Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION XLI.: conclusion. - The Works of Vicesimus Knox, vol. 5
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SECTION XLI.: conclusion. - 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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To meliorate the condition of human nature can be the only rational end of government. It cannot be designed to favour one description of men, a minority of men, at the expense of all others; who, having received life from him who alone can give it, received at the same time a right to enjoy it in liberty and security. This was the charter of God and nature; which no mortal, however elevated by conquest or inheritance, can annul or violate without impiety. All government which makes not the advancement of human happiness, and the comfort of the individuals who are subject to its controul, the prime purpose of its operations, partakes of despotism: and I have always thought that, in governments which boast of a free constitution, the views, even of statesmen and politicians who espoused the cause of liberty, have sometimes been too circumscribed. They have been attached to names and families. They seem not always to have opened either their eyes or hearts to objects truly great and affections sincerely catholic and philanthropic. I hate to hear public men, who certainly can have no right to their preeminence but for the public good, professing themselves of the party of an individual, and appearing to forget the great mass of the people, the party of human nature. The majority of men are poor and obscure. To them all party attachments to names and families, little known as public benefactors, must appear at once absurd and injurious. They are the persons who stand in most need of protection and assistance from the powerful. The rich, under all governments, have a thousand means of procuring either comfort or defence. It is the mass, the poor and middling ranks, unknown to and unknowing courts or kings, who require all the alleviation which men enlightened by knowledge, furnished with opulence, elevated by rank, can afford to lessen the natural evils of life, aggravated by the moral and artificial. Government possesses the power of alleviating, and sometimes of removing, that moral and physical evil which imbitters existence. How deplorable, when government becomes so perverted as to increase the evil it was designed to cure. Yet this has been, and is now the case on a great part of the globe; insomuch that the learned and judicious Dr. Prideaux, whose integrity is as well known as his ability, used to say, “That it was a doubt with him, whether the benefit which the world receives from government was sufficient to make amends for the calamities which it suffers from the follies, mistakes, and mal-administration of those that manage it.”
When it is considered how little the most boasted governments have been able or inclined to prevent the greatest calamity of the world, the frequent recurrence of war, it is natural to conclude, that there has been some radical defect or error in all government, hitherto instituted on the face of the earth. Violence may be used where there is no government. Governments pretend to direct human affairs by reason; but war is a dereliction of reason, a renunciation of all that refines and improves human nature, and an appeal to brute force. Man descends from the heights to which philosophers and legislators had raised him in society; takes the sword, and surpasses the beasts of the forest in ferocity. Yet, so far from thinking himself culpable, he deems his destructive employment the most honourable of all human occupations, because governments have politically contrived to throw a glossy mantle, covered with tinsel and spangles, over the horrors of bloodshed and devastation. If governments, with all their riches and power, all their vaunted arts and sciences, all the mysterious policy of cabinets, all the wisdom and eloquence of deliberating senates, are unable to preserve the blessing of peace, uninterrupted, during the short space of twenty years together, they must be dreadfully faulty, either in their constitution or their administration. In what consists the fault? I think in the selfish spirit of despotism, pursuing the sordid or vain-glorious purposes of the governors, with little regard to the real, substantial happiness of the governed. Despotism, in some mode or degree, has transformed the shepherds of the flock into wolves; has appropriated the fleeces, shed the blood of the innoxious animals, torn down the fences of the sheepfold, and laid waste the pasture.
Is there a government in the world but our own that has legislated so equitably, as that none to whom existence has been given should want the necessaries of existence; and where helpless age and infirmity, as well as helpless infancy, should find a pillow to repose on, and plenty to nourish it, without supplicating a man, equal by nature, for the cold and scanty relief of eleemosynary charity? The truth is, power gradually engrosses property; and the selfish spirit of despotism is ever striving to appropriate all the good, of every kind, which the earth is able to produce.
National glory, the trappings of a court, the parade of armies, the finery of external appearance, have been the silly objects of state solicitude; while man was left to bewail, in the recesses of want and obscurity, that his mother had brought him into a world of woe, without means of comfort or support, with little other prospect than to labour without ceasing, to fight those who never injured him, and to die prematurely, unknown, and unlamented. All his wretchedness has been aggravated by the insults of unfeeling pride; the neglect of aristocratic grandeur, which, under the spirit of despotism, mocked by the false pageantry of life, those who were doomed to feel its real misery. The vain pomp and glory of the world, held out the finger of scorn to that wretchedness which itself contributed to create, and would not relieve.
Threescore years and ten, and those often full of labour and sorrow, constitute the space allotted to the life of man in a venerable volume, full of beauty as well as instruction, and worthy of great attention independently of the high authority attributed to it by the religion established by the laws of this country. Few and evil are our days, even when they proceed to their natural extent, and are attended with the common portion of health and prosperity. Yet, as if a superfluity of years and happiness were lavished on men, the chief business of the greatest part of governments on the whole earth has been to abbreviate life, to poison and imbitter its sweetest pleasures, and add new pungency to its anguish. Yet see the false glitter of happiness, the pomp and parade which such governments assume; observe the gravity and insolence of superiority which their ministers, their statesmen, and their warriors, assume, and you would imagine them a commissioned regency, lord lieutenants sent by heaven to rule this lower world, and to rectify all disorders which had escaped the vigilance of the Deity. The time has been when they have actually claimed the title of God's vicegerents, and have been literally worshipped as gods by the servile crew of courtiers; men gradually bowed down by despotism from the erect port of native dignity, and driven by fear to crouch under the most degrading of all superstition, the political idolatry of a base fellow-creature.
After all the language of court adulation, the praises of poets and orators, the statues and monuments erected to their fame, the malignant consequences of their actions prove them to have been no other than conspirators against the improvement and happiness of the human race. What were their means of conducting their governments, of exercising this office of heaven's vicegerents? Crafty, dishonest arts, oppression, extortion, and above all, fire and sword. They dared to ape the thunder and lightning of heaven, and, assisted by the machinations of the grand adversary of man, rendered their imitative contrivances for destruction more terrible and deadly than the original. Their imperial robe derived its deep crimson colour from human blood; and the gold and diamonds of their diadems were accumulated treasures wrung from the famished bowels of the poor, born only to toil for others, to be robbed, to be wounded, to be trodden under foot and forgotten in an early grave. How few, in comparison, have reached the age of threescore and ten, and yet, in the midst of youth and health, their days have been full of labour and sorrow. Heaven's vicegerents seldom bestowed a thought upon them, except when it was necessary either to inveigle or to force them to take the sword and march to slaughter. Where God caused the sun to shine gaily, and scattered plenty over the land, his vicegerents diffused famine and solitude. The valley which laughed with corn, they watered with the tear of artificial hunger and distress; the plain that was bright with verdure, and gay with flowrets, they dyed red with gore. They operated on the world as the blast of an east wind, as a pestilence, as a deluge, as a conflagration. Are the horrors inflicted upon the Palatinate forgotten? Have they yet ceased from the earth? Cast your eyes over the plains of Russia, Poland, a great part of Europe, the wilds of Africa, and the gardens of Asia; European despotism has united with oriental, to unparadise the provinces of India.
Thus, if God, in his wisdom, has thought fit to allot us a few evils for the purpose of discipline, the great ones of the world have endeavoured to make the whole of life an evil to the despised and neglected million. The world is now old, and may profit by the lessons of experience. She has decisively declared, that despotism is the grand source of human misfortune, the Pandora's box out of which every curse has issued, and scarcely left even hope behind. Despotism, in its extreme, is fatal to human happiness, and, in all its degrees and modifications, injurious. The spirit of it ought therefore to be suppressed on the first and slightest appearance. It should be the endeavour of every good man, pro virili, as far as his best abilities will extend, to extirpate all arbitrary government from the globe. It should be swept from the earth, or trampled under foot, from China to Peru. But no power is capable of crushing the Hydra, less than the Herculean arm of a whole people.
I lay it down as an incontrovertible axiom, that all who are born into the world have a right to be as happy in it as the unavoidable evils of nature, and their own disordered passions, will allow. The grand object of all good government, of all government that is not an usurpation, must be to promote this happiness, to assist every individual in its attainment and security. A government chiefly anxious about the emoluments of office, chiefly employed in augmenting its own power and aggrandizing its obsequious instruments, while it neglects the comfort and safety of individuals in middle or low life, is despotic and a nuisance. It is founded on folly as well as wickedness, and, like the freaks of insanity, deals mischief and misery around, without being able to ascertain or limit its extent and duration. If it should not be punished as criminal, let it be coerced as dangerous. Let the strait waistcoat be applied; but let men, judging fellow-men, always spare the axe.
For what rational purpose could we enter into life? To vex, torment, and slay each other with the sword? To be and to make miserable? No, by the sweet mercy of Heaven! I firmly believe, that the great King of Kings, intended every son and daughter of Adam to be as happy as the eternal laws of nature, under his controul, permit them to be in this sublunary state. Execrated and exploded be all those politics, with Machiavel, or the Evil Being, their author, which introduce systems of government and manners among the great, inconsistent with the happiness of the majority. Must real tragedies be for ever acting on the stage of human life? Must men go on for ever to be tormentors and executioners of men? Is the world never to profit by the experience of ages? Must not even attempts be made to improve the happiness of life, to improve government, though all arts and sciences are encouraged in their progress to perfection? Must the grand art, the sublimest science, that of meliorating the condition of human nature, be stationary? No; forbid it reason, virtue, benevolence, religion! Let the world be made more and more comfortable to all who are allowed the glorious privilege of seeing the sun and breathing the liberal air. Our forefathers were duped by priests and despots, and, through the timidity of superstition and the blindness of ignorance, submitted to be made artificially miserable. Let us explode that folly which we see; and let every mortal under the cope of heaven enjoy existence, as long as nature will allow the feast to continue, without any restraints on liberty but such as the majority of uncorrupted guests unite in agreeing to be salutary, and therefore conducive to the general festivity. Men are too serious in pursuing toys, money, titles, stars, ribands, triumphs, any thing that gives a momentary distinction, and gratifies an unmanly pride. They have embraced a cloud for a goddess. Let them dispel the mist, raised by false policy and cruel despotism. Let them at last distinguish real good, from its delusive appearance. Let them value duly, and pursue diligently, solid comfort, health, cheerfulness, contentment, universal benevolence, and learn to relish the sweets of nature and simplicity. They will then see happiness in something besides the possession of gold; besides those external marks of superiority which raise them to notice, and distinguish them from their equals without a difference. Strife and wars will cease, when men perceive that their highest happiness is most easily attainable in a state of contented tranquillity; their guide, nature, and their guard, innocence.
The principal objects of all rational government, such as is intended to promote human happiness, are two; to preserve peace, and to diffuse plenty. Such government will seldom tax the necessaries of life. It will avoid wars; and, by such humane and wise policy, render taxes on necessaries totally superfluous. Taxes on necessaries are usually caused by war. The poor, however, are not easily excited to insurrection. It is base calumny which accuses them. They are naturally quiescent; inclined to submission by their habits, and willing to reverence all their superiors who behave to them justly and kindly. They deserve to be used well. They deserve confidence. But oppression and persecution may teach them to lift their gigantic arm, and then vain will be resistance. Let not wars then be wantonly undertaken, which, besides their injustice and inhumanity, tend more than any thing else, by increasing taxes, to compel insurrection. The poor man hears great praises bestowed on the government he lives under, and perpetual panegyrics on the constitution. He knows little of general politics. He judges from the effects he feels. He knows that malt, leather, candles, soap, salt, and windows, without which he cannot exist in comfort, are so heavily taxed as sometimes to exclude him from obtaining the scanty portion he would require. In return for the defalcations from malt, leather, candles, soap, salt, and windows; he sees pensions, places, rich contractors, disgraceful, ruinous, and bloody wars. Yet he rises up early, and goeth forth to his work and his labour, with cheerfulness. Is he not a worthy, respectable member of society, and deserving of every indulgence? Ought he to be insulted by opprobious appellations, considered as of no political consequence, as possessing no rights, and little removed from the cattle? Suppose millions of such men in a country, ought not their wishes to be consulted, and a regard for their comfort and security to stop the sword, while emerging from its scabbard at the command of a minister?
Great reforms usually come from the people. They are slow to anger, and submit in patience. But grievances may become intolerable; and then their energy displays itself like a torrent, that has long lain still and placid within the dam, which opposed its course to a certain point, but could resist no longer.
When the people appear to be sunk in a political lethargy, let not ministers confide too much in the symptoms. A calm precedes a storm. Long continued abuses, heavy burdens, and severe grievances, without a dream of hope, may awaken the lion. Then, I think, those who have shown an inclination to set up a power unknown to constitutional freedom, and to render government hostile to the people, may justly fear.
And who, it may be asked, are they? I am happy in the opportunity of declaring it my opinion, that the king is not among them. They are men to whom neither the king nor the people are dear. They are, in a word, the oligarchy of boroughmongers, whose power is founded on an usurpation; and whose assumed sovereignty is no less inconsistent with the real freedom of a king than of a people. A most respectable society, not long ago, asserted in a petition to the house of commons, and offered to prove it at the bar, that one hundred and fifty-four men nominate and appoint a majority of the house. Has it not been suspected, that one of the principal causes of a war was the preservation of this oligarchy; by turning the attention of the people from a reform of parliament, and endeavouring to give a deadly stab to liberty. If the suspicion be well founded, this very circumstance is the strongest argument for reform which has ever been produced. Oceans of blood, and treasure enough to relieve all the poor in the nation for many years, lavished to establish a despotism, inimical to the king, the people, and to human nature! We have now reached the source of the evil, a source not so concealed as the fountain of the Nile. It is the corruption of boroughs, and the interference of ministers, peers, placemen, pensioners, and expectants, in parliamentary elections, which causes the spirit of despotism to increase; for nature, reason, and self-interest too, if they were not counteracted by corrupt influence, would revolt at it. The egg would be instantly crushed, if it were not constantly guarded and fostered in the warm, well-fortified nest of borough influence, directing all measures and disposing of all patronage.
But they are all honourable men, who are concerned in this influence. Doubtless they are not morally worse or better than others in their situation. Their situation renders them politically iniquitous. The world is governed by men, and men by their passions, and their supposed interest. But it is the business of laws to restrain them. The people are bound to watch the conduct of all, whose conduct is influential on their welfare. Unlimited confidence should be given to no man, when the happiness of millions is concerned in the consequences of his actions or counsels.
“The common people,” says a sensible author, “generally think that great men have great minds, and scorn base actions; which judgment is so false, that the basest and worst of all actions have been done by great men. They have often disturbed, deceived, and pillaged the world; and he who is capable of the highest mischief is capable of the meanest. He who plunders a country of a million of money would, in suitable circumstances, steal a silver spoon; and a conqueror, who steals and pillages a kingdom, would, in an humbler situation, rifle a portmanteau.” I should not, therefore, choose to expose my watch or purse in a crowd, to those men who have plundered Poland, if, instead of possessing a crown of jewels, and the pocket of submissive nations, they had been in the circumstances of a Barrington. Nor, though men should be called honourable, will it be safe to trust our liberties to their honour, without some collateral security; especially when we see them interfering with and controlling elections, contrary to express laws, and contrary not only to the dictates of honour, but of common honesty. They usurp a power for the gratification of pride and avarice, which they cannot hold but to the injury of the lawful and right owners. How differs this, in a moral view, from robbery? It differs, in a political view indeed, inasmuch as it is infinitely more injurious to society.
The opposers of reform, the invaders of the people's rights, are no less blind and short-sighted than meanly selfish. Let them pour their venom on the people, and dispute popular claims to natural right, as much as they please; the people must at last triumph, and liberty will in time flourish all over Europe. But let them also use a little foresight; consider what revolutions may be, by viewing what have been; and not exasperate mankind too much, lest the irritation and resentment should produce, what God in his mercy, avert, a sanguinary vengeance.
I take my leave on this occasion, recommending, from the bottom of my heart, to men in power, measures of conciliation. Let them come among us with healing in their wings. Let them concede with cheerfulness, whatever cannot be denied without injustice. Let them show themselves real friends to liberty and man. The English nation is remarkable for generosity and good-nature. All their mistakes will be forgiven. There will be no leading into captivity, and no complaining in our streets. Mercy and truth shall meet together; and righteousness and peace kiss each other. In a word; let parliament be reformed. This measure will remove all grievances, and satisfy all demands. It will at once give permanency to the throne, and happiness to the people. Kings will be republicans, in the true sense of that term; and the spirit of despotism become the spirit of philanthropy.
ANTIPOLEMUS; or, the PLEA OF REASON, RELIGION, AND HUMANITY, AGAINST WAR.