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POSTSCRIPT: THE CLOSE OF THE SESSION 1835 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume VI - Essays on England, Ireland, and the Empire 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume VI - Essays on England, Ireland, and the Empire, ed. John M. Robson, Introduction by Joseph Hamburger (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982).
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POSTSCRIPT: THE CLOSE OF THE SESSION
London Review, II (equivalent to London and Westminster, XXXI) (Oct., 1835), 270-7. Headed: “POSTSCRIPT. / The close of the Session.” Running titles: “Close of the Session.” Signed “A.” Not republished. Identified in Mill’s bibliography as “The article entitled ‘Close of the Session’ in the same number of the same work”; i.e., as “De Tocqueville on Democracy in America [I]” (MacMinn, 45). There are no corrections or emendations in the copy (tear-sheets) in Somerville College.
Postscript: The Close of the Session
the transactions of which human life is made up, fall mostly into natural cycles or revolutions, which are commenced and completed within the compass of a year. The return of most periodical events, which are important or interesting to man, accompanies the return of the seasons.
In each of these cycles there is some one point at which, rather than at any other, it is natural to pause, and survey the course which has been run since the corresponding period of the preceding year. In the circle of agricultural operations, this point is the close of the harvest. The labours of the year have then been brought to their natural conclusion: the ground has been ploughed, the seed sown, all the chances of destruction or damage have been more or less victoriously left behind, and the fruits of the toil and anxiety of the past year have been, in a more or less perfect condition, gathered in and stored up to supply the wants of that which is to come.
What the close of the harvest is in the agricultural year, the close of the session is in the political. It is then that we are most inclined to look about us and observe what has been gained in the year previous. We are then entering into a period of comparative quiet, during which the laws of nature are working for us as surely as before, but are now working chiefly below the surface.
At this period of annual retrospection, a period at which our estimate of what has been, and of what is still going on, is likely to be more comprehensive, and less disturbed by passing influences, than at any other, there are two things which, for several years past, have struck upon us yearly with increasing force, and which are in every respect the most remarkable among the political features of the present time.
One is, the unexampled and almost miraculous rapidity of the march of public opinion. The movement of the public mind is no longer like that of the hour-hand of a clock, invisible to the passing eye, and making itself known only by its effects at long intervals. We may now almost be said to see it move. For however short a time we lose sight of it, when we next turn to it we find it farther on; and for some years past it has made annual strides, each of which distanced all anterior calculation, only to be itself surpassed by the next which followed it.
When they who are now thirty years of age were just old enough to take interest in public affairs, the adoration of everything which existed in England—church, law, judges, commercial and colonial monopolies, rotten boroughs and all—was, to appearance, as deeply rooted in the national mind, as at any former period of history. This degrading superstition must even then have been secretly much weakened; no outward sign, however, had yet betrayed its inward decay. Within a few years afterwards, the first deadly wound was given to the sordid sinister interests, of which this country had been till then the unresisting prey. The cause of Free Trade became a gained cause, little as had then or has even yet been done to give practical effect to it in our legislation. The irrevocable triumph of freedom of trade dates from the failure of the attempts to overset the Huskisson policy after the panic of 1826. At that time, the spirit of Law Reform had also had a beginning; and in 1827 Mr. Brougham’s celebrated speech[*] gave it an impulse which has carried it onward ever since, even during the temporary suspension of the public interest in it, from the more exciting subjects with which the general attention has been engrossed. But in 1827 the principle of religious tests was still the recognized doctrine of the constitution, and it was part of the established laudation of Mr. Canning that he had given the death-blow to Radicalism. The year 1828 saw the disabilities of the Dissenters, and the year 1829 those of the Catholics, disappear, in law and in fact. The eyes of the nation were then instantly unsealed on the subject of political religion; and those who had predicted that these great measures would bring up the rear-guard of civilization, and awaken the inert mass who had slept since the accession of the House of Hanover (disturbed only by bad dreams during the era of Pitt) to the change of times and circumstances—these prophets saw their predictions fulfilled, in a shorter time than they had even dared to anticipate. In the summer of 1830, it just began to be remarked, that the majority was diminishing against giving representatives to Birmingham and Manchester. On the 25th of July, the man whom of all now alive Toryism has most reason to curse, issued the famous Ordinances:[†] and in the November following, Toryism in England had ceased to reign.
It is not necessary to trace minutely the subsequent progress. No one need be reminded what was the magnitude of the next step. That step gave us an instrument of government, which wanted only two things to make it adequate to most of the purposes for which Reform in Parliament was sought: the protection of the ballot, for electors in dependant circumstances; and to be freed from a House of Lords, determined to render the Reform of the House of Commons a nullity. The meeting of the first Reformed Parliament found a ministry in office, of whom it was the collective determination to make their policy subservient to the prevention of these two things. The first session which followed lost to this ministry the people’s hearts, the second flung them out of office. We are now at the conclusion of the third.
Not for the sake of counting minor gains, but to see how much further we are advanced in the great movement, let us consider what this third year has done for us.
A last desperate attempt of the Tories to creep back into power as semi-reformers, despairing of it as anti-reformers, has been promptly crushed: and has had for its principal result, to lay bare to the people’s eyes the extent of the aristocratic influence which can still be exercised over the composition of the House of Commons under the present mode of voting; and to place us at one stroke several years nearer to the ballot, than if that blunder of the king, or of the king’s secret advisers, had not been committed.
This was visible to all eyes in June last, when Mr. Grote brought forward his motion.[*] That question, which has since slept, will, when it awakens, be found where it was then left; or rather, it will have moved noiselessly still further forward, for the silent progress of opinion is not less remarkable in the present times, than the changes which loudly proclaim themselves. Meanwhile, the current has made a bend in its course, and is now beating against the opposite side of the channel, preparing to carry away the other of the two great obstacles which resist its peaceful progress towards calmer seas. The great question of the approaching year will be the reconstitution of the House of Lords.
And now, whoever would seek for a test by which to estimate the present rate of the progress of public opinion, let him look at this. The first shock to the traditional attachment to the existing constitution of the House of Lords was given by their conduct on the Reform Bill. When that measure became law, it was thought that all was gained; and those who talked of reforming the House of Lords preached to deaf ears. This state of feeling had much altered two years ago; every reformer was then anxious for a creation of peers. Now, observe the difference. Not a voice is raised to suggest such an insignificant measure. The House of Lords is given up, as too bad to mend. No infusion of new blood would now save it. An entire change in its constitution is cried out for from the remotest corner of the three kingdoms; and few would be satisfied with any change short of abolishing the hereditary principle.
We said that two things appeared to us chiefly deserving of remark in the present condition of this country; and that the unexampled rapidity now apparent in the advance of public opinion was one of these. We have next to mention the other; which, in its way, is equally remarkable. This is, the insignificance of the men who are the visible instruments and the only apparent agents in this great change.
The revolution, for such it is, although pacific, which is marching onward with such velocity among us, is a revolution without leaders. Not only has it no leaders in the cabinet, but it has none in Parliament. Not only has it no leaders in Parliament, but it has none in the popular press. Scarcely a person can be found who has done, or is doing, or is so much as attempting to do any thing more, either towards accelerating it or towards guiding it, than any other person.
If there is something elevating in the conception of the great results, which are daily shaping themselves forth under the plastic power of that irresistible Necessity, wrought by the natural laws of human civilization; and if there is much that is both gratifying and encouraging in that high average of comparative improvement among the people at large, evidenced by the gentleness and steadiness with which the mighty movement is thus far going on, without the application of one superior mind in any commanding station to prepare the way for it, or to guide it into the salutary course; there is, it must be confessed, something at once humiliating and disheartening in the individual insignificance of the men, who are in the positions which would enable them to modify the general tendency by some idea or impulse of their own, but who universally content themselves with yielding to the force by which they are pressed on from behind. For the first time in the recorded history of great political changes, not one man of commanding talents, not one homme à grand caractère, has shewn himself in any conspicuous part of the field of action. Those among our conspicuous public men or influential writers who have the head to conceive any thing better to be done, than to let the current of events float them down and land them wherever it will, are few indeed; and of those few, it seems that there is not one who, with the head to conceive, has also the heart to execute it.*
When we look around us, the only figure which stands erect and prominent, the only man who himself weighs for something in the balance of events, is Mr. O’Connell; and his influence, though it could not have been acquired but by a man of talents, and, above all, of activity, does not belong to him so much in himself, as because he embodies in his single person all Ireland. Mr. O’Connell does nothing whatever to guide the movement, but he does something to accelerate it; and accordingly we have lately seen him, with all his disadvantages, carrying off the undivided harvest of that popular favour, of which any one member of the now numerous radical party in the House of Commons, having the acquirements, abilities, character, and station in society which belong to many of them, might have reaped, by very ordinary exertion, a far larger share than he.
These are melancholy facts. Circumstances cannot always continue to do what men will not, or are not capable of. Circumstances are blind guides. The use of intellect is never with impunity abandoned in the affairs of nations. We imagine it is hardly supposed that things will always continue to go perfectly right of themselves; that the people will always, without being taught, know and demand of their own accord whatever is best for them; that they will never fall into any errors requiring to be corrected; that cultivated wisdom can suggest nothing more perfect, in reorganizing the whole social condition of a people, than is struck out spontaneously by the collective intellect of the uninstructed. It cannot be supposed, in short, that there are no longer any great things to be performed for mankind: we are reduced, therefore, to the necessity of concluding that no one of the present generation, who has yet met with the opportunity, esteems himself capable of performing them.
The causes of this absence of greatness, this small intellectual and moral stature of the men of the present day who have it most in their power to render their mental endowments serviceable to their fellow-creatures, must be sought in considerations more remote from common observation than would admit of being satisfactorily entered into in this place. They would be found, no doubt, to be partly connected with our social arrangements, and partly with the peculiarities which mark the present stage in the progressive advancement of the human mind.
Without looking any further into the subject at present, one or two observations remain to be made, more peculiarly applicable to the passing moment.
A compromise appears to have tacitly established itself, between the ministry, and the thorough reformers in parliament and in the press. What has been given up on both sides for the sake of the alliance, we can only infer from what we see. The concession made by the ministry seems to be, that instead of shaping their conduct so as to avert public indignation from the Lords, by never giving those careful guardians of the public weal any good measures to reject, they shall occasionally bring forward propositions acceptable to the people, allow the Lords to do their worst in spoiling them, and content themselves with splitting differences afterwards; thus taking upon themselves a part only, and not the whole, of the discredit attached to niggardly measures of reform. This seems to be the price which the ministers, placed as they are in a state of absolute dependence upon the support of the Radicals, are willing to pay for it. What they get in return is, that no measure is to be proposed which they do not like, no principle enunciated which may, even indirectly, reflect upon their conduct; and that any one who dislikes anything which they say or do, is to keep his disapprobation confined within his own breast. We think the ministers have the best of the bargain.
We do not wish the Radicals to attack the Ministry; we are anxious that they should co-operate with them. But we think they might co-operate without yoking themselves to the ministerial car, abdicating all independent action, and leaving nothing to distinguish them from the mere Whig coterie, except the memory of their former professions. As little do we see why the liberal press—not content with bedaubing the Ministry with fulsome adulation for all they do, whether it be what those papers have been just before recommending, or the very opposite—should be so tremblingly afraid of giving insertion to a single line which may lead a chance reader to think they have an opinion of their own—should seem to think all lost if their columns contain anything but a probable anticipation of what the Ministry will next day propose. It is a fact that it was far more usual, before there was a reform ministry, to see reform opinions, of a stronger kind than were held by the Whig leaders, advocated in the liberal newspapers, than now when circumstances are so much more propitious to liberal ideas. To give one specimen among hundreds: we remember no period for the last ten years, when such an exposure as our last Number contained of the jobbing in the English army for the benefit of the great families—of the manner in which our military establishment is systematically made an engine for extracting large annual sums from the people under false pretences, to give to the sons of the rich—would not have been laid hold of by nearly the whole liberal press, and beaten into the people’s minds by successive blows, until they all rose up as one man, and demanded that the iniquity should cease. In the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and thirty-five, for the first time since the word Reform ceased to be opprobrious, not one of the daily papers professing liberal principles dared say a word in condemnation of one of the grossest, most palpable, and most costly abuses remaining in our public expenditure. They knew not how their masters would relish the exposure.
If their object be to benefit the Ministry, this is not the way to do it; and stone-blind with self-conceit must the Ministry be if they fancy it is. One journal which, while it generally supports a ministry, occasionally condemns some of its words or actions, is worth more to it than a hundred which dare not call their columns their own, nor give currency to an opinion or a sentiment which they do not believe to be acceptable to the givers of good things. When the Times supported, first the Wellington and then the Grey ministry, its support carried authority; not because any one believed in the honesty of the Times then more than now, but because it was known to have an independent judgment. It had not wedded itself to any ministry for better for worse. It did not commit the tasteless blunder of praising all they did. When it supported them, therefore, there was a concurrence of two opinions; the Times coinciding with the Ministry—not the voice of the ministry merely echoed back, by people who only struck into the same tune because their prompters had commenced it.
It is the daily press chiefly which has laid itself open to these strictures: the Examiner, the Spectator, and others, though perhaps of late rather more panegyrical than necessary, cannot be accused of having compromised their pristine independence. But the daily press, unfortunately, is exactly six times as powerful as the weekly press; for the power of all newspapers consists in repetition, and a daily paper can repeat the same thing six times as often as a weekly one. It is therefore in the same proportion more important that the power it wields should be usefully directed; and, by the course now spoken of, that power is at the best wholly thrown away.
One important function the liberal newspapers are now executing; and it is of such magnitude, that, in its behalf, we willingly, for the time, forgive them their shortcomings in all other matters. They are serving as instruments to collect and concentrate the public indignation, and direct it in one jet against the House of Lords. They have, with some spirit, placed themselves at their proper post in the front rank of that battle. This is, we trust, significant of the inclination of the Ministry. That, however, is of trifling importance: where the public voice is strong and unanimous, the Ministry must now go along with it. If the Tories imagine, from the truckling of the Ministry and of the majority of the Radicals on the Corporation Bill, that their tampering with that measure was a coup de force, and a victory, they will find to their cost that it is the last triumph they are destined to enjoy. It is the last straw on the back of a patient people. They are at present in a happy unconsciousness of the mischief to themselves which they have set a-going; but their state is one of somnambulism, and the shock which will awaken them will be the apparition of the House of Lords Amendment Bill.
[[*] ]Henry Brougham’s Speech on the State of the Courts of Common Law was actually given on 7 Feb., 1828; see PD, n.s., Vol. 18, cols. 127-247.
[[†] ]Charles X, of France. See Ordonnances nos. 15135-8 (25 juillet, 1830), Bulletin des lois du royaume de France, 8me sér., Tome XII, Bulletin 367, pp. 33-40.
[[*] ]George Grote, Motion on the Ballot (2 June, 1835), PD, 3rd ser., Vol. 28, cols. 369-95.
[* ]There are a few individual exceptions, of great merit; but they do not materially affect the statements in the text, because either their principal sphere of usefulness is, like that of Mr. Hume, a confined one, or their age and standing has not yet permitted them to give more than hopes of their hereafter effecting something worthy of remembrance. Even such exceptions as these are contemptibly few.