Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION XIV. The despotic Spirit inclined to avail itself of Spies, Informers, false Witnesses, pretended Conspiracies, and self-interested Associations affecting Patriotism. - The Works of Vicesimus Knox, vol. 5
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SECTION XIV. The despotic Spirit inclined to avail itself of Spies, Informers, false Witnesses, pretended Conspiracies, and self-interested Associations affecting Patriotism. - 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 despotic Spirit inclined to avail itself of Spies, Informers, false Witnesses, pretended Conspiracies, and self-interested Associations affecting Patriotism.∗
It is not unfair to infer the existence of similar principles from similarity of conduct. In that black page of history which disgraces human nature; I mean the records of the Roman emperors in the decline of Roman Virtue; we read, that spies and informers were considered as necessary functionaries of government; that they became favourites at court, and were encouraged by rewards due only to exemplary patriotism and public service. There have been periods also in the history of England, when spies, informers, false witnesses, and pretended plots, were deemed lawful and useful expedients by the rulers of the state. In testimony of this assertion, we need only call to mind the pretended Popish plot, with all its villainous circumstances, in the reign of Charles the second; a reign in many parts of it resembling the times of the Roman Tiberius. But at whatever period spies, informers, false witnesses, and pretended plots, are adopted by men in power, to strengthen themselves in office, and destroy virtuous opposition, there is reason to fear, in spite of all professions of the contrary, that the tyrannic spirit of the degenerate Cæsars waits but for opportunities to display itself in acts of Neronian atrocity. Power is deficient; but inclination is equally hostile to the mass of mankind, denominated the People, whom some politicians scarcely condescend to acknowledge as possessed of any political existence.
The employment of spies and informers is a virtual declaration of hostilities against the people. It argues a want of confidence in them. It argues a fear and jealousy of them. It argues a desire to destroy them by ambuscade. It is, in civil government, what stratagems are in a state of war. It tends also to excite retaliation.
A ministry must be sadly corrupt, and unworthy the confidence either of king or people, which, can so far degrade itself as to require the assistance of the vilest of the human race. Such are the whole race of spies, sycophants, (I use the word in its proper sense,) informers, and false witnesses. So great is the unfortunate corruption of human nature, that men have been always found to execute the most infamous offices, when a government has thought proper to seek their cooperation. Extreme poverty, united with extreme profligacy of conduct, and a total destitution of moral and religious principle, prepare men for the most nefarious deeds which tyrants can meditate. For tyrants only, the robbers and murderers of men, be such miscreants reserved. Tacitus has called them Instrumenta regni, the implements of government, when government falls into hands which are skilled in the use of no better; into-the hands of Neros and Caligulas. May the minister of a free country, who has recourse to such tools, be himself the first to feel their destroying edge!
Seneca, in the quotation at the head of this section, has handed down a circumstance, in the reign of Tiberius, which must cause every man, who has a just regard for the comforts of free intercourse and conversation, to shudder at the prospect of being governed by a system supported by spies and informers. He tells us, that the convivial merriment of friends assembled over a glass, the innocent raillery and banter of jocular conversation, were, through the encouragement given to informers by the government, made the grounds of a serious charge of sedition and treason. The words of the drunken, and the unguarded openness of the joker, were taken hold of, by persons who mixed with the guests, in order to recommend themselves to government, by reporting the free language that might escape in the hour of unreserved confidence; when the heart is opened by friendship, and the tongue loosened by wine.
“He who dippeth with me in the dish, the same shall betray me,” said our Saviour. But be it remembered, that the same persons who hired and paid Judas Iscariot, crucified Jesus Christ.
But what shall we say? Have there been no Judas Iscariots in modern days? Have our coffee-houses, taverns, and places of public amusement, been quite free from hired wretches, who, while they dipped in the same dish with us, were seeking to betray us, if possible, to prisons and to death? Did they this wickedness of themselves, or were they hired and paid by persons influenced by Tory principles or high in office? Have not certain spies confessed, at solemn trials, that they were hired and paid by men in office? Have not the same spies led to those extravagant speeches, or those offensive measures, which they afterwards informed against for hire; hoping to deprive the persons they betrayed either of liberty or life? If such things have been, is it not time to be alarmed, to guard against spies, informers, and false witnesses? And is it not right to express, and increase, if possible, the public indignation against both them and their employers?
When men high in office, of reputed abilities, and certainly possessing extensive knowledge, patronise such miscreants as spies and informers, they certainly corrupt the public morals, by leading the people, over whom their examples must always have great influence, to believe, that treachery, perjury, and murder are crimes of a venial nature. They teach men to carry the profligacy of public characters and conduct into the sequestered walks of private life. They teach one of the most corrupting maxims; for they teach, “That when ends eagerly desired by knaves in power are to be accomplished, the means must be pursued, however base and dishonest.” They destroy at once the confidential comforts and the most valuable virtues of private life.
But state-necessity is urged in defence of that policy which employs spies and informers. I deny the existence of such necessity. There are excellent laws, and there are magistrates and officers dispersed all over the kingdom, who are bound to take cognizance of any illegal and injurious practices, and to prevent them by a timely interference. If such magistrates and officers neglect their duty, it is incumbent on those who appointed them, and who are amply paid for their vigilance, to institute prosecutions, to punish and to remove them. The law knows nothing of spies and informers, The only watchmen it recognises are magistrates, regularly appointed. The whole body of a people, well governed and consequently contented with their governors, are the natural and voluntary guardians against seditions, treasons, and conspiracies to subvert the state. When spies and informers are called in, it argues a distrust of the magistrates, and of the whole body of the people. It argues an endeavour to govern in a manner unauthorized by that constitution which the employers of spies and informers pretend to protect, by instruments so dangerous and unjustifiable.
I have a better opinion of men in power, in our times, corrupting as the possession of power is allowed to be, than to believe that any of them would hire a false witness. But let them be assured, that a hired spy and informer will, by an easy transition, become a false witness, even in trials where liberty and life are at stake. In trials of less consequence, there is no doubt but that his conscience will stretch with the occasion. His object is not truth or justice; but filthy lucre; and when he aspires at great rewards, great must be his venture. Having once broken down, as a treacherous spy, the fences of honour and conscience, nothing but fear will restrain him, as a witness, from overleaping the bounds of truth, justice, and mercy. He will rob and murder under the forms of law; and add to the atrocity of blood-guiltiness, the crime of perjury. No man is safe, where such men are countenanced by officers of state. They themselves may perish by his false tongue; suffering the vengeance due to their base encouragement of a traitor to the public, by falling unpitied victims to his disappointed treachery. The pestilential breath of spies and informers is not to be endured in the pure healthy atmosphere of a free state. It brings with it the sickly despotism of oriental climes.
But how ominous to liberty, if large associations of rich men, either possessing or expecting places, pensions, and titles for themselves or their relations, should ever take upon themselves the office of spying and informing! by their numbers braving the shame, and evading the personal responsibility, that would fall on an individual or unconnected spy or informer! Such an association would be a most dangerous conspiracy of sycophants against a free constitution. If the public should ever behold the venal tribe thus undermining the fair fabric of liberty, and behold them without indignation, would it not give reason to suspect, that the Tory and Jacobite principles, or the spirit of despotism had pervaded the body of the people?
The honest, independent, and thinking part of the community will be justly alarmed when they see either individuals or bodies of men encouraged by ministerial favours, in calumniating the people, and falsely accusing the advocates of constitutional freedom. They will think it time to stem the torrent of corruption, which, rolling down its foul but impetuous tide from the hills, threatens devastation to the cottages in the valley. But how shall they stop an evil, promoted and encouraged, for private and selfish motives, by the whole influence of grandeur and opulence acting in combination? By bearing their testimony in favour of truth and justice; by giving their suffrages to honest men; by rejecting the servile adulator of courts, and the mean sycophant of ministers: and by shunning as pestilences every description of spies and informers, whether poor or rich, mercenary or volunteer.∗ If they fail, they will feel the comfort of having discharged their duty.
[∗]“Sub Tiberio Cæsare fuit accusandi frequens et pæne publica rabies, quæ omni civili bello gravùs togatam civitatem confecit. Excipiebatur ebriorum sermo, simplicitas jocantium.”
[∗]I subjoin a curious passage from the 14th book of Ammianus Marcellinus, on the manner in which spies executed their office, under the imperial authority of Constantius Gallus.