Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION XXX. The Spirit of Despotism delights in War or systematic Murder. - The Works of Vicesimus Knox, vol. 5
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SECTION XXX. The Spirit of Despotism delights in War or systematic Murder. - 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 delights in War or systematic Murder.
“The people of England are industrious, they are peaceful, they wish to enjoy the fruits of their industry without a war, and to recover their lost weight in our mixed frame of government, without the hazards of a revolution.
“It is from the prevalence of Mr. Burke's politics alone, among the upper classes of society, that the rise of any dangerous disaffection in this country is to be apprehended. To the plain sense of Englishmen, a war commenced with France, on his principles, must appear to be a war on French liberty, to beat down the equitable claims of reformation here, and eventually to destroy every valuable right of the people.
“Such will be the suspected motives for plunging this country in a war, in which our fleets may be victorious, but in which even our successes must be ruinous. For views thus wild and chimerical, the nation, whose wounds received in the late war with America are hardly yet closed up, must prepare to bleed afresh. For objects thus odious and detestable, the industrious classes of the people must forego their comforts; the shoulders, already galled with taxes, the pernicious consequence of former injustice and folly, must submit again to new and heavier impositions.
“They will be cheerfully voted, no doubt, by the faithful commons; but the commons will no longer enjoy the confidence of the public. Every vote of credit or supply will then increase the general disgust; and should no greater disaster befal us, the mere protraction of the war must exhaust the patience of a disabused people.
“But what may be the contagious effect of French opinions on a nation sick of the war of kings, groaning under an intolerable load of taxes, and hopeless of redress from men, whom they will cease to consider as representatives, it is needless to state. To foresee it, is easy; to prevent it, may be impossible.”
Thus far the excellent Wyvill, in a letter to Mr. Pitt, in which he wisely dissuaded him from the unfortunate and disgraceful war, of which that minister must soon repent, though power and repentance do not usually unite. No dissuasion could cool Mr. Pitt's heroic ardour, or check his juvenile impetuosity. War was hastily commenced. The consequences were foretold, and the prediction is fulfilled.
But to an accurate observer it is an alarming proof of the spirit of despotism, when the great are eager to rush into war; when they listen to no terms of accommodation, and scorn to negotiate, in any mode or degree, previously to unsheathing the dreadful instrument of slaughter. If war, instead of being what it has been called, the ratio ultima, becomes the ratio prima regum, it is a proof that reason has lost her empire, and force usurped her throne.
Fear is the principle of all despotic government, and therefore despots make war their first study and delight. No arts and sciences, nothing that contributes to the comfort or the embellishment of human society, is half so much attended to, in countries where the spirit of despotism is established, as the means of destroying human life. Tigers, wolves, earthquakes, inundations, are all innocuous to man, when compared with the fiercest of monsters, the gory despots. Fiends, furies, demons of destruction! may the day be near, when, as wolves have been utterly exterminated from England, despots may be cut off from the face of the whole earth; and the bloody memory of them loaded with the execration of every human being, to whom God has given a heart to feel, and a tongue to utter!
Wherever a particle of their accursed spirit is found, there also will be found a propensity to war. In times of peace, the grandees find themselves shrunk to the size of common mortals. A finer house, a finer coach, a finer coat, a finer livery than others can afford, is all that they can display to the eye of the multitude, in proof of their assumed superiority. Their power is inconsiderable. But no sooner do you blow the blast of war, and put armies under their command, than they feel themselves indeed great and powerful. A hundred thousand men, in battle array, with all the instruments of destruction, under the command of a few grandees, inferior, perhaps, in bodily strength, to every one of the subject train, and but little superior in intellect or courage, yet holding all, on pain of death, in absolute subjection; how must it elevate the little despots in their own opinion! “This it is to live,” (they exclaim, shaking hands with each other) “this is to be great indeed. Now we feel our power. Glory be to us on high; especially as all our fame and greatness is perfectly compatible with our personal safety; for we will not risk our precious persons in the scene of danger, but be content with our extended patronage, with the delight of commanding the movements of this human machine, and with reading of the blood, slaughter, and burnt villages, in the Gazette, at our fire-side.”
All the expense of war is paid by the people, and most of the personal danger incurred by those, who, according to some, have no political existence; I mean the multitude, told by the head, like sheep in Smithfield. Many of these troublesome beings in human form, are happily got rid of in the field of battle, and more by sickness and hardship previous or subsequent to the glorious day of butchery. Thus all makes for the spirit of despotism. There are, in consequence of a great carnage, fewer wretches left to provide for, or to oppose its will; and all the honour, all the profit, all the amusement, falls to the share of the grandees, thus raised from the insignificance and inglorious indolence of peace, to have their names blown over the world by the trumpet of Fame, and recorded in the page of history.
But a state of war not only gives a degree of personal importance to some among the great, which they could never obtain by the arts of peace, but greatly helps the cause of despotism. In times of peace the people are apt to be impertinently clamorous for reform. But in war, they must say no more on the subject, because of the public danger. It would be ill-timed. Freedom of speech also must be checked. A thousand little restraints on liberty are admitted, without a murmur, in a time of war, that would not be borne one moment during the halcyon days of peace. Peace, in short, is productive of plenty, and plenty makes the people saucy. Peace, therefore, must not continue long after a nation has arrived at a certain degree of prosperity. This is a maxim of Despotism. Political phlebotomy is necessary in a political plethora. “Bleed them usque ad deliquium,” (said the arbitrary doctor,) “and I will undertake that in future the patient shall be more tractable.”
Erasmus, the friend of man, the restorer of civil and religious liberty, has the following passage in a Dissertation on War, lately translated into English under the title of Antipolemus:
“There are kings who go to war for no other reason than that they may with greater ease establish despotic authority over their own subjects at home. For in time of peace, the power of parliaments, the dignity of magistrates, the vigour of the laws, are great impediments to a prince who wishes to exercise arbitrary power. But when once a war is undertaken, the chief management of affairs devolves on a few, the ministers of executive government, who, for the general safety, assume the privilege of conducting every thing according to their own humour, demanding unlimited confidence. The prince's favourites are all exalted to places of honour and profit. Those whom he dislikes are turned out and neglected. Now—(the time of war) is the time for raising as much money upon the people as the despot's heart can wish.—In short—now—the time of war, is the time that they feel themselves despots in very deed and truth, not in name only, but despots with a vengeance. In the mean while, the grandees play into one another's hands, until they have eaten up the wretched people, root and branch. Do you think men of such dispositions would be backward to seize any the slightest occasion for war, so lucrative, so flattering to avarice and vanity?”
Language has found no name sufficiently expressive of the diabolical villany of wretches in high life, who, without personal provocation, in the mere wantonness of power, and for the sake of increasing what they already possess in too great abundance, rush into murder! Murder of the innocent! Murder of myriads! Murder of the stranger! neither knowing nor caring how many of their fellow-creatures, with rights to life and happiness equal to their own, are urged by poverty to shed their last drops of blood in a foreign land, far from the endearments of kindred, to gratify the pride of a few at home, whose despotic spirit insults the wretchedness it first created. There is no greater proof of human folly and weakness than that a whole people should suffer a few worthless grandees, who evidently despise and hate them, to make the world one vast slaughter-house, that the grandees may have the more room to take their insolent pastime in unmolested state. A man, a reasonable being, a Christian, plunging the bayonet, without passion, into the bowels of a man, for hire! The poor creatures who actually do this (in despotic countries) are but mechanical instruments of knaves in power. Their poverty and not their will, consents. May Heaven's sweet mercy, then, wash off the blood stains from their hands, and reserve its wrath for those whose thirst of power, which they never had a wish to use for the good of man, leads them to wade to it through seas of human gore!
Let any dispassionate man, uninfluenced by placemen, pensioners, contractors, and expectants of court favour, impartially consider, from the earliest ages to the present, the history of war. He must observe that scarcely any wars have been just and necessary; though they almost all have claimed these epithets, with a persevering formality which would excite ridicule, if ridicule were not lost in abhorrence. He will find that folly, extreme folly, wearing a crown instead of a fool's cap, has, in many countries, from the mere wantonness of mischief, cried, “Havoc, and let slip the dogs of war.” He will find that in most countries (our own, of course, always excepted) war has been eagerly sought, from policy, to divert the people's attention from domestic abuse, to aggrandize those who build the fabric of their grandeur on the ruins of human happiness, and to depress, impoverish, and humble the people.
There is nothing from which the spirit of liberty has so much to fear, and consequently the spirit of despotism so much to hope, as from the prevalence of military government, supported by vast standing armies, and encouraged by alliances with military despots on the continent of Europe. The whole energy of the sound part of our free constitution should be exerted in its full force to check a proud minister, who rashly runs into a war, and notwithstanding accumulated disasters, perseveres in its prosecution. He cannot hope for victory. He must have some other motive for persevering against all rational hope. Let the people investigate the motive; and if it be inimical to liberty, let them succour her in distress, by calling in her best auxiliary, peace.