Popular Science Monthly/Volume 15/August 1879/Monarchy and its Drawbacks


VERY nearly a century and a half ago David Hume observed, with an air of surprise, that no form of government had proved so susceptible of improvement as monarchical government. "It may now," he writes, "be affirmed of civilized monarchies what was formerly said of republics alone, that they are a government of laws, not of men." There was only one constitutional monarchy in Hume's day—that of Great Britain, which he did not particularly love; and the only existing republics were strict aristocracies, such as the Venetian Republic and the Swiss Cantons. Hume was avowedly taking into account, not only such countries as France and Spain, but the little despotisms of Italy and Germany. "There are, perhaps, and have been for two centuries, near two hundred absolute princes, great and small, in Europe; and, allowing twenty years to each reign, we may suppose that there have been on the whole two thousand monarchs or tyrants, as the Greeks would have called them; yet of these there has not been one, not even Philip II. of Spain, so bad as Tiberius, Caligula, Nero, Domitian, who were four in twelve among the Roman Emperors." Since then the world has seen two great examples of that republican government which Hume assumes without question to be abstractedly the best—the Republic of the United States and the first French Republic; and assuredly the result has been considerable disenchantment. Nobody would nowadays deny that monarchy has proved capable of yet greater improvement than even Hume thought possible; and only a small minority of men, and those certainly not consisting of deep political thinkers, is persuaded that a country gains very much by exchanging an hereditary for an elective Chief Magistrate.

But of course a monarchy implies a dynasty; and dynasties are always raising a number of questions so perplexing that they are a considerable drawback on the value of monarchical government. In the first place, there is no subject on which men as a fact have fought and still fight so much. This country was for a hundred years at war with France on a question of the kind; and the war which it has just successfully concluded with Afghanistan sprang in great part from the same cause, since it was a doubt whether the Prince could nominate his own successor which primarily threw Shere Ali into the arms of the Russians. These questions of succession mix themselves up with the entire politics of countries in which there is no open strife about them. The position of the British monarchy and the view taken of it are strongly influenced by the double fact that our line of kings came in with a defective title, but that these defects have been practically removed by the course of circumstances and by time. The relation, again, of the Count de Chambord to his far-away cousins of the Orleans branch deeply affects all French politics; and the untimely death of the Prince Imperial is a still more important factor in them.

Mr. Huxley, criticising these speculations of Hume in his recent volume, expresses the opinion that monarchies in our day are less likely to fall into discredit through inherent drawbacks or through the competition of republics than through their "tendency to become slightly absurd." The maintenance of kingship is undoubtedly dependent in great part on the majesty of kings; but this majesty is preserved with increasing difficulty. The purple robe has not only become frayed, but the wearer is sometimes under a strong temptation to exchange it for a dressing-gown. It is hard to say what is the safest general behavior for a royal personage. If monarchy retires into seclusion, people nowadays ask what is the good of it, and grumble at its costliness. If it associates itself with the tastes which are conventionally regarded as most respectable, by cultivating art, science, or letters, it incurs the repugnance of the multitude to whom these tastes are a symbol of pedantry or effeminacy. If, on the other hand, it simply enjoys itself, it becomes the prey of that overdone morality which is always affected by the dealers in malignant gossip. No doubt the Prince who died the other day in Paris was a good example of the class of idiosyncrasy which endangers monarchy. There was nothing remarkable about him save his exceptional rank and the historical dignity of his name. The type is perfectly well known—that of the foreign prodigal who wastes his substance in the city in which pleasure has become a business; and not simply a business, but a business conducted on the strictest commercial principles. But, if the heirs-apparent of thrones were often seen in the circles frequented by the last Prince of Orange, there would be a rapid decline of that kingly majesty which when it wholly disappears leaves (as Mr. Huxley justly says) little but absurdity behind it. The question between monarchies and republics would then be reduced to a simple question of their respective convenience; and, in countries governed as ours is, the question of convenience is very likely to end in turning on a mere calculation of cheapness or cost.

It is plain from Hume's language that the commonplaces of his day were all in favor of republics. There is in fact hardly a single writer of the time who does not praise them, though they all assume that a superhuman amount of diffused public virtue is necessary for their conduct. As we before said, the only known republics were petty or anomalous oligarchies; and the eulogies in fashion were in reality taken from classical panegyrics on Greek and Roman republics, profoundly misunderstood. There are countries which have severely suffered from this enthusiasm founded on ignorance. France owes to it the most fearful as well as the most absurd of her experiences during the first Revolution, and she is hardly free even now from some of its evil effects. The over-estimate of the republican form of government based on classical commonplace has, among other things, prevented our knowing what may be said for or against its establishment in the older parts of the world. French republics have up to this time chiefly failed because too much was expected from them. If we look to facts for our guidance, we have few to rely upon except those furnished by the comparatively short history of the group of States making up the American Union. Now, the spectacle of the United States suggests not that a republican government is what it was deemed to be by most Englishmen in 1793, but that it is a government hardly worth the trouble of adopting in 1879. It is neither a Utopia of bliss nor a den of assassins and thieves, but simply a set of institutions like another, with advantages and drawbacks keeping the scales nearly evenly poised. The attractions which it had for thinkers of the once famous Utilitarian school plainly arose from miscalculation. They argued that the interests of a community were the interests of the greatest number of men in it; and that therefore every government which rested on the votes of this greatest number, and did not disturb their verdict by collateral influences, would be sure by the nature of the case to promote the true interest of the nation. It has turned out in practice that few men out of a community will give attention to the interests of the community, and that fewer still can see or understand them. Thus the experience of republican government in America has ended in a great deal of disillusion. It is not that men may not be happy and prosperous under republics, but that they are not happier or more prosperous than under many of the forms of monarchy. A people living under republican institutions is plainly not wiser, nor more virtuous, nor more peaceable for its government; nor is this government cheaper or less clumsy in its practical working than others. A certain amount of social ease and independence is attributed to American society by those who have observed it; but it does not appear to have any greater respect or regard for cultivation than the ordinary society of older countries. On the whole, if monarchy and republicanism come into competition, and the victory be decided by the results of experience, there is no particular reason why republicanism should prevail. The probability is, however, that, if the throne were to give place to the presidential chair in a country like ours, the substitution would not be caused by any deliberate preference for republican institutions, but by the aggregation of some or all of those drawbacks on monarchy which we have noticed until they have become intolerable.—Pall Mall Budget.