Front Page Titles (by Subject) THE ENGLISH PARLIAMENT. - The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XIX (Philosophical Letters)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
THE ENGLISH PARLIAMENT. - Voltaire, The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XIX (Philosophical Letters) 
The Works of Voltaire. A Contemporary Version. A Critique and Biography by John Morley, notes by Tobias Smollett, trans. William F. Fleming (New York: E.R. DuMont, 1901). In 21 vols. Vol. XIX.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
THE ENGLISH PARLIAMENT.
The members of the English Parliament are fond of comparing themselves, on all occasions, to the old Romans.
Not long since, Mr. Shippen opened a speech in the house of commons with these words: “The majesty of the people of England would be wounded.” The singularity of this expression occasioned a loud laugh; but this gentleman, far from being disconcerted, repeated the statement with a resolute tone of voice, and the laugh ceased. I must own, I see no resemblance between the majesty of the people of England and that of the Romans, and still less between the two governments. There is in London a senate, some of the members whereof are accused—doubtless very unjustly—of selling their votes, on certain occasions, as was done at Rome; and herein lies the whole resemblance. In other respects, the two nations appear to be quite opposite in character, with regard both to good and to evil. The Romans never knew the terrible madness of religious wars. This abomination was reserved for devout preachers of patience and humility. Marius and Sulla, Cæsar and Pompey, Antony and Augustus, did not draw their swords against one another to determine whether the flamen should wear his shirt over his robe, or his robe over his shirt; or whether the sacred chickens should both eat and drink, or eat only, in order to take the augury. The English have formerly destroyed one another, by sword or halter, for disputes of as trifling a nature. The Episcopalians and the Presbyterians quite turned the heads of these gloomy people for a time; but I believe they will hardly be so silly again, as they seem to have grown wiser at their own expense; and I do not perceive the least inclination in them to murder one another any more for mere syllogisms. But who can answer for the follies and prejudices of mankind?
Here follows a more essential difference between Rome and England, which throws the advantage entirely on the side of the latter; namely, that the civil wars of Rome ended in slavery, and those of the English in liberty. The English are the only people on earth who have been able to prescribe limits to the power of kings by resisting them, and who, by a series of struggles, have at length established that wise and happy form of government where the prince is all–powerful to do good, and at the same time is restrained from committing evil; where the nobles are great without insolence or lordly power, and the people share in the government without confusion.
The house of lords and the house of commons divide the legislative power under the king; but the Romans had no such balance. Their patricians and plebeians were continually at variance, without any intermediate power to reconcile them. The Roman senate, who were so unjustly, so criminally, formed as to exclude the plebeians from having any share in the affairs of government, could find no other artifice to effect their design than to employ them in foreign wars. They considered the people as wild beasts, whom they were to let loose upon their neighbors, for fear they should turn upon their masters. Thus the greatest defect in the government of the Romans was the means of making them conquerors; and, by being unhappy at home, they became masters of the world, till in the end their divisions sank them into slavery.
The government of England, from its nature, can never attain to so exalted a pitch, nor can it ever have so fatal an end. It has not in view the splendid folly of making conquests, but only the prevention of their neighbors from conquering. The English are jealous not only of their own liberty, but even of that of other nations. The only reason of their quarrels with Louis XIV. was on account of his ambition.
It has not been without some difficulty that liberty has been established in England, and the idol of arbitrary power has been drowned in seas of blood; nevertheless, the English do not think they have purchased their laws at too high a price. Other nations have shed as much blood; but then the blood they spilled in defence of their liberty served only to enslave them the more.
That which rises to a revolution in England is no more than a sedition in other countries. A city in Spain, in Barbary, or in Turkey takes up arms in defence of its privileges, when immediately it is stormed by mercenary troops, it is punished by executioners, and the rest of the nation kiss their chains. The French think that the government of this island is more tempestuous than the seas which surround it; in which, indeed, they are not mistaken: but then this happens only when the king raises the storm by attempting to seize the ship, of which he is only the pilot. The civil wars of France lasted longer, were more cruel, and productive of greater evils, than those of England: but none of these civil wars had a wise and becoming liberty for their object.
In the detestable times of Charles IX. and Henry III. the whole affair was only, whether the people should be slaves to the Guises. As to the last war of Paris, it deserves only to be hooted at. It makes us think we see a crowd of schoolboys rising up in arms against their master, and afterward being whipped for it. Cardinal de Retz, who was witty and brave, but employed those talents badly; who was rebellious without cause, factious without design, and the head of a defenceless party, caballed for the sake of caballing, and seemed to foment the civil war for his own amusement and pastime. The parliament did not know what he aimed at, nor what he did not aim at. He levied troops, and the next instant cashiered them; he threatened; he begged pardon; he set a price on Cardinal Mazarin’s head, and afterward congratulated him in a public manner. Our civil wars under Charles VI. were bloody and cruel, those of the League execrable, and that of the Frondeurs ridiculous.
That for which the French chiefly reproach the English nation is the murder of King Charles I., a prince who merited a better fate, and whom his subjects treated just as he would have treated them, had he been powerful and at ease. After all, consider, on one side, Charles I. defeated in a pitched battle, imprisoned, tried, sentenced to die in Westminster Hall, and then beheaded; and, on the other, the emperor Henry VII. poisoned by his chaplain in receiving the sacrament; Henry III. of France stabbed by a monk; thirty different plots contrived to assassinate Henry IV., several of them put into execution, and the last depriving that great monarch of his life. Weigh, I say, all these wicked attempts, and then judge.