« AnteriorContinuar »
for the best government. You can use the best classes of the respectful country; you can only use the worst where every man thinks he is as good as every other.
It is evident that no difficulty can be greater than that of founding a deferential nation. Respect is traditional; it is given not to what is proved to be good, but to what is known to be old. Certain classes in certain nations retain by common acceptance a marked political preference, because they have always possessed it, and because they inherit a sort of pomp which seems to make them worthy of it. But in a new colony, in a community where merit may be equal, and where there cannot be traditional marks of merit and fitness, it is obvious that a political deference can be yielded to higher culture only upon proof, first of its existence, and next of its political value. But it is nearly impossible to give such a proof so as to satisfy persons of less culture. In a future and better age of the world it may be effected; but in this age the requisite premises scarcely exist; if the discussion be effectually open, if the debate be fairly begun, it is hardly possible to obtain a rational, an argumentative acquiescence in the rule of the cultivated few. As yet the few rule by their hold, not over the reason of the multitude, but over their imaginations, and their habits; over their fancies as to distant things they do not know at all, over their customs as to near things which they know very well.
A deferential community in which the bulk of the people are ignorant, is therefore in a state of what is called in mechanics unstable equilibrium. If the equili
brium is once disturbed there is no tendency to return to it, but rather to depart from it. A cone balanced on its point is in unstable equilibrium, for if you push it ever so little it will depart farther and farther from its position and fall to the earth. So in communities where the masses are ignorant but respectful, if you once permit the ignorant class to begin to rule you may bid farewell to deference for ever. Their demagogues will inculcate, their newspapers will recount, that the rule of the existing dynasty (the people) is better than the rule of the fallen dynasty (the aristocracy). A people very rarely hears two sides of a subject in which it is much interested; the popular organs take up the side which is acceptable, and none but the popular organs in fact reach the people. A people never hears censure of itself. No one will tell it that the educated minority whom it dethroned governed better or more wisely than it governs. A democracy will never, save after an awful catastrophe, return what has once been conceded to it, for to do so would be to admit an inferiority in itself, of which, except by some almost unbearable misfortune, it could never be convinced.
ITS HISTORY, AND THE EFFECTS OF THAT HISTORY.
A VOLUME might seem wanted to say anything worth saying * on the History of the English Constitution, and a great and new volume might still be written on it, if a competent writer took it in hand. The subject has never been treated by any one combining the lights of the newest research and the lights of the most matured philosophy. Since the masterly book of Hallam was written, both political thought and historical knowledge have gained much, and we might have a treatise applying our strengthened calculus to our augmented facts. I do not pretend that I could write such a book, but there are a few salient particulars which may be fitly brought together, both because of their past interest and of their present importance.
Since the first edition of this book was published several valuable works have appeared, which, on many points, throw much light on our early constitutional history, especially Mr. Stubbs' "Select Charters and other Illustrations of English Constitutional History, from the Earliest Times to the Reign of Edward the First," Mr. Freeman's lecture on "The Growth of the English Constitution," and the chapter on the Anglo-Saxon Constitution in his "History of the Norman Conquest:” but we have not yet a great and authoritative work on the whole subject such as I wished for when I wrote the passage in the text, and as it is most desirable that we should have.
There is a certain common polity, or germ of polity, which we find in all the rude nations that have attained civilisation. These nations seem to begin in what I may call a consultative and tentative absolutism. The king of early days, in vigorous nations, was not absolute as despots now are; there was then no standing army to repress rebellion, no organised espionage to spy out discontent, no skilled bureaucracy to smooth the ruts of obedient life. The early king was indeed consecrated by a religious sanction; he was essentially a man apart, a man above others, divinely anointed, or even God-begotten. But in nations capable of freedom this religious domination was never despotic. There was indeed no legal limit; the very words could not be translated into the dialect of those times. The notion of law as we have it-of a rule imposed by human authority, capable of being altered by that authority when it likes, and in fact, so altered habitually-could not be conveyed to early nations, who regarded law half as an invincible prescription, and half as a Divine revelation. Law "came out of the king's mouth;" he gave it as Solomon gave judgment--embedded in the particular case, and upon the authority of Heaven as well as his own. A Divine limit to the Divine revealer was impossible, and there was no other source of law. But though there was no legal limit, there was a practical limit to subjection in (what may be called) the pagan part of human nature, the inseparable obstinacy of freemen. They never would do exactly what they were told.
To early royalty, as Homer describes it in Greece and
as we may well imagine it elsewhere, there were always two adjuncts: one the "old men," the men of weight, the council, the Bouλn, of which the king asked advice, from the debates in which the king tried to learn what he could do and what he ought to do. Besides this there was the ȧyopá, the purely listening assembly, as some have called it, but the tentative assembly, as I think it might best be called. The king came down to his assembled people in form to announce his will, but in reality, speaking in very modern words, to "feel his way." He was sacred, no doubt; and popular, very likely; still he was half like a popular premier speaking to a high-spirited chamber; there were limits to his authority and power-limits which he would discover by trying whether eager cheers received his mandate, or only hollow murmurs and a thinking silence.
This polity is a good one for its era and its place, but there is a fatal defect in it. The reverential associations upon which the government is built are transmitted according to one law, and the capacity needful to work the government is transmitted according to another law. The popular homage clings to the line of god-descended kings; it is transmitted by inheritance. But very soon that line comes to a child or an idiot, or one by some defect or other incapable. Then we find everywhere the truth of the old saying, that liberty thrives under weak princes; then the listening assembly begins not only to murmur, but to speak; then the grave council begins not so much to suggest as to inculcate, not so much to advise ás to enjoin.