Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION XXIX. Of the Despotism of Influence; while the Forms of a free Constitution are preserved. - The Works of Vicesimus Knox, vol. 5
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SECTION XXIX. Of the Despotism of Influence; while the Forms of a free Constitution are preserved. - 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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Of the Despotism of Influence; while the Forms of a free Constitution are preserved.
The words of a great lawyer, instructing the youth of a nation at a celebrated university, must be supposed to be well considered. Blackstone, the grave commentator, after expatiating on the advantages derived from the revolution, proceeds to remark, that “though these provisions have nominally and in appearance reduced the strength of the executive power to a much lower ebb than in the preceding period; yet if, on the other hand, we throw into the opposite scale the vast acquisition of force arising from the riot act, and the annual expedience of a standing army; and the vast acquisition of personal attachment, arising from the magnitude of the national debt, and the manner of levying those yearly millions that are appropriated to pay the interest; we shall find that the crown has gradually and imperceptibly gained almost as much influence as it has apparently lost in prerogative.”
Blackstone, consistently with the habits of his profession, expressed himself cautiously. He says the crown has gained almost as much influence as it has apparently lost in prerogative. There are men of great political judgment who think that it has gained more. The House of Commons has, in an auspicious hour, resolved, and it can never be too often repeated, that the influence of the crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished. Influence is more dangerous than prerogative. It is a subtle poison that acts unseen. Prerogative can be resisted, as a robber; but influence is an assassin.
Lord Bolingbroke tells us, that “we have lost the spirit of our constitution; and therefore we bear, from little engrossers of delegated power, what our fathers would not have suffered from true proprietors of the royal authority.”
Such suggestions are certainly alarming. They come from high authority, and are abundantly confirmed by recent transactions. The magnitude of the national debt, and the share that almost every family in the kingdom, directly or indirectly, possesses in the public funds, contribute, more than all other causes, to increase the influence of the crown among the mass of the people. But the debt is still increasing, in consequence of war. Property in the funds is still more widely diffused; the influence, in consequence, more extended. Liberty may be more effectually invaded by the influence of the stocks, than it ever was invaded, in the days of the Stuarts, by the abuse of prerogative.
We are happy in a king, who, making the happiness of the people his first object, certainly would not avail himself of any advantages afforded by circumstances, to intrench upon their liberty. But be it remembered, that ministers in this country, with their favourites, often constitute an oligarchy.
This ministerial oligarchy may certainly abuse the influence of the crown, so as to render itself virtually superior to the limited and constitutional monarchy. Should such ever be the case, the oligarchy will be a species of despotism, the more formidable as the more insidious; possessing the power, but denying the form. By a judicious distribution of favours, by alluring all the rich and great to its side, either by hope or by fear, it may erect a rampart, which the independent part of the people, acting from no system, and disunited, may vainly seek to demolish. The monarch and the people may join hand in hand, without effect, against a ministerial oligarchy, thus buttressed by a faction composed of rank and wealth artfully combined, in the meanest manner, for the basest purposes. False alarms may be spread on the danger of property from the diffusion of new principles, so as to drive all who possess an acre of land, or a hundred pounds in the public funds, within the ministerial pale. Religion may be said to be in danger, in order to bring in the devout and well-disposed. Order may be declared in jeopardy, that the weak, the timid, and the quiet may be led, by their fears, to unite with wealth and power. Plots and conspiracies are common expedients of delusion. They have been used, by profligate ministers, with such a total disregard to truth and probability, that they now begin to lose their effect. But how dreadful, if influence should ever prevail with juries, to gratify the inventors of false plots, treasons, and conspiracies, by bringing in verdicts favourable to the views of the villainous fabricators! English juries are indeed still uncorrupted. They are unconnected with courts and ministers. And the uncorrupt part of our system, in cases of state trials, is able to prevent the mischief which would be caused by the corrupt part of it. The honest juries, in the late trials for treason, have not only done honour to our country and to human nature, but added great strength to the cause of truth, justice, and the constitution.
But it is truly alarming, to hear the verdicts of juries obliquely impeached by eminent men in the legislative assemblies. There has appeared no stronger symptom of the spirit of despotism, than the attempts of courtiers and crown lawyers, in the public senate, to vilify juries and their verdicts, given after a more solemn and longer investigation than ever took place on similar trials. Persons acquitted after such an ordeal, have been said to be no more innocent than acquitted felons. That the people have born such an insult on their most valuable privilege, with patience, is a proof that a tame acquiescence has been produced among them, unknown to their virtuous ancestors. It is to be hoped the insult will stimulate future juries to preserve their rights with jealous vigilance, and render them impregnable by ministerial influence, directly or indirectly applied. If the men who disapprove the verdicts of the virtuous juries, on the late occasions, had themselves been the jurors, they would have given different verdicts, pronounced the prisoners guilty, and assigned them over to the resentment of irritated, aristocratic pride. So mighty is the despotism of influence, that neither justice nor mercy can check it in the breast of a proud parasite.
There is every reason to believe, (and the belief is highly consolatory,) that juries will long continue to preserve their integrity; because they are indiscriminately selected from the middle rank and the mass of the people. Influence cannot reach every individual in the millions that constitute a great nation. But we must remember that influence is increasing; and that its nature is to diffuse deadly poison, without giving alarm. Like the air loaded with infection, it silently and secretly wafts disease into the strongest abodes of health, and penetrates the castle, which is impregnable to the sword of the open invader. Therefore, as influence increases, the jealousy and vigilance of the uninfected part of the community should increase in proportion. Though undue influence may never operate on juries, yet is there no danger lest it should, at some distant period, contaminate the minds of judges and crown lawyers, for whose obsequious interpretations of law may be held up prizes most glittering in the eyes of imagination, and most alluring to avarice and vanity?
But granting that the foul stain of corruption should never spot the white robe of justice; that the religion of an oath should still be revered, and conscience hold the balance with au even hand; yet is there no danger lest the despotism of influence should destroy the vitals of a free constitution, and leave nothing behind but the form, the exuviæ, the name? There was a senate under the vilest of the Roman emperors. The British house of commons might become, under a ministerial oligarchy, the mere levee of a prime minister. They might meet merely to bow and bow, receive their orders and douceurs, and then depart in peace.
The present state of the house of commons cannot be too generally known; and I therefore transcribe the following passage from the “Proceedings of the Society of the Friends of the People.”
“The condition of the house of commons is practically as follows:
“Seventy-one peers and the Treasury nominate ninety members, and procure the return of seventy-seven, which amount to one hundred and sixty-seven. Ninety-one commoners nominate eighty-two members, and procure the return of fifty-seven, which amount to one hundred and thirty-nine.”
So that the peers, the Treasury, and rich commoners with influence equal to peers, return three hundred and six members out of five hundred and thirteen, which is the whole number out of English representatives in the house of commons. The Scotch members are not considered in this part of the Report.
The Society give the names of the different patrons at full length, to authenticate their statement; and I believe its accuracy and authenticity have never been controverted.
After observing that seventy-one peers and the Treasury nominate or procure the return of one hundred and sixty-seven members of parliament, who may vote away the people's money, and make laws, with the other branches, to bind many millions, let us remember, that at the commencement of every session, the following resolutions are entered on the Journals:
“Resolved, that no peer of this realm hath any right to give his vote in the election of any member to serve in parliament. Resolved, that it is a high infringement upon the liberties and privileges of the commons of Great Britain, for any lord of parliament, or any lord-lieutenant of any county, to concern themselves in the elections of members to serve for the commons in parliament.”
The committee of the Friends of the People say, “they have been the more disposed to take notice of these resolutions, because the power of the house of lords, in matters of election, has been prodigiously increased, within the last ten years, by the creation of nine peers, who return, by nomination and influence, no less than twenty-four members to the house of commons. If, therefore, the interference of the Lords in the election of the commons be, as the latter uniformly declare, a high infringement of their liberties and privileges, the committee must report those liberties and privileges to have been of late subject to the most alarming and frequent attacks.”
After producing facts that defy denial, I confidently leave every honest and sensible man in the kingdom, unblinded by prejudice, unwarped by interest, to determine whether the cause of liberty is not on the decline, and the spirit of despotism likely to avail itself of the general corruption of the aristocracy, and the tame acquiescence of the people.
I leave the question to be determined by such men, whether it is not possible that influence may create a complete despotism in a country, even while the forms of a free constitution are preserved inviolate?