« AnteriorContinuar »
such as we seem in the faint distance to see them, if we call up the image of those dismal tribes in lake villages, or on wretched beaches; scarcely equal to the commonest material needs, cutting down trees slowly and painfully with stone tools, hardly resisting the attacks of huge fierce animals; without culture, without leisure, without poetry, almost without thought; destitute of morality, with only a sort of magic for religion, - and if we compare that imagined life with the actual life of Europe now, we are overwhelmed at the wide contrast; we can scarcely conceive ourselves to be of the same race as those in the far distance. There used to be a notion—not so much widely asserted as deeply implanted, rather pervadingly latent than commonly apparent in political philosophy – that in a little while, perhaps ten years or so, all human beings might, without extraordinary appliances, be brought to the same level. when we see by the painful history of mankind at what point we began, by what slow toil, what favorable circumstances, what accumulated achievements, civilized man has become at all worthy in any degree so to call himself, — when we realize the tedium of history and the painfulness of results, — our perceptions are sharpened as to the relative steps of our long and gradual progress. We have in a great community like England crowds of people scarcely more civilized than the majority of two thousand years ago; we have others, even more numerous, such as the best people were a thousand years since. The lower orders, the middle orders, are still, when tried by what is the standard of the educated “ten thousand," narrow-minded, unintelligent, incurious. It is useless to pile up abstract words: those who doubt should go out into their kitchens. Let an accomplished man try what seems to him most obvious, most certain, most palpable in intellectual matters, upon the housemaid and the footman, and he will find that what he says seems unintelligible, confused, and erroneous; that his audience think him mad and wild when he is speaking what is in his own sphere of thought the dullest platitude of cautious soberness. Great communities are like great mountains, - they have in them the primary, secondary, and tertiary strata of human progress; the characteristics of the lower regions resemble the life of old times rather than the present life of the higher regions. And a philosophy which does not ceaselessly remember, which does not continually obtrude, the palpable differences of the various parts, will be a theory radically false, because it has omitted a capital reality; will be a theory essentially misleading, because it will lead men to expect what does not exist, and not to anticipate that which they will find.
Everyone knows these plain facts, but by no means every one has traced their political importance. When a state is constituted thus, it is not true that the lower classes will be wholly absorbed in the useful; on the contrary, they do not like anything so poor. No orator ever made an impression by appealing to men as to their plainest physical wants, except when he could allege that those wants were caused by someone's tyranny; but thousands have made the greatest impression by appealing to some vague dream of glory or empire or nationality. The ruder sort of men — that is, men at one stage of rudeness — will sacrifice all they hope for, all they have, themselves, for what is called an idea; for some attraction which seems to transcend reality, which aspires to elevate men by an interest higher, deeper, wider than that of ordinary life. But this order of men are uninterested in the plain, palpable ends of government; they do not prize them; they do not in the least comprehend how they should be attained. It is very natural, therefore, that the most useful parts of the structure of government should by no means be those which excite the most reverence. The elements which excite the most easy reverence will be the theatrical elements, - those which appeal to the senses, which claim to be embodiments of the greatest human ideas, which boast in some cases of far more than human origin. That which is mystic in its claims; that which is occult in its mode of action; that which is brilliant to the eye; that which is seen vividly for a moment, and then is seen no more; that which is hidden and unhidden; that which is specious and yet interesting, palpable in its seeming and yet professing to be more than palpable in its results, - this, howsoever its form may change, or however we may define it or describe it, is the sort of thing — the only sortwhich yet comes home to the mass of men. So far from the dignified parts of a constitution being necessarily the most useful, they are likely, according to outside presumption, to be the least so; for they are likely to be adjusted to the lowest orders- those likely to care least and judge worst about what is useful.
There is another reason which, in an old constitution like that of England, is hardly less important. The most intellectual of men are moved quite as much by the circumstances which they are used to as by their own will. The active voluntary part of a man is very small, and if it were not economized by a sleepy kind of habit its results would be null. We could not do every day out of our own heads all we have to do; we should accomplish nothing, for all our energies would be frittered away in minor attempts at petty improvement. One man, too, would go off from the known track in one direction, and one in another; so that when a crisis came requiring massed combination, no two men would be near enough to act together. It is the dull traditional habit of mankind that guides most men's actions, and is the steady frame in which each new artist must set the picture that he paints. And all this traditional part of human nature is, ex vi termini, most easily impressed and acted on by that which is handed down. Other things being equal, yesterday's institutions are by far the best for to-day : they are the most ready, the most influential, the most easy to get obeyed, the most likely to retain the reverence which they alone inherit and which every other must win. The most imposing institutions of mankind are the oldest; and yet so changing is the world, so fluctuating are its needs, so apt to lose inward force though retaining outward strength are its best instruments, that we must not expect the oldest institutions to be now the most efficient. We must expect what is venerable to acquire influence because of its inherent dignity; but we must not expect it to use that influence so well as new creations apt for the modern world, instinct with its spirit, and fitting closely to its life.
The brief description of the characteristic merit of the English Constitution is, that its dignified parts are very complicated and somewhat imposing, very old and rather venerable; while its efficient part, at least when in great and critical action, is decidedly simple and rather modern. We have made, or rather stumbled on, a constitution which, though full of every species of incidental defect, though of the worst workmanship in all out-of-the-way matters of any constitution in the world, yet has two capital merits: it contains a simple efficient part which on occasion, and when wanted, can work more simply and easily, and better, than any instrument of government that has yet been tried; and it contains likewise historical, complex, august, theatrical parts which it has inherited from a long past, which take the multitude, which guide by an insensible but an omnipotent influence the associations of its subjects. Its essence is strong with the strength of modern simplicity ; its exterior is august with the Gothic grandeur of a more imposing age. Its simple essence may, mutatis mutandis, be transplanted to many very various countries; but its august outside — what most men think it is – is narrowly confined to nations with an analogous history and similar political materials.
The efficient secret of the English Constitution may be described as the close union, the nearly complete fusion, of the executive and legislative powers. No doubt by the traditional theory, as it exists in all the books, the goodness of our Constitution consists in the entire separation of the legislative and executive authorities; but in truth its merit consists in their singular approximation. The connecting link is the Cabinet. By that new word we mean a committee of the legislative body selected to be the executive body. The legislature has many committees, but this is its greatest. It chooses for this, its main committee, the men in whom it has most confidence. It does not, it is true, choose them directly ; but it is nearly omnipotent in choosing them indirectly. A century ago the Crown had a real choice of ministers, though it had no longer a choice in policy. During the long reign of Sir R. Walpole he was obliged not only to manage Parliament, but to manage the palace: he was obliged to take care that some court intrigue did not expel him from his place. The nation then selected the English policy, but the Crown chose the English ministers; they were not only in name as now, but in fact, the [King's or] Queen's servants. Remnants, important remnants — of this great prerogative still remain: the discriminating favor of William IV. made Lord Melbourne head of the Whig party when he was only one of several rivals; at the death of Lord Palmerston it is very likely that the Queen may have the opportunity of freely choosing between two if not three statesmen. But as a rule, the nominal Prime Minister is chosen by the legislature, and the real Prime Minister for most purposes — the leader of the House of Commons — almost without exception is so. There is nearly always some one man plainly selected by the voice of the predominant party in the predominant House of the legislature to head that party, and consequently to rule the nation. We have in England an elective first magistrate as truly as the