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Vicesimus Knox tries to persuade an English nobleman that some did not come into the world with “saddles on their backs and bridles in their mouths” and some others like him came “ready booted and spurred to ride the rest to death” (1793)

In the preface to a series of letters written to a young English nobleman in 1793, Vicesimus Knox declares his own love of liberty and explains how the next generation of English aristocrats might reconcile true liberty and peace with their social station, and so avoid what was happening to the aristocracy in France:

If zeal in a good cause has led to any ardour of expression, I trust I shall need no pardon. I have no sordid interest to serve in what I have done. I have not been obsequious to power. I have nothing to ask of it, nothing to expect from it, and from the candid judgment of the public I have nothing to fear. I have employed my literary leisure in a way that I thought might be useful; and if one idea only is serviceable to the country, it will be acknowledged as meritorious, when the temporary prejudices of party shall be lost in the radiance of eternal truth. I am attached to the king and to the lords; but I am more attached to the commons; and I will adopt the saying of Rumbald in the reign of Charles the Second, as recorded by Burnet: "I do not imagine the Almighty intended, that the greatest part of mankind should come into the world with saddles on their backs and bridles in their mouths, and a few ready booted and spurred to ride the rest to death."

If I lean to liberty, I glory in it. I lean to that which every independent mind must love. He who is cordially attached to letters, will probably be attached, with peculiar affection, to liberty; for liberty is the friend of literature, as well as of every thing beautiful and honourable. Tyranny hates it. Tyranny has commonly been ignorant. Tyrants over men, and slaves to their own passions and caprice, have usually been brought up in illiterate voluptuousness; and seem, like the poor savages of some desert isle, to hate letters and sciences, merely because they are strangers to them. Weak eyes shrink from a strong light. But as light is indisputably to be preferred to darkness, so is even democracy to despotism. Ignorant despotism presiding over an enlightened people, is no less ridiculous than detestable; but ignorant it has usually been, and supported merely by brute force, by an ignorant and mercenary army…

Peace is the chief good of a commercial, and indeed of every people. European nations, with all their improvements in civilisation, are still too near the savage state, while they terminate their contests by war. Nothing but self-defence can justify it. And if those who decree that it shall take place, under any circumstances but the necessity of selfdefence, were compelled to go into the field in person, it is probable that national disputes would be settled by the arbitration of neutral powers, and the sword converted into the ploughshare. To avoid war, the sorest calamity of human nature, should be the chief object of every humane man, and wise minister. If war at all times is to be shunned, it is more particularly at this time, when ill success may probably cause that anarchy and confusion, which has yet existed among us in idea only. When taxes shall be enormously increased, (as they must be in a war of this character,) many, it is to be feared, will desert the standard to which they have lately crept with blind servility, and rally round the torch of discord…

If zeal in a good cause has led to any ardour of expression, I trust I shall need no pardon. I have no sordid interest to serve in what I have done. I have not been obsequious to power. I have nothing to ask of it, nothing to expect from it, and from the candid judgment of the public I have nothing to fear. I have employed my literary leisure in a way that I thought might be useful; and if one idea only is serviceable to the country, it will be acknowledged as meritorious, when the temporary prejudices of party shall be lost in the radiance of eternal truth.

I am attached to the king and to the lords; but I am more attached to the commons; and I will adopt the saying of Rumbald in the reign of Charles the Second, as recorded by Burnet: "I do not imagine the Almighty intended, that the greatest part of mankind should come into the world with saddles on their backs and bridles in their mouths, and a few ready booted and spurred to ride the rest to death."

About this Quotation:

Like Adam Smith, his near contemporary, Knox tutored young members of the nobility, trying to instill in them some love of liberty and respect for the rights of others. In this quotation Knox uses an old adage of freedom lovers, that some privileged men are not born to ride on saddles placed on the backs of the poor and weak.

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