Thursday, November 2, 2017

Remembering That the Attitudes and Actions of the People Can Shape the Tendencies of Any Form of Government

"Mr. Montesquieu has pointed out the sentiments or maxims from which men must be supposed to act under these different governments.  In democracy, they must love equality; they must respect the rights of their fellow citizens; they must unite by the common ties of affection to the state.  In forming personal pretensions, they must be satisfied with that degree of consideration they can procure by their abilities fairly measured with those of an opponent; they must labour for the public without hope of profit; they must reject every attempt to create a personal dependence.  Candour, force, and elevation of mind, in short, are the props of democracy; and virtue is the principle of conduct required to its preservation.  How beautiful a pre-eminence on the side of popular government!  And how ardently should mankind wish for the form, if it tended to establish the principle, or were, in every instance, a sure indication of its presence!

"But perhaps we must have possessed the principle, in order, with any hopes of advantage, to receive the form; and where the first is entirely extinguished, the other may be fraught with evil, if any additional evil deserves to be shunned where men are already unhappy.  At Constantinople or Algiers, it is a miserable spectacle when men pretend to act on a foot of equality: they only mean to shake off the restraints of government, and to seize as much as they can of that spoil, which, in ordinary times, is engrossed by the master they serve."

. . .

"The principle of monarchy, according to Montesquieu, is honour.  Men may possess good qualities, elevation of mind, and fortitude; but the sense of equality, that will hear no encroachment on the personal rights of the meanest citizen; the indignant spirit, that will not court a protection, nor accept as a favour what is due as a right; the public affection, which is founded on the neglect of personal considerations, are neither consistent with the preservation of the constitution, nor agreeable to the habits acquired in any station assigned to its members.  Every condition is possessed of peculiar dignity, and points out a propriety of conduct, which men of station are obliged to maintain.  In the commerce of superiors and inferiors, it is the object of ambition, and of vanity, to refine on the advantages of rank; while, to facilitate the intercourse of polite society, it is the aim of good breeding to disguise, or reject them."

. . .

"Entangled together by the reciprocal ties of dependence and protection, though not combined by the sense of a common interest, the subjects of monarchy, like those of republics, find themselves occupied as the members of an active society, and engaged to treat with their fellow creatures on a liberal footing.  If those principles of honour which save the individual from servility in his own person, or from becoming an engine of oppression in the hands of another, should fail; if they should give way to the maxims of commerce, to the refinements of a supposed philosophy, or to the misplaced ardours of a republican spirit; if they are betrayed by the cowardice of subjects, or subdued by the ambition of princes; what must become of the nations of Europe?  Despotism is monarchy corrupted, in which a court and a prince in appearance remain, but in which every subordinate rank is destroyed; in which the subject is told, that he has no rights; that he cannot possess any property, nor fill any station independent of the momentary will of his prince.  These doctrines are founded on the maxims of conquest; they must be inculcated with the whip and the sword; and are best received under the terror of chains and imprisonment."

. . .

"Whilst we thus, with so much accuracy, can assign the ideal limits that may distinguish constitutions of government, we find them, in reality, both in respect to the principle and the form, variously blended together.  In what society are not men classed by external distinctions, as well as personal qualities?  In what state are they not actuated by a variety of principles; justice, honour, moderation, and fear?  It is the purpose of science not to disguise this confusion in its object, but, in the multiplicity and combination of particulars, to find the principal points which deserve our attention; and which, being well understood, save us from the embarrassment which the varieties of singular cases might otherwise create.

"In the same degree in which governments require men to act from principles of virtue, of honour, or of fear, they are more or less fully comprised under the heads of republic, monarchy, or despotism, and the general theory is more or less applicable to their particular case.  Forms of government, in fact, mutually approach or recede by many, and often insensible gradations.

"Democracy, by admitting certain inequalities of rank, approaches to aristocracy.  In popular, as well as aristocratical governments, particular men; by their personal authority, and sometimes by the credit of their family, have maintained a species of monarchical power.  The monarch is limited in different degrees: even the despotic prince is only that monarch whose subjects claim the fewest privileges, or who is himself best prepared to subdue them by force.  All these varieties are but steps in the history of mankind, and, mark the fleeting and transient situations through which they have passed; while supported by virtue, or depressed by vice.

"Perfect democracy and despotism appear to be the opposite extremes at which constitutions of government farthest recede from each other.  Under the first, a perfect virtue is required; under the second, a total corruption is supposed: yet, in point of mere form, there being nothing fixed in the ranks and distinctions of men beyond the casual and temporary possession of power, societies easily pass from a condition in which every individual has an equal title to reign, into one in which they are equally destined to serve.  The same qualities in both, courage, popularity, address, and military conduct, raise the ambitious to eminence.  With these qualities, the citizen or the slave easily passes from the ranks to the command of an army, from an obscure to an illustrious station.

"In either, a single person may rule with unlimited sway; and in both, the populace may break down every barrier of order, and restraint of law.  If we suppose that the equality established among the subjects of a despotic state has inspired its members with confidence, intrepidity, and the love of justice; the despotic prince, having ceased to be an object of fear, must, sink among the crowd.

"If, on the contrary, the personal equality which is enjoyed by the members of a democratical state, should be valued merely as an equal pretension to the objects of avarice and ambition, the monarch may start up anew, and be supported by those who mean to share in his profits.  When the rapacious and mercenary assemble in parties, it is of no consequence under what leader they inlist, whether C├Žsar or Pompey; the hopes of rapine or pay are the only motives from which they become attached to either.  In the disorder of corrupted societies, the scene has been frequently changed from democracy to despotism, and from the last too, in its turn, to the first.  From amidst the democracy of corrupt men, and from a scene of lawless confusion, the tyrant ascends a throne with arms reeking in blood."

. . .

"Democracy seems to revive in a scene of wild disorder and tumult; but both the extremes are but the transient fits of paroxysm or languor in a distempered state.  If men be anywhere arrived at this measure of depravity, there appears no immediate hope of redress.  Neither the ascendancy of the multitude, nor that of the tyrant, will secure the administration of justice; neither the license of mere tumult, nor the calm of dejection and servitude, will teach the citizen that he was born for candour and affection to his fellow creatures."

- Adam Ferguson, from "An Essay on the History of Civil Society"



[Note: I am fairly confident that I initially obtained the preceding material from the magnificent Online Library of Liberty maintained by the equally excellent Liberty Fund.  However, I do not at the moment have a way of verifying this, since I copied this extended quotation into my personal notes in early 2016.  I will look as soon as possible into what original source I was using when I took those notes last year, and if I find that it came from the Online Library of Liberty, I will update this post and the previous post with proper citations.]

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