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Monday, October 22, 2012

The Tory Constitution

"Ask an Englishman what nation in the world enjoys most freedom, and he immediately answers, his own.  Ask him in what that freedom principally consists, and he is instantly silent.  This happy pre-eminence does not arise from the people's enjoying a larger share in legislation than elsewhere, for in this particular several states in Europe excel them;  nor does it arise from a greater exemption from taxes, for few countries pay more;  it does not proceed from their being restrained by fewer laws, for no people are burdened with so many;  nor does it particularly consist in the security of their property, for property is pretty well secured in every polite state in Europe.

How, then are the English more free--for more free they certainly are--than the people of any other country, or under any other form of government whatever?  Their freedom consists in their enjoying all the advantages of democracy, with this superior prerogative borrowed from monarchy, that the severity of their laws may be relaxed without endangering the constitution.

In a monarchical state, in which the constitution is strongest, the laws may be relaxed without danger;  for though the people should be unanimous in the breach of any one in particular, yet still there is an effective power superior to the people, capable of enforcing obedience, whenever it may be proper to inculcate the law either towards the support or welfare of the community.

But in all those governments where laws derive their sanction from the people alone, transgressions cannot be overlooked without bringing the constitution into danger.  They who transgress the law in such a case are those who prescribe it, by which means it loses not only its influence, but its sanction.  In every republic the laws must be very strong, because the constitution is feeble;  they must resemble an Asiatic husband, who is justly jealous, because he knows himself impotent.  Thus, in Holland, Switzerland, and Genoa, new laws are not frequently enacted, but the old ones are observed with unremitting severity.  In such republics, therefore, the people are slaves to laws of their own making, little less than in unmixed monarchies, where they are slaves to the will of one subject to frailties like themselves.

In England, from a variety of happy accidents, their constitution is just strong enough, or, if you will, monarchical enough, to permit a relaxation of the severity of laws, and yet those laws still to remain sufficiently strong to govern the people.  This is the most perfect state of civil liberty of which we can form any idea:  here we see a greater number of laws than in any other country, while the people at the same time obey only such as are immediately conducive to the interests of society;  several are unnoticed, many unknown;  some kept to be revived and enforced upon proper occasions;  others left to grow obsolete, even without the necessity of abrogation.

There is scarcely an Englishman who does not almost every day of his life offend with impunity against some express law, and for which, in a certain conjuncture of circumstances, he would not receive punishment.  Gaming-houses, preaching at prohibited places, assembled crowds, nocturnal amusements, public shows, and a hundred other instances, are forbid and frequented.  These prohibitions are useful;  though it be prudent in their magistrates, and happy for the people, that they are not enforced, and none but the venal or mercenary attempt to enforce them.

The law in this case, like an indulgent parent, still keeps the rod, though the child is seldom corrected.  Were those pardoned offences to rise into enormity, were they likely to obstruct the happiness of society, or endanger the state, it is then that justice would resume her terrors, and punish those faults she had so often overlooked with indulgence.  It is to this ductility of the laws that an Englishman owes the freedom he enjoys superior to others in a more popular government:  every step, therefore, the constitution takes towards a democratic form, every diminution of the regal authority, is , in fact, a diminution of the subject's freedom;  but every attempt to render the government more popular not only impairs natural liberty, but even will at last dissolve the political constitution.

Every popular constitution seems calculated to last only for a time:  it grows rigid with age;  new laws are multiplying, and the old continue in force;  the subjects are oppressed, burdened with a multiplicity of legal injunctions;  there are none from whom to expect redress, and nothing but a strong convulsion in the state can vindicate them into former liberty:  thus the people of Rome, a few great ones excepted, found more real freedom under the emperors, though tyrants, than they had experienced in the old age of the commonwealth, in which their laws were become numerous and painful, in which new laws were every day enacting, and the old ones executed with rigour.  They even refused to be reinstated in their former prerogatives, upon an offer made them to this purpose;  for they actually found emperors the only means of softening the rigours of their constitution.

The constitution of England is at present possessed of the strength of its native oak and the flexibility of the bending tamarisk;  but should the people at any time, with a mistaken zeal, pant after an imaginary freedom, and fancy that abridging monarchy was increasing their privileges, they would be very much mistaken, since every jewel plucked from the crown of majesty would only be made use of as a bribe to corruption:  it might enrich the few who shared it among them, but would in fact impoverish the public.

As the Roman senators, by slow and imperceptible degrees, became masters of the people, yet still flattered them with a show of freedom, while themselves only were free:  so it is possible for a body of men, while they stand up for privileges, to grow into an exuberance of power themselves;  and the public become actually dependent, while some of its individuals only govern.

If then, my friend, there should in this country ever be on the throne a king who, through good nature or age, should give up the smallest part of his prerogative to the people;  if there should come a minister of merit and popularity--but I have room for no more.--Adieu" The Citizen of the World by Oliver Goldsmith Letter Fifty

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