Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION XXXVIII. That all Opposition to the Spirit of Despotism should be conducted with the most scrupulous Regard to the existing Laws, and to the Preservation of public Peace and good Order. - The Works of Vicesimus Knox, vol. 5
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SECTION XXXVIII. That all Opposition to the Spirit of Despotism should be conducted with the most scrupulous Regard to the existing Laws, and to the Preservation of public Peace and good Order. - 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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That all Opposition to the Spirit of Despotism should be conducted with the most scrupulous Regard to the existing Laws, and to the Preservation of public Peace and good Order.
The frailty of human nature is one of the commonest of common-places. The wisest and best of men are desirous of palliating their errors, by claiming a share, as men, in human infirmity. One of the infirmities most acknowledged and lamented is a tendency to rush from one extreme to another; a proneness to fall into a vice, in the desire of escaping an error. Thus the detestation of despotism, and the love of liberty, both of them rational and laudable, have led many to factious and violent conduct, which neither the occasion justified, nor prudence would precipitately adopt, even if the occasion might appear to justify them.
From faction and violence in the cause of liberty, which disgrace the cause itself, and give advantage to the favourers of arbitrary power, I most anxiously dissuade all who love mankind and their country. Faction and violence are despotic in the extreme. They bring all the evils of tyranny, without any consolation, but that they are usually transient; whereas tyranny is durable. They destroy themselves, or are destroyed by force in the hands of a superior power. In either case, much is lost to the cause of liberty; because the persons who have been betrayed by their passions into excesses, were probably sincere; and if they had been also discreet and moderate, would have been effectual as well as zealous promoters of public good. It is certain, that very honest men are very apt to be betrayed into violence by their warmth of temper. They mean good, and do ill. They become the instruments of dispassionate knaves; and are often led into extravagances by the very party against whom they act, in order that they may be exposed, and become obnoxious to censure.
Wisdom is gentle, deliberate, cautious. Nothing violent is durable. I hope the lovers of liberty will show the sincerity of their attachment by the wisdom of their conduct. Tumultuary proceedings always exhibit some appearance of insanity. A blow struck with blind violence may inflict a wound or a bruise, but it may fall in the wrong place: it may even injure the hand that gives it, by its own ill-directed force.
Man being a reasonable creature, will always submit to reason, if you give time for his passions to cool, and wait for the mollia tempora fandi, the proper opportunities of addressing him. A few, in the great mass of mankind, may be corrupted by views of interest, by expectations of preferment, by bribes, and by titles. But there are not rewards enough of this kind to corrupt the whole body of any people. The great body of the people will follow that which appears to them right, and just, and true. Let it be clearly laid before them, and left for their calm consideration. If it should so happen, which is very unlikely, that they should not adopt it, after understanding it, and duly weighing its importance, then they must be left to the error of their ways. Si populus vult decipi, decipiatur. If the people will be deluded, they must be so. Force cannot eradicate error, though it may destroy life. Riot, tumult, turbulence may do great mischief, but they carry no conviction.
Inflammatory language at popular meetings is to be avoided; and indeed multitudes of the lowest of the people are not to be wantonly convened. Without in the least impeaching their rights, it must be allowed that their passions are too violent when heated by collision with each other, and their judgments too weak, when not previously informed by reading and education, to act wisely when met in a large body, without authorized guides, and without strict regulation. A man who is a sincere patriot, and not a mere demagogue for sinister purposes, will be cautious of assembling crowds of the lowest of the people. Lord George Gordon's unfortunate conduct has left a lasting lesson. He, I firmly believe, intended none of that mischief which ensued; but who can say to the waves of a troubled sea, “thus far shall ye go, and no farther?” I know, and have already commented on, the advantage taken from those riots by the friends of high-prerogative doctrines, for disparaging the people at large, notwithstanding the people certainly had no concern in them.
Though decidedly a friend to the reform of the house of commons, I cannot agree with the Duke of Richmond in the propriety of universal suffrage. I think his idea full of mischief and indeed perfectly Utopian. Sir Thomas More never wrote any thing more visionary in his celebrated fiction; Sir Robert Filmer nothing more adverse to real liberty. Universal suffrage, I fear, would cause universal confusion; and the friends of mankind would be inclined to fly for temporary refuge even to the throne of a despot. Persons in a state of servitude could never be expected to give a free vote; and vagabonds and paupers would use their liberty for a cloak of maliciousness. I wish the right of suffrage to be extended as far as it possibly can, without endangering public order and tranquillity; but extreme ignorance and extreme penury cannot with prudence be trusted with a power which both requires knowledge and commands property.
But whatever politicians may determine upon this point, I think it certain, that debates upon it cannot be held in very large assemblies, into which, not only the lowest but the vilest of mankind are allowed admission, and all the privileges of counsellors, de summa rerum, on matters of the highest importance, without extreme danger of violating law, and disturbing that order which is necessary to comfort and security.
I wish, therefore, that all preliminary consultation on this point, and all points like this, may be conducted by writing, by appeals to reason in the closet, and that a considerable time may be allowed to cool all intemperate heats; and give solidity to the materials of the intended repair. At county meetings or associations, I would have the civil power in full force; but never the military. The staff of the constable should be more coercive than the sabre of the dragoon; for the constitution admits the one as its own, but certainly looks at the other with horror. Every tumult, productive of mischief, gives the friends of arbitrary power an opportunity for introducing the military, of arguing against all popular interference in that very government which the people support by their industry, and which, according to the law of God, nature, and reason, in extremities they have a right to controul by their supreme authority. There may be cases of the last necessity, which I shudder to think of, in which nothing but the power of the people, acting by force, can maintain or recover their usurped rights. Such must occur but seldom. May our country never experience them!
There can be no good reason assigned why government should not be, like every thing else, continually advancing to all the perfection of which it is capable. Indeed, as the happiness of mankind depends more upon well-regulated and welladministered government, than on any thing subordinate in life or in arts, there is every reason for bestowing all the time which every passing generation can bestow, in bringing government to its utmost point of attainable perfection. It is the business and the duty of those who now live, as they value their own happiness and the happiness of their posterity, to labour in the reform of abuses, and the farther improvement of every improveable advantage. Would any man be listened to with patience, who should say, that any useful art or manufacture ought not to be improved by ingenious projectors, because it does tolerably in its present state, satisfies those who are ignorant of the excellence of which it is susceptible, and cannot be altered, even for the better, without causing some trouble, for a time, among those who have been accustomed to the present imperfect and erroneous methods of conducting it? No; encouragements are held out for improvement in all arts and sciences, conducive to the comfort and accommodation of human life. What, then, in the first art, the art of diffusing happiness throughout nations, shall he who attempts improvement be stigmatized as an innovator, prosecuted as a seditious intermeddler, and persecuted with the resentment of those who find their advantage in the continuance of error, and the diffusion of abuse and corruption? However courtiers may patronize silly establishments, which claim a prescriptive right to folly, inutility, and even mischievous consequences, the common sense of mankind will revolt against them, join in demanding reform, and in saying of old customs, when become nuisances by alteration of circumstances, that instead of being sanctified by long duration, they are now more honoured in the breach than the observance.
But let the reformation be gentle, though firm; wise, though bold; lenient to persons erring, though severe against error. Let her not alarm the friend of liberty by sudden violence, but invite all to the cause of truth and justice, by showing that she is herself guarded, not only by truth and justice, but by mercy. Let us show ourselves, in seeking political reformation, what we profess to be, a nation of Christians, if not philosophers; and let not a groan be heard amid the acclamations of triumphant liberty, nor one drop of blood sadden the glorious victory of philosophy and Christianity over pride.