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III: SIR ERSKINE MAY’S DEMOCRACY IN EUROPE - John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Lord Acton, The History of Freedom and Other Essays 
The History of Freedom and Other Essays, ed. John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence (London: Macmillan, 1907).
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SIR ERSKINE MAY’S DEMOCRACY IN EUROPE1
Scarcely thirty years separate the Europe of Guizot and Metternich from these days of universal suffrage both in France and in United Germany; when a condemned insurgent of 1848 is the constitutional Minister of Austria; when Italy, from the Alps to the Adriatic, is governed by friends of Mazzini; and statesmen who recoiled from the temerities of Peel have doubled the electoral constituency of England. If the philosopher who proclaimed the law that democratic progress is constant and irrepressible had lived to see old age, he would have been startled by the fulfilment of his prophecy. Throughout these years of revolutionary change Sir Thomas Erskine May has been more closely and constantly connected with the centre of public affairs than any other Englishman, and his place, during most of the time, has been at the table of the House of Commons, where he has sat, like Canute, and watched the rising tide. Few could be better prepared to be the historian of European Democracy than one who, having so long studied the mechanism of popular government in the most illustrious of assemblies at the height of its power, has written its history, and taught its methods to the world.
It is not strange that so delicate and laborious a task should have remained unattempted. Democracy is a gigantic current that has been fed by many springs. Physical and spiritual causes have contributed to swell it. Much has been done by economic theories, and more by economic laws. The propelling force lay sometimes in doctrine and sometimes in fact, and error has been as powerful as truth. Popular progress has been determined at one time by legislation, at others by a book, an invention, or a crime; and we may trace it to the influence of Greek metaphysicians and Roman jurists, of barbarian custom and ecclesiastical law, of the reformers who discarded the canonists, the sectaries who discarded the reformers, and the philosophers who discarded the sects. The scene has changed, as nation succeeded nation, and during the most stagnant epoch of European life the new world stored up the forces that have transformed the old.
A history that should pursue all the subtle threads from end to end might be eminently valuable, but not as a tribute to peace and conciliation. Few discoveries are more irritating than those which expose the pedigree of ideas. Sharp definitions and unsparing analysis would displace the veil beneath which society dissembles its divisions, would make political disputes too violent for compromise and political alliances too precarious for use, and would embitter politics with all the passion of social and religious strife. Sir Erskine May writes for all who take their stand within the broad lines of our constitution. His judgment is averse from extremes. He turns from the discussion of theories, and examines his subject by the daylight of institutions, believing that laws depend much on the condition of society, and little on notions and disputations unsupported by reality. He avows his disbelief even in the influence of Locke, and cares little to inquire how much self-government owes to Independency, or equality to the Quakers; and how democracy was affected by the doctrine that society is founded on contract, that happiness is the end of all government, or labour the only source of wealth; and for this reason, because he always touches ground, and brings to bear, on a vast array of sifted fact, the light of sound sense and tried experience rather than dogmatic precept, all men will read his book with profit, and almost all without offence.
Although he does not insist on inculcating a moral, he has stated in his introductory pages the ideas that guide him; and, indeed, the reader who fails to recognise the lesson of the book in every chapter will read in vain. Sir Erskine May is persuaded that it is the tendency of modern progress to elevate the masses of the people, to increase their part in the work and the fruit of civilisation, in comfort and education, in self-respect and independence, in political knowledge and power. Taken for a universal law of history, this would be as visionary as certain generalisations of Montesquieu and Tocqueville; but with the necessary restrictions of time and place, it cannot fairly be disputed. Another conclusion, supported by a far wider induction, is that democracy, like monarchy, is salutary within limits and fatal in excess; that it is the truest friend of freedom or its most unrelenting foe, according as it is mixed or pure; and this ancient and elementary truth of constitutional government is enforced with every variety of impressive and suggestive illustration from the time of the Patriarchs down to the revolution which, in 1874, converted federal Switzerland into an unqualified democracy governed by the direct voice of the entire people.
The effective distinction between liberty and democracy, which has occupied much of the author’s thoughts, cannot be too strongly drawn. Slavery has been so often associated with democracy, that a very able writer pronounced it long ago essential to a democratic state; and the philosophers of the Southern Confederation have urged the theory with extreme fervour. For slavery operates like a restricted franchise, attaches power to property, and hinders Socialism, the infirmity that attends mature democracies. The most intelligent of Greek tyrants, Periander, discouraged the employment of slaves; and Pericles designates the freedom from manual labour as the distinguishing prerogative of Athens. At Rome a tax on manumissions immediately followed the establishment of political equality by Licinius. An impeachment of England for having imposed slavery on America was carefully expunged from the Declaration of Independence; and the French Assembly, having proclaimed the Rights of Man, declared that they did not extend to the colonies. The abolition controversy has made everybody familiar with Burke’s saying, that men learn the price of freedom by being masters of slaves.
From the best days of Athens, the days of Anaxagoras, Protagoras, and Socrates, a strange affinity has subsisted between democracy and religious persecution. The bloodiest deed committed between the wars of religion and the revolution was due to the fanaticism of men living under the primitive republic in the Rhætian Alps; and of six democratic cantons only one tolerated Protestants, and that after a struggle which lasted the better part of two centuries. In 1578 the fifteen Catholic provinces would have joined the revolted Netherlands but for the furious bigotry of Ghent; and the democracy of Friesland was the most intolerant of the States. The aristocratic colonies in America defended toleration against their democratic neighbours, and its triumph in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania was the work not of policy but of religion. The French Republic came to ruin because it found the lesson of religious liberty too hard to learn. Down to the eighteenth century, indeed, it was understood in monarchies more often than in free commonwealths. Richelieu acknowledged the principle whilst he was constructing the despotism of the Bourbons; so did the electors of Brandenburg, at the time when they made themselves absolute; and after the fall of Clarendon, the notion of Indulgence was inseparable from the design of Charles II. to subvert the constitution.
A government strong enough to act in defiance of public feeling may disregard the plausible heresy that prevention is better than punishment, for it is able to punish. But a government entirely dependent on opinion looks for some security what that opinion shall be, strives for the control of the forces that shape it, and is fearful of suffering the people to be educated in sentiments hostile to its institutions. When General Grant attempted to grapple with polygamy in Utah, it was found necessary to pack the juries with Gentiles; and the Supreme Court decided that the proceedings were illegal, and that the prisoners must be set free. Even the murderer Lee was absolved, in 1875, by a jury of Mormons.
Modern democracy presents many problems too various and obscure to be solved without a larger range of materials than Tocqueville obtained from his American authorities or his own observation. To understand why the hopes and the fears that it excites have been always inseparable, to determine under what conditions it advances or retards the progress of the people and the welfare of free states, there is no better course than to follow Sir Erskine May upon the road which he has been the first to open.
In the midst of an invincible despotism, among paternal, military, and sacerdotal monarchies, the dawn rises with the deliverance of Israel out of bondage, and with the covenant which began their political life. The tribes broke up into smaller communities, administering their own affairs under the law they had sworn to observe, but which there was no civil power to enforce. They governed themselves without a central authority, a legislature, or a dominant priesthood; and this polity, which, under the forms of primitive society, realised some aspirations of developed democracy, resisted for above three hundred years the constant peril of anarchy and subjugation. The monarchy itself was limited by the same absence of a legislative power, by the submission of the king to the law that bound his subjects, by the perpetual appeal of prophets to the conscience of the people as its appointed guardian, and by the ready resource of deposition. Later still, in the decay of the religious and national constitution, the same ideas appeared with intense energy, in an extraordinary association of men who lived in austerity and self-denial, rejected slavery, maintained equality, and held their property in common, and who constituted in miniature an almost perfect Republic. But the Essenes perished with the city and the Temple, and for many ages the example of the Hebrews was more serviceable to authority than to freedom. After the Reformation, the sects that broke resolutely with the traditions of Church and State as they came down from Catholic times, and sought for their new institutions a higher authority than custom, reverted to the memory of a commonwealth founded on a voluntary contract, on self-government, federalism, equality, in which election was preferred to inheritance, and monarchy was an emblem of the heathen; and they conceived that there was no better model for themselves than a nation constituted by religion, owning no lawgiver but Moses, and obeying no king but God. Political thought had until then been guided by pagan experience.
Among the Greeks, Athens, the boldest pioneer of republican discovery, was the only democracy that prospered. It underwent the changes that were the common lot of Greek society, but it met them in a way that displayed a singular genius for politics. The struggle of competing classes for supremacy, almost everywhere a cause of oppression and bloodshed, became with them a genuine struggle for freedom; and the Athenian constitution grew, with little pressure from below, under the intelligent action of statesmen who were swayed by political reasoning more than by public opinion. They avoided violent and convulsive change, because the rate of their reforms kept ahead of the popular demand. Solon, whose laws began the reign of mind over force, instituted democracy by making the people, not indeed the administrators, but the source of power. He committed the Government not to rank or birth, but to land; and he regulated the political influence of the landowners by their share in the burdens of the public service. To the lower class, who neither bore arms nor paid taxes, and were excluded from the Government, he granted the privilege of choosing and of calling to account the men by whom they were governed, of confirming or rejecting the acts of the legislature and the judgments of the courts. Although he charged the Areopagus with the preservation of his laws, he provided that they might be revised according to need; and the ideal before his mind was government by all free citizens. His concessions to the popular element were narrow, and were carefully guarded. He yielded no more than was necessary to guarantee the attachment of the whole people to the State. But he admitted principles that went further than the claims which he conceded. He took only one step towards democracy, but it was the first of a series.
When the Persian wars, which converted aristocratic Athens into a maritime state, had developed new sources of wealth and a new description of interests, the class which had supplied many of the ships and most of the men that had saved the national independence and founded an empire, could not be excluded from power. Solon’s principle, that political influence should be commensurate with political service, broke through the forms in which he had confined it, and the spirit of his constitution was too strong for the letter. The fourth estate was admitted to office, and in order that its candidates might obtain their share, and no more than their share, and that neither interest nor numbers might prevail, many public functionaries were appointed by lot. The Athenian idea of a Republic was to substitute the impersonal supremacy of law for the government of men. Mediocrity was a safeguard against the pretensions of superior capacity, for the established order was in danger, not from the average citizens, but from men, like Miltiades, of exceptional renown. The people of Athens venerated their constitution as a gift of the gods, the source and title of their power, a thing too sacred for wanton change. They had demanded a code, that the unwritten law might no longer be intrepreted at will by Archons and Areopagites; and a well-defined and authoritative legislation was a triumph of the democracy.
So well was this conservative spirit understood, that the revolution which abolished the privileges of the aristocracy was promoted by Aristides and completed by Pericles, men free from the reproach of flattering the multitude. They associated all the free Athenians with the interest of the State, and called them, without distinction of class, to administer the powers that belonged to them. Solon had threatened with the loss of citizenship all who showed themselves indifferent in party conflicts, and Pericles declared that every man who neglected his share of public duty was a useless member of the community. That wealth might confer no unfair advantage, that the poor might not take bribes from the rich, he took them into the pay of the State during their attendance as jurors. That their numbers might give them no unjust superiority, he restricted the right of citizenship to those who came from Athenian parents on both sides; and thus he expelled more than 4000 men of mixed descent from the Assembly. This bold measure, which was made acceptable by a distribution of grain from Egypt among those who proved their full Athenian parentage, reduced the fourth class to an equality with the owners of real property. For Pericles, or Ephialtes—for it would appear that all their reforms had been carried in the year 460, when Ephialtes died—is the first democratic statesman who grasped the notion of political equality. The measures which made all citizens equal might have created a new inequality between classes, and the artificial privilege of land might have been succeeded by the more crushing preponderance of numbers. But Pericles held it to be intolerable that one portion of the people should be required to obey laws which others have the exclusive right of making; and he was able, during thirty years, to preserve the equipoise, governing by the general consent of the community, formed by free debate. He made the undivided people sovereign; but he subjected the popular initiative to a court of revision, and assigned a penalty to the proposer of any measure which should be found to be unconstitutional. Athens, under Pericles, was the most successful Republic that existed before the system of representation; but its splendour ended with his life.
The danger to liberty from the predominance either of privilege or majorities was so manifest, that an idea arose that equality of fortune would be the only way to prevent the conflict of class interests. The philosophers, Phaleas, Plato, Aristotle, suggested various expedients to level the difference between rich and poor. Solon had endeavoured to check the increase of estates; and Pericles had not only strengthened the public resources by bringing the rich under the control of an assembly in which they were not supreme, but he had employed those resources in improving the condition and the capacity of the masses. The grievance of those who were taxed for the benefit of others was easily borne so long as the tribute of the confederates filled the treasury. But the Peloponnesian war increased the strain on the revenue and deprived Athens of its dependencies. The balance was upset; and the policy of making one class give, that another might receive, was recommended not only by the interest of the poor, but by a growing theory, that wealth and poverty make bad citizens, that the middle class is the one most easily led by reason, and that the way to make it predominate is to depress whatever rises above the common level, and to raise whatever falls below it. This theory, which became inseparable from democracy, and contained a force which alone seems able to destroy it, was fatal to Athens, for it drove the minority to treason. The glory of the Athenian democrats is, not that they escaped the worst consequences of their principle, but that, having twice cast out the usurping oligarchy, they set bounds to their own power. They forgave their vanquished enemies; they abolished pay for attendance in the assembly; they established the supremacy of law by making the code superior to the people; they distinguished things that were constitutional from things that were legal, and resolved that no legislative act should pass until it had been pronounced consistent with the constitution.
The causes which ruined the Republic of Athens illustrate the connection of ethics with politics rather than the vices inherent to democracy. A State which has only 30,000 full citizens in a population of 500,000, and is governed, practically, by about 3000 people at a public meeting, is scarcely democratic. The short triumph of Athenian liberty, and its quick decline, belong to an age which possessed no fixed standard of right and wrong. An unparalleled activity of intellect was shaking the credit of the gods, and the gods were the givers of the law. It was a very short step from the suspicion of Protagoras, that there were no gods, to the assertion of Critias that there is no sanction for laws. If nothing was certain in theology, there was no certainty in ethics and no moral obligation. The will of man, not the will of God, was the rule of life, and every man and body of men had the right to do what they had the means of doing. Tyranny was no wrong, and it was hypocrisy to deny oneself the enjoyment it affords. The doctrine of the Sophists gave no limits to power and no security to freedom; it inspired that cry of the Athenians, that they must not be hindered from doing what they pleased, and the speeches of men like Athenagoras and Euphemus, that the democracy may punish men who have done no wrong, and that nothing that is profitable is amiss. And Socrates perished by the reaction which they provoked.
The disciples of Socrates obtained the ear of posterity. Their testimony against the government that put the best of citizens to death is enshrined in writings that compete with Christianity itself for influence on the opinions of men. Greece has governed the world by her philosophy, and the loudest note in Greek philosophy is the protest against Athenian democracy. But although Socrates derided the practice of leaving the choice of magistrates to chance, and Plato admired the bloodstained tyrant Critias, and Aristotle deemed Theramenes a greater statesman than Pericles, yet these are the men who laid the first stones of a purer system, and became the lawgivers of future commonwealths.
The main point in the method of Socrates was essentially democratic. He urged men to bring all things to the test of incessant inquiry, and not to content themselves with the verdict of authorities, majorities, or custom; to judge of right and wrong, not by the will or sentiment of others, but by the light which God has set in each man’s reason and conscience. He proclaimed that authority is often wrong, and has no warrant to silence or to impose conviction. But he gave no warrant to resistance. He emancipated men for thought, but not for action. The sublime history of his death shows that the superstition of the State was undisturbed by his contempt for its rulers.
Plato had not his master’s patriotism, nor his reverence for the civil power. He believed that no State can command obedience if it does not deserve respect; and he encouraged citizens to despise their government if they were not governed by wise men. To the aristocracy of philosophers he assigned a boundless prerogative; but as no government satisfied that test, his plea for despotism was hypothetical. When the lapse of years roused him from the fantastic dream of his Republic, his belief in divine government moderated his intolerance of human freedom. Plato would not suffer a democratic polity; but he challenged all existing authorities to justify themselves before a superior tribunal; he desired that all constitutions should be thoroughly remodelled, and he supplied the greatest need of Greek democracy, the conviction that the will of the people is subject to the will of God, and that all civil authority, except that of an imaginary state, is limited and conditional. The prodigious vitality of his writings has kept the glaring perils of popular government constantly before mankind; but it has also preserved the belief in ideal politics and the notion of judging the powers of this world by a standard from heaven. There has been no fiercer enemy of democracy; but there has been no stronger advocate of revolution.
In the Ethics Aristotle condemns democracy, even with a property qualification, as the worst of governments. But near the end of his life, when he composed his Politics, he was brought, grudgingly, to make a memorable concession. To preserve the sovereignty of law, which is the reason and the custom of generations, and to restrict the realm of choice and change, he conceived it best that no class of society should preponderate, that one man should not be subject to another, that all should command and all obey. He advised that power should be distributed to high and low; to the first according to their property, to the others according to numbers; and that it should centre in the middle class. If aristocracy and democracy were fairly combined and balanced against each other, he thought that none would be interested to disturb the serene majesty of impersonal government. To reconcile the two principles, he would admit even the poorer citizens to office and pay them for the discharge of public duties; but he would compel the rich to take their share, and would appoint magistrates by election and not by lot. In his indignation at the extravagance of Plato, and his sense of the significance of facts, he became, against his will, the prophetic exponent of a limited and regenerated democracy. But the Politics, which, to the world of living men, is the most valuable of his works, acquired no influence on antiquity, and is never quoted before the time of Cicero. Again it disappeared for many centuries; it was unknown to the Arabian commentators, and in Western Europe it was first brought to light by St. Thomas Aquinas, at the very time when an infusion of popular elements was modifying feudalism, and it helped to emancipate political philosophy from despotic theories and to confirm it in the ways of freedom.
The three generations of the Socratic school did more for the future reign of the people than all the institutions of the States of Greece. They vindicated conscience against authority, and subjected both to a higher law; and they proclaimed that doctrine of a mixed constitution, which has prevailed at last over absolute monarchy, and still has to contend against extreme Republicans and Socialists, and against the masters of a hundred legions. But their views of liberty were based on expediency, not on justice. They legislated for the favoured citizens of Greece, and were conscious of no principle that extended the same rights to the stranger and the slave. That discovery, without which all political science was merely conventional, belongs to the followers of Zeno.
The dimness and poverty of their theological speculation caused the Stoics to attribute the government of the universe less to the uncertain design of gods than to a definite law of nature. By that law, which is superior to religious traditions and national authorities, and which every man can learn from a guardian angel who neither sleeps nor errs, all are governed alike, all are equal, all are bound in charity to each other, as members of one community and children of the same God. The unity of mankind implied the existence of rights and duties common to all men, which legislation neither gives nor takes away. The Stoics held in no esteem the institutions that vary with time and place, and their ideal society resembled a universal Church more than an actual State. In every collision between authority and conscience they preferred the inner to the outer guide; and, in the words of Epictetus, regarded the laws of the gods, not the wretched laws of the dead. Their doctrine of equality, of fraternity, of humanity; their defence of individualism against public authority; their repudiation of slavery, redeemed democracy from the narrowness, the want of principle and of sympathy, which are its reproach among the Greeks. In practical life they preferred a mixed constitution to a purely popular government. Chrysippus thought it impossible to please both gods and men; and Seneca declared that the people is corrupt and incapable, and that nothing was wanting, under Nero, to the fulness of liberty, except the possibility of destroying it. But their lofty conception of freedom, as no exceptional privilege but the birthright of mankind, survived in the law of nations and purified the equity of Rome.
Whilst Dorian oligarchs and Macedonian kings crushed the liberties of Greece, the Roman Republic was ruined, not by its enemies, for there was no enemy it did not conquer, but by its own vices. It was free from many causes of instability and dissolution that were active in Greece—the eager quickness, the philosophic thought, the independent belief, the pursuit of unsubstantial grace and beauty. It was protected by many subtle contrivances against the sovereignty of numbers and against legislation by surprise. Constitutional battles had to be fought over and over again; and progress was so slow, that reforms were often voted many years before they could be carried into effect. The authority allowed to fathers, to masters, to creditors, was as incompatible with the spirit of freedom as the practice of the servile East. The Roman citizen revelled in the luxury of power; and his jealous dread of every change that might impair its enjoyment portended a gloomy oligarchy. The cause which transformed the domination of rigid and exclusive patricians into the model Republic, and which out of the decomposed Republic built up the archetype of all despotism, was the fact that the Roman Commonwealth consisted of two States in one. The constitution was made up of compromises between independent bodies, and the obligation of observing contracts was the standing security for freedom. The plebs obtained self-government and an equal sovereignty, by the aid of the tribunes of the people, the peculiar, salient, and decisive invention of Roman statecraft. The powers conferred on the tribunes, that they might be the guardians of the weak, were ill defined, but practically were irresistible. They could not govern, but they could arrest all government. The first and the last step of plebeian progress was gained neither by violence nor persuasion, but by seceding; and, in like manner, the tribunes overcame all the authorities of the State by the weapon of obstruction. It was by stopping public business for five years that Licinius established democratic equality. The safeguard against abuse was the right of each tribune to veto the acts of his colleagues. As they were independent of their electors, and as there could hardly fail to be one wise and honest man among the ten, this was the most effective instrument for the defence of minorities ever devised by man. After the Hortensian law, which in the year 287 gave to the plebeian assembly co-ordinate legislative authority, the tribunes ceased to represent the cause of a minority, and their work was done.
A scheme less plausible or less hopeful than one which created two sovereign legislatures side by side in the same community would be hard to find. Yet it effectually closed the conflict of centuries, and gave to Rome an epoch of constant prosperity and greatness. No real division subsisted in the people, corresponding to the artificial division in the State. Fifty years passed away before the popular assembly made use of its prerogative, and passed a law in opposition to the senate. Polybius could not detect a flaw in the structure as it stood. The harmony seemed to be complete, and he judged that a more perfect example of composite government could not exist. But during those happy years the cause which wrought the ruin of Roman freedom was in full activity; for it was the condition of perpetual war that brought about the three great changes which were the beginning of the end—the reforms of the Gracchi, the arming of the paupers, and the gift of the Roman suffrage to the people of Italy.
Before the Romans began their career of foreign conquest they possessed an army of 770,000 men; and from that time the consumption of citizens in war was incessant. Regions once crowded with the small freeholds of four or five acres, which were the ideal unit of Roman society and the sinew of the army and the State, were covered with herds of cattle and herds of slaves, and the substance of the governing democracy was drained. The policy of the agrarian reform was to reconstitute this peasant class out of the public domains, that is, out of lands which the ruling families had possessed for generations, which they had bought and sold, inherited, divided, cultivated, and improved. The conflict of interests that had so long slumbered revived with a fury unknown in the controversy between the patricians and the plebs. For it was now a question not of equal rights but of subjugation. The social restoration of democratic elements could not be accomplished without demolishing the senate; and this crisis at last exposed the defect of the machinery and the peril of divided powers that were not to be controlled or reconciled. The popular assembly, led by Gracchus, had the power of making laws; and the only constitutional check was, that one of the tribunes should be induced to bar the proceedings. Accordingly, the tribune Octavius interposed his veto. The tribunician power, the most sacred of powers, which could not be questioned because it was founded on a covenant between the two parts of the community and formed the keystone of their union, was employed, in opposition to the will of the people, to prevent a reform on which the preservation of the democracy depended. Gracchus caused Octavius to be deposed. Though not illegal, this was a thing unheard of, and it seemed to the Romans a sacrilegious act that shook the pillars of the State, for it was the first significant revelation of democratic sovereignty. A tribune might burn the arsenal and betray the city, yet he could not be called to account until his year of office had expired. But when he employed against the people the authority with which they had invested him, the spell was dissolved. The tribunes had been instituted as the champions of the oppressed, when the plebs feared oppression. It was resolved that they should not interfere on the weaker side when the democracy were the strongest. They were chosen by the people as their defence against the aristocracy. It was not to be borne that they should become the agents of the aristocracy to make them once more supreme. Against a popular tribune, whom no colleague was suffered to oppose, the wealthy classes were defenceless. It is true that he held office, and was inviolable, only for a year. But the younger Gracchus was re-elected. The nobles accused him of aiming at the crown. A tribune who should be practically irremovable, as well as legally irresistible, was little less than an emperor. The senate carried on the conflict as men do who fight, not for public interests but for their own existence. They rescinded the agrarian laws. They murdered the popular leaders. They abandoned the constitution to save themselves, and invested Sylla with a power beyond all monarchs, to exterminate their foes. The ghastly conception of a magistrate legally proclaimed superior to all the laws was familiar to the stern spirit of the Romans. The decemvirs had enjoyed that arbitrary authority; but practically they were restrained by the two provisions which alone were deemed efficacious in Rome, the short duration of office, and its distribution among several colleagues. But the appointment of Sylla was neither limited nor divided. It was to last as long as he chose. Whatever he might do was right; and he was empowered to put whomsoever he pleased to death, without trial or accusation. All the victims who were butchered by his satellites suffered with the full sanction of the law.
When at last the democracy conquered, the Augustan monarchy, by which they perpetuated their triumph, was moderate in comparison with the licensed tyranny of the aristocratic chief. The Emperor was the constitutional head of the Republic, armed with all the powers requisite to master the senate. The instrument which had served to cast down the patricians was efficient against the new aristocracy of wealth and office. The tribunician power, conferred in perpetuity, made it unnecessary to create a king or a dictator. Thrice the senate proposed to Augustus the supreme power of making laws. He declared that the power of the tribunes already supplied him with all that he required. It enabled him to preserve the forms of a simulated republic. The most popular of all the magistracies of Rome furnished the marrow of Imperialism. For the Empire was created, not by usurpation, but by the legal act of a jubilant people, eager to close the era of bloodshed and to secure the largess of grain and coin, which amounted, at last, to 900,000 pounds a year. The people transferred to the Emperor the plenitude of their own sovereignty. To limit his delegated power was to challenge their omnipotence, to renew the issue between the many and the few which had been decided at Pharsalus and Philippi. The Romans upheld the absolutism of the Empire because it was their own. The elementary antagonism between liberty and democracy, between the welfare of minorities and the supremacy of masses, became manifest. The friend of the one was a traitor to the other. The dogma, that absolute power may, by the hypothesis of a popular origin, be as legitimate as constitutional freedom, began, by the combined support of the people and the throne, to darken the air.
Legitimate, in the technical sense of modern politics, the Empire was not meant to be. It had no right or claim to subsist apart from the will of the people. To limit the Emperor’s authority was to renounce their own; but to take it away was to assert their own. They gave the Empire as they chose. They took it away as they chose. The Revolution was as lawful and as irresponsible as the Empire. Democratic institutions continued to develop. The provinces were no longer subject to an assembly meeting in a distant capital. They obtained the privileges of Roman citizens. Long after Tiberius had stripped the inhabitants of Rome of their electoral function, the provincials continued in undisturbed enjoyment of the right of choosing their own magistrates. They governed themselves like a vast confederation of municipal republics; and, even after Diocletian had brought in the forms as well as the reality of despotism, provincial assemblies, the obscure germ of representative institutions, exercised some control over the Imperial officers.
But the Empire owed the intensity of its force to the popular fiction. The principle, that the Emperor is not subject to laws from which he can dispense others, princeps legibus solutus, was interpreted to imply that he was above all legal restraint. There was no appeal from his sentence. He was the living law. The Roman jurists, whilst they adorned their writings with the exalted philosophy of the Stoics, consecrated every excess of Imperial prerogative with those famous maxims which have been balm to so many consciences and have sanctioned so much wrong; and the code of Justinian became the greatest obstacle, next to feudalism, with which liberty had to contend.
Ancient democracy, as it was in Athens in the best days of Pericles, or in Rome when Polybius described it, or even as it is idealised by Aristotle in the Sixth Book of his Politics, and by Cicero in the beginning of the Republic, was never more than a partial and insincere solution of the problem of popular government. The ancient politicians aimed no higher than to diffuse power among a numerous class. Their liberty was bound up with slavery. They never attempted to found a free State on the thrift and energy of free labour. They never divined the harder but more grateful task that constitutes the political life of Christian nations.
By humbling the supremacy of rank and wealth; by forbidding the State to encroach on the domain which belongs to God; by teaching man to love his neighbour as himself; by promoting the sense of equality; by condemning the pride of race, which was a stimulus of conquest, and the doctrine of separate descent, which formed the philosopher’s defence of slavery; and by addressing not the rulers but the masses of mankind, and making opinion superior to authority, the Church that preached the Gospel to the poor had visible points of contact with democracy. And yet Christianity did not directly influence political progress. The ancient watchword of the Republic was translated by Papinian into the language of the Church: “Summa est ratio quæ pro religione fiat:” and for eleven hundred years, from the first to the last of the Constantines, the Christian Empire was as despotic as the pagan.
Meanwhile Western Europe was overrun by men who in their early home had been Republicans. The primitive constitution of the German communities was based on association rather than on subordination. They were accustomed to govern their affairs by common deliberation, and to obey authorities that were temporary and defined. It is one of the desperate enterprises of historical science to trace the free institutions of Europe and America, and Australia, to the life that was led in the forests of Germany. But the new States were founded on conquest, and in war the Germans were commanded by kings. The doctrine of self-government, applied to Gaul and Spain, would have made Frank and Goth disappear in the mass of the conquered people. It needed all the resources of a vigorous monarchy, of a military aristocracy, and of a territorial clergy, to construct States that were able to last. The result was the feudal system, the most absolute contradiction of democracy that has coexisted with civilisation.
The revival of democracy was due neither to the Christian Church nor to the Teutonic State, but to the quarrel between them. The effect followed the cause instantaneously. As soon as Gregory VII. made the Papacy independent of the Empire, the great conflict began; and the same pontificate gave birth to the theory of the sovereignty of the people. The Gregorian party argued that the Emperor derived his crown from the nation, and that the nation could take away what it had bestowed. The Imperialists replied that nobody could take away what the nation had given. It is idle to look for the spark either in flint or steel. The object of both parties was unqualified supremacy. Fitznigel has no more idea of ecclesiastical liberty than John of Salisbury of political. Innocent IV. is as perfect an absolutist as Peter de Vineis. But each party encouraged democracy in turn, by seeking the aid of the towns; each party in turn appealed to the people, and gave strength to the constitutional theory. In the fourteenth century English Parliaments judged and deposed their kings, as a matter of right; the Estates governed France without king or noble; and the wealth and liberties of the towns, which had worked out their independence from the centre of Italy to the North Sea, promised for a moment to transform European society. Even in the capitals of great princes, in Rome, in Paris, and, for two terrible days, in London, the commons obtained sway. But the curse of instability was on the municipal republics. Strasburg, according to Erasmus and Bodin, the best governed of all, suffered from perpetual commotions. An ingenious historian has reckoned seven thousand revolutions in the Italian cities. The democracies succeeded no better than feudalism in regulating the balance between rich and poor. The atrocities of the Jacquerie, and of Wat Tyler’s rebellion, hardened the hearts of men against the common people. Church and State combined to put them down. And the last memorable struggles of mediæval liberty—the insurrection of the Comuneros in Castile, the Peasants’ War in Germany, the Republic of Florence, and the Revolt of Ghent—were suppressed by Charles V. in the early years of the Reformation.
The middle ages had forged a complete arsenal of constitutional maxims: trial by jury, taxation by representation, local self-government, ecclesiastical independence, responsible authority. But they were not secured by institutions, and the Reformation began by making the dry bones more dry. Luther claimed to be the first divine who did justice to the civil power. He made the Lutheran Church the bulwark of political stability, and bequeathed to his disciples the doctrine of divine right and passive obedience. Zwingli, who was a staunch republican, desired that all magistrates should be elected, and should be liable to be dismissed by their electors; but he died too soon for his influence, and the permanent action of the Reformation on democracy was exercised through the Presbyterian constitution of Calvin.
It was long before the democratic element in Presbyterianism began to tell. The Netherlands resisted Philip II. for fifteen years before they took courage to depose him, and the scheme of the ultra-Calvinist Deventer, to subvert the ascendency of the leading States by the sovereign action of the whole people, was foiled by Leicester’s incapacity, and by the consummate policy of Barnevelt. The Huguenots, having lost their leaders in 1572, reconstituted themselves on a democratic footing, and learned to think that a king who murders his subjects forfeits his divine right to be obeyed. But Junius Brutus and Buchanan damaged their credit by advocating regicide; and Hotoman, whose Franco-Gallia is the most serious work of the group, deserted his liberal opinions when the chief of his own party became king. The most violent explosion of democracy in that age proceeded from the opposite quarter. When Henry of Navarre became the next heir to the throne of France, the theory of the deposing power, which had proved ineffectual for more than a century, awoke with a new and more vigorous life. One-half of the nation accepted the view, that they were not bound to submit to a king they would not have chosen. A Committee of Sixteen made itself master of Paris, and, with the aid of Spain, succeeded for years in excluding Henry from his capital. The impulse thus given endured in literature for a whole generation, and produced a library of treatises on the right of Catholics to choose, to control, and to cashier their magistrates. They were on the losing side. Most of them were bloodthirsty, and were soon forgotten. But the greater part of the political ideas of Milton, Locke, and Rousseau, may be found in the ponderous Latin of Jesuits who were subjects of the Spanish Crown, of Lessius, Molina, Mariana, and Suarez.
The ideas were there, and were taken up when it suited them by extreme adherents of Rome and of Geneva; but they produced no lasting fruit until, a century after the Reformation, they became incorporated in new religious systems. Five years of civil war could not exhaust the royalism of the Presbyterians, and it required the expulsion of the majority to make the Long Parliament abandon monarchy. It had defended the constitution against the crown with legal arts, defending precedent against innovation, and setting up an ideal in the past which, with all the learning of Selden and of Prynne, was less certain than the Puritan statesmen supposed. The Independants brought in a new principle. Tradition had no authority for them, and the past no virtue. Liberty of conscience, a thing not to be found in the constitution, was more prized by many of them than all the statutes of the Plantagenets. Their idea that each congregation should govern itself abolished the force which is needed to preserve unity, and deprived monarchy of the weapon which made it injurious to freedom. An immense revolutionary energy resided in their doctrine, and it took root in America, and deeply coloured political thought in later times. But in England the sectarian democracy was strong only to destroy. Cromwell refused to be bound by it; and John Lilburne, the boldest thinker among English democrats, declared that it would be better for liberty to bring back Charles Stuart than to live under the sword of the Protector.
Lilburne was among the first to understand the real conditions of democracy, and the obstacle to its success in England. Equality of power could not be preserved, except by violence, together with an extreme inequality of possessions. There would always be danger, if power was not made to wait on property, that property would go to those who had the power. This idea of the necessary balance of property, developed by Harrington, and adopted by Milton in his later pamphlets, appeared to Toland, and even to John Adams, as important as the invention of printing, or the discovery of the circulation of the blood. At least it indicates the true explanation of the strange completeness with which the Republican party had vanished, a dozen years after the solemn trial and execution of the King. No extremity of misgovernment was able to revive it. When the treason of Charles II. against the constitution was divulged, and the Whigs plotted to expel the incorrigible dynasty, their aspirations went no farther than a Venetian oligarchy, with Monmouth for Doge. The Revolution of 1688 confined power to the aristocracy of freeholders. The conservatism of the age was unconquerable. Republicanism was distorted even in Switzerland, and became in the eighteenth century as oppressive and as intolerant as its neighbours.
In 1769, when Paoli fled from Corsica, it seemed that, in Europe at least, democracy was dead. It had, indeed, lately been defended in books by a man of bad reputation, whom the leaders of public opinion treated with contumely, and whose declamations excited so little alarm that George III. offered him a pension. What gave to Rousseau a power far exceeding that which any political writer had ever attained was the progress of events in America. The Stuarts had been willing that the colonies should serve as a refuge from their system of Church and State, and of all their colonies the one most favoured was the territory granted to William Penn. By the principles of the Society to which he belonged, it was necessary that the new State should be founded on liberty and equality. But Penn was further noted among Quakers as a follower of the new doctrine of Toleration. Thus it came to pass that Pennsylvania enjoyed the most democratic constitution in the world, and held up to the admiration of the eighteenth century an almost solitary example of freedom. It was principally through Franklin and the Quaker State that America influenced political opinion in Europe, and that the fanaticism of one revolutionary epoch was converted into the rationalism of another. American independence was the beginning of a new era, not merely as a revival of Revolution, but because no other Revolution ever proceeded from so slight a cause, or was ever conducted with so much moderation. The European monarchies supported it. The greatest statesmen in England averred that it was just. It established a pure democracy; but it was democracy in its highest perfection, armed and vigilant, less against aristocracy and monarchy than against its own weakness and excess. Whilst England was admired for the safeguards with which, in the course of many centuries, it had fortified liberty against the power of the crown, America appeared still more worthy of admiration for the safeguards which, in the deliberations of a single memorable year, it had set up against the power of its own sovereign people. It resembled no other known democracy, for it respected freedom, authority, and law. It resembled no other constitution, for it was contained in half a dozen intelligible articles. Ancient Europe opened its mind to two new ideas—that Revolution with very little provocation may be just; and that democracy in very large dimensions may be safe.
Whilst America was making itself independent, the spirit of reform had been abroad in Europe. Intelligent ministers, like Campomanes and Struensee, and well-meaning monarchs, of whom the most liberal was Leopold of Tuscany, were trying what could be done to make men happy by command. Centuries of absolute and intolerant rule had bequeathed abuses which nothing but the most vigorous use of power could remove. The age preferred the reign of intellect to the reign of liberty. Turgot, the ablest and most far-seeing reformer then living, attempted to do for France what less gifted men were doing with success in Lombardy, and Tuscany, and Parma. He attempted to employ the royal power for the good of the people, at the expense of the higher classes. The higher classes proved too strong for the crown alone; and Louis XVI. abandoned internal reforms in despair, and turned for compensation to a war with England for the deliverance of her American Colonies. When the increasing debt obliged him to seek heroic remedies, and he was again repulsed by the privileged orders, he appealed at last to the nation. When the States-General met, the power had already passed to the middle class, for it was by them alone that the country could be saved. They were strong enough to triumph by waiting. Neither the Court, nor the nobles, nor the army, could do anything against them. During the six months from January 1789 to the fall of the Bastille in July, France travelled as far as England in the six hundred years between the Earl of Leicester and Lord Beaconsfield. Ten years after the American alliance, the Rights of Man, which had been proclaimed at Philadelphia, were repeated at Versailles. The alliance had borne fruit on both sides of the Atlantic, and for France, the fruit was the triumph of American ideas over English. They were more popular, more simple, more effective against privilege, and, strange to say, more acceptable to the King. The new French constitution allowed no privileged orders, no parliamentary ministry, no power of dissolution, and only a suspensive veto. But the characteristic safeguards of the American Government were rejected: Federalism, separation of Church and State, the Second Chamber, the political arbitration of the supreme judicial body. That which weakened the Executive was taken: that which restrained the Legislature was left. Checks on the crown abounded; but should the crown be vacant, the powers that remained would be without a check. The precautions were all in one direction. Nobody would contemplate the contingency that there might be no king. The constitution was inspired by a profound disbelief in Louis XVI. and a pertinacious belief in monarchy. The assembly voted without debate, by acclamation, a Civil List three times as large as that of Queen Victoria. When Louis fled, and the throne was actually vacant, they brought him back to it, preferring the phantom of a king who was a prisoner to the reality of no king at all.
Next to this misapplication of American examples, which was the fault of nearly all the leading statesmen, excepting Mounier, Mirabeau, and Sieyès, the cause of the Revolution was injured by its religious policy. The most novel and impressive lesson taught by the fathers of the American Republic was that the people, and not the administration, should govern. Men in office were salaried agents, by whom the nation wrought its will. Authority submitted to public opinion, and left to it not only the control, but the initiative of government. Patience in waiting for a wind, alacrity in catching it, the dread of exerting unnecessary influence, characterise the early presidents. Some of the French politicians shared this view, though with less exaggeration than Washington. They wished to decentralise the government, and to obtain, for good or evil, the genuine expression of popular sentiment. Necker himself, and Buzot, the most thoughtful of the Girondins, dreamed of federalising France. In the United States there was no current of opinion, and no combination of forces, to be seriously feared. The government needed no security against being propelled in a wrong direction. But the French Revolution was accomplished at the expense of powerful classes. Besides the nobles, the Assembly, which had been made supreme by the accession of the clergy, and had been led at first by popular ecclesiastics, by Sieyès, Talleyrand, Cicé, La Luzerne, made an enemy of the clergy. The prerogative could not be destroyed without touching the Church. Ecclesiastical patronage had helped to make the crown absolute. To leave it in the hands of Louis and his ministers was to renounce the entire policy of the constitution. To disestablish, was to make it over to the Pope. It was consistent with the democratic principle to introduce election into the Church. It involved a breach with Rome; but so, indeed, did the laws of Joseph II., Charles III., and Leopold. The Pope was not likely to cast away the friendship of France, if he could help it; and the French clergy were not likely to give trouble by their attachment to Rome. Therefore, amid the indifference of many, and against the urgent, and probably sincere, remonstrances of Robespierre and Marat, the Jansenists, who had a century of persecution to avenge, carried the Civil Constitution. The coercive measures which enforced it led to the breach with the King, and the fall of the monarchy; to the revolt of the provinces, and the fall of liberty. The Jacobins determined that public opinion should not reign, that the State should not remain at the mercy of powerful combinations. They held the representatives of the people under control, by the people itself. They attributed higher authority to the direct than to the indirect voice of the democratic oracle. They armed themselves with power to crush every adverse, every independent force, and especially to put down the Church, in whose cause the provinces had risen against the capital. They met the centrifugal federalism of the friends of the Gironde by the most resolute centralisation. France was governed by Paris; and Paris by its municipality and its mob. Obeying Rousseau’s maxim, that the people cannot delegate its power, they raised the elementary constituency above its representatives. As the greatest constituent body, the most numerous accumulation of primary electors, the largest portion of sovereignty, was in the people of Paris, they designed that the people of Paris should rule over France, as the people of Rome, the mob as well as the senate, had ruled, not ingloriously, over Italy, and over half the nations that surround the Mediterranean. Although the Jacobins were scarcely more irreligious than the Abbé Sieyès or Madame Roland, although Robespierre wanted to force men to believe in God, although Danton went to confession and Barère was a professing Christian, they imparted to modern democracy that implacable hatred of religion which contrasts so strangely with the example of its Puritan prototype.
The deepest cause which made the French Revolution so disastrous to liberty was its theory of equality. Liberty was the watchword of the middle class, equality of the lower. It was the lower class that won the battles of the third estate; that took the Bastille, and made France a constitutional monarchy; that took the Tuileries, and made France a Republic. They claimed their reward. The middle class, having cast down the upper orders with the aid of the lower, instituted a new inequality and a privilege for itself. By means of a taxpaying qualification it deprived its confederates of their vote. To those, therefore, who had accomplished the Revolution, its promise was not fulfilled. Equality did nothing for them. The opinion, at that time, was almost universal, that society is founded on an agreement which is voluntary and conditional, and that the links which bind men to it are terminable, for sufficient reason, like those which subject them to authority. From these popular premises the logic of Marat drew his sanguinary conclusions. He told the famished people that the conditions on which they had consented to bear their evil lot, and had refrained from violence, had not been kept to them. It was suicide, it was murder, to submit to starve and to see one’s children starving, by the fault of the rich. The bonds of society were dissolved by the wrong it inflicted. The state of nature had come back, in which every man had a right to what he could take. The time had come for the rich to make way for the poor. With this theory of equality, liberty was quenched in blood, and Frenchmen became ready to sacrifice all other things to save life and fortune.
Twenty years after the splendid opportunity that opened in 1789, the reaction had triumphed everywhere in Europe; ancient constitutions had perished as well as new; and even England afforded them neither protection nor sympathy. The liberal, at least the democratic revival, came from Spain. The Spaniards fought against the French for a king, who was a prisoner in France. They gave themselves a constitution, and placed his name at the head of it. They had a monarchy, without a king. It required to be so contrived that it would work in the absence, possibly the permanent absence, of the monarch. It became, therefore, a monarchy only in name, composed, in fact, of democratic forces. The constitution of 1812 was the attempt of inexperienced men to accomplish the most difficult task in politics. It was smitten with sterility. For many years it was the standard of abortive revolutions among the so-called Latin nations. It promulgated the notion of a king who should flourish only in name, and should not even discharge the humble function which Hegel assigns to royalty, of dotting I’s for the people.
The overthrow of the Cadiz constitution, in 1823, was the supreme triumph of the restored monarchy of France. Five years later, under a wise and liberal minister, the Restoration was advancing fairly on the constitutional paths, when the incurable distrust of the Liberal party defeated Martignac, and brought in the ministry of extreme royalists that ruined the monarchy. In labouring to transfer power from the class which the Revolution had enfranchised to those which it had overthrown, Polignac and La Bourdonnaie would gladly have made terms with the working men. To break the influence of intellect and capital by means of universal suffrage, was an idea long and zealously advocated by some of their supporters. They had not foresight or ability to divide their adversaries, and they were vanquished in 1830 by the united democracy.
The promise of the Revolution of July was to reconcile royalists and democrats. The King assured Lafayette that he was a republican at heart; and Lafayette assured France that Louis Philippe was the best of republics. The shock of the great event was felt in Poland, and Belgium, and even in England. It gave a direct impulse to democratic movements in Switzerland.
Swiss democracy had been in abeyance since 1815. The national will had no organ. The cantons were supreme; and governed as inefficiently as other governments under the protecting shade of the Holy Alliance. There was no dispute that Switzerland called for extensive reforms, and no doubt of the direction they would take. The number of the cantons was the great obstacle to all improvement. It was useless to have twenty-five governments in a country equal to one American State, and inferior in population to one great city. It was impossible that they should be good governments. A central power was the manifest need of the country. In the absence of an efficient federal power, seven cantons formed a separate league for the protection of their own interests. Whilst democratic ideas were making way in Switzerland, the Papacy was travelling in the opposite direction, and showing an inflexible hostility for ideas which are the breath of democratic life. The growing democracy and the growing Ultramontanism came into collision. The Sonderbund could aver with truth that there was no safety for its rights under the Federal Constitution. The others could reply, with equal truth, that there was no safety for the constitution with the Sonderbund. In 1847, it came to a war between national sovereignty and cantonal sovereignty. The Sonderbund was dissolved, and a new Federal Constitution was adopted, avowedly and ostensibly charged with the duty of carrying out democracy, and repressing the adverse influence of Rome. It was a delusive imitation of the American system. The President was powerless. The Senate was powerless. The Supreme Court was powerless. The sovereignty of the cantons was undermined, and their power centred in the House of Representatives. The Constitution of 1848 was a first step towards the destruction of Federalism. Another and almost a final step in the direction of centralisation was taken in 1874. The railways, and the vast interests they created, made the position of the cantonal governments untenable. The conflict with the Ultramontanes increased the demand for vigorous action; and the destruction of State Rights in the American war strengthened the hands of the Centralists. The Constitution of 1874 is one of the most significant works of modern democracy. It is the triumph of democratic force over democratic freedom. It overrules not only the Federal principle, but the representative principle. It carries important measures away from the Federal Legislature to submit them to the votes of the entire people, separating decision from deliberation. The operation is so cumbrous as to be generally ineffective. But it constitutes a power such as exists, we believe, under the laws of no other country. A Swiss jurist has frankly expressed the spirit of the reigning system by saying, that the State is the appointed conscience of the nation.
The moving force in Switzerland has been democracy relieved of all constraint, the principle of putting in action the greatest force of the greatest number. The prosperity of the country has prevented complications such as arose in France. The ministers of Louis Philippe, able and enlightened men, believed that they would make the people prosper if they could have their own way, and could shut out public opinion. They acted as if the intelligent middle class was destined by heaven to govern. The upper class had proved its unfitness before 1789; the lower class, since 1789. Government by professional men, by manufacturers and scholars, was sure to be safe, and almost sure to be reasonable and practical. Money became the object of a political superstition, such as had formerly attached to land, and afterwards attached to labour. The masses of the people, who had fought against Marmont, became aware that they had not fought for their own benefit. They were still governed by their employers.
When the King parted with Lafayette, and it was found that he would not only reign but govern, the indignation of the republicans found a vent in street fighting. In 1836, when the horrors of the infernal machine had armed the crown with ampler powers, and had silenced the republican party, the term Socialism made its appearance in literature. Tocqueville, who was writing the philosophic chapters that conclude his work, failed to discover the power which the new system was destined to exercise on democracy. Until then, democrats and communists had stood apart. Although the socialist doctrines were defended by the best intellects of France, by Thierry, Comte, Chevalier, and Georges Sand, they excited more attention as a literary curiosity than as the cause of future revolutions. Towards 1840, in the recesses of secret societies, republicans and socialists coalesced. Whilst the Liberal leaders, Lamartine and Barrot, discoursed on the surface concerning reform, Ledru Rollin and Louis Blanc were quietly digging a grave for the monarchy, the Liberal party, and the reign of wealth. They worked so well, and the vanquished republicans recovered so thoroughly, by this coalition, the influence they had lost by a long series of crimes and follies, that, in 1848, they were able to conquer without fighting. The fruit of their victory was universal suffrage.
From that time the promises of socialism have supplied the best energy of democracy. Their coalition has been the ruling fact in French politics. It created the “saviour of society,” and the Commune; and it still entangles the footsteps of the Republic. It is the only shape in which democracy has found an entrance into Germany. Liberty has lost its spell; and democracy maintains itself by the promise of substantial gifts to the masses of the people.
Since the Revolution of July and the Presidency of Jackson gave the impulse which has made democracy preponderate, the ablest political writers, Tocqueville, Calhoun, Mill, and Laboulaye, have drawn, in the name of freedom, a formidable indictment against it. They have shown democracy without respect for the past or care for the future, regardless of public faith and of national honour, extravagant and inconstant, jealous of talent and of knowledge, indifferent to justice but servile towards opinion, incapable of organisation, impatient of authority, averse from obedience, hostile to religion and to established law. Evidence indeed abounds, even if the true cause be not proved. But it is not to these symptoms that we must impute the permanent danger and the irrepressible conflict. As much might be made good against monarchy, and an unsympathising reasoner might in the same way argue that religion is intolerant, that conscience makes cowards, that piety rejoices in fraud. Recent experience has added little to the observations of those who witnessed the decline after Pericles, of Thucydides, Aristophanes, Plato, and of the writer whose brilliant tract against the Athenian Republic is printed among the works of Xenophon. The manifest, the avowed difficulty is that democracy, no less than monarchy or aristocracy, sacrifices everything to maintain itself, and strives, with an energy and a plausibility that kings and nobles cannot attain, to override representation, to annul all the forces of resistance and deviation, and to secure, by Plebiscite, Referendum, or Caucus, free play for the will of the majority. The true democratic principle, that none shall have power over the people, is taken to mean that none shall be able to restrain or to elude its power. The true democratic principle, that the people shall not be made to do what it does not like, is taken to mean that it shall never be required to tolerate what it does not like. The true democratic principle, that every man’s free will shall be as unfettered as possible, is taken to mean that the free will of the collective people shall be fettered in nothing. Religious toleration, judicial independence, dread of centralisation, jealousy of State interference, become obstacles to freedom instead of safeguards, when the centralised force of the State is wielded by the hands of the people. Democracy claims to be not only supreme, without authority above, but absolute, without independence below; to be its own master, not a trustee. The old sovereigns of the world are exchanged for a new one, who may be flattered and deceived, but whom it is impossible to corrupt or to resist, and to whom must be rendered the things that are Cæsar’s and also the things that are God’s. The enemy to be overcome is no longer the absolutism of the State, but the liberty of the subject. Nothing is more significant than the relish with which Ferrari, the most powerful democratic writer since Rousseau, enumerates the merits of tyrants, and prefers devils to saints in the interest of the community.
For the old notions of civil liberty and of social order did not benefit the masses of the people. Wealth increased, without relieving their wants. The progress of knowledge left them in abject ignorance. Religion flourished, but failed to reach them. Society, whose laws were made by the upper class alone, announced that the best thing for the poor is not to be born, and the next best, to die in childhood, and suffered them to live in misery and crime and pain. As surely as the long reign of the rich has been employed in promoting the accumulation of wealth, the advent of the poor to power will be followed by schemes for diffusing it. Seeing how little was done by the wisdom of former times for education and public health, for insurance, association, and savings, for the protection of labour against the law of self-interest, and how much has been accomplished in this generation, there is reason in the fixed belief that a great change was needed, and that democracy has not striven in vain. Liberty, for the mass, is not happiness; and institutions are not an end but a means. The thing they seek is a force sufficient to sweep away scruples and the obstacle of rival interests, and, in some degree, to better their condition. They mean that the strong hand that heretofore has formed great States, protected religions, and defended the independence of nations, shall help them by preserving life, and endowing it for them with some, at least, of the things men live for. That is the notorious danger of modern democracy. That is also its purpose and its strength. And against this threatening power the weapons that struck down other despots do not avail. The greatest happiness principle positively confirms it. The principle of equality, besides being as easily applied to property as to power, opposes the existence of persons or groups of persons exempt from the common law, and independent of the common will; and the principle, that authority is a matter of contract, may hold good against kings, but not against the sovereign people, because a contract implies two parties.
If we have not done more than the ancients to develop and to examine the disease, we have far surpassed them in studying the remedy. Besides the French Constitution of the year III., and that of the American Confederates,—the most remarkable attempts that have been made since the archonship of Euclides to meet democratic evils with the antidotes which democracy itself supplies,—our age has been prolific in this branch of experimental politics.
Many expedients have been tried, that have been evaded or defeated. A divided executive, which was an important phase in the transformation of ancient monarchies into republics, and which, through the advocacy of Condorcet, took root in France, has proved to be weakness itself.
The constitution of 1795, the work of a learned priest, confined the franchise to those who should know how to read and write; and in 1849 this provision was rejected by men who intended that the ignorant voter should help them to overturn the Republic. In our time no democracy could long subsist without educating the masses; and the scheme of Daunou is simply an indirect encouragement to elementary instruction.
In 1799 Sieyès suggested to Bonaparte the idea of a great Council, whose function it should be to keep the acts of the Legislature in harmony with the constitution—a function which the Nomophylakes discharged at Athens, and the Supreme Court in the United States, and which produced the Sénat Conservateur, one of the favourite implements of Imperialism. Sieyès meant that his Council should also serve the purpose of a gilded ostracism, having power to absorb any obnoxious politician, and to silence him with a thousand a year.
Napoleon the Third’s plan of depriving unmarried men of their votes would have disfranchised the two greatest Conservative classes in France, the priest and the soldier.
In the American constitution it was intended that the chief of the executive should be chosen by a body of carefully selected electors. But since, in 1825, the popular candidate succumbed to one who had only a minority of votes, it has become the practice to elect the President by the pledged delegates of universal suffrage.
The exclusion of ministers from Congress has been one of the severest strains on the American system; and the law which required a majority of three to one enabled Louis Napoleon to make himself Emperor. Large constituencies make independent deputies; but experience proves that small assemblies, the consequence of large constituencies, can be managed by Government.
The composite vote and the cumulative vote have been almost universally rejected as schemes for baffling the majority. But the principle of dividing the representatives equally between population and property has never had fair play. It was introduced by Thouret into the constitution of 1791. The Revolution made it inoperative; and it was so manipulated from 1817 to 1848 by the fatal dexterity of Guizot as to make opinion ripe for universal suffrage.
Constitutions which forbid the payment of deputies and the system of imperative instructions, which deny the power of dissolution, and make the Legislature last for a fixed term, or renew it by partial re-elections, and which require an interval between the several debates on the same measure, evidently strengthen the independence of the representative assembly. The Swiss veto has the same effect, as it suspends legislation only when opposed by a majority of the whole electoral body, not by a majority of those who actually vote upon it.
Indirect elections are scarcely anywhere in use out of Germany, but they have been a favourite corrective of democracy with many thoughtful politicians. Where the extent of the electoral district obliges constituents to vote for candidates who are unknown to them, the election is not free. It is managed by wire-pullers, and by party machinery, beyond the control of the electors. Indirect election puts the choice of the managers into their hands. The objection is that the intermediate electors are generally too few to span the interval between voters and candidates, and that they choose representatives not of better quality, but of different politics. If the intermediate body consisted of one in ten of the whole constituency, the contact would be preserved, the people would be really represented, and the ticket system would be broken down.
The one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather of that party, not always the majority, that succeeds, by force or fraud, in carrying elections. To break off that point is to avert the danger. The common system of representation perpetuates the danger. Unequal electorates afford no security to majorities. Equal electorates give none to minorities. Thirty-five years ago it was pointed out that the remedy is proportional representation. It is profoundly democratic, for it increases the influence of thousands who would otherwise have no voice in the government; and it brings men more near an equality by so contriving that no vote shall be wasted, and that every voter shall contribute to bring into Parliament a member of his own opinions. The origin of the idea is variously claimed for Lord Grey and for Considérant. The successful example of Denmark and the earnest advocacy of Mill gave it prominence in the world of politics. It has gained popularity with the growth of democracy, and we are informed by M. Naville that in Switzerland Conservatives and Radicals combined to promote it.
Of all checks on democracy, federalism has been the most efficacious and the most congenial; but, becoming associated with the Red Republic, with feudalism, with the Jesuits, and with slavery, it has fallen into disrepute, and is giving way to centralism. The federal system limits and restrains the sovereign power by dividing it, and by assigning to Government only certain defined rights. It is the only method of curbing not only the majority but the power of the whole people, and it affords the strongest basis for a second chamber, which has been found the essential security for freedom in every genuine democracy.
The fall of Guizot discredited the famous maxim of the Doctrinaires, that Reason is sovereign, and not king or people; and it was further exposed to the scoffer by the promise of Comte that Positivist philosophers shall manufacture political ideas, which no man shall be permitted to dispute. But putting aside international and criminal law, in which there is some approach to uniformity, the domain of political economy seems destined to admit the rigorous certainty of science. Whenever that shall be attained, when the battle between Economists and Socialists is ended, the evil force which Socialism imparts to democracy will be spent. The battle is raging more violently than ever, but it has entered into a new phase, by the rise of a middle party. Whether that remarkable movement, which is promoted by some of the first economists in Europe, is destined to shake the authority of their science, or to conquer socialism, by robbing it of that which is the secret of its strength, it must be recorded here as the latest and the most serious effort that has been made to disprove the weighty sentence of Rousseau, that democracy is a government for gods, but unfit for man.
We have been able to touch on only a few of the topics that crowd Sir Erskine May’s volumes. Although he has perceived more clearly than Tocqueville the contact of democracy with socialism, his judgment is untinged with Tocqueville’s despondency, and he contemplates the direction of progress with a confidence that approaches optimism. The notion of an inflexible logic in history does not depress him, for he concerns himself with facts and with men more than with doctrines, and his book is a history of several democracies, not of democracy. There are links in the argument, there are phases of development which he leaves unnoticed, because his object has not been to trace out the properties and the connection of ideas, but to explain the results of experience. We should consult his pages, probably, without effect, if we wished to follow the origin and sequence of the democratic dogmas, that all men are equal; that speech and thought are free; that each generation is a law to itself only; that there shall be no endowments, no entails, no primogeniture; that the people are sovereign; that the people can do no wrong. The great mass of those who, of necessity, are interested in practical politics have no such antiquarian curiosity. They want to know what can be learned from the countries where the democratic experiments have been tried; but they do not care to be told how M. Waddington has emended the Monumentum Ancyranum, what connection there was between Mariana and Milton, or between Penn and Rousseau, or who invented the proverb Vox Populi Vox Dei. Sir Erskine May’s reluctance to deal with matters speculative and doctrinal, and to devote his space to the mere literary history of politics, has made his touch somewhat uncertain in treating of the political action of Christianity, perhaps the most complex and comprehensive question that can embarrass a historian. He disparages the influence of the mediæval Church on nations just emerging from a barbarous paganism, and he exalts it when it had become associated with despotism and persecution. He insists on the liberating action of the Reformation in the sixteenth century, when it gave a stimulus to absolutism; and he is slow to recognise, in the enthusiasm and violence of the sects in the seventeenth, the most potent agency ever brought to bear on democratic history. The omission of America creates a void between 1660 and 1789, and leaves much unexplained in the revolutionary movement of the last hundred years, which is the central problem of the book. But if some things are missed from the design, if the execution is not equal in every part, the praise remains to Sir Erskine May, that he is the only writer who has ever brought together the materials for a comparative study of democracy, that he has avoided the temper of party, that has shown a hearty sympathy for the progress and improvement of mankind, and a steadfast faith in the wisdom and the power that guide it.
[1 ]The Quarterly Review, January 1878.