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   Chapter 5 SIGNS OF CHANGE

Political Thought in England from Locke to Bentham By Harold Joseph Laski Characters: 59286

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


From Hume until the publication of Burke's Present Discontents (1770) there is no work on English politics of the first importance. Walpole had fallen in 1742; but for the next fifteen years his methods dominated the parliamentary scene. It was only with the advent of the elder Pitt to power that a new temper may be observed, a temper quickened by what followed on the accession of George III. Henceforward, it is not untrue to say that the early complacency of the time was lost; or, at least, it was no longer in the ascendant again until the excesses of the French Revolution enabled Burke to persuade his countrymen into that grim satisfaction with their own achievement of which Lord Eldon is the standing model. The signs of change are in each instance slight, though collectively they acquire significance. It was difficult for men to grumble where, as under Walpole, each harvest brought them greater prosperity, or where, as under Chatham, they leaped from victory to victory. Something of the exhilaration of these years we can still catch in the letters which show the effort made by the jaded Horace Walpole to turn off with easy laughter his deep sense of pride. In the House of Commons, indeed, there is nothing, until the Wilkes case, to show that a new age has come. It is in the novels of Richardson and Fielding, the first shy hints of the romantic temper in Gray and Collins, above all in the awakening of political science, that novelty is apparent.

So far as a new current of thought can ever be referred to a single source, the French influence is the effective cause of change. Voltaire and Montesquieu had both visited England in the period of Walpole's administration, and both had been greatly influenced by what they saw. Rousseau, indeed, came later on that amazing voyage which the good-natured Hume insisted would save him from his dread of persecution, and there is evidence enough that he did not relish his experience. Yet when he came, in 1762, to publish the Contrat Social it was obvious that he had drunk deeply of English thought. The real meaning of their work to Englishmen lay in the perspective they gave to English institutions. Naturally enough, there was a vast difference between the simplicity of a government where sovereignty was the monarch's will and one in which a complex distribution of powers was found to secure a general freedom. The Frenchmen were amazed at the generous equality of English judicial procedure. The liberty of unlicensed printing-less admirable than they accounted it-the difference between a Habeas Corpus and a lettre de cachet, the regular succession of Parliaments, all these impressed them, who knew the meaning of their absence, as a magnificent achievement. The English constitution revealed to France an immense and unused reservoir of philosophic illustration. Even to Englishmen itself that meaning was but partly known. Locke's system was a generalization from its significance at a special crisis. Hume had partial glimpses of its inner substance. But for most it had become a discreet series of remedies for particular wrongs. Its analysis as a connected whole invigorated thought as nothing had done since the Civil Wars had elaborated the theory of parliamentary sovereignty. What was more significant was the realization of Montesquieu's import simultaneously with the effort of George III to revive crown influence. Montesquieu thus became the prophet of a new race of thinkers. Rousseau's time was not yet; though within a score of years it was possible to see him as the rival to Burke's conservatism.

It is worth while to linger for a moment upon the thesis which underlies the Esprit des Lois (1748). It is a commonplace now that Montesquieu is to be regarded as the founder of the historical method. The present is to be explained by its ancestry. Laws, governments, customs are not truths absolute and universal, but relative to the time of their origin and the country from which they derive. It would be inaccurate, with Rousseau on the threshold, to say that his influence demolished the systems of political abstraction which, at their logical best, and in the most complete unreality, are to be found in Godwin's Political Justice; but it is not beyond the mark to affirm that after his time such abstract systems were on the defensive. Therein, with all his faults, he had given Burke the clue to those truths he so profoundly saw-the sense of the State as more than a mechanical contrivance, the high regard for prescription, the sense of law as the voice of past wisdom. He was, said Burke, "the greatest genius which has enlightened this age"; and Burke had every reason to utter that noble panegyric. But Montesquieu was more than this. He emphasized legislation as the main mechanism of social change; and therein he is the parent of that decisive reversal of past methods of which Bentham first revealed the true significance. Nor had any thinker before his time so emphasized the importance of liberty as the true end of government; even the placid Blackstone adopted the utterance from him in his inaugural lecture as Vinerian professor. He insisted, too, on the danger of perversion to which political principle lies open; a feeling which found consistent utterance both in the debates of the Philadelphia Convention, and in the writings of Bentham and James Mill. What, perhaps, is most immediately significant is his famous praise of the British Constitution-the secret of which he entirely misapprehended-and his discovery of its essence in the separation of powers. The short sixth chapter of his eleventh book is the real keynote of Blackstone and De Lolme. It led them to investigate, on principles of at least doubtful validity, an edifice never before described in detail. It is, when the last criticism has been made, an immense step forward from the uncouth antiquarianism of Coke's Second Institute to the neatly reticulated structure erected upon the foundations of Montesquieu's hint. That it was wrong was less important than that the attempt should have been made. The evil that men do lives after them; and few doctrines have been more noxious in their consequence than this theory of checks and balances. But Blackstone's Commentaries (1765-9) produced Bentham's Fragment on Government (1776), and with that book we enter upon the realistic study of the British Constitution.

Rousseau is in an antithetic tradition; but just as he drew from English thinkers so did he exercise upon the next generation an influence the more logical because the inferences he drew were those that his masters, with the English love of compromise, had sought to avoid. Rousseau is the disciple of Locke; and the real difference between them is no more than a removal of the limitations upon the power of government which Locke had proposed. It is a removal at every point conditioned by the interest of the people. For Rousseau declared that the existing distribution of power in Europe was a monstrous thing, and he made the people sovereign that there might be no hindrance to their achievement in the shape of sinister interest. The powers of the people thus became their rights and herein was an unlimited sanction for innovation. It is easy enough then to understand why such a philosophy should have been anathema to Burke. Rousseau's eager sympathy for humble men, his optimistic faith in the immediate prospect of popular power were to Burke the symptoms of insane delusion and their author "the great professor and founder of the philosophy of vanity in England." But Burke forgot that the real secret of Rousseau's influence was the success of the American Revolution; and no one had done more than Burke himself to promote its cause and justify its principles. That revolution established what Europe might well consider a democracy; and its statesmen were astonished not less at the vigilance with which America guarded against the growth of autocratic government, than at the soberness with which it checked the supposed weakness of the sovereign people. America made herself independent while what was best in Europe combined in enthusiastic applause; and it seemed as though the maxims of Rousseau had been taken to heart and that a single, vigorous exertion of power could remove what deliberation was impotent to secure. Here Rousseau had a message for Great Britain which Burke at every stage denied. Nor, at the moment, was it influential except in the general impetus it gave to thought. But from the moment of its appearance it is an undercurrent of decisive importance; and while in its metaphysical form it failed to command acceptance, in the hands of Bentham its results were victorious. Bentham differs from Rousseau not in the conclusions he recommends so much as in the language in which he clothes them. Either make a final end of the optimism of men like Hume and Blackstone, or the veneration for the past which is at the root of Burke's own teaching.

It is easy to see why thought such as this should have given the stimulus it did. Montesquieu came to praise the British constitution at a time when good men were aghast at its perversion. There was no room in many years for revolution, but at least there was place for hearty discontent and a seeking after new methods. Of that temper two men so different as the elder Pitt and Wilkes are the political symbols. The former's rise to power upon the floodtide of popular enthusiasm meant nothing so much as a protest against the cynical corruption of the previous generation. Wilkes was a sign that the populace was slowly awaking to a sense of its own power. The French creed was too purely logical, too obviously the outcome of alien conditions, to fit in its entirety the English facts; and, it must be admitted, memories of wooden shoes played not a little part in its rejection. The rights of man made only a partial appeal until the miseries of Pitt's wars showed what was involved in that rejection; and then it was too late. But no one could feel without being stirred the illumination of Montesquieu; and Rousseau's questions, even if they proved unanswerable, were stuff for thought. The work of the forty years before the French Revolution is nothing so much as a preparation for Bentham. The torpor slowly passes. The theorists build an edifice each part of which a man whose passion is attuned to the English nature can show to be obsolete and ugly. If the French thinkers had conferred no other benefit, that, at least, would have been a supreme achievement.


The first book to show the signs of change came in 1757. John Brown's Estimate of the Manners and Principles of the Times is largely forgotten now; though it went through seven editions in a year and was at once translated into French. Brown was a clergyman, a minor planet in the vast Warburtonian system, who had already published a volume of comment upon the Characteristics of Shaftesbury. His book is too evidently modelled upon Montesquieu, whom he mentions with reverence, to make us doubt its derivation. There is the same reliance upon Livy and Machiavelli, the same attempt at striking generalization; though the argument upon which Brown's conclusions are based is seldom given, perhaps because his geometric clarity of statement impressed him as self-demonstrative. Brown's volumes are an essay upon the depravity of the times. He does not deny it humanitarianism, and a still lingering sense of freedom, but it is steeped in corruption and displays nothing so much as a luxurious and selfish effeminacy. He condemns the universities out of hand, in phrases which Gibbon and Adam Smith would not have rejected. He deplores the decay of taste and learning. Men trifle with Hume's gay impieties, and could not, if they would, appreciate the great works of Bishop Warburton. Politics has become nothing save a means of promoting selfish interests. The church, the theatre, and the arts have all of them lost their former virtues. The neurotic temper of the times is known to all. The nation, as was shown in 1745, when a handful of Highlanders penetrated without opposition to the heart of the kingdom, has grown slack and cowardly. Gambling penetrates every nook and cranny of the upper class; the officers of the army devote themselves to fashion; the navy's main desire is for prize money. Even the domestic affections are at a low ebb; and the grand tour brings back a new species of Italianate Englishman. The poor, indeed, the middle class, and the legal and medical professions, Brown specifically exempts from this indictment. But he emphasizes his belief that this is unimportant. "The manners and principles of those who lead," he says, "... not of those who are governed ... will ever determine the strength or weakness, and therefore the continuance or dissolution of a state."

This profligacy Brown compares to the languid vice which preceded the fall of Carthage and of Rome; and he sees the approaching ruin of Great Britain at the hands of France, unless it can be cured. So far as he has an explanation to offer, it seems to be the fault of Walpole, and the decay of religious sentiment. His remedy is only Bolingbroke's Patriot King, dressed up in the habit of the elder Pitt, now risen to the height of power. What mainly stirred Englishmen was the prophecy of defeat on the morrow of the disastrous convention of Kloster Seven; but when Wolfe and Clive repaired that royal humiliation Brown seems to have died a natural death. What is more interesting than his prophecies was the evidence of a close reading of Montesquieu. English liberty, he says, is the product of the climate; a kind of mixture, it appears, of fog and sullen temper. Nations inevitably decay, and the commercial grandeur of England is the symptom of old age; it means a final departure from the simplicity of nature and breeds the luxury which kills by enervation. Brown has no passion, and his book reads rather like Mr. Galsworthy's Island Pharisees sufficiently expurgated to be declaimed by a well-bred clergyman in search of preferment on the ground of attention to the evils of his time. It describes undoubted facts, and it shows that the era of content has gone. But its careful periods and strangely far-off air lack the eagerness for truth which Rousseau put into his questions. Brown can neither explain nor can he proffer remedy. He sees that Pitt is somehow significant; but when he rules out the popular voice as devoid of all importance, he deprives himself of the means whereby to grasp the meaning of the power that Pitt exerted. Nothing could prove more strongly the exactitude of Burke's Present Discontents. Nothing could better justify the savage indignation of Junius.

Hume was the friend of Montesquieu, though twenty years his junior; and the Esprit des Lois travelled rapidly to Scotland. There it caught the eye of Adam Ferguson, the author of a treatise on refinement, and by the influence of Hume and Adam Smith, Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Edinburgh. Ferguson seems to have been immensely popular in his time, and certainly he has a skill for polished phrase, and a genial paraphrase of other men's ideas. His Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767), which in a quarter of a century went through six editions, was thought by Helvétius superior to Montesquieu, though Hume himself, as always the incarnation of kindness, recommended its suppression. At least Ferguson read enough of Montesquieu to make some fluent generalities sound plausible. He knows that the investigation of savage life will throw some light upon the origins of government. He sees the folly of generalizing easily upon the state of nature. He insists, probably after conversation with Adam Smith, upon the social value of the division of functions. He does not doubt the original equality of men. He thinks the luxury of his age has reached the limit of its useful growth. Property he traces back to a parental desire to make a better provision for children "than is found under the promiscuous management of many copartners." Climate has the new importance upon which Montesquieu has insisted; or, at least, as it "ripens the pineapple and the tamarina," so it "inspires a degree of mildness that can even assuage the rigours of despotical government." The priesthood-this is Hume-becomes a separate influence under the sway of superstition. Liberty, he says, "is maintained by the continued differences and oppositions of numbers, not by their concurring zeal in behalf of equitable government." The hand that can bend Ulysses' bow is certainly not here; and this pinchbeck Montesquieu can best be left in the obscurity into which he has fallen. The Esprit des Lois took twenty years in writing; and it needed the immense researches of men like Savigny before its significance could fully be grasped. Facile popularisers of this sort may have mollified the drawing-room; but they did not add to political ideas.


A more fertile source of inquiry was to be found among the students of constitutional law. Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-9) has had ever since its first publication an authority such as Coke only before possessed. "He it is," said Bentham, "who, first of all institutional writers, has taught jurisprudence to speak the language of the Scholar and the Gentleman." Certainly, as Professor Dicey has remarked, "the book contains much real learning about our system of government." We are less concerned here with Blackstone as an antiquarian lawyer than as a student of political philosophy. Here his purpose seems obvious enough. The English constitution raised him from humble means through a Professorship at Oxford to a judgeship in the Court of Common Pleas. He had been a member of Parliament and refused the office of Solicitor-General. He had thus no reason to be dissatisfied with the conditions of his time; and the first book of the Commentaries is nothing so much as an attempt to explain why English constitutional law is a miracle of wisdom.

Constitutional law, as such, indeed, found no place in Blackstone's book. It creeps in under the rights of persons, where he deals with the power of king and Parliament. His treatment implies a whole philosophy. Laws are of three kinds-of nature, of God, and of the civil state. Civil law, with which alone he is concerned, is "a rule of civil conduct prescribed by the supreme power in a state, commanding what is right and prohibiting what is wrong." It is, he tells us, "called a rule to distinguish it from a compact or agreement." It derives from the sovereign power, of which the chief character is the making of laws. Society is based upon the "wants and fears" of men; and it is coeval with their origin. The idea of a state of nature "is too wild to be seriously admitted," besides being contrary to historical knowledge. Society implies government, and whatever its origins or its forms there "must be in all of them a supreme, irresistible, absolute, uncontrolled authority, in which the jura summa imperii, or rights of sovereignty reside." The forms of government are classified in the usual way; and the British constitution is noted as a happy mixture of them all. "The legislature of the Kingdom," Blackstone writes, "is entrusted to three powers entirely independent of each other; first the King, secondly the lords spiritual and temporal, which is an aristocratical assembly of persons, chosen for their piety, their birth, their wisdom, their valour or their property; and, thirdly, the House of Commons, freely chosen by the people from among themselves, which makes it a kind of democracy; and as this aggregate body, actuated by different springs and attentive to different interests, composes the British Parliament and has the supreme disposal of everything; there can be no inconvenience attempted by either of the three branches, but will be withstood by one of the other two; each branch being armed with a negative power, sufficient to repel any innovation which it shall think inexpedient or dangerous." It is in the king in Parliament that British sovereignty resides. Eschewing the notion of an original contract, Blackstone yet thinks that all the implications of it are secured. "The constitutional government of this island," he says, "is so admirably tempered and compounded, that nothing can endanger or hurt it, but destroying the equilibrium of power between one branch of the legislature and the rest."

All this is not enough; though, as Bentham was to show in his Fragment on Government, it is already far too much. "A body of nobility," such is the philosophic interpretation of the House of Lords, "is also more peculiarly necessary in our mixed and compounded constitution, in order to support the rights of both the Crown and people, by forming a barrier to withstand the encroachments of both ... if they were confounded with the mass of the people, and like them had only a vote in electing representatives, their privileges would soon be borne down and overwhelmed by the popular torrent, which would effectually level all distinctions." "The Commons," he says further, "consist of all such men of property in the kingdom as have not seats in the House of Lords." The legal irresponsibility of the King is emphasized. "He is not only incapable of doing wrong," says Blackstone, "but even of thinking wrong; he can never mean to do an improper thing; in him is no folly or weakness," though he points out that the constitution "has allowed a latitude of supposing the contrary." The powers of the King are described in terms more suitable to the iron despotism of William the Norman than to the backstairs corruption of George III. The right of revolution is noted, with justice, as belonging to the sphere of morals rather than of law.

"Its true defect," says Professor Dicey of the Commentaries, "is the hopeless confusion both of language and of thought introduced into the whole subject of constitutional law by Blackstone's habit-common to all the lawyers of his time-of applying old and inapplicable terms to new institutions." This is severe enough; yet Blackstone's sins are deeper than the criticism would suggest. He introduced into English political philosophy that systematic attention to forms instead of substance upon which the whole vicious theory of checks and balances was erected. He made no distinction between the unlimited sovereignty of law and the very obviously limited sovereignty of reality. He must have known that to talk of the independence of the branches of the legislature was simple nonsense at a time when King and peers competed for the control of elections to the House of Commons. His idealization of a peerage whose typical spiritual member was Archbishop Cornwallis and whose temporal embodiment was the Duke of Bedford would not have deceived a schoolboy had it not provided a bulwark against improvement. It was ridiculous to describe the Commons as representative of property so long as places like Manchester and Sheffield were virtually disfranchised. His picture of the royal prerogative was a portrait against every detail of which what was best in England had struggled in the preceding century and a half. He has nothing to say of the cabinet, nothing of ministerial responsibility, nothing of the party system. What he did was to produce the defence of a non-existent system which acted as a barrier to all legal, and much political, progress in the next half-century. He gave men material without cause for satisfaction.

As a description of the existing government there is thus hardly an element of Blackstone's work which could stand the test of critical inquiry. But even worse was its philosophy. As Bentham pointed out, he was unaware of the distinction between society and government. The state of nature exists, or fails to exist, with startling inconsistency. Blackstone, in fact, was a Lockian who knows that Hume and Montesquieu have cut the ground from under his master's feet, and yet cannot understand how, without him, a foundation is to be supplied. Locke, indeed, seems to him, as a natural conservative, to go too far, and he rejects the original contract as without basis in history; yet contractual notions are present at every fundamental stage of his argument. The sovereign power, so we are told, is irresistible; and then because Blackstone is uncertain what right is to mean, we hear of moral limitations upon its exercise. He speaks continually of representation without any effort to examine into the notions it conveys. The members of society are held to be equal; and great pains are taken to justify existent inequalities. "The natural foundations of sovereignty," he writes, "are the three great requisites... of wisdom, goodness and power." Yet there is nowhere any proof in his book that steps have been taken in the British Constitution to associate these with the actual exertion of authority. Nor has he clear notions of the way in which property is to be founded. Communism, he writes in seventeenth century fashion, is the institution of the all-beneficent Creator who gave the earth to men; property comes when men occupy some special portion of the soil continuously or mix their labor with movable possessions. This is pure Locke; though the conclusions drawn by Blackstone are utterly remote from the logical result of his own premises.

The truth surely is that Blackstone had, upon all these questions, only the most confused sort of notions. He had to preface his work with some sort of philosophic theory because the conditions of the age demanded it. The one source of enlightenment when he wrote was Hume; but for some uncertain reason, perhaps his piety, Blackstone makes no reference to the great sceptic's speculations. So that he was driven back upon notions he felt to be false, without a proper realization of their falsity. His use of Montesquieu shows rather how dangerous a weapon a great idea can be in the hands of one incompetent to understand it, than the fertility it contained. The merit of Blackstone is his learning, which was substantial, his realization that the powers of law demand some classification, his dim yet constant sense that Montesquieu is right alike in searching for the roots of law in custom and in applying the historical method to his explanations. But as a thinker he was little more than an optimistic trifler, too content with the conditions of his time to question its assumptions.

De Lolme is a more interesting figure; and though, as with Blackstone, what he failed to see was even more remarkable than what he did perceive, his book has real ability and merit. De Lolme was a citizen of Geneva, who published his Constitution of England in 1775, after a twelve months' visit to shores sufficiently inhospitable to leave him to die in obscurity and want. His book, as he tells us in his preface, was no mean success, though he derived no profit from it. Like Blackstone, he was impressed by the necessity of obtaining a constitutional equilibrium, wherein he finds the secret of liberty. The attitude was not unnatural in one who, with his head full of Montesquieu, was a witness of the struggle between Junius and the King. He has, of course, the limitation common to all writers before Burke of thinking of government in purely mechanical terms. "It is upon the passions of mankind," he says, "that is, upon causes which are unalterable, that the action of the various parts of a state depends. The machine may vary as to its dimensions; but its movement and acting springs still remain intrinsically the same." Elsewhere he speaks of government as "a great ballet or dance in which ... everything depends upon the disposition of the figures." He does not deal, that is to say, with men as men, but only as inert adjuncts of a machine by which they are controlled. Such an attitude is bound to suffer from the patent vices of all abstraction. It regards historic forces as distinct from the men related to them. Every mob, he says, must have its Spartacus; every republic will tend to unstability. The English avoid these dangers by playing off the royal power against the popular. The King's interest is safeguarded by the division of Parliament into two Houses, each of which rejects the encroachment of the other upon the executive. His power is limited by parliamentary privilege, freedom of the press, the right of taxation and so forth. The theory was not true; though it represented with some accuracy the ideals of the time.

Nor must we belittle what insight De Lolme possessed. He saw that the early concentration of power in the royal hands prevented the continental type of feudalism from developing in England; with the result that while French nobles were massacring each other, the English people could unite to wrest privileges from the superior power. He understood that one of the mainsprings of the system was the independence of the judges. He realized that the party-system-he never used the actual term-while it provides room for men's ambitions at the same time prevents the equation of ambition with indispensability. "Woe to him," says De Lolme, "... who should endeavor to make the people believe that their fate depends on the persevering virtue of a single citizen." He sees the paramount value of freedom of the press. This, as he says, with the necessity that members should be re-elected, "has delivered into the hands of the people at large the exercise of the censorial

power." He has no doubt but that resistance is the remedy whereby governmental encroachment can be prevented; "resistance," he says, "is the ultimate and lawful resource against the violences of power." He points out how real is the guarantee of liberty where the onus of proof in criminal cases is thrown upon the government. He regards with admiration the supremacy of the civil over the military arm, and the skillful way in which, contrary to French experience, it has been found possible to maintain a standing army without adding to the royal power. Nor can he fail to admire the insight which organizes "the agitation of the popular mind," not as "the forerunner of violent commotions" but to "animate all parts of the state." Therein De Lolme had grasped the real essence of party government.

It was, of course, no more than symptomatic of his time that cabinet and prime minister should have escaped his notice. A more serious defect was his inability, with the Wilkes contest prominently in his notice, to see that the people had assumed a new importance. For the masses, indeed, De Lolme had no enthusiasm. "A passive share," he thought, "was the only one that could, with safety to the state, be trusted" to the humble man. "The greater part," he wrote, "of those who compose this multitude, taken up with the care of providing for their subsistence, have neither sufficient leisure, nor even, in consequence of their imperfect education, the degree of information, requisite for functions of this kind." Such an attitude blinded him to the significance of the American conflict, which he saw unattended by its moral implications. He trusted too emphatically to the power of mechanisms to realize that institutions which allowed of such manipulation as that of George III could not be satisfactory once the people had awakened to a sense of its own power. The real social forces of the time found there no channels of activity; and the difference between De Lolme and Bagehot is the latter's power to go behind the screen of statute to the inner sources of power.


The basis of revolutionary doctrine was already present in England when, in 1762, Rousseau published his Contrat Social. With its fundamental doctrines Locke had already made his countrymen familiar; and what was needed for the appreciation of its teaching was less a renaissance than discontent. So soon as men are dissatisfied with the traditional foundations of the State, a gospel of natural rights is certain to make its appearance. And, once the design of George III had been made familiar by his treatment of Chatham and Wilkes, the discontent did not fail to show itself. Indeed, in the year before the publication of Rousseau's book, Robert Wallace, a Scottish chaplain royal, had written in his Various Prospects (1761) a series of essays which are at once an anticipation of the main thesis of Malthus and a plea for the integration of social forces by which alone the mass of men could be raised from misery. In the light of later experience it is difficult not to be impressed by the modernist flavour of Wallace's attack. He insists upon the capacity of men and the disproportion between their potential achievement and that which is secured by actual society. Men are in the mass condemned to ignorance and toil; and the lust of power sets man against his neighbor to the profit of the rich. Wallace traces these evils to private property and the individualistic organization of work, and he sees no remedy save community of possessions and a renovated educational system. Yet he does not conceal from himself that it is to the interest of the governing class to prevent a revolution which, beneficent to the masses, would be fatal to themselves; nor does he conceive it possible until the fertility of men has been reduced to the capacity of the soil. He speculates upon the chances of a new spirit among men, of an all-wise legislator, and of the beneficent example of colonies upon the later Owenite model. But his book is contemporaneous with our own ideas rather than with the thoughts of his generation. Nor does it seem to have excited any general attention.

It is five years after Rousseau that we see the first clear signs of his influence. Naturally enough the men amongst whom the new spirit spread abroad were the Nonconformists. For more than seventy years they had been allowed existence without recognition. None had more faithfully supported the new dynasty than they; none had been paid less for their allegiance. Their utmost effort could secure only a sparing mitigation of the Test Act. All of them were Whigs, and the doctrines of Locke suited exactly their temper and their wants. There were amongst them able men in every walk of life, and they were apt to publication. Joseph Priestley, in particular, gave up with willingness to mankind what was obviously meant for chemical science. A few years previously Brown of the Estimate had submitted a scheme for national education, in which the essential principle was Church control. Priestley had answered him, and was encouraged by friends to expand his argument into a general treatise. His Essay on the First Principles of Government appeared in 1768; and, if for nothing else, it would be noteworthy because it was therein that the significance of the "greatest happiness principle" first flashed across Bentham's mind. But the book shows more than this. "I had placed," says Priestley with due modesty, "the foundation of some of the most valuable interests of mankind on a broader and firmer basis than Mr. Locke"; and the breadth and firmness are Rousseau's contribution.

Certainly we herein meet new elements. On the very threshold of the book we meet the dogma of the perfectibility of man. "Whatever," Priestley rhapsodizes, "was the beginning of this world, the end will be glorious and paradisaical, beyond what our imaginations can now conceive." "The instrument of this progress ... towards this glorious state" is government; though a little later we are to find that the main business of government is noninterference. Men are all equal, and their natural rights are indefeasible. Government must be restrained in the interests of liberty. No man can be governed without his consent; for government is founded upon a contract by which civil liberty is surrendered in exchange for a power to share in public decisions. It thus follows that the people must be sovereign, and interference with their natural rights will justify resistance. Every government, he says, is "in its original principles, and antecedent to its present form an equal republic"; wherefore, of course, it follows that we must restore to men the equality they have lost. And, equally, of course, this would bestow upon the Nonconformists their full citizenship; for Warburton's Alliance, to attack which Priestley exhausts all the resources of his ingenuity, has been one of the main instruments in their degradation. "Unbounded liberty in matters of religion," which means the abolition of the Establishment, promises to be "very favorable to the best interests of mankind."

So far the book might well be called an edition of Rousseau for English Nonconformists; but there are divergences of import. It can never be forgotten in the history of political ideas that the alliance of Church and State made Nonconformists suspicious of government interference. Their original desire to be left unimpeded was soon exalted into a definite theory; and since political conditions had confined them so largely to trade none felt as they did the hampering influence of State-restrictions. The result has been a great difficulty in making liberal doctrines in England realize, until after 1870, the organic nature of the State. It remains for them almost entirely a police institution which, once it aims at the realization of right, usurps a function far better performed by individuals. There is no sense of the community; all that exists is a sum of private sentiments. "Civil liberty," says Priestley, "has been greatly impaired by an abuse of the maxim that the joint understanding of all the members of a State, properly collected, must be preferable to that of individuals; and consequently that the more the cases are in which mankind are governed by this united reason of the whole community, so much the better; whereas, in truth, the greater part of human actions are of such a nature, that more inconvenience would follow from their being fixed by laws than from their being left to every man's arbitrary will." If my neighbor assaults me, he suggests, I may usefully call in the police; but where the object is the discovery of truth, the means of education, the method of religious belief, individual initiative is superior to State action. The latter produces an uniform result "incompatible with the spirit of discovery." Nor is such attempt at uniform conditions just to posterity; men have no natural right to judge for the future. Men are too ignorant to fix their own ideas as the basis of all action.

Priestley could not escape entirely the bondage of past tradition; and the metaphysics which Bentham abhorred are scattered broadcast over his pages. Nevertheless the basis upon which he defended his ideas was a utilitarianism hardly less complete than that which Bentham made the instrument of revolution. "Regard to the general good," he says, "is the main method by which natural rights are to be defended." "The good and happiness of the members, that is, the majority of the members of any State, is the great standard by which everything relating to that state must finally be determined." In substance, that is to say, if not completely in theory, we pass with Priestley from arguments of right to those of expediency. His chief attack upon religious legislation is similarly based upon considerations of policy. His view of the individual as a never-ending source of fruitful innovation anticipates all the later Benthamite arguments about the well-spring of individual energy. Interference and stagnation are equated in exactly similar fashion to Adam Smith and his followers. Priestley, of course, was inconsistent in urging at the outset that government is the chief instrument of progress; but what he seems to mean is less that government has the future in its hands than that government action may well be decisive for good or evil. Typical, too, of the later Benthamism is his glorification of reason as the great key which is to unlock all doors. That is, of course, natural in a scientist who had himself made discoveries of vital import; but it was characteristic also of a school which scanned a limitless horizon with serene confidence in a future of unbounded good. Even if it be said that Priestley has all the vices of that rationalism which, as with Bentham, oversimplifies every problem it encounters, it is yet adequate to retort that a confidence in the energies of men was better than the complacent stagnation of the previous age.

It is difficult to measure the precise influence that Priestley exerted; certainly among Nonconformists it cannot have been small. Dr. Richard Price is a lesser figure; and much of the standing he might have had has been obliterated by two unfortunate incidents. His sinking-fund scheme was taken up by the younger Pitt, and proved, though the latter believed in it to the last, to be founded upon an arithmetical fallacy which did not sit well upon a fellow of the Royal Society. His sermon on the French Revolution provoked the Reflections of Burke; and, though much of the right was on the side of Price, it can hardly be said that he survived Burke's onslaught. Yet he was a considerable figure in his day, and he shows, like Priestley, how deep-rooted was the English revolutionary temper. He has not, indeed, Priestley's superb optimism; for the rigid a priori morality of which he was the somewhat muddled defender was less favorable to a confidence in reason. He had a good deal of John Brown's fear that luxury was the seed of English degeneration; the proof of which he saw in the decline of the population. His figures, in fact, were false; but they were unessential to the general thesis he had to make.

Price, like Priestley a leading Nonconformist, was stirred to print by the American Revolution; and if his views were not widely popular, his Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty (1776) attained its eighth edition within a decade. This, with its supplement Additional Observations (1777), presents a perfectly coherent theory. Nor is their ancestry concealed. They represent the tradition of Locke, modified by the importations of Rousseau. Price owes much to Priestley and to Hume, and he takes sentences from Montesquieu where they aid him. But he has little or nothing of Priestley's utilitarianism and the whole argument is upon the abstract basis of right. Liberty means self-government, and self-government means the right of every man to be his own legislator. Price, with strict logic, follows out this doctrine to its last consequence. Taxes become "free gifts for public services"; laws are "particular provisions or regulations established by Common Consent for gaining protection and safety"; magistrates are "trustees or deputies for carrying these regulations into execution." And almost in the words of Rousseau, Price goes on to admit that liberty, "in its most perfect degree, can be enjoyed only in small states where every independent agent is capable of giving his suffrage in person and of being chosen into public offices." He knows that large States are inevitable, though he thinks that representation may be made so adequate as to minimize the sacrifice of liberty involved.

But the limitation upon government is everywhere emphasized. "Government," he says, "... is in the very nature of it a trust; and all its powers a Delegation for particular ends." He rejects the theory of parliamentary sovereignty as incompatible with self-government; if the Parliament, for instance, prolonged its life, it would betray its constituents and dissolve itself. "If omnipotence," he writes, "can with any sense be ascribed to a legislature, it must be lodged where all legislative authority originates; that is, in the People." Such a system is alone compatible with the ends of government, since it cannot be supposed that men "combine into communities and institute government" for self-enslavement. Nor is any other political system "consistent with the natural equality of mankind"; by which Price means that no man "is constituted by the author of nature the vassal or subject of another, or has any right to give law to him, or, without his consent, to take away any part of his property or to abridge him of his liberty." From all of which it is concluded that liberty is inalienable; and a people which has lost it "must have a right to emancipate themselves as soon as they can." The aptness of the argument to the American situation is obvious enough; and nowhere is Price more happy or more formidable than when he applies his precepts to phrases like "the unity of the empire" and the "honor of the kingdom" which were so freely used to cover up the inevitable results of George's obstinacy.

The Essay on the Right of Property in Land (1781) of William Ogilvie deserves at least a passing notice. The author, who published his book anonymously, was a Professor of Latin in the University of Aberdeen and an agriculturist of some success. His own career was distinctly honorable. The teacher of Sir James Mackintosh, he had a high reputation as a classical scholar and deserves to be remembered for his effort to reform a college which had practically ceased to perform its proper academic functions. His book is virtually an essay upon the natural right of men to the soil. He does not doubt that the distress of the times is due to the land monopoly. The earth being given to men in common, its invasion by private ownership is a dangerous perversion. Men have the right to the full product of their labor; but the privileges of the landowner prevent the enjoyment of that right. The primary duty of every State is the increase of public happiness; and the happiest nation is that which has the greatest number of free and independent cultivators. But governments attend rather to the interest of the higher classes, even while they hold out the protection of the common people as the main pretext of their authority. The result is their maintenance of land-monopoly even though it affects the prime material of all essential industries, prevents the growth of population, and makes the rich wealthier at the expense of the poor. It breeds oppression and ignorance, and poisons improvement by preventing individual initiative. He points out how a nation is dominated by its landlords, and how they have consistently evaded the fiscal burdens they should bear. Only in a return to a nation of freeholders can Ogilvie see the real source of an increase in happiness.

Such criticism is revolutionary enough, though when he comes to speak of actual changes, he had little more to propose than a system of peasant proprietorship. What is striking in the book is its sense of great, impending changes, its thorough grasp of the principle of utility, its realization of the immense agricultural improvement that is possible if the landed system can be so changed as to bring into play the impulses of humble men. He sees clearly enough that wealth dominates the State; and his interpretation of history is throughout economic. Ogilvie is one of the first of those agrarian Socialists who, chiefly through Spence and Paine, are responsible for a special current of their own in the great tide of protest against the unjust situation of labor. Like them, he builds his system upon natural rights; though, unlike them, his natural rights are defended by expediency and in a style that is always clear and logical. The book itself has rather a curious history. At its appearance, it seems to have excited no notice of any kind. Mackintosh knew of its authorship; for he warned its author against the amiable delusion that its excellence would persuade the British government to force a system of peasant proprietorship upon the East India Company. Reprinted in 1838 as the work of John Ogilby, it was intended to instruct the Chartists in the secret of their oppression; and therein it may well have contributed to the tragicomic land-scheme of Feargus O'Connor. In 1891 the problem of the land was again eagerly debated under the stimulus of Mr. Henry George; and a patriotic Scotchman published the book with biographical notes that constitute one of the most amazing curiosities in English political literature.


Against the school of Rousseau's English disciples it is comparatively easy to multiply criticisms. They lacked any historic sense. Government, for them, was simply an instrument which was made and unmade at the volition of men. How complex were its psychological foundations they had no conception; with the single factor of consent they could explain the most marvellous edifice of any time. They were buried beneath a mountain of metaphysical right which they never related to legal facts or to political possibility. They pursued relentlessly the logical conclusions of the doctrines they abhorred without being willing carefully to investigate the results to which their own doctrines in logic led. They overestimated the extent to which men are willing to occupy themselves with political affairs. They made no proper allowance for the protective armour each social system must acquire by the mere force of prescription. Nor is there sufficient allowance in their attitude for those limiting conditions of circumstance of which every statesman must of necessity take account. They occupy themselves, that is to say, so completely with staatslehre that they do not admit the mollifying influence of politik. They search for principles of universal right, without the perception that a right which is to be universal must necessarily be so general in character as to be useless in its application.

Yet such defects must not blind us to the general rightness of their insight. They were protesting against a system strongly upheld on grounds which now appear to have been simply indefensible. The business of government had been made the private possession of a privileged class; and eagerness for desirable change was, in the mass, absent from the minds of most men engaged in its direction. The loss of America, the heartless treatment of Ireland, the unconstitutional practices in the Wilkes affair, the heightening of corruption undertaken by Henry Fox and North at the direct instance of the king, had blinded the eyes of most to the fact that principle is a vital part of policy. The revolutionists recalled men to the need of explaining, no less than carrying on, the government of the Crown. They represented the new sense of power felt by elements of which the importance had been forgotten in the sordid intrigues of the previous half-century. Their emphasis upon government as in its nature a public trust was at least accompanied by a useful reminder that, after all, ultimate power must rest upon the side of the governed. For twenty years Whigs and Tories alike carried on political controversy as though no public opinion existed outside the small circle of the aristocracy. The mob which made Wilkes its idol was, in a blind and unconscious way, enforcing the lesson that Price and Priestley had in mind. For the moment, they were unsuccessful. Cartwright, with his Constitutional Societies, might capture the support of an eccentric peer like the Duke of Richmond; but the vast majority remained, if irritated, unconvinced. It needed the realization that the new doctrines were part of a vaster synthesis which swept within its purview the fortunes of Europe and America before they would give serious heed; and even then they met antagonism with nothing save oppression and hate. Yet the doctrines remained; for thought, after all, is killed by reasoned answer alone. And when the first gusts of war and revolution had passed, the cause for which they stood was found to have permeated all classes save that which had all to lose by learning.

We must not, however, commit the error of thinking of Price and Priestley as representing more than an important segment of opinion. The opposition to their theories was not less articulate than their own defence of them. Some, like Burke, desired a purification of the existing system; others, like Dr. Johnson, had no sort of sympathy with new-fangled ideas. One thinker, at least, deserves some mention less for the inherent value of what he had to say, than for the nature of the opinions he expounded. Josiah Tucker, the Dean of Gloucester, has a reputation alike in political and economic enquiry. He represents the sturdy nationalism of Arbuthnot's John Bull, the unreasoned prejudice against all foreigners, the hatred of all metaphysics as inconsistent with common sense, the desire to let things be on the ground that the effort after change is worse than the evil of which men complain. His Treatise on Civil Government (1781) is in many ways a delightful book, bluff, hardy, full of common sense, with, at times, a quaint humor that is all its own. He had really two objects in view; to deal, in the first place, faithfully with the American problem, and, in the second, to explode the new bubble of Rousseau's followers. The second point takes the form of an examination of Locke, to whom, as Tucker shrewdly saw, the theories of the school may trace their ancestry. He analyses the theory of consent in such fashion as to show that if its adherents could be persuaded to be logical, they would have to admit themselves anarchists. He has no sympathy with the state of nature; the noble savage, on investigation, turns out to be a barbaric creature with a club and scalping knife. Government, he does not doubt, is a trust, or, as he prefers, somewhat oddly, to call it, a quasi-contract; but that does not mean that the actual governors can be dismissed when any eccentric happens to take exception to their views. He has no sympathy with parliamentary reform. Give the mob an increase of power, he says, and nothing is to be expected but outrage and violence. He thinks the constitution very well as it is, and those who preach the evils of corruption ought to prove their charges instead of blasphemously asserting that the voice of the people is the voice of God.

Upon America Tucker has doctrines all his own. He does not doubt that the Americans deserve the worst epithets that can be showered upon them. Their right to self-government he denied as stoutly as ever George III himself could have desired. But not for one moment would he fight them to compel their return to British allegiance. If the American colonies want to go, let them by all means cut adrift. They are only a useless source of expenditure. The trade they represent does not depend upon allegiance but upon wants that England can supply if she keeps shop in the proper way, if, that is, she makes it to their interest to buy in her market. Indeed, colonies of all kinds seem to him quite useless. They ever are, he says, and ever were, "a drain to and an incumbrance on the Mother-country, requiring perpetual and expensive nursing in their infancy, and becoming headstrong and ungovernable in proportion as they grow up." All wise relations depend upon self-interest, and that needs no compulsion. If Gibraltar and Port Mahon and the rest were given up, the result would be "multitudes of places ... abolished, jobs and contracts effectually prevented, millions of money saved, universal industry encouraged, and the influence of the Crown reduced to that mediocrity it ought to have." Here is pure Manchesterism half-a-century before its time; and one can imagine the good Dean crustily explaining his notions to the merchants of Bristol who had just rejected Edmund Burke for advocating free trade with Ireland.

No word on Toryism would be complete without mention of Dr. Johnson. Here, indeed, we meet less with opinion than with a set of gloomy prejudices, acceptable only because of the stout honesty of the source from which they come. He thought life a poor thing at the best and took a low view of human nature. "The notion of liberty," he told the faithful Boswell, "amuses the people of England and helps to keep off the tedium vitae." The idea of a society properly organized into ranks and societies he always esteemed highly. "I am a friend to subordination," he said, "as most conducive to the happiness of society." He was a Jacobite and Tory to the end. Whiggism was the offspring of the devil, the "negation of all principle"; and he seems to have implied that it led to atheism, which he regarded as the worst of sins. He did not believe in the honesty of republicans; they levelled down, but were never inclined to level up. Men, he felt, had a part to act in society, and their business was to fulfil their allotted station. Rousseau was a very bad man: "I would sooner sign a sentence for his transportation than that of any fellow who has gone from the Old Bailey these many years." Political liberty was worthless; the only thing worth while was freedom in private concerns. He blessed the government in the case of general warrants and thought the power of the Crown too small. Toleration he considered due to an inapt distinction between freedom to think and freedom to talk, and any magistrate "while he thinks himself right ... ought to enforce what he thinks." The American revolt he ascribed to selfish faction; and in his Taxation no Tyranny (1775) he defended the British government root and branch upon his favorite ground of the necessity of subordination. He was willing, he said, to love all mankind except an American.

Yet Dr. Johnson was the friend of Burke, and he found pleasure in an acquaintance with Wilkes. Nor, in all his admiration for rank and fortune, is there a single element of meanness. The man who wrote the letter to Lord Chesterfield need never fear the charge of abasement. He knew that there was "a remedy in human nature that will keep us safe under every form of government." He defined a courtier in the Idler as one "whose business it is to watch the looks of a being weak and foolish as himself." Much of what he felt was in part a revolt against the sentimental aspect of contemporary liberalism, in part a sturdy contempt for the talk of degeneracy that men such as Brown had made popular. There is, indeed, in all his political observations a strong sense of the virtue of order, and a perception that the radicalism of the time was too abstract to provide an adequate basis for government. Here, as elsewhere, Johnson hated all speculation which raised the fundamental questions. What he did not see was the important truth that in no age are fundamental questions raised save where the body politic is diseased. Rousseau and Voltaire, even Priestley and Price, require something more for answer than unreasoned prejudice. Johnson's attitude would have been admirable where there were no questions to debate; but where Pelham ruled, or Grenville, or North, it had nothing to contribute. Thought, after all, is the one certain weapon of utility in a different and complex world; and it was because the age refused to look it in the face that it invited the approach of revolution.

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