previous next

Chapter 3:

England and its dependencies


North of the channel that bounded France, liberty
chap. III.} 1763.
was enjoyed by a wise and happy people, whose domestic character was marked by moderation, and, like its climate, knew but little of extremes. The opinions on religion and on government which speculative men on the continent of Europe were rashly developing without qualification or reserve, were derived from England. She rose before the philosophers as the asylum of independent thought, and upon the nations as the home of revolution, where liberty emanated from discord and sedition. There free opinion had carried analysis boldly to every question of faith as well as of science. English free-thinkers had led the way in the reaction of Protestant Europe against the blind adoration of the letter of the Bible. English Deists, tracing Christianity to reason and teaching that it was as old as creation, were the forerunners of the German Rationalists. English treatises on the human understanding were the sources of the materialism of France. In the atmosphere of England [33] Voltaire ripened the speculative views which he pub-
chap. III.} 1763.
lished as English Letters; there Montesquieu sketched a government which should make liberty its end; and from English writings and example Rousseau derived the idea of a social compact. Every Englishman discussed public affairs; busy politicians thronged the coffee-houses; petitions were sent to parliament from popular assemblies; cities, boroughs, and counties framed addresses to the king: and yet, such was the stability of the institutions of England amidst the factious conflicts of parties, such her loyalty to law even in her change of dynasties, such her self-control while resisting power, such the fixedness of purpose lying beneath the restless enterprise of her intelligence, that the ideas which were preparing radical changes in the social system of other monarchies, held their course harmlessly within her borders, as winds playing capriciously round some ancient structure whose massive buttresses tranquilly bear up its roof, and towers, and pinnacles, and spires.

The Catholic kingdoms sanctified the kingly power by connecting it with the church and deriving its title-deed directly from heaven: Prussia was as yet the only great modern instance of a warlike state resting on an army; England limited her monarchy by law. Her constitution was venerable from its antiquity. Some traced it to Magna Charta, some to the Norman conquest, and some to the forests of Germany, where acts of legislation were debated and assented to by the people and by the nobles; but it was at the revolution of 1688, that the legislature definitively assumed the sovereignty by dismissing a monarch from the kingdom, as a landlord might dismiss [34] a farmer from his holding. The prince might

chap. III.} 1763.
dream no more of unbounded prerogatives. In England, monarchy, in the Catholic sense, had gone off; the dynasty on the throne had abdicated the dignity of hereditary right and the sanctity of divine right, and consented to wear the crown in conformity to a statute, so that its title was safe only with the constitution. The framework of government had for its direct end, not the power of its chief, but personal liberty and the security of property. The restrictions, which were followed by such happy results, had been imposed and maintained under the lead of the aristocracy, to whom the people, in its gratitude for a bulwark against arbitrary power and its sense of inability itself to reform the administration, had likewise capitulated; so that England was become an aristocratic republic with a king as the emblem of a permanent executive.

In the Catholic world, the church, as the self-sustained interpreter of the divine will, assumed to exercise a control over the state, and might interpose to protect itself and the people against feudal tyranny by appeals to that absolute truth which it claimed and was acknowledged to represent. In England, the hierarchy had no independent power; and its connection with the state was purchased by its subordination. None but conformists could hold office; but in return, the church, in so far as it was a civil establishment, was the creature of parliament; a statute prescribed the articles of its creed, as well as its book of prayer; it was not even intrusted with a co-ordinate power to reform its own abuses; any attempt to do so would have been crushed as a [35] movement of usurpers. Convocations were infre-

chap. III.} 1763.
quent, and if laymen were not called to them, it was because the assembly was merely formal. Through parliament the laity amended and regulated the church. It seemed, indeed, as if the bishops were still elected by a chapter of the clergy; but the privilege existed only in appearance; the crown, which gave leave to elect, named also the person to be chosen, and deference to its nomination was enforced by the penalties of a premunire.

The laity, too, had destroyed the convents and monasteries which, under other social forms, had been the schools, the poor-houses, and the hostelries of the land; and all the way from Netley Abbey to the rocky shores of Northumberland, and even to the remote loneliness of Iona, the country was strewn with the broken arches, and ruined towers, and tottering columns of buildings, which once rose in such numbers and such beauty of architecture that they seemed like a concert of voices chanting a perpetual hymn of praise. Moreover, the property of the church, which had been enjoyed by the monasteries that undertook the performance of the parochial offices, had now fallen into the hands of impropriators; so that funds set apart for charity, instruction, and worship, were become the plunder of laymen, who seized the great tithes and left but a pittance to their vicars.

The lustre of spiritual influence was tarnished by this strict subordination to the temporal power. The clergy had never slept so soundly over the traditions of their religion; and the dean and chapter, at their cathedral stalls, seemed like strangers encamped [36] among the shrines, or lost in the groined aisles which

chap. III.} 1763.
the fervid genius of men of a different age and a heartier faith had fashioned; filling the choir with religious light from the blended colors of storied windows, imitating the graceful curving of the lambent flame in the adornment of the tracery, and carving in stone every flower and leaf of the garden to embellish the column, whose shafts soared upwards, as if to reach the sky.

The clergy were Protestant and married. Their great dignitaries dwelt in palaces, and used their vast revenues not to renew cathedrals, or beautify chapels, or build new churches, or endow schools; the record of their wealth was written in the rolls of the landed gentry, among whom the fortunes they accumulated introduced their children; so that the church, though it was represented among the barons, never came in conflict with the aristocracy with which its interests were identified.

The hereditary right of the other members of the House of Lords was such a privilege as must, in itself, always be hateful to a free people, and always be in danger; yet, while in France the burgesses were preparing to overthrow the peerage, in England there was no incessant struggle to be rid of it. The reverence for its antiquity was enhanced by pleasing historical associations. But for the aid of the barons, Magna Charta would not have been attained; and but for the nobility and gentry, the revolution of 1688 would not have succeeded. A sentiment of gratitude was, therefore, blended in the popular mind with submission to rank. [37]

Besides, nobility was not a caste, but rather an

chap. III.} 1763.
office, personal and transmissible to but one. ‘The insolent prerogative of primogeniture’ made its most conspicuous victims in the bosom of the families which it kept up, and which themselves set the leading example of resignation to its injustice. Not younger sons only, who might find employment in public office, or at the bar, or in the church, the army, or navy, or in mercantile adventures and pursuits; the daughters of the great landed proprietors, from a delicate spirit of self-sacrifice, characteristic of the sex, applauded the rule by which they were disinherited, and placed their pride in upholding a system which left them dependent or destitute. In the splendid houses of their parents they were bred to a sense of their own poverty, and were bred to endure that poverty cheerfully. They would not murmur against the system, for their sighs might have been taunted as the repinings of selfishness. They all revered the head of the family, and by their own submission taught the people to do so. Even the mother who might survive her husband, after following him to his tomb in the old manorial church, returned no more to the ancestral mansion, but vacated it for the heir.

The daughters of the nobility were left poor, and most of them necessarily remained unmarried, or wedded persons of inferior birth. The younger sons became commoners; and though they were in some measure objects of jealousy, because they used their relationship to appropriate to themselves the chief benefits of the public patronage, yet, as they really were commoners, and entered the body of the people, [38] they kept up an intimate sympathy between classes.

chap. III.} 1763.
Besides, the road to the peerage, as all knew, lay open to all. It was a body, constantly invigorated by recruits from the greatest men of England. Had it been left to itself, it would have perished long before. Once, having the gentle Addison for a supporter of the measure, it voted itself to be a close order, but was saved by the House of Commons from consummating its selfish purpose, where success would have prepared its ruin; and it remained that the poorest man who ever struggled upwards in the rude competition of the law, might come to preside in the House of Lords. Thus the hereditary branch of the legislature was doubly connected with the people; the larger part of its sons and daughters descended to the station of commoners, and commoners were at all times making their way to its honors. In no country was rank so privileged, or classes so blended.

The peers, too, were, like all others, amenable to the law; and though the system of finance bore evidence of their controlling influence in legislation, yet their houses, lands, and property were not exempt from taxation. The provisions of law were certainly most unequal, yet such as they were, they applied indiscriminately to all.

One branch of the legislature was reserved to the hereditary aristocracy of landholders; the House of Commons partook of the same character; it represented every blade of grass in the kingdom, but not every laborer; the land of England, but not her men. No one but a landholder was qualified to be elected into that body; and most of those who were chosen [39] were scions of the great families. Sons of peers, even

chap. III.} 1763.
the oldest son, while his father lived, could sit in the House of Commons; and there might be, and usually were, many members of one name. Nor was the condition of the elective franchise uniform. It was a privilege; and the various rights of election depended on capricious charters or immemorial custom rather than on reason.

Of the five hundred and fifty-eight members, whom the House of Commons then consisted, the counties of England, Wales, and Scotland elected one hundred and thirty-one as knights of the shires. These owed their election to the good will of the owners of great estates in the respective counties; for it was a usage that the tenant should vote as his landlord directed, and his compliance was certain, for the ballot was unknown, and the vote was given by word of mouth or a show of hands. The representatives of the counties were, therefore, as a class, country gentlemen, independent of the court. They were, comparatively free from corruption, and some of them fervidly devoted to English liberty. The remaining four hundred and twenty-seven members, ‘citizens and burgesses,’ were arbitrarily distributed among cities, towns, and boroughs, with little regard to the wealth or to the actual numbers of the inhabitants. The bare name of Old Sarum, where there was not so much as the ruins of a town, and scarce so much housing as a sheep-cot, or more inhabitants than a shepherd, sent as many representatives to the grand assembly of law-makers as the whole county of Yorkshire, so numerous in people and powerful in riches.1 The lord of the borough [40] of Newport, in the Isle of Wight, in like manner

chap. III.} 1763.
named two members, while Bristol elected no more; the populous capital of Scotland but one; and Manchester none. Two hundred and fifty-four members had such small constituencies, that about five thousand seven hundred and twenty-three votes sufficed to choose them. Fifty-six were elected by so few that, had the districts been equally divided, six and a half votes would have sufficed for each member. In an island counting more than seven and a half millions of people, and at least a million and a half of mature men, no one could pretend that it required more than ten thousand voters to elect the majority of the House of Commons. But, in fact, it required the consent of a far less number. London, and Bristol, and perhaps a few more of the larger places, made independent selections; but they were so few, independence seemed to belong to London alone. The boroughs were nearly all dependent on some great proprietor, or on the crown. The burgage tenures belonged to men of fortune; and as the elective power attached to borough houses, the owner of those houses could compel their inhabitants to elect whom he pleased. The majority of the members were able to command their own election, sat in parliament for life as undisturbed as the peers, and bequeathed to their children the property and influence which secured their seats. The same names occur in the rolls of parliament, at the same places, from one generation to another. The exclusive character of the representative body was completed by the prohibition of the publication of the debates, and by the rule of conducting all important negotiations with closed doors. Power was [41] with the few. The people was swallowed up in the
chap. III.} 1763.
lords and commons.

Such was the parliament whose favor conferred a secure tenure of office, whose judgment was the oracle of British statesmen. In those days they never indulged in abstract reasoning, and cared little for general ideas. Theories and philosophy from their lips would have been ridiculed or neglected; for them the applause at St. Stephen's weighed more than the approval of posterity, more than the voice of God in the soul. That hall was their arena of glory, their battle-field for power. They pleaded before that tribunal, and not in the forum of humanity. They studied its majorities, to know on which side was ‘the best of the lay’ in the contest of factions for office. How to meet parliament was the minister's chief solicitude; and sometimes, like the spendthrift at a gaming-table, he would hazard all his political fortunes on its one decision. He valued its approval more than the affections of mankind, and could boast that this servitude, like obedience to the Divine Law, was perfect freedom.2

The representation in parliament was manifestly inadequate, and might seem to introduce that unmixed aristocracy which is the worst government under the sun. But the English system was so tempered with popular franchises that faithful history must place it among the very best which the world had seen. If no considerable class desired to introduce open and avowed republicanism, no British statesman of that century had as yet been suspected of deliberately [42] planning how to narrow practical liberty, by substi-

chap. III.} 1763.
tuting the letter of the constitution for its vital principle. It was the custom of parliament to listen with deference to the representations of the opulent industrial classes, and the House of Commons was sympathetic with the people.

Hence the inconsistency involved in the English electoral system, which was altogether a domestic question and not likely to be reformed by any influence from within, was less considered than the fact, that the country, alone among monarchies, really possessed a legislative constitution. In the pride of comparison with France and Spain, it was a part of the Englishman's nationality to maintain the perfection of British institutions, and to look down with scorn on all the kingdoms of the Continent, as lands of slaves. Every Englishman, in the comparison, esteemed himself as his own master and lord, having no fear of oppression, obeying no laws but such as he seemed to have assisted in making, and reasoning on politics with that free inquiry which, in a despotism, leads to revolution. The idea of the perfection of representative government veiled the inconsistencies of practice. It was received as yet without much question, that every independent man had, or might have, a vote; that every man was governed by himself; and that the people of England, as a corporate body, exercised legislative power.

Men considered, too, the functions of parliament, and especially of the House of Commons. It protected the property of every man by taking from the executive the power of taxation, and establishing the ideal principle, that taxes could be levied only with the consent of the people. It maintained the supremacy [43] of the civil power by making the grants for the army

chap. III.} 1763.
and navy annual, limiting the number of troops that might be kept up, and keeping the control over their discipline by leaving even the mutiny bill to expire once a year. Thus it guarded against danger from a standing army, of which it always stood in dread. All appropriations, except the civil list for maintaining the dignity of the crown, it made specific and only for the year. As the great inquest of the nation, it examined how the laws were executed, and was armed with the power of impeachment. By its control of the revenue, it was so interwoven with the administration, that it could force the king to accept, as advisers, even men who had most offended him; so that it might seem doubtful if he named, or if parliament designated the ministers.

The same character of aristocracy was imprinted on the administration. The king reigned, but, by the theory of the constitution, was not to govern.3 He appeared in the Privy Council on occasions of state; but Queen Anne was the last of the English monarchs to attend the debates in the House of Lords, or to preside at a meeting of the ministry. In the cabinet, according to the rule of aristocracy, every question was put to vote, and after the vote the dissentients must hush their individual opinions, and present the appearance of unanimity. The king himself must be able to change his council, or must yield. Add to this, that the public offices were engrossed by a small group of families, that favor dictated appointments of [44] bishops in the church, of officers in the navy, and still

chap. III.} 1763.
more in the army, in which even boys at school held commissions, and we shall find that the aristocracy of England absorbed all the functions of administration.

Yet, even here, the spirit of aristocracy was reined in. Every man claimed a right to sit in judgment on the administration; and the mighty power of public opinion,4 embodied in a free press, pervaded, checked, and, in the last resort, nearly governed the whole. Nor must he who will understand the English institutions leave out of view the character of the enduring works which had sprung from the salient energy of the English mind. Literature had been left to develope itself. William of Orange was foreign to it; Anne cared not for it; the first George knew no English; the second, not much. Devotedness to the monarch is not impressed on English literature; but it willingly bore the mark of its own aristocracy.

Envy must own I live among the great,

was the boast of the most finished English poet of the eighteenth century. Neither the earlier nor the later literature put itself at war with the country or its classes. The philosophy of Bacon, brilliant with the richest lustre of a creative imagination and extensive learning, is marked by moderation as well as grandeur; and, like that principle of English institutions which consults [45] precedents and facts rather than theories, it prepared
chap. III.} 1763.
the advancement of science by the method of observation. Newton was a contented member of a university, and never thought to rebel against the limits that nature has set to the human powers in the pursuit of science. The inmost character of the English mind, in the various epochs of its history, was imprinted on its poetry. Chaucer recalled the joyous heroism, and serious thought, and mirth, and sadness, that beguiled the pious pilgrimages, or lent a charm to the hospitality of Catholic England. Spencer threw the dim halo of allegory round the monotonous caprices of departing chivalry. Shakespeare, ‘great heir of fame,’ rising at the proud moment of the victory of English nationality and Protestant liberty over all their enemies, seeming to be master of every chord that vibrates in the human soul, and knowing all that can become the cottage or the palace, the town or the fields and forests, the camp or the banqueting hall, unfolded the panorama of English history, and embodied in ‘easy numbers’ all that is wise, and lovely, and observable in English manners and social life, proud of his countrymen and his country, to him

This land of such dear souls, this dear, dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world.

Milton, with his heroic greatness of mind, was the stately representative of English republicanism, eager to quell the oppressor, but sternly detesting libertinism and disorder, and exhorting to ‘patience,’ even in the days of the later Stuarts. Dryden, living through the whole era of revolutions, yielded to the social influences of his time, and reproduced in his verse the [46] wayward wavering of the English court between Pro-
chap. III.} 1763.
testantism and the Roman Catholic religion, between voluptuousness and faith; least read, because least proudly national. And Pope was the cherished poet of English aristocratic life, as it existed in the time of Bolingbroke and Walpole; flattering the great with sarcasms against kings; an optimist, proclaiming order as the first law of Heaven. None of all these, not even Milton, provoked to the overthrow of the institutions of England.

Nor had the skepticism of modern philosophy penetrated the mass of the nation, or raised vague desires of revolution. It kept, rather, what was held to be the best company. It entered the palace during the licentiousness of the two former reigns; and though the court was now become decorous and devout, still the nobility, and those who, in that day, were called ‘the great,’ affected free-thinking as a mark of high breeding, and laughed at the evidence of piety in any one of their order. But the spirit of the people rebelled against materialism; if worship, as conducted in the parish church, had no attractive warmth, they gathered round the preacher in the fields, eager to be assured that they had within themselves a spiritual nature and a warrant for their belief in immortality; yet, under the moderating influence of Wesley, giving the world the unknown spectacle of a fervid reform in religion, combined with unquestioning deference to authority in the state. English metaphysical philosophy itself bore a character of moderation analogous to English institutions. In open disregard to the traditions of the Catholic church, Locke had denied that thought implies an immaterial substance; and Hartley and the chillingly [47] repulsive Priestley asserted that the soul was but of

chap. III.} 1763.
flesh and blood; but the more genial Berkeley, armed with ‘every virtue,’ insisted rather on the certain existence of the intellectual world alone; while from the bench of English bishops the inimitable Butler pressed the analogies of the material creation itself into the service of spiritual life, and, with the authority of reason, taught the supremacy of conscience. If Hume embodied the logical consequences of the sensuous philosophy in the most skilfully constructed system of idealism which the world had ever known, his own countryman, Reid, in works worthy to teach the youth of a republic, illustrated the active powers of man and the reality of right; Adam Smith found a criterion of duty in the universal sentiment of mankind; and the English Dissenter, Price, enforced the eternal, necessary, and unchanging distinctions of morality. So philosophic freedom in England rebuked its own excesses, and, self-balanced and self-restrained, never sought to throw down the august fabric which had for so many centuries stood before Europe as the citadel of liberty.

The blended respect for aristocracy and for popular rights was impressed upon the courts of law. They were charged with the protection of every individual without distinction, securing to the accused a trial by sworn men, who were taken from among his peers, and held their office for but one short term of service. And especially the judges watched over the personal liberty of every Englishman, with power on the instant to set free any one illegally imprisoned, even though in custody by the king's express command.

At the same time the judiciary, with a reputation [48] for impartiality, in the main well deserved, was by its

chap. III.} 1763.
nature conservative, and by its constitution the associate and the support of the House of Lords. Westminster Hall, which had stood through many revolutions and many dynasties, and was become venerable from an unchanged existence of five hundred years, sent the first officer in one of its courts, from however humble an origin he might have sprung, to take precedence of the nobility of the realm, and act as president of the chamber of peers. That branch of the legislature derived an increase of its dignity from the great lawyers whom the crown, from time to time, was accustomed to ennoble; and moreover, it formed, of itself, a part of the judicial system. The House of Commons, whose members, from their frequent elections, best knew the temper of the people, possessed exclusively the right to originate votes of supply; but the final judgment on all questions of law respecting property rested with the House of Lords.

The same cast of aristocracy, intermingled with popularity, pervaded the systems of education. From climate, compact population, and sober national character, England was capable beyond any other country in the world of a system of popular education. Nevertheless it had none. The mass of its people was left ignorant how to write or read.

But the benevolence of Catholic ages, emulated also in later times, had benefited science by endowments, which in their conception were charity schools; founded by piety for the education of poor men's sons; where a place might sometimes be awarded to favor, but advancement could be obtained only by merit; and the sons of the aristocracy, having no seminaries [49] of their own, grouped themselves as at Eton,

chap. III.} 1763.
or Westminster, or Harrow, or Winchester, round the body of the scholars on the foundation; submitting like them to the accustomed discipline, even to the use of the rod, at which none rebelled, since it fell alike on all.

The same constitution marked the universities. The best scholars on the foundation were elected from the public schools to the scholarships in the several colleges; and formed the continuing line of succession to their appointments as well as the central influence of industry, order, and ambition, round which the sons of the opulent clustered. Thus the genius of the past claimed the right to linger in the streets of Mediaeval Oxford; and the sentiment of loyalty, as in earlier days, still hovered over the meadows of Christ Church and the walks of Maudlin; but if the two universities were both loyal to the throne and devoted to the church, it was from their own free choice; and not from deference to authority or command. They had proved their independence and had resisted kings. If they were swayed on the surface by ministerial influences, they were at heart intractable and self-determined. The king could neither appoint their officers, nor prescribe their studies, nor control their government, nor administer their funds. The endowments of the colleges, which, in their origin, were the gifts of piety and charity, were held as property, independent of the state; and were as sacred as the estates of any one of the landed gentry. The sons of the aristocracy might sometimes be prize-men at Oxford or wranglers at Cambridge; but if they won collegiate honors, it was done fairly by merit alone. In the pursuit, the eldest sons of peers stood on no vantage ground over [50] the humblest commoner; so that the universities in

chap. III.} 1763.
their whole organization, at once upheld the institutions of England, and found in them the security of their own privileges.

It might be supposed that the gates of the cities would have been barred against the influence of the aristocracy. But it was not so. That influence was interwoven with the prosperity of the towns. Entails were not perpetual; but land was always in the market; estates were often encumbered; and the national debt, which was intimately connected with all private credit and commercial transactions, was also in fact a mortgage upon all the soil of the kingdom. The swelling expenses of the government increased its dependence on the moneyed class; and the leading minister needed the confidence of the city as well as of the country and the court. Besides, it was not uncommon to see a wealthy citizen, toiling to amass yet greater wealth that he might purchase land and found a family, or giving his richly dowered daughter in marriage to a peer.

Every body formed a part of the aristocratic organization: a few desired to enter the higher class; the rest sought fortune in serving it.

Moreover; the interests of the trade of the nation had precedence of the political interests of the princes. The members of the legislature watched popular excitements and listened readily to the petitions of the merchants; and these in their turn did not desire to see one of their own number charged with the conduct of the finances as chancellor of the exchequer; but wished rather for some member of the aristocracy, friendly to their interests. They preferred to speak through such [51] an one, and rebelled against the necessity of doing so,

chap. III.} 1763.
as little as they did at the employment of a barrister to plead their cause in the halls of justice.

But if aristocracy was not excluded from towns, still more did it pervade the rural life of England. The climate not only enjoyed the softer atmosphere that belongs to the western side of masses of land, but was further modified by the proximity of every part of it to the sea. It knew neither long continuing heat nor cold; and was more friendly to daily employment throughout the whole year, within doors or without, than any in Europe. The island was ‘a little world’ of its own; with a ‘happy breed of men’ for its inhabitants, in whom the hardihood of the Norman was intermixed with the gentler qualities of the Celt and the Saxon, just as nails are rubbed into steel to temper and harden the Damascus blade. They loved country life, of which the mildness of the clime increased the attractions; since every grass and flower and tree that had its home between the remote north and the neighborhood of the tropics would live abroad, and such only excepted as needed a hot sun to unfold their bloom, or concentrate their aroma, or ripen their fruit, would thrive in perfection: so that no region could show such a varied wood. The moisture of the sky favored a soil not naturally very rich; and so fructified the earth, that it was clad in perpetual verdure. Nature had its attractions even in winter. The ancient trees were stripped indeed of their foliage; but showed more clearly their fine proportions, and the undisturbed nests of the noisy rooks among their boughs; the air was so mild, that the flocks and herds still grazed on the freshly springing herbage; and the [52] deer found shelter enough by crouching amongst the

chap. III.} 1763.
fern; the smoothly shaven grassy walk was soft and yielding under the foot; nor was there a month in the year in which the plough was idle. The large landed proprietors dwelt often in houses which had descended to them from the times when England was gemmed all over with the most delicate and most solid structures of Gothic art. The very lanes were memorials of early days, and ran as they had been laid out before the conquest; and in mills for grinding corn, water-wheels revolved at their work just where they had been doing so for at least eight hundred years. Hospitality also had its traditions; and for untold centuries Christmas had been the most joyous of the seasons.

The system was so completely the ruling element in English history and English life, especially in the country, that it seemed the most natural organization of society, and was even endeared to the dependent people. Hence the manners of the aristocracy, without haughtiness or arrogance, implied rather than expressed the consciousness of undisputed rank; and female beauty added to its loveliness the blended graces of dignity and humility—most winning, where acquaintance with sorrow had softened the feeling of superiority, and increased the sentiment of compassion.

Yet the privileged class defended its rural pleasures and its agricultural interests with impassioned vigilance. The game laws parcelling out among the large proprietors the exclusive right of hunting, which had been wrested from the king as too grievous a prerogative, were maintained with relentless severity; and to [53] steal or even to hamstring a sheep5 was as much pun-

chap. III.} 1763.
ished by death as murder or treason. During the reign of George the Second, sixty-three new capital offences had been added to the criminal laws, and five new ones, on the average, continued to be discovered annually;6 so that the criminal code of England, formed under the influence of the rural gentry, seemed written in blood, and owed its mitigation only to executive clemency.

But this cruelty, while it encouraged and hardened offenders,7 did not revolt the instinct of submission in the rural population. The tenantry, for the most part without permanent leases, holding lands at a moderate rent, transmitting the occupation of them from father to son through many generations,

With calm desires that asked but little room,

clung to the lord of the manor as ivy to massive old walls. They loved to live in his light; to lean on his support, to gather round him with affectionate deference rather than base cowering; and, by their faithful attachment, to win his sympathy and care; happy when he was such an one as merited their love. They caught refinement of their superiors, so that their cottages were carefully neat, with roses and honeysuckles clambering to their roofs. They cultivated [54] the soil in sight of the towers of the church,
chap. III.} 1763.
near which reposed the ashes of their ancestors for almost a thousand years. The whole island was mapped out into territorial parishes, as well as into counties, and the affairs of local interest, the assessment of rates, the care of the poor and of the roads, were settled by elected vestries or magistrates, with little interference from the central government. The resident magistrates were unpaid, being taken from among the landed gentry; and the local affairs of the county, and all criminal affairs of no uncommon importance, were settled by them in a body at their quarterly sessions, where a kind-hearted landlord often presided, to appal the convicted offender by the solemn earnestness of his rebuke, and then to show him mercy by a lenient sentence.

Thus the local institutions of England shared the common character; they were at once the evidence of aristocracy and the badges of liberty.

The climate, so inviting to rural life, was benign also to industry of all sorts. Nowhere could labor apply itself so steadily, or in the same time achieve so much; and it might seem that the population engaged in manufactures would have constituted a separate element not included within the aristocratic system; but the great manufacture of the material not produced at home was still in its infancy. The weaver toiled in his own cottage, and the thread which he used was with difficulty supplied to him sufficiently by the spinners at the wheel of his own family and among his neighbors. Men had not as yet learned by machinery to produce, continuously and uniformly, from the down of cotton, the porous cords of parallel filaments; [55] to attenuate them by gently drawing them

chap. III.} 1763.
out; to twist and extend the threads as they are formed; and to wind them regularly on pins of wood as fast as they are spun. At that time the inconsiderable cotton manufactures of Great Britain, transported from place to place on pack-horses, did not form one two-hundredth part of the present production, and were politically of no importance. Not yet had art done more than begin the construction of channels for still-water navigation. Not yet had Wedgwood fully succeeded in changing, annually, tens of thousands of tons of clay and flint into brilliantly glazed and durable ware, capable of sustaining heat, cheap in price, and beautiful and convenient in form. Not yet had the mechanics of England, after using up its forests, learned familiarly to smelt iron with pit coal, or perfected the steam-engines that were to do the heavy work in mining coal and to drive machinery in workshops.

Let the great artificers of England, who work in iron or clay, adopt science as their patron; let the cotton-spinners, deriving their raw material from abroad, perfect their manufacture by inventive plebeian genius, and so prosper as to gather around their mills a crowded population; and there will then exist a powerful, and opulent, and numerous class, emancipated from aristocratic influence, thriving independently outside of the old society of England.

But, in 1763, the great manufactures of the realm were those of wool and the various preparations from sheepskins and hides, far exceeding in value all others of all kinds put together; and for these the land-owner furnished all the raw material; so that his prosperity was bound up in that of the manufacturer. The manufacture [56] of wool was cherished as the most valuable of

chap. III.} 1763.
all. It had grown with the growth and wealth of England, and flourished in every part of the island; at Kidderminster, and Wilton, and Norwich, not less than in the West Riding of Yorkshire. It had been privileged by King Stephen, and regulated by the lion-hearted Richard. Its protection was as much a part of the statute-book as the game laws, and was older than Magna Charta itself. To foster it was an ancient custom of the country, coeval with the English constitution, and it was so interwoven with the condition of life in England that it seemed to form an intimate dependency of the aristocracy. The land-owner, whose rich lawns produced the fleece, sympathized with the industry that wrought it into beautiful fabrics. Mutual confidence was established between the classes of society; no chasm divided its orders.

Thus unity of character marked the constitution and the social life of England. The sum of the whole was an intense nationality in its people. They were happy in their form of government, and were justly proud of it; for they enjoyed more perfect freedom than the world up to that time had known. In spite of all the glaring defects of their system, Greece, in the days of Pericles or Phocion, had not been blessed with such liberty. Italy, in the fairest days of her ill-starred republics, had not possessed such security of property and person, so pure an administration of justice, such unlicensed expression of thought.

These benefits were held by a firm tenure; safe against revolutions and sudden changes in the state the laws reigned, and not men; and the laws had been the growth of centuries, yielding to amendment only [57] by the gradual method of nature, when opinions exer-

chap. III.} 1763.
rising less instant influence should slowly infuse themselves through the public mind into legislation; so that the English constitution, though like all things else perpetually changing, changed like the style of architecture along the aisles of its own cathedrals, where the ponderous severity of the Norman age melts in the next, almost imperceptibly, into the more genial pointed arch and the seemingly lighter sheaf of columns, yet without sacrificing the stately majesty of the proportions or the massive durability of the pile.

The English knew this, and were boastfully conscious of it. As a people, they cared not to hear of the defects in the form of their constitution. They looked out upon other states, and compared their own condition with that of the peoples on the continent, abjectly exposed to the sway of despots; they seemed to enjoy liberty in its perfection, and lost sight of the actual inadequacy of their system in their joy at its ideal purity. They felt that they were great, not by restraining laws, not by monopoly, but by liberty and labor. Liberty was the cry of the whole nation; and every opposition, from whatever selfish origin it might spring, took this type, always demanding more than even a liberal government would concede. Liberty and industry gave England its nationality and greatness. As a consequence, they thought themselves superior to every other nation. The Frenchman loved France, and when away from it, longed to return to it, as the only country where life could be thoroughly enjoyed. The German, in whom the sentiment of his native soil was enfeebled by its divisions into so many states and sovereignties, gained enlargement in his sphere of vision, and at home had [58] a curiosity for all learning; away from home, had eyes

chap. III.} 1763.
for every thing. The Englishman, wherever he went, was environed by an English atmosphere. He saw the world abroad as if to perceive how inferior it was to the land of his birth. The English statesmen, going from the classical schools to the universities—brought up in a narrow circle of classical and mathematical learning, with no philosophical training or acquaintance with general principles, travelled as Englishmen. They went young to the House of Commons; and were so blinded by admiration of their own country, they thought nothing blameworthy that promoted its glory, its power, or its welfare. They looked out upon the surrounding sea as their wall of defence

Against the envy of less happier lands.

The great deep seemed to them their inheritance, inviting them every where to enter upon possession of it as their rightful domain. They looked beyond the Atlantic, and not content with their own colonies, they counted themselves defrauded of their due as the sole representatives of liberty, so long as Spain should hold exclusively such boundless empires. Especially to them the House of Bourbon was an adder, that might at any time be struck at, whenever it should rear its head. To promote British interests, and command the applause of the British Senate, they were ready to infringe on the rights of other countries,8 and even on those of the outlying dominions of the crown.

1 The illustration is in substance, and almost in words, from Locke.

2 ‘Perfect freedom.’ Burke: Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents.

3 The phrase, ‘The king reigns but does not govern,’ may be found in Bolingbroke, who wished that the patriot king should ‘govern as well as reign.’

4 ‘He who, speculating on the British constitution, should omit from his enumeration the mighty power of public opinion, embodied in a free press, which pervades, and checks, and perhaps, in the last resort, nearly governs the whole, would give but an imperfect view of the government of England.’—Speech, at Liverpool, of Canning, who died before the reform of parliament.

5 ‘Recently a boy was hanged for hamstringing some sheep which a butcher intended to have stolen.’ Sir William Meredith: Debates, 9th May, 1770, in Cavendish, II. 12.

6 Previous to the Revolution, the number of capital offences did not exceed 50. During the reign of George II 63 new ones were added; and at the present moment they amount to no fewer than 154.‘Ibid.’ Let a gentleman only come down to this House and say that a man has done so and so but cannot be hanged for it, the cry is, “Oh, let us make a law, and hang him up immediately!” Speech of Sir William Meredith, 27th Nov. 1770; in Cavendish, II. 89.

7 Charles Fox: in Cavendish, II. 12.

8 When Aristotle, in Polit. i. I, wrote βαρβάρων δαἝλληνας ἄρχειν εἰκός, the Greek of that day reasoned just like an Englishman of the eighteenth century.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide People (automatically extracted)
Sort people alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a person to search for him/her in this document.
Milton (2)
William Meredith (2)
Locke (2)
Wilton (1)
Robert Walpole (1)
Voltaire (1)
Edmund Spencer (1)
Adam Smith (1)
Shakespeare (1)
Jean Jacques Rousseau (1)
Reid (1)
Priestley (1)
Price (1)
Pope (1)
Phocion (1)
Pericles (1)
Billop Newton (1)
Montesquieu (1)
Iona (1)
David Hume (1)
Hartley (1)
Harrow (1)
Charles Fox (1)
English (1)
Dryden (1)
Christmas (1)
Chaucer (1)
Canning (1)
Edmund Burke (1)
Bristol (1)
Bolingbroke (1)
Berkeley (1)
Bacon (1)
Netley Abbey (1)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
1763 AD (29)
1688 AD (2)
November 27th, 1770 AD (1)
May 9th, 1770 AD (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: