MACAULAY ON DEMOCRATIC GOVERNMENT
Some writers there are who imagine popular government to be always a blessing; others omit no opportunity of assuring us that it is always a curse. The fact is, that good government, like a good coat, is that which fits the body for which it is designed. A man who, upon abstract principles, pronounces a constitution to be good, without an exact knowledge of the people who are to be governed by it, judges as absurdly as a tailor who should measure the Belvidere Apollo for the clothes of all his customers. The demagogues who wished to see Portugal a republic, and the wise critics who revile the Virginians for not having instituted a peerage, appear equally ridiculous to all men of sense and candor.
That is the best government which desires to make the people happy, and knows how to make them happy. Neither the inclination nor the knowledge will suffice alone; and it is difficult to find them together.
Pure democracy, and pure democracy alone, satisfies the former condition of this great problem. That the governors may be solicitous only for the interests of the governed, it is necessary that the interests of the governors and the governed should be the same. This cannot be often the case where power is intrusted to one or to a few. The privileged part of the community will doubtless derive a certain degree of advantage from the general prosperity of the state; but they will derive a greater from oppression and exaction. The king will desire an useless war for his glory, or a parc-aux-cerfs [park with stags] for his pleasure. The nobles will demand monopolies and lettres-de-cachet [imprisonment without trial]. In proportion as the number of governors is increased the evil is diminished. There are fewer to contribute, and more to receive. The dividend which each can obtain of the public plunder becomes less and less tempting. But the interests of the subjects and the rulers never absolutely coincide till the subjects themselves become the rulers, that is, till the government be either immediately or mediately democratical.
But this is not enough. "Will without power," said the sagacious Casimir Milor Beefington, "is like children playing at soldiers." The people will always be desirous to promote their own interests, but it may be doubted, whether, in any community, they were ever sufficiently educated to understand them. Even in this island, where the multitude have long been better informed than in any other part of Europe, the rights of the many have generally been asserted against themselves by the patriotism of the few. Free trade, one of the greatest blessings which a government can confer on a people, is in almost every country unpopular. It may be well doubted, whether a liberal policy with regard to our commercial relations would find any support from a parliament elected by universal suffrage. The republicans on the other side of the Atlantic have recently adopted regulations, of which the consequences will, before long, show us,
"How nations sink, by darling schemes oppressed,
When vengeance listens to the fool's request."
The people are to be governed for their own good; and, that they may be governed for their own good, they must not be governed by their own ignorance. There are countries in which it would be as absurd to establish popular government as to abolish all the restraints in a school, or to untie all the strait-waistcoats in a mad-house.
Hence it may be concluded that the happiest state of society is that in which supreme power resides in the whole body of a well-informed people. This is an imaginary, perhaps an unattainable, state of things. Yet in some measure, we may approximate to it; and he alone deserves the name of a great statesman, whose principle it is to extend the power of the people in proportion to the extent of their knowledge, and to give them every facility for obtaining such a degree of knowledge as may render it safe to trust them with absolute power. In the mean time, it is dangerous to praise or condemn constitutions in the abstract; since, from the despotism of St. Petersburg to the democracy of Washington, there is scarcely a form of government which might not, at least in some hypothetical case, be the best possible.
If, however, there be any form of government which in all ages and all nations has always been, and must always be pernicious, it is certainly pure oligarchy. Since this is closely, and indeed inseparably, connected with a marked partiality for Lacedaemon, and a dislike of Athens, I shall, therefore, examine them at some length.
The shades in the Athenian character strike the eye more rapidly than those in the Lacedaemonian: not because they are darker, but because they are on a brighter ground. The law of ostracism is an instance of this. Nothing can be conceived more odious than the practice of punishing a citizen, simply and professedly, for his eminence;-- and nothing in the institutions of Athens is more frequently or more justly censured. Lacedaemon was free from this. And why? Lacedaemon did not need it. Oligarchy is an ostracism of itself, -- an ostracism not occasional, but permanent, -- not dubious, but certain. Her laws prevented the development of merit, instead of attacking its maturity. They did not cut down the plant in its high and palmy state, but cursed the soil with eternal sterility. In spite of the law of ostracism, Athens produced, within a hundred and fifty years, the greatest public men that ever existed. Whom had Sparta to ostracise? She produced, at most, four eminent men: Brasidas, Gylippus, Lysander, and Angesilaus. Of these, not one rose to distinction within her jurisdiction. It was only when they escaped from the region within which the influence of aristocracy withered everything good and noble, it was only when they ceased to be Lacedaemonians, that they became great men. Brasidas, among the cities of Thrace, was strictly a democratical leader, the favorite minister and general of the people. The same may be said of Gylippus, at Syracuse. Lysander, in the Hellespont, and Agesilaus, in Asia, were liberated for a time from the hateful restraints imposed by the constitution of Lycurgus. Both acquired fame abroad: and both returned to be watched and depressed at home. This is not peculiar to Sparta. Oligarchy, wherever it has existed, has always stunted the growth of genius. Thus it was at Rome, till about a century before the Christian era: we read of abundance of consuls and dictators who won battles, and enjoyed triumphs; but we look in vain for a single man of the first order of intellect, -- for a Pericles, a Demosthenes, or a Hannibal. The Gracchi formed a strong democratical party; Marius revived it; the foundations of the old aristocracy were shaken; and two generations fertile in really great men appeared.
Venice is a still more remarkable instance: in her history we see nothing but the state; aristocracy had destroyed every seed of genius and virtue. Her dominion was like herself, lofty and magnificent, but founded on filth and weeds. God forbid that there should ever again exist a powerful and civilized state, which, after existing through thirteen hundred eventful years, shall not bequeath to mankind the memory of one great name or one generous action.
Many writers have admired the stability of the Spartan institutions; in fact, there is little to admire, and less to approve. Oligarchy is the weakest and most stable of governments; and it is stable because it is weak. It has a sort of valetudinarian longevity; it lives in the balance of Sanctorius; it takes no exercise; it exposes itself to no accident; it is seized with an hypochondriac alarm at every new sensation; it trembles at every breath; it lets blood for every inflammation; and thus, without ever enjoying a day of health or pleasure, drags on its existence to a doting and debilitated old age.
The Spartans purchased for their government a prolongation of its existence by the sacrifice of happiness at home and dignity abroad. They cringed to the powerful; they trampled on the weak; they massacred their Helots; they betrayed their allies; they contrived to be a day too late for the battle of Marathon; they attempted to avoid the battle of Salamis; they suffered the Athenians, to whom they owed their lives and liberties, to be a second time driven from their country by the Persians, that they might finish their own fortifications on the Isthmus; they attempted to take advantage of the distress to which exertions in their cause had reduced their preservers, in order to make them their slaves; they strove to prevent those who had abandoned their walls to defend them, from rebuilding them to defend themselves; they commenced the Peloponnesian war in violation of their engagements with Athens; they abandoned it in violation of their engagements with their allies; they gave up to the sword whole cities which had placed themselves under their protection; they bartered, for advantages confined to themselves, the interest, the freedom, and the lives of those who had served them most faithfully; they took with equal complacency , and equal infamy, the stripes of Elis and the bribes of Persia; they never showed either resentment or gratitude; they abstained from no injury; and they revenged none. Above all, they looked on a citizen who served them well as their deadliest enemy. These are the arts which protract the existence of governments.
Nor were the domestic institutions of Lacedaemon less hateful or less contemptible than her foreign policy. A perpetual interference with every part of the system of human life, a constant struggle against nature and reason, characterized all her laws. To violate even prejudices which have taken deep root in the minds of a people is scarcely expedient; to think of extirpating natural appetites and passions is frantic: the external symptoms may be occasionally repressed; but the feeling still exists, and, debarred from its natural objects, preys on the disordered mind and body of its victim. Thus it is in convents -- thus it is among ascetic sects -- thus it was among the Lacedaemonians. Hence arose that madness, or violence approaching to madness, which, in spite of every external restraint, often appeared among the most distinguished citizens of Sparta. Cleomenes terminated his career of raving cruelty by cutting himself to pieces. Pausanias seems to have been absolutely insane: he formed a hopeless and profligate scheme; he betrayed it with the ostentation of his behavior, and the imprudence of his measures; and he alienated, by his insolence, all who might have served or protected him. Xenophon, a warm admirer of Lacedaemon, furnishes us with the strongest evidence to this effect. It is impossible not to observe the brutal and senseless fury which characterizes almost every Spartan with whom he was connected. Clearchus nearly lost his life by his cruelty. Chirisophus deprived his army of the services of a faithful guide by his unreasonable and ferocious severity. But it is needless to multiply instances. Lycurgus founded his whole system on a mistaken principle. He never considered that governments were made for men, and not men for governments. Instead of adapting the constitution to the people, he distorted the minds of the people to suit the constitution, a scheme worthy of the Laputan Academy of Projectors.
At Athens the law did not constantly interfere with the tastes of the people. The children were not taken from their parents by that universal step-mother, the state. They were not starved into thieves, or tortured into bullies; there was no established table at which every one must dine, no established style in which every one must converse. An Athenian might eat whatever he could afford to buy, and talk as long as he could find people to listen. The government did not tell the people what opinions they were to hold, or what songs they were to sing. Freedom produced excellence. Thus philosophy took its origin. Thus were produced those models of poetry, of oratory, and of the arts, which scarcely fall short of the standard of ideal excellence. Nothing is more conducive to happiness than the free exercise of the mind in pursuits congenial to it. This happiness, assuredly, was enjoyed far more at Athens than at Sparta. The Athenians are acknowledged even by their enemies to have been distinguished, in private life, by their courteous and amiable demeanor. Their levity, at least, was better than Spartan sullenness, and their impertinence, than Spartan insolence. Even in courage it may be questioned whether they were inferior to the Lacedaemonians. The great Athenian historian has reported a remarkable observation of the great Athenian minister. Pericles maintained that his countrymen, without submitting to the hardships of a Spartan education, rivalled all the achievements of Spartan valor, and that therefore the pleasures and amusements which they enjoyed were to be considered as so much clear gain. The infantry of Athens was certainly not equal to that of Lacedaemon; but this seems to have been caused merely by want of practice; the attention of the Athenians was diverted from the discipline of the phalanx to that of the trireme. The Lacedaemonians, in spite of all their boasted valor, were from the same cause, timid and disorderly in naval action.
But we are told that crimes of great enormity were perpetrated by the Athenian Government, and the democracies under its protection. It is true that Athens too often acted up to the full extent of the laws of war, in an age when those laws had not been mitigated by causes which have operated in later times. This accusation is, in fact, common to Athens, to Lacedaemon, to all the states of Greece, and to all states similarly situated. Where communities are very large, the heavier evils of war are felt but by few. The plough-boy sings, the spinning-wheel turns round, the wedding-day is fixed, whether the last battle were lost or won. In little states it cannot be thus; every man feels in his own property and person the effect of a war. Every man is a soldier, and a soldier fighting for his nearest interests. His own trees have been cut down -- his own corn has been burnt -- his own house has been pillaged -- his own relations have been killed. How can he entertain towards the enemies of his country the same feelings with one who has suffered nothing from them, except perhaps the addition of a small sum to the taxes which he pays. Men in such circumstances cannot be generous. They have too much at stake. It is when they are, if I may so express myself, playing for love, it is when war is a mere game at chess, it is when they are contending for a remote colony, a frontier town, the honors of a flag, a salute, or a title, that they can make fine speeches, and do good offices to their enemies. The Black Prince waited behind the chair of his captive; Villars interchanged repartees with Eugene; George II sent congratulations to Louis XV during a war, upon occasion of his escape from the attempt of Damien: and these things are fine and generous, and very gratifying to the author of the Broad Stone of Honor, and all the other wise men who think, like him, that God made the world only for the use of gentlemen. But they spring in general from utter heartlessness. No war ought ever to be undertaken but under circumstances which render all interchange of courtesy between the combatants impossible. It is a bad thing that men should hate each other; but it is far worse that they should contract the habit of cutting one another's throats without hatred. War is never lenient, but where it is wanton; when men are compelled to fight in self-defence, they must hate and avenge: this may be bad; but it is human nature; it is the clay as it came from the hand of the Potter.
It is true that among the dependencies of Athens seditions assumed a character more ferocious than even in France, during the reign of terror -- the accursed Saturnalia of an accursed bondage. It is true that in Athens itself, where such convulsions were scarcely known, the conditions of the higher orders were disagreeable; that they were compelled to contribute large sums for the service or the amusement of the public; and that they were sometimes harassed by vexatious informers.
The Athenians, I believe, possessed more liberty than was good for them. Yet I will venture to assert that, while the splendor, the intelligence, and the energy of that great people were peculiar to themselves, the crimes with which they are charged arose from causes which were common to them with every other state which then existed. The violence of faction in that age sprung from a cause which has always been fertile in every political and moral evil, domestic slavery.
The effect of slavery is completely to dissolve the connection which naturally exists between the higher and lower classes of free citizens. The rich spend their wealth in purchasing and maintaining slaves. There is no demand for the labor of the poor; the fable of Menenius ceases to be applicable; the belly communicates no nutriment to the members; there is an atrophy in the body politic. The two parties, therefore, proceed to extremities utterly unknown in countries where they have mutually need of each other. In Rome the oligarchy was too powerful to be subverted by force; and neither the tribunes nor the popular assemblies, though constitutionally omnipotent, could maintain a successful contest against men who possessed the whole property of the state. Hence the necessity for measures tending to unsettle the whole frame of society, and to take away every motive of industry; the abolition of debts, and the agrarian laws -- propositions absurdly condemned by men who do not consider the circumstances from which they sprung. They were the desperate remedies of a desperate disease. In Greece the oligarchical interest was not in general so deeply rooted as at Rome. The multitude, therefore, often redressed by force grievances which, at Rome, were commonly attacked under the forms of the constitution. They drove out or massacred the rich, and divided their property. If the superior union or military skill of the rich rendered them victorious, they took measures equally violent, disarmed all in whom they could not confide, often slaughtered great numbers and occasionally expelled the whole commonalty from the city, and remained, with their slaves, the sole inhabitants.
From such calamities Athens and Lacedaemon alone were almost completely free. At Athens the purses of the rich were laid under regular contribution for the support of the poor; and this, rightly considered, was as much a favor to the givers as to the receivers, since no other measures could possibly have saved their houses from pillage and their persons from violence. This policy was the best that could be pursued in such a state of things, and alone saved Athens from the frightful outrages which were perpetrated at Corcyra.
Lacedaemon, cursed with a system of slavery more odious than has ever existed in any other country, avoided this evil by almost totally annihilating private property. Lycurgus began by an agrarian law. He abolished all professions except that of arms; he made the whole of his community a standing army, every member of which had a common right to the services of a crowd of miserable bondmen; he secured the state from sedition at the expense of the Helots. Of all the parts of his system, this is the most creditable to his head, and the most disgraceful to his heart.
--from "On Mitford's History of Greece"To destroy corruption and faction by introducing despotism would have been to cure bad by worse. The proper remedy evidently was, to make the House of Commons responsible to the nation; and this was to be effected in two ways; first, by giving publicity to parliamentary proceedings, and thus placing every member on his trial before the tribunal of public opinion; and secondly, by so reforming the constitution of the House that no man should be able to sit in it who had not been returned by a respectable and independent body of constituents... The real cause of the prevalence of corruption and faction was that a House of Commons, not accountable to the people, was more powerful than the King.
--from "The Earl of Chatham"
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