« AnteriorContinuar »
Art. XII. Speech of Lord John Russell in the House of Com
mons, on the 14th December 1819, for transferring the Elective Franchise from Corrupt Boroughs to Unrepresented Great Towns. 8vo. Longman & Co. London, 1820.
TT is now two years since we promised to lay before the public I such thoughts as had occurred to us on those plans of • Constitutional Reform which might gradually unite the most - reasonable friends of Liberty, and of which we should not • despair to see some part adopted under the guidance of a li• beral and firm government.'* However uncertain the accomplishment of our hopes may now appear, the circumstances of the times will no longer allow us to delay the performance of this promise. The establishment of new constitutions in foreign countries, increases the general importance of this subject: But the progress of discontent and agitation at home, renders its consideration a matter of immediate and paramount urgency.
It would be a fatal error to suppose that the destruction of despotism is necessarily attended by the establishment of liberty. Revolutions do not bestow liberty. They only give a chance for it;-a great indeed and unspeakable blessing, wora thy of being pursued at every hazard; but not to be confounded with the institution of a free government. It is easy to burn a bad house, but sometimes difficult to build a good one in its stead: And the difference between destroying and constructing, is immeasurably greater in the case of government, than in that from which we have borrowed our illustration. It was long ago justly observed, by a writer of equal sense and wit, that • it is impossible to settle any government by a model that shall
hold, as men contrive ships and buildings : for governments ' are made, like natural productions, by degrees, according as • their materials are brought in by time, and those parts that ' are unagreeable to their nature, cast off.' + A living writer, distinguished by a like union of eminent faculties, remarks, that • Constitutions are in fact productions that can neither be cre'ated nor transplanted. They are the growth of time, not the 'invention of ingenuity; and to frame a complete system 'of • government, depending on habits of reverence and experi• ence, is an attempt as absurd as to build a tree, or manufac
* Edinburgh Review, vol. xxxi. p. 199.
• ture an opinion.' I These just and striking observations are not quoted to dishearten enslaved nations in the pursuit of liberty. We would not, if it depended upon us, repress their zeal; but we would, if it were possible, contribute somewhat to enlighten their judgment. We would earnestly exhort them, in their first attempts at legislation, to aim only at a sketch of those institutions, without which Liberty cannot exist to connect them, wherever it is possible, with the ancient fabric of their societies,—and to leave the outline to be gradually filled up by their successors. When experience has ascertained the effects of their first legislation, and when generally acknowledged inconveniences require to be remedied by new laws, without observing such principles, they are likely, in flying from an old despotism, to fall into the arms of some of those new tyrannies, which, under a thousand forms, lie in wait for all communities, but especially for those who are engaged in the enterprise of laying the first foundations of Liberty.
A difference of opinion may be entertained on the expediency of some civil institutions, and the importance of others; but that no nation can be free, without some Representation of the people, is one of the very few positions, in which all men who pretend to a love of liberty are agreed. Nothing then can be of more importance than the prevalence of right opinions on the mode of amending such a representation where it is thought defective, or of establishing it where it did not exist before. By such opinions only can free states be saved from convulsion; and by them alone, can revolution in absolute monarchies be rendered productive of permanent freedom.
Deeply, however, as we are interested in the fortune of foreign nations struggling for liberty, the condition of our own country has, at the present moment, still stronger claims on our consideration. The extent of the evils which at present threaten us is not denied by any party ; and, least of all, by the adherents of the present administration : They are the foremost to tell us that our situation is more perilous than it has been at any period since the Revolution. It is said, on the one hand, that the proprietory and educated classes are the oppressors of the people. It is asserted with equal exaggeration on the other, that the body of the people are become determined enemies not only of the English constitution, but of all property, law and
| Letter to a Neapolitan from an Englishman, 1815, printed in 1818; but unpublished, though peculiarly worthy, at the present crisis, of being considered by those Neapolitans who aim at establishing their liberties on a solid foundation.
religion. The most dispassionate observers cannot deny, that the bonds which hold together the various orders of socie- . ty, have for the last six years been rapidly loosening; that many of the higher classes betray a dread of liberty, and many of the more numerous show an impatience of authority; and that it is the natural tendency of such a state of things, to terminate in a mortal combat between extreme and irreconcileable factions. Whatever supposition we may adopt respecting the origin of these evils, whether we ascribe them, with some, to the sins of the people, or with others to the faults of the government, or with a third party to the distresses of the times, cooperating with either or both of the foregoing causes ;-on all suppositions the evils themselves continue the same, and their probable termination remains equally uncertain and alarming. It is impossible to calculate either the time in which the causes of civil confusion grow to maturity, or the chances that, if that time be long, unforeseen circumstances may check their progress. But if they should now proceed to their natural closes we may continue to assert that there is much in the present structure and circumstances of our society to aggravate the common evils of political contention; and that, whoever may be the conqueror, the British Constitution must perish in the contest. What successive systems of liberty or tyranny may rise hereafter from its ruins, will depend on events which are beyond the reach of our controul, and even of our conjectures.
It cannot be denied, that one of the two expedients for suppressing national discontent has been fully tried. A fair experiment has been made on the force of arms and of laws. Prosecutions and punishments have not been wanting. New penal. ties have been annexed to political offences. New restrictions have been imposed on the exercise of political rights. · It may be safely stated, that coercion and restraint cannot be carried much further, without openly renouncing the forms of the constitution, or adopting new institutions for administering the law. And even if such new institutions could be adopted, it would be difficult to find men educated under the British Constitution who would be well qualified to take a part in those arbitrary and summary measures, which form the whole policy of the admirers of what is called vigorous government. With the best inclinations in the world for their new task, most of them would prove mere novices in oppression, and very clumsy instruments of tyranny. The old and deep-rooted feelings created by a system of law and liberty, like that of England, will occasion frequent misgivings in the minds of those who are called upon to execute new plans for restriction; while, on the other hand, VOL. XXXIV. NO. 68.
resistance to such measures will never be considered in the same light, as if it were pointed against our long tried and justly revered institutions. The British Constitution, in short, cannot maintain itself by jealousy and coercion :-for, being formed to protect the rights of the people, it is not fortified against their hostility.
In point of fact, we take it to be undeniably certain, that the public discontent has increased with the progress of those measures of restraint which have been contrived to quell it. It might be contended, that they have aggravated the distemper: it is certain, at least, that they have proved utterly unavailing. What a frightful progress the general discontent has made, in the short time between 1817 and 1820 ! * Are we then to persist in the exclusive use of restriction and coercion, after experience has proved them to be ineffectual, and when we have nearly reached their farthest limit? Are we supinely to wait the approaches of civil war? Is no other system of policy to be even tried ? Is conciliation so manifestly impracticable, that it is not worth even the most cautious experiment ?
When we see two factions arrayed in order of battle, and 'ready to take the field against each other, with every badge of irreconcileable difference, and implacable animosity, the one demanding the surrender of the Constitution, the other declaring against the most cautious reformation, we are apt at first to conclude, that every effort to negociate a peace between such parties, must be vain :-We are led to despair of any compromise, between those who petition for universal suffrage, and those who refuse to disfranchise Grampound! A closer inspection, however, somewhat lessens the difficulty. We soon discover that every numerous party, under the appearance of unanimity, contains great diversities of sentiment ;- that many of those who, on the whole, prefer one side, are by no means pre
* We have made no remarks here on the fatal policy of the prosecution of the Queen, which, in the year 1820, has so powerfully contributed to the diffusion and increase of discontent. Had a Cabinet of Revolutionists deliberated on the best means of spreading dispositions favourable to their cause, to the lowliest villages--to the quiet. est provinces to districts where the sound of our political divisions had never before penetrated ;-had they been desirous of securing a long impunity to libels, and an unrestrained license to popular meetings had they been devising the most effectual expedients for at once inflaming and emboldening the populace of great cities,-they could not have imagined any measures more suitable to their purpose, than the proceedings of the first Session of the first Parliament of a new reign.
pared to plunge into the excesses of the noisiest and most conspicuous leaders; and that, in process of time, great changes of opinion take place in the interior of every party, before any open division is apparent among its members. After civil confusion has once begun, the current in every party long sets towards violence; but before that unhappy period, the effect of time is always to recruit and strengthen the more moderate. Such dispositions have already begun in some degree to manifest themselves in this country. Many of the Reformers are weary of some of their associates, and begin to recoil from measures, of which they have had leisure to contemplate the consequences. But these divisions cannot be made useful to the country, unless the judgment of the better part of such men be satisfied, and their honour preserved by some substantial concession. If we turn our eyes to the opposite party, we can still more clearly see, that a great change of opinion has taken place among the most considerable supporters of Government. Many of them are heartily sick of the measures of the last four years, and are well disposed to put an end to these disgraceful scuffles between the Government and the populace. They are not disinclined to try the experiment, whether a change of measures would not contribute to satisfy and tranquillize the nation. If the removal of the present Ministers be necessary to the fairness of the experiment, it is pretty certain that many of their principal supporters will witness the sacrifice with little regret. The hopes of restoring harmony between the different classes in our community, depend chiefly on the possibility of uniting the more moderate of both parties. The differences between them are probably very far from being so wide as they seem : They differ more in language than in opinion, and more in opinion than in feeling. Many, on both sides, who still adhere with the utmost bigotry to their systems, have already begun to shrink with horror from the means by which they must be established, and the effects by which they may be followed. It is not, however, to be expected, that such men on either side will begin the negociation; nor should we despair, if they were for a time to resist all pacific propositions. The animosity of old political an.. tagonists, the pride of consistency, even the mere force of habit, are obstacles which would require great skill and patience to surmount. But we are not to suppose that the desire of peace may not daily gain strength in the hearts of those who are most actively engaged in war.
To pave the way for better understanding on this subject, let us temperately inquire, whether some of the demands of the people be not reasonable in themselves, and may not be safely, .