowledge. Give them fair and full information, and they will do the thing that is right, in consequence of it. But nothing more generally and justly offends them, than an attempt to conceal or distort facts which concern them; an attempt to render them the dupes of interested ambition, planning its own elevation on the ruins of their independence.
I wish, as a friend to peace, and an enemy to all tumultuary and riotous proceedings, that the mass of the people should understand the constitution, and know, that redress of grievances is to be sought and obtained by appeals to the law; by appeals to reason; without appealing, except in cases of the very last necessity, which seldom occur, to the arm of violence. I advise them patiently to bear, while there is but a hope of melioration, even flagrant abuses, if no other mode of redress appears, for the present, but convulsion. I would exhort them, not to fly from the despotism of an administration, to the despotism of an enraged populace. I would have them value the life, the tranquillity, the property, of the rich and great, as well as those of the poor and obscure. I would wish them to labour at promoting human happiness in all ranks, and be assured, that happiness, like health, is not to be enjoyed in a fever.
To accomplish these ends, I think too much pains cannot be bestowed in teaching them to understand the true nature of civil liberty; and in demonstrating to them, that it is injured by all excesses, whether the excesses originate in courts or cottages.
And surely those men are neither friends to their country nor to human nature, who, for the sake of keeping down the lower orders, would object to teaching the people the value of a pure representation, free suffrage, a free press, and trial by jury. These are the things that are most likely to endear the constitution to them, to render them truly loyal, chearfully obedient, and zealously peaceable.
It is not the delusive publications of interested and sycophantic associators which can produce this valuable purpose. Writings so evidently partial, persuade none but those that are already persuaded; and deceive none but those that are willing to be deceived. Truth only will have weight with the great body of the people, who have nothing to hope from ministerial favour, or to fear, while the constitution is unimpaired, from ministerial displeasure.