« PreviousContinue »
ledge and civilisation have at least made this progress, that we instinctively, without argument, almost without consciousness, allow a certain number of specified persons to choose our rulers for us. It seems to us the simplest thing in the world. But it is one of the gravest things.
The peculiar marks of semi-barbarous people are diffused distrust and indiscriminate suspicion. People, in all but the most favoured times and places, are rooted to the places where they were born, think the thoughts of those places, can endure no other thoughts. The next parish even is suspected, Its inhabitants have different usages, almost imperceptibly different, but yet different; they speak a varying accent; they use a few peculiar words ; tradition says that their faith is dubious. And if the next parish is a little suspected, the next county is much more suspected. Here is a definite beginning of new maxims, new thoughts, new ways : the immemorial boundary mark begins in feeling a strange world. And if the next county is dubious, a remote county is untrustworthy. “Vagrants come from thence," men know, and they know nothing else. The inhabitants of the north speak a dialect different from the dialect of the south : they have other laws, another aristocracy, another life. In ages when distant territories are blanks in the mind, when neighbourhood is a sentiment, when locality is a passion, concerted co-operation between remote regions is impossible even on trivial matters. Neither would rely enough upon the good faith, good sense, and good judgment of the other. Neither could enough calculate on the other.
And if such co-operation is not to be expected in trivial matters, it is not to be thought of in the most vital matter of government—the choice of the executive ruler. To fancy that Northumberland in the thirteenth century would have consented to ally itself with Somersetshire for the choice of a chief magistrate is absurd; it would scarcely have allied itself to choose a hangman. Even now, if it were palpably explained, neither district would like it. But no one says at a county election, “The object of this present meeting is to choose our delegate to what the Americans call the 'Electoral College,' to the assembly which names our first magistrate—our substitute for their president. Representatives from this county will meet representatives from other counties, from cities and boroughs, and proceed to choose our rulers.” Such bald exposition would have been impossible in old times; it would be considered queer, eccentric, if it were used now. Happily, the process of election is so indirect and hidden, and the introduction of that process was so gradual and latent, that we scarcely perceive the immense political trust we repose in each other. The best mercantile credit seems to those who give it, natural, simple, obvious; they do not argue about it, or think about it. The best political credit is analogous ; we trust our countrymen without remembering that we trust them.
A second and very rare condition of an elective government is a calm national mind—a tone of mind sufficiently staple to bear the necessary excitement of conspicuous revolutions. No barbarous, no semi-civilised nation has ever possessed this. The mass of uneducated men could not now in England be told "go to, choose your rulers;” they would go wild; their imaginations would fancy unreal dangers, and the attempt at election would issue in some forcible usurpation. The incalculable advantage of august institutions in a free state is, that they prevent this collapse. The excitement of choosing our rulers is prevented by the apparent existence of an unchosen ruler. The poorer and more ignorant classes—those who would most feel excitement, who would most be misled by excitement-really believe) that the Queen governs. You could not explain to them the recondite difference between "reigning” and “governing;” the words necessary to express it do not exist in their dialect; the ideas necessary to comprehend it do not exist in their minds. The separation of principal power from principal station is a refinement which they could not even conceive. They fancy they are governed by an hereditary queen, a queen by the grace of God, when they are really governed by a cabinet and a parliament-men like themselves, chosen by themselves. The conspicuous dignity awakens the sentiment of reverence, and men, often very undignified, seize the occasion to govern by means of it.
Lastly. The third condition of all elective government is what I may call rationality, by which I mean a power involving intelligence, but yet distinct from it. A whole people electing its rulers must be able to form a distinct conception of distant objects. Mostly, the “divinity” that surrounds a king altogether prevents
anything like a steady conception of him. You fancy that the object of your loyalty is as much elevated above you by intrinsic nature as he is by extrinsic position; you deify him in sentiment, as once men deified him in doctrine. This illusion has been and still is of incalculable benefit to the human race. It prevents, indeed, men from choosing their rulers; you cannot invest with that loyal illusion a man who was yesterday what you are, who to-morrow may be so again, whom you chose to be what he is. But though this superstition prevents the election of rulers, it renders possible the existence of unelected rulers. Untaught people fancy that their king, crowned with the holy crown, anointed with the oil of Rheims, descended of the House of Plantagen'et, is a different sort of being from any one not descended of the Royal House—not crowned—not anointed. They believe that there is one man whom by mystic right they should obey; and therefore they do obey him. It is only in later times, when the world is wider, its experience larger, and its thought colder, that the plain rule of a palpably chosen ruler is even possible.
These conditions narrowly restrict elective government. But the pre-requisites of a cabinet government are rarer still; it demands not only the conditions I have mentioned, but the possibility likewise of a good legislature-a legislature competent to elect a sufficient administration.
Now a competent legislature is very rare. Any permanent legislature at all, any constantly acting mechanism for enacting and repealing laws, is, though it seems to us
so natural, quite contrary to the inveterate conceptions of mankind. The great majority of nations conceive of their law, either as something Divinely given, and therefore unalterable, or as a fundamental habit, inherited from the past to be transmitted to the future. The English Parliament, of which the prominent functions are now legislative, was not all so once. It was rather a preservative body. The custom of the realm—the aboriginal transmitted law—the law which was in the breast of the judges, could not be altered without the consent of parliament, and therefore everybody felt sure it would not be altered except in grave, peculiar, and anomalous cases. The valued use of parliament was not half so much to alter the law, as to prevent the laws being altered. And such too was its real use. In early societies it matters much more that the law should be fixed than that it should be good. Any law which the people of ignorant times enact is sure to involve many misconceptions, and to cause many evils. Perfection in legislation is not to be looked for, and is not, indeed, much wanted in a rude, painful, confined life. But such an age covets fixity. That men should enjoy the fruits of their labour, that the law of property should be known, that the law of marriage should be known, that the whole course of life should be kept in a calculable track is the summum bonum of early ages, the first desire of semi-civilised mankind. In that age men do not want to have their laws adapted, but to have their laws steady. The passions are so powerful, force so eager, the social bond so weak, that the august spectacle of an all but unalterable