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Lecky and Democracy

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Source: Editor's Introduction to Lecky's Democracy and Liberty, edited and with an Introduction by William Murchison, 2 vols. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981). Vol. 1.

INTRODUCTION by William Murchison

The veil of sentimentality long ago settled snugly over the 1890s, which have come to be regarded as dear, dead days of innocence, of straw boaters and bicycles built for two—a time so utterly unlike the depraved present as to horrify sensitive consciences.

Yet, to not a few of the sensitive consciences which inhabited them, the ′90s were themselves an alarming decade. For a fact, industrial civilization seemed triumphant. Prosperity was widespread and the world in general at peace. But even in this blazing noonday, dark shadows seemed to be creeping 'round.

The underpinnings of 19th century civilization were, in the century's last decade, coming loose. Property was threatened. Crude, broadshouldered democracy was on the rise. The established leaders of affairs seemed about to be booted from the seats of power. What the 20th century would bring, should these trends come to fulfilment, was terrible to contemplate.

But what is a rigorous scholar to do, just because the world he esteems is beginning to crumble? Does he fastidiously avert his eyes? Or does he instead sound an alarm, to rally others around him and beat back the forces of turmoil? Eye-aversion was not for William Edward Hartpole Lecky, the Irish historian and political philosopher. He chose to write—and fight.

Lecky was born near Dublin on March 26, 1838. All his life he remained a staunch Irish patriot—though a conservative, not a radical, one. He was an ardent foe of Home Rule, as propounded by Parnell and Gladstone. He took degrees from Trinity College, Dublin, in 1859 and 1863. Despite early inclinations toward theology and politics, he found his niche in history after the large success of his History of Rationalism in Europe, published in 1865. It was a book that exhibited most of Lecky's strengths and shortcomings—powerful scholarship and a clean, clear literary style, marred by a tendency to go on at infinite length, scattering main points like diamonds in a field too heavily ploughed. The Victorians were undaunted, however, by large books, and Lecky's career prospered. His History of European Morals, from Augustus to Charlemagne, a sort of companion to the study of rationalism, likewise enjoyed success. But it was his 8-volume History of England in the Eighteenth Century, a work that took 19 years to research and write, that established Lecky's reputation. Each volume, as it appeared, won him new admirers. Lecky was not only lucid, but scrupulously objective throughout, even when treating of his beloved Ireland. Deeply interested in politics, he went to Parliament in 1895 as the Liberal Unionist member for Dublin University and sat until 1902. He became a privy councillor in 1897 and, in the year of his retirement from Parliament, received the Order of Merit. He died in London, October 22, 1903.

Lecky may have associated himself with the Liberal Party, but his political philosophy was tenaciously conservative. From his long study of the past, he had divined first principles. He saw how the affairs of men had been regulated before; he saw what had succeeded and what had failed. Change was not his enemy; he stood instead against change that went far beyond the simple righting of wrongs and redressing of grievances; wherein he was like his fellow Irishman, Burke, the arch-foe of metaphysical tinkerings with deeply rooted institutions. Burke maintained that the success of an institution, over years of growth and development, was tolerable proof of its worthiness and utility. This, too, Lecky affirmed. Burke asserted that some were fit to govern and others not. Likewise Lecky. A century separated the two Irish philosophers but very little else.

The revolution that Lecky saw raging around him was, as revolutions go, a mild and peaceable affair; no lordly estates plundered, no royal necks laid on the chopping block. Fittingly enough, for the most literate age the world had yet seen, the revolution was one more of words than of deeds. Such deeds as were performed were normally of ink and paper. They were laws, Acts of Parliament. For all that, the blaze they kindled was brighter, both then and now, than incendiary torches.

Democracy was the late Victorian age's great passion—a concept not just to profess but to translate into reality. The democracy professed was less radical than that of the French revolutionaries who, in Burke's day, had cried, “Liberty, Fraternity, Equality!”—and then had decapitated thousands of their free and equal brethren. Democracy, to the Victorians, meant something relatively high-minded—government by the majority for the benefit of the majority. The principle was amiable enough, certainly. It was in the practical application that things began to go wrong, as Lecky and a few others easily discerned. The implications of democracy for good government, for liberty-for precisely the values that democracy was meant to assert—were deeply disturbing.

It was in 1896 that Lecky published his premonitions. Democracy and Liberty was issued by Longmans, Green, and Co. in March and by October had run through four printings. The reviews, while attentive and appreciative, were not uniformly enthusiastic. Lecky's inveterate tendency to wander down interesting bypaths, never mind how far removed from his central theme, was frequently faulted.

In truth, Democracy and Liberty is about a great many things besides democracy and liberty in purest form. To name only a few of these things: the Irish land question, Indian suttee, Mormonism and polygamy, England's Italian policy, gambling, drunkenness as a disease, divorce, and women's rights. (The women's movement of the late 20th century would find Lecky surprisingly sympathetic; he was a powerful advocate of votes for women.) The Dictionary of National Biography calls Democracy and Liberty “a storehouse of admirable, if somewhat disjointed, reflection.” A. Lawrence Lowell, a future president of Harvard University, writing in the American Historical Review, chided the author for supposedly blaming “all the ills from which we suffer” on democracy alone. Still, like Sir Henry Maine's Popular Government and Sir James Fitzjames Stephen's Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,—learned, lucid protests against the spirit of the new age—Lecky's two sturdy volumes pointedly reminded Victorian England of the disaster it was storing up for posterity.

The argument of the book is the incompatibility of two concepts which, in the late 20th century, are regarded virtually as twins—democracy and liberty. The one might seem, at first glance, to reinforce and invigorate the other. But it was not so, as Lecky proceeded to establish in detail.

Democracy demanded easy access to the ballot box, and the Victorians had gone far toward complying. The electoral reforms of 1867 had enfranchised the industrial workers, those of 1884 the rural classes. Women would not gain the ballot until after the First World War, but it could be said of late Victorian Britain anyway that something like real democracy—the rule of The People—was being achieved. Whereas in 1866 only 1.3 million Britons had been privileged to vote, the right was shared by 5.7 million in 1886. The franchise had in two decades more than quadrupled.

Theoretically, all this represented a great advance. But Lecky was not so easy to convince. Like Burke, he never valued abstractions. That a thing worked, worked well, and gave every evidence of continuing to do so, was more important to him than speculative dreams. What had worked best for Britain, so far as he was concerned, was the electoral system that prevailed from the Reform Bill of 1832 until the Reform Bill of 1867. In 1832, the middle class had been enfranchised. The change had, at the time, split the country asunder, but it had worked. This was because, in Lecky's view, it had admitted to power a class of men solid, trustworthy, educated, and hard-working. Their merits, not their abstract “rights,” qualified them for the franchise. It was different with the millions granted the vote in 1867 and 1884. Sheer numbers was what mainly seemed to commend them as voters.

But what were mere numbers against intelligence, experience, and wisdom? “In every field of human enterprise,” argued Lecky, “in all the competitions of life, by the inexorable law of Nature, superiority lies with the few, and not with the many, and success can only be attained by placing the guiding and controlling power mainly in their hands.”1

In speaking of such matters, Lecky refused to mince words. “As far as the most ignorant class have opinions of their own, they will be of the vaguest and most childlike nature.”2 “One of the great divisions of politics in our day,” he predicted, “is coming to be whether, at the last resort, the world should be governed by its ignorance or by its intelligence.”3 It is a measure of how much ideological water has flowed under the bridge since 1896, that a noted author, soon to become a member of Parliament, should write so frankly without giving public scandal. In the late 20th century, he would be picketed by college freshmen, pilloried by congressmen and TV talk show hosts, without anyone's stopping to inquire whether intelligence might, on the whole, be socially more useful than ignorance.

What Lecky feared was that his country's government would pass out of the hands of gentlemen and “into the hands of professional politicians”—like those to be found in the United States. (Lecky admired the American Constitution and the American Senate and compared Alexander Hamilton favorably to Burke; yet he winced to see democracy so far advanced in the Republic.) Already in Britain, since democracy had taken root, there was more bribe-taking, more apostasy, more flouting of principle.

Lecky was concerned, accordingly, that gentlemen should continue to govern. He was concerned especially for the future of the House of Lords, which fast was coming to be regarded as a feudal relic, occupying “a secondary position in the Constitution.” “Man for man,” he wrote, “it is quite possible that (the Lords) represents more ability and knowledge than the House of Commons, and its members are certainly able to discuss public affairs in a more single-minded and disinterested spirit.”4 The peers' “superiority of knowledge” was “very marked.” They were more than ornamental; they contributed, along with the Throne, to the kingdom's “greatness and cohesion.”

Do such notions sound snobbish and insufferable to 20th century ears? They sounded snobbish, in truth, to many a 19th century ear. Yet Lecky, a man of the middle class, was no snob. He reasoned that if liberty was to be maintained against the central state, someone other than the politicians, who were watering and nurturing the state, must do the job.

The state was in fact putting out roots in every direction, and not by happenstance either. A new kind of radicalism had arisen during the 1870s and 1880s. The older sort, the sort in which Englishmen like Lecky rejoiced, had asserted the rights of the individual against the state; the newer radicalism, whose voice was Joseph Chamberlain of Birmingham, insisted that to the contrary, individual freedom could only be guaranteed by the collective state. This was because individuals were being ground down by the weight of the capitalistic structure. Only the majesty of the state could rescue them.

Numerous rescue missions were launched in the 1870s and ′80s. In 1871 and 1872, local government boards were created and given vast powers over public health and the poor—traditional concerns of the parish and squirearchy. By an act of 1888, justices of the peace, who were mostly squires bred in a tradition of public service, were denuded of their broad powers and replaced by 62 county councils. Education was made compulsory in 1876 and in 1891 was made free at the elementary level. The economist, Stanley Jeavons, in words that would have confounded Cobden and Bright, asserted that “the State is justified in passing any law, or even in doing any simple act, which in its ulterior consequences adds to the sum of human happiness”—with happiness, presumably, to be defined by the lawmakers themselves.

Even firmer in that conviction stood the Fabian Society, organized in 1884 by a coterie of middle-class intellectuals bent on converting the country, however slowly, to outright socialism. “The economic side of the democratic ideal,” said one of the Fabians, Sidney Webb, “is in fact Socialism, itself.”

Lecky, though the philosophical obverse of Webb, could not have agreed with him more. “No fact,” he wrote, “is more incontestable and conspicuous than the love of democracy for authoritative regulation.”5 The increase of state power would mean “a multiplication of restrictions imposed upon the various forms of human action.” It would mean more bureaucracy. It would mean something the 20th century can understand even better than these—constantly mounting taxes to finance the state. For Lecky, the tax question was “in the highest degree a question of liberty.” The country was nearing a time when one class could impose the taxes and another class pay them. In that unhappy event, taxation would no longer serve the common good. It would be used “to break down the power, influence, and wealth of particular classes; to form a new social type; to obtain the means of class bribery.”6 Lecky, the historian, had shown that his eyes were as good for looking forward as for looking backward. For so it all came to pass in Britian, once the Labor Party finally acquired dominion.

The likelihood of actual socialist sway over his country, Lecky stoutly refused to admit. Socialism was an abstract, Teutonic program; the English were too sensible to have much truck with it, even if it was probable that Marxists might “in some degree and in more than one direction, modify the actions both of the State and of local bodies.”7

It happened that the socialists came to power after all, but that they lacked the doctrinaire convictions necessary to build a thoroughly socialist nation. Though they increased taxes and nationalized key industries, they declined to drive the private sector entirely out of business. This was fortunate, for as Lecky had pointed out, “The desire of each man to improve his circumstances, to reap the full reward of superior talent, or energy, or thrift, is the very mainspring of the production of the world. Take these motives away; persuade men that by superior work they will obtain no superior reward; cut off all the hopes that stimulate, among ordinary men, ambition, enterprise, invention, and self-sacrifice, and the whole level of production will rapidly and inevitably sink.”8

Lecky understood not just the practical arguments against socialism but likewise the theoretical ones. Capital was not robbery, as Marx alleged; nor was it the working man's enemy. Rather, it was “that portion of wealth which is diverted from wasteful and unprofitable expenditure to those productive forms which give him permanent employment.”9 Capital and labor were “indissolubly united in the creation of wealth,” each one indispensable to the other.

All the eloquence and learning that Lecky mustered was shouted into the teeth of a gale. The England of his heart—industrious, rational, above all free and unfettered—was passing away even as he wrote.

The 1890s, as one scholar has written, was “the decade of a thousand ‘movements’.” The people then living “were convinced that they were not only passing from one social system to another but from one morality to another, from one culture to another, and from one religion to a dozen or more!”10 Liberty had been the supreme economic, political, and social value of the mid-Victorians. Nor had it been repudiated entirely by the late-Victorians. The term had simply come to mean something different than it meant in the ′40s, ′50s, and ′60s, when the individual was viewed as a thing of wonder and might and endless possibility. In the ′90s, liberty was more likely to be pursued through collective enterprises such as trade unions and local government councils, than through the removal of obstacles to personal achievement.

Lecky saw clearly the fallacy of the new “liberty,” so defined. Far from ensuring a higher kind of freedom, collectivism—and the democracy that was its driving power—would enforce a lower kind of servitude. The democratic mass state would begin as man's servant and end as his master.

For decades after Lecky's death, such admonitions were muffled, if they were heard at all. The curtain had fallen on his values with a heavy thud but now and then a fold would be drawn back and a look stolen at the notions of the quaint past, when it still was possible to doubt that mere numbers was all that mattered.

Lecky, it can be more plainly seen now, was a man both behind and ahead of his times; which is often the case with those whose values are rooted in tradition and experience, not pinned precariously to the frenzies of the moment. He was a man eminently worth listening to in 1896. If anything, time has only deepened the value and pertinence of his conversation.

writers who are wholly unconnected with practical politics, and who might therefore bring to them a more independent judgment and a more judicial temperament than could be easily found in active politicians. This preface I cannot now write. At a time when the greater portion of my book was already in the printers' hands an unexpected request, which I could not gratefully or graciously refuse, brought me into the circle of parliamentary life. But although my own position has been altered, I have not allowed this fact to alter the character of my book. While expressing strong opinions on many much-contested party questions, I have endeavoured to treat them with that perfect independence of judgment, without which a work of this kind can have no permanent value. Nor have I thought it necessary to cancel a passage in defence of university representation in general, and of the representation of Dublin University in particular, which was written when I had no idea that it could possibly be regarded as a defence of my own position.

One of the principal difficulties of a book dealing with the present aspects and tendencies of the political world in many different countries lies in the constant changes in the subjects that it treats. The task of the writer is often like that of a painter who is painting the ever-shifting scenery of the clouds. The great tendencies of the world alter slowly, but the balance of power in parliaments and constitutions is continually modified, and, under the incessant activity of modern legislation, large groups of subjects are constantly assuming new forms. I have endeavoured to follow these changes up to a very recent period; but in dealing with foreign countries this is sometimes a matter of no small difficulty, and I trust the reader will excuse me if I have not always altogether succeeded.

  • London:

[1]W. E. H. Lecky, Democracy and Liberty (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1980), Vol. I, pp. 22–23.

[2]Lecky, Vol. I, pp. 19–20.

[3]Lecky, Vol. I, pp. 21–22.

[4]Lecky, Vol. I, p. 329.

[5]Lecky, Vol. I, p. 218.

[6]Lecky, Vol. I, pp. 219—220.

[7]Lecky, Vol. II, p. 340.

[8]Lecky, Vol. II, p. 310.

[9]Lecky, Vol. II, p. 276.

[10]Holbrook Jackson, The Eighteen Nineties (New York: Knopf, 1927), p. 31.

Last modified April 10, 2014