Open main menu

How far may Political Ignorance in the People be relied on for the Security of Absolute Government in Europe?

The relations between different countries and different classes in the same country are intricate and variable. Slight modifications in the circumstances make such wide difference in events, that it is almost impossible to predict with certainty whether a political scheme will succeed or fail, whether its effects will be good or bad.

Notwithstanding all this doubt attending political subjects, there are principles which may be applied to them with certainty and success; principles which take the nature of man, stripped of all adventitious circumstances, as their broad foundation, and which are always applicable as long as that foundation remains unchanged. The only difficulty is to apply these principles coolly and carefully to particular cases, making the necessary allowance for the circumstances with which those cases may be attended.

Anyone who reads the history of Europe for the last fifty years, who perceives the vast changes which have taken place in the constitutions and governments of that quarter of the world, will be impressed with the idea that the causes which have led to these changes are general and widely prevalent. He cannot avoid perceiving that all the countries of Europe partake in some degree of the spirit which has overturned so many thrones and brought war and confusion into so many communities. He will not believe that an effect so general is to be ascribed to very partial and limited causes. The question which then occurs is, Where are we to look for those causes? I answer, In the constitution of society in Europe.

The Northern nations who burst the barriers of the Roman Empire, and spread themselves over the most flourishing countries of Europe, soon became sensible of the advantages and pleasures of civilization. They adopted the improvements, and in some instances the language, laws, and manners, of the more cultivated nations whom they had conquered. The sovereigns divided the land among their officers, who held their property on condition of performing certain services for the crown.

Thus originated the celebrated feudal system, which has had such an important influence on the condition of Europe, — an influence which has never for a moment ceased to be felt down to the present time.

This system was founded at a period when the common people had no rights and privileges except those which the king and the nobles chose to give them, and when they had no security for them after they were actually obtained. But in process of time things began to wear a different aspect. We find one part of the people gradually acquiring wealth, together with the importance which always attends it. They were at first weak, and forced to join sometimes one party and sometimes another in those endless disputes between the nobles and the crown.

Time, however, added to their strength, success gave them confidence, and thus a new order had arisen, for whom no adequate provision had been made by states which had been constituted long before that order existed. In some cases, where circumstances were peculiarly favorable, they rose in their strength and wrested from the hands of the sovereign those privileges which they had the power and the right to possess.

Where they have not been thus favored by circumstances, they have remained to this day without those rights which belong to them as men, — a discordant element in the society in which they exist, — protected, indeed, to about the same degree, and for nearly the same reasons, that the game in the royal forests was anciently protected, — because tho noble huntsman chose to kill it all himself.

I have said that this middle class forms a discordant element in the state which virtually denies them existence, and it is to the creation of this class that we must look for one of the principal causes of the revolutions of modern times. The men who compose it are conscious that their knowledge and wealth entitle them to a high rank in the state: they may abstain from action, but they will not abstain from hope. They will constantly look forward to a change, and, though a revolution may be a fearful and a desperate resource, it will be resorted to; for we must bear it in mind that there are always enough of "the irritable who are sensible to oppression, of the high-minded who feel disdain and indignation at abusive power in unworthy hands, and of the brave and bold who love honorable danger in a generous cause."

The entire influence of this body of men tends to substitute a government which shall secure to them their private and political rights for one which does not even acknowledge those rights, much less secure them. And this tendency becomes more and more direct in proportion as the power to make the change increases.

No one will deny that such a class of men as I have described does exist in every country in Europe and every enlightened man looks to them as the cause of the revolutions which have shaken that quarter of the world to its centre, and poured out like water the blood of a whole generation.

It may seem paradoxical to assert that a small body of men, who possessed no share in the government, could be the cause of such important events; but the true secret of their power lies not in their physical strength, but in their ability to influence and animate the mass of the people.

I have not made a forced and unnatural distinction between this middle class and the mass of the people. A distinction does in reality exist, and always must exist, between knowledge and ignorance, poverty and wealth. Allowing therefore what is perfectly true, that this body of men who are superior to the mass of the people, but who are connected with them by a community of feelings and interests, — allowing that they are hostile to absolute governments, and that their power principally consists in the influence which their knowledge and wealth give them over the people, the grand question then must be. How far will political ignorance in the mass of the people prevent this influence from being felt?

The benevolence of the Deity has provided men with faculties which in time adapt themselves to almost any circumstances in which they may be called into action. Hut. after having been a long time accustomed to a certain set of operations, it is extremely difficult for them to perform any others. The mind as well as the body must be not only strong, but well disciplined, in order to act with promptness and vigor in new and untried situations. It is hard to turn men's minds from the old and deeply worn channels in which they have long been flowing. Now there is a sameness in the occupations of the lower classes in civilized society, which almost necessarily confines their minds within very narrow limits. They have nothing to carry their thoughts away from the little spot of earth on which they live: it is there they find their food and drink and lodging, and these are to them the main things of life. Every day's experience shows that this is true, in some degree, even of men of considerable refinement and education, — of men whose professions are of a more dignified and intellectual nature; how much more, then, must it be true of those whose knowledge is confined to one simple art, and over whose weak and uncultivated minds habit must exercise such an unbounded sway! The advantages of early education they have never enjoyed. From infancy to manhood, from manhood to old age, their view is bounded by the narrow horizon which their senses have drawn around them; and they remain ignorant, not only of the nature, but even of the existence of objects beyond. "The thoughts which wander through eternity" are to them untried things, and darkness broods over their minds as it did over chaos before the Spirit of God rested there.

I would not be thought to entertain degraded views of human society. I know that men of education are but too apt to undervalue the attainments of those who are below them in point of cultivation. But I believe that general ignorance does produce the effects I have described, and it scarcely needs to be proved that these effects are fatal to liberty.

There are many causes why a people politically ignorant cannot be roused to action. Perfect political ignorance must be accompanied by indifference to the general interests of society, and thus one of the most powerful motives which can act on the human mind is totally destroyed. The love of man, the thought that after ages will feel the effects of present events, has nerved many an arm that would otherwise have remained weak and inactive. There are temptations enough to draw men from pain to pleasure, from labor to ease; and, when one motive to generous exertion is taken away, no man can tell how much the world may lose. He who is unacquainted with the relations in which he stands to others acts, of course, without reference to them. He who sees not that strong and uninterrupted chain which binds together distant events cannot estimate aright the importance of his actions. He who is unconscious of the ties which connect him with every individual of his species feels no obligation to make sacrifices for their welfare or happiness. Can such a man understand why he should make sacrifices and incur dangers to reform a system of government, because it is highly injurious to the interests of posterity and the world? He would be much more likely to exclaim with the member of the Irish parliament, "What has posterity done for me that I should make such sacrifices for them?" Can he comprehend why he should contend for principles, and not for actions; why he should resist as firmly an act of oppression which does not press very heavily on him at the moment, as he should one which took the bread from his own mouth or the mouths of his family?

This cannot be expected from a man totally ignorant of the principles of government. "There is little danger from the commons," says Bacon, "except where you meddle with points of religion, or their customs, or their means of life;" and, doubtless, Bacon spoke truth of commons, such as the English were under the reigns of Henry VIII., Mary, and Elizabeth, and of such as may be found even at this day in many countries of Europe. If they are in want of the necessaries of life, they desire relief: if relief is not obtained, they may be roused to violence, but they will vent their fury on some petty object which is, perhaps, the innocent cause of their sufferings, while the grand difficulty remains unremedied, and even undiscovered; and when the little strength starvation has left them has been expended, or when a temporary relief for their necessities has been found, they go back to their old condition, and remain quiet, if not satisfied.

There are few governments sufficiently strong to resist the united force of a whole people; but how seldom are the united exertions of a people directed to a particular end! They have not sufficient discernment to perceive the course which it is for their interest to pursue. In remote and apparently trifling causes, the most serious political difficulties often originate, — causes which are not to be detected without considerable political skill. Possessing no knowledge of the politics of their own country or of foreign nations, ignorant of the rights which belong to them as men, and taught by sad experience to pay a blind obedience to arbitrary power, it is natural that they should look on all measures, except those which have a direct and pressing influence on their persons and property, with total indifference. The subject of a despotic sovereign is not called upon to deliberate, to doubt, or to reason: he has only to obey; and, when obedience is the only habitual and safe course, ignorant men will hardly trouble themselves about forms and principles. They have wants and desires, but they are few and easily satisfied. They are men, and must become attached to the spot on which they live and the customs in which they have been educated; but, as long as these are inviolate, they will look on all else with a cold and careless eye.

That tremendous tribunal which we call public opinion can be exercised only by an enlightened and judicious people. It requires a free and rapid circulation of thoughts and opinions, a high degree not only of political information, but of political discernment and skill. It depends for its strength and efficacy upon freedom of thought and cultivation of mind. The judgment is not its only instrument: the heart must be enlisted in its cause. Sympathy with the sufferings of others, strong hatred of injustice, — in short, some of the noblest feelings of our nature, — must be excited before public opinion can become truly formidable, before it can assume that resistless power which God, when he formed man for society, intended that it should have. It can never have a decided effect where the great majority do not understand the subject on which they are to decide. ]t is only when the people are enlightened, when they are in a right direction, that they are truly invincible.

I do not deny that public opinion is formidable, even when erroneous; but its influence must necessarily be shortlived, for the truth will come at last to put an end to its power, or to give it another direction. A people cannot judge of the fitness of means to produce ends, pr of the consequences which are to follow from causes with which they are wholly unacquainted. "I know of no other guide for the future," said a great statesman, "except the experience of the past," — an experience which an ignorant people docs not possess.

It is evident, therefore, that this tribunal cannot exist among a people politically ignorant, and that all the advantages which may be derived from it, all the unity of thought and action which it tends to produce, are lost to them.

It has been said "that he is not a slave who burns to recover his freedom." But not even this redeeming quality can be urged in favor of an ignorant people. Slavery has pervaded every thought and feeling. It has reached the mind and corrupted the very sources of life. They have not the energy to wish to be free. They are more ignorant of the blessings of freedom than the blind man is of the beauties of nature; and they see their children growing up around them without making one exertion to obtain for them those blessings, being ignorant even of their existence.

They have no political spirit; for there are only two ways in which political feeling can be kept alive in a people, — either by giving them some share in the government, or by cherishing in them a military spirit, and by teaching them to look upon themselves as the defenders of their country and the guardians of its glory. The former of these conditions cannot, from the nature of the case, be complied with under an absolute government; and the introduction of standing armies has shown the peasantry but too plainly that they are not relied on as the defenders of their country, and has destroyed in them much of their interest in its welfare and their hatred of its oppressors.

It requires more subtlety than the ignorant possess to separate the idea of their country from the government which exists in it, and to be able to venerate the one, though they may hate and despise the other: when they perceive that self-aggrandizement is the object of their rulers, that the welfare of the people enters but rarely into their thoughts, and then only in connection with their own interests, it is not strange that they should shrink within themselves and leave their country to its fate. They perceive that they are mere ciphers in the state, and they lose all their energy arid spirit, and become ciphers in reality: so true is it "that the estimation in which any body of men is held soon becomes the standard by which that body of men measure themselves." Doubtless there are giant minds which have slumbered since their birth, unconscious of the powers they possess and of the wonders they might achieve, if called into action. And thus it is with a people politically ignorant. They have slept for ages, ignorant of the vast force which resides in them. They know not, and as long as they are politically ignorant they never can know, that a remedy for all their sufferings is within the reach of their outstretched arm; and the political fabrics which would crumble in their grasp are suffered to remain uninjured, except by the clumsiness of those to whose care they are intrusted. Whether knowledge will ever come to start the blood which has been sleeping in their veins, and to point to the path which leads to liberty and happiness, is not for me to decide; but, until it does do this, the people will remain a dark and heavy and motionless mass at the very bottom of human society. The agitations and struggles of those above them may move them to and fro for a time, but they will settle down again to their old place as dark and as motionless as before.

But there is another view of the subject, and one which it would be well for despotic sovereigns to examine closely.

If the life-blood in their own veins is drawn from the hearts of the people, then must corruption in the one produce disease in the other. No government can be strong and flourishing while the national character is weak and degraded. A government must flourish and decay with its subjects; and, when a prince makes a law or performs an action which has a tendency to injure the character or prosperity of the nation, he injures himself. He is jealous of the increasing wealth and importance of the people, of their obtaining sufficient light to show them the position in which they stand, and he exerts himself to shut it out from their eyes, and to keep them wandering in darkness; not perceiving that he thus weakens himself, and renders his own situation more uncertain and dangerous.

He aims a blow at what he foolishly considers a hostile power, and it recoils upon his own head. This course of policy has been pursued for ages by the sovereigns in the East, and it has uniformly produced the same result. While the people have remained in the lowest state of degradation, the sovereigns have gone on adding to their power, with no foundation on which to build it but the weakness of their subjects. They have undermined their throne while they were increasing its outward splendor, and at the moment when it seemed to be secure it needed but an infant's touch to dash it from its foundation.

It is true that even this feeble blow was often wanting, but that was in them East where the vigor of men's minds and bodies had sunk under the united influence of an enervating climate, a degrading religion, and a despotic government. It could never be wanting in Europe; least of all, could it be wanting among a people who burnt their own capital to destroy an invader, or among another who answered a summons to surrender what it seemed impossible to defend with the stern exclamation, "War to the knifepoint!"

I have thus far endeavored to show that, in the first place, there is a class of men living under the absolute governments of Europe who are decidedly hostile to absolute government, — they feel that they do not occupy the station to which they are naturally entitled by their knowledge and wealth, and are constantly striving to attain it; in the second place, that, as long as the subjects of a despotic sovereign are politically ignorant, they will be inactive, or that their exertions, if made at all, would scarcely be dangerous to a vigorous government; in the third place, that political ignorance must degrade the people, and consequently weaken the government and lessen the difficulty of overthrowing it. I do not believe, therefore, that political ignorance in the people can be relied on for the preservation of absolute government in Europe. The lottery of political events produces fearful combinations of circumstances, and every year, as it passes, may bring forth some mind capable of starting up and taking advantage of them. Do you ask why this has not already happened? Why the iron hand of arbitrary power has so long grasped some of the finest countries in Europe? I answer, that this is not to be attributed to political ignorance alone, but also to religious ignorance. Princes have taken shelter under the cross. Superstition has been called to their aid, and, clothed in the garment of religion, has assisted to keep men in bondage. In the words of Burke, "They have consecrated the state, that no man should dream of beginning its reformation by its subversion."

They have called to men to beware, for the spot on which they stood was holy ground. But let religious ignorance once be removed, let commerce, agriculture, and manufactures flourish, — let the resources of the people be fully developed, — and then a despot would scarcely look down from his throne with confidence on such a people, even though they were politically ignorant. That one absolute government in Europe may support another, experience proves; but this very necessity shows that political ignorance is not to be relied on.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).