Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION XIII. The Spirit of Despotism displaying itself in private Life, and proceeding thence to avail itself of the Church and the Military. - The Works of Vicesimus Knox, vol. 5
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SECTION XIII. The Spirit of Despotism displaying itself in private Life, and proceeding thence to avail itself of the Church and the Military. - 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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The Spirit of Despotism displaying itself in private Life, and proceeding thence to avail itself of the Church and the Military.
Many who enjoy the great advantages of distinguished rank and enormous wealth, either hereditary or acquired, not contented with those advantages, seem, by their behaviour, to envy the less fortunate of their species the little happiness they retain in their humble sphere. Unsatisfied with the elevation which their birth or fortune has given them, they wish to trample on their inferiors, and to force them still lower in society. Base pride! sordid greediness of wretches, who, notwithstanding they are gratified with all external splendour, and pampered even to loathing with plenty of all good things, yet insult those who minister to their luxuries, and who (however deserving by virtue all that the others possess by chance) sit down with a bare competence, and often in want of real necessaries, food, raiment, and habitation.
The insolence of many among the great, who possess neither knowledge nor virtue, nor any quality useful to mankind, and the contempt with which they look down upon men, whom, though both virtuous and useful, they call their inferiors, excites the honest indignation of all who can think and feel, and who are remote from the sphere of corrupting influence. The natural sensations of an honest heart revolt against it. It is not only most highly culpable in a moral view, but extremely dangerous in a political. It arises from the genuine spirit of despotism, and if not checked by the people, must lead to its universal prevalence. Such a spirit would allow no rights to the poor, but those which cannot be taken away, such as the swine possess; the rights of mere animal nature. Such a spirit hates the people, and would gladly annihilate all of them, but those who administer to pride and luxury, either as menial servants, dependent tradesmen or mechanics, or common soldiers, ready to shed their own and others’ blood for a morsel of bread.
If no considerable district of a country be without persons animated with this spirit; if they are viewed without abhorrence, and considered as assuming only the common privileges of country gentlemen; if such men, availing themselves of a corrupt state of representation, often procure a share in the legislature; is not that country, if there be such a one, in danger of being over-run with despotism? Are not the yeomanry, who are usually tenants of these persons, likely to be influenced by them, through fear of losing their farms, in their votes, and in all their sentiments and conduct? And will not liberty lose some of her ablest, as they were probably among her sincerest and manliest, defenders, when the yeomanry desert her banners?
Among all that description of persons who have been lately called Aristocrats, proud and selfish in their nature, Tories and Jacobites in their political principles, it is obvious to remark the most haughty, overbearing manners in the transactions of common life, in their domestic arrangements, in their pleasurable excursions, their visits, their conversation, and general intercourse. In all these, their grand object is to keep the vulgar, under which appellation they comprehend many truly, though not nominally, noble, at a distance. They herd in exclusive sets, and form a little world of their own, and entitle it, the circles of fashion. Folly and vanity govern this little world with despotic rule; and virtue, learning, usefulness, have no claim to admission into it. Pride, servility to courts, and a mutual though tacit agreement to treat the people with contempt, are among the principal recommendations to it. The grand secret of its constitution is to claim dignity, distinction, power, and place, exclusively, without the painful labour of deserving either by personal merit or by services to the commonwealth.
These people push themselves forward to notice at all public places. Though they contribute no more than others to the support of such places, (for they are generally parsimonious,) yet they claim a right to dictate every regulation. Countenanced by each other, they assume at theatres a bold behaviour, such as argues a sovereign contempt of the canaille. They talk loud, they laugh loud, they applaud each other's wit, they strut with airs of perfect self-complacency; but would not be supposed to cast an eye at the inferior crowd, whose admiration they are at the same time courting, by every silly effort of pragmatical vanity. They cannot live long at home. No; they must have the eyes of the very people whom they affect to despise, constantly upon their persons, their coaches, their livery servants; or else wealth loses its power to gratify, and grandeur is no better than insignificance.
Nothing flatters such persons more, than to have a number of their fellow-creatures engaged as servants about their persons, with nothing to do, or with such employments as a man, properly so called, could not endure to have done by another. It adds greatly to their happiness, if they can clothe these superfluous menials in very fine and costly dress, far exceeding any thing which the middle (yet independent) ranks of the people can either afford or would choose to display. They also choose that their footmen should be handsome in their persons, as well as sumptuously clad; the intention being to lead the spectator to exclaim, when even the servants are such respectable personages, “how stupendously great must be the lordly master!”
A court, with all its forms and finery, is the very element of such persons. They flutter about it like butterflies in the sunshine; and happy he, who, in his way to it, excites the most admiration of his gaudy coach and coat in the crowd of St. James's street; that crowd, which nevertheless they scorn, through fear of pollution, to look at, with eyes destined in a few minutes to enjoy the beatific vision of royalty. But as a court is their delight, no wonder that their sentiments on political matters are perfectly courtier-like. They are for extending the powers and prerogatives of royalty, from a selfish idea that they can recommend themselves to the notice and patronage of courts by servile compliance, by riches and pomp; whereas the people would require personal merit as the passport to their favour. They think the people have little to bestow but bare esteem, or such offices as are honourable only in proportion as they are well or ill discharged; such as require virtues and abilities: whereas a court can bestow on its favourites, without requiring painful virtues, ribands, garters, stars, and titles, all which gratify superficial minds by their external finery and distinction, independently of any idea that they are, or should be, the public rewards of long and faithful services, in promoting the welfare of the community, and the happiness of the human race.
To form an adequate idea of the proud and frivolous minds of those who are intent on nothing but aggrandizing themselves by augmenting the power of courts and ministers, whose favour they seek with the most despicable meanness, it will be necessary to entertain right notions of the court of France, and the manners of the noblesse, previously to the revolution. “The two great aims” says an observing French writer, “of the modern courtiers of France, like some of another nation, were dissipation, and the means of repairing the ruinous consequences of that dissipation to their private fortunes. To obtain the former end, they pursued her through all the fantastical labyrinth of versatile folly; and to accomplish the latter, they startled at no depravity or corruption which presented itself.” Thus the greatest personages in the nation were most distinguishable for vice and meanness; the sole object was to indulge in every vain and every sensual gratification, and then to procure places and appointments, the profits of which were to pay the expenses of pride and debauchery. The financier robbed the people. The great (as they are abusively called) received the stolen goods; and the people, in return for their property thus extorted from them, were at once oppressed, plundered, and despised. If a nobleman, impoverished by his enormous vices and silly vanity, married into a rich but plebeian family, they called this degrading conduct, the taking dung to fertilize their estates. At the same time, pollution as it was to marry the honest daughter of an honest merchant, they prided themselves in choosing for mistresses not only the lowest, but the most vicious persons, opera-dancers and actresses notorious for prostitution. Such were many of the courtiers, the noblesse, and sticklers for arbitrary power in France; and have there not appeared in other nations, instances of similar conduct in persons of similar rank, and similar political principles?
In France, bishoprics were usually considered as genteel provisions for the sons of noble families. Religious considerations had rarely any influence in the appointment of them. Learning was not a sufficient recommendation. Blood was the prime requisite. If by chance a man, with every kind of merit proper for that station, rose to a bishopric, without the recommendation of blood, he was despised by the fraternity, and called a bishop of fortune. I have heard in England such men as Dr. Secker, Dr. Watson, or Dr. Horsley, with all their learning, spoken of as men that must not think themselves of any political consequence; as men who should be satisfied with their good fortune, and not pretend to vie with the Beresfords, Norths, and Cornwallises, the Vernons and the Manners Suttons. How would men holding such opinions, have despised Jesus Christ and the poor fishermen! yet they love bishoprics, so far as they contribute to secular pomp and parade, and as they enrich the families of boroughmongers; and enable them cheaply to reward their tutors and obsequious dependents.
A similar spirit must produce similar conduct. Therefore those who would not wish the manners of the French, as they existed before the revolution, to prevail in their own country, will check the spirit that gives rise to such manners, by every rational means of opposition to it. That spirit and those manners at once supported the French monarchy, and caused its abolition.
Indeed, the overbearing manners of the Tories, or friends of arbitrary power, are so disgusting in private life to every man of sense and independence, that they must be exploded, wherever sense and independence can prevail over the arts of sycophantism. They are no less offensive to humanity, and injurious to all the sweet equality of social intercourse, than they are to public liberty.
These proud pretenders to superiority, these sneaking slaves of courts, and tyrants of their households, would monopolize not only all the luxuries of habitation, food, raiment, vehicles, attendants, but all notice, all respect, all consideration. The world was made for them, and such as they, to take their pastime in it. Their family, their children, their houses, must all be kept from plebeian contamination. The well-barred portals, however, fly open at the approach of lords and dukes; and they themselves would lick the shoes of a minister, if one should, for the sake of securing the influence of their wealth in parliament, condescend to enter their mansion.
The aristocratical insolence is visible where one would least expect it; where all the partakers of this frail and mortal state should appear in a state of equality; even at church, in the immediate presence of Him who made high and low, rich and poor; and where the gilded and painted ornaments on the walls seem to mock the folly of all human pride. The pew of the great man is raised above the others, though its elevation is an obstacle both to the eyes and ears of those who are placed in its vicinity. It is furnished with curtains, adorned with linings, and accommodated with cushions. Servants walk in his train, open the door of his luxurious seat, and carry the burden of the prayer-book. The first reverence is paid to persons of condition around. Those who do not bow to the name of Jesus Christ, bend with all lowliness to the lord in the gallery. The whole behaviour leads a thinking man to conclude, that the self-important being would scarcely deign to enter Heaven, any more than he does the church, if he must be reduced to an equality with the rustic vulgar.
Such persons, consistently with their arbitrary principles, are always high-churchmen. Though they may be indifferent to religion, they are zealous for the church. They consider the church as useful, not only in providing genteelly for relations and those to whom they owe obligations for private services, but as an engine to keep down the people. Upon the head of their despot, they would put a triple covering, the crown, the mitre, and the helmet. The Devil offered our Saviour all the kingdoms of this world and their glory, if he would fall down and worship him; and there is reason to fear, that such idolaters of the kingdoms of this world and their glory would apostatize from him who said his kingdom was not of this world, if the same evil being were to make them the same offer. The temporalities and splendours of the church triumphant endear it to them; but, if it continued in its primitive state, or in the condition in which it was when poor fishermen were its bishops, they would soon side, in religious matters, with the philosophers of France. But while mitres and stalls may be made highly subservient to the views of a minister, and the promoters of arbitrary power and principles, they honour the church, though they know nothing of Christ, they stickle for the bench, though they abandon the creed. An ally, like the church, possessed of great power, must be cherished; though the very persons who wish to avail themselves of that power, would be the first, if that power were in real danger, to question its rights, and to accelerate its subversion.
There is one circumstance in the conduct of the Tory friends to absolute sway truly alarming to the champions of liberty. They are always inclined, on the smallest tumult, to call in the military. They would depreciate the civil powers, and break the constable's staff to introduce the bayonet. In their opinion, the best executive powers of government are a party of dragoons. They are therefore constantly sounding alarms, and aggravating every petty disturbance into a riot or rebellion. They are not for parleying with the many-headed monster; they scorn lenient measures; and while their own persons are in perfect safety, boldly command the military to fire. What is the life or the limb of a poor man, in their opinion? Not so much as the life or limb of a favourite pointer or racehorse. They are always eager to augment the army. They would build barracks in every part of the country, and be glad to see a free country overrun, like some of the enslaved nations of the continent, from east to west, from north to south, with men armed to overawe the saucy advocates of charters, privileges, rights, and reformations.
Against principles so dangerous in public life, and odious in private, every friend to his king and country, every lover of his fellow-creatures, every competent judge of those manners, which sweeten the intercourse of man with man, will show a determined opposition. But how shall be show it with effect? By ridicule. Nothing lowers the pride from which such principles proceed, so much as general contempt and derision. The insolence of petty despots in private life should be laughed at by an Aristophanes, while it is rebuked by a Cato.