The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 10/Of public Absurdities in England
IT is a common topick of satire, which you will hear not only from the mouths of ministers of state, but of every whiffler in office, that half a dozen obscure fellows, over a bottle of wine or a dish of coffee, shall presume to censure the actions of parliaments and councils, to form schemes of government, and new-model the commonwealth; and this is usually ridiculed as a pragmatical disposition to politicks, in the very nature and genius of the people. It may possibly be true: and yet I am grossly deceived if any sober man, of very moderate talents, when he reflects upon the many ridiculous hurtful maxims, customs, and general rules of life, which prevail in this kingdom, would not with great reason be tempted, according to the present turn of his humour, either to laugh, lament, or be angry; or, if he were sanguine enough, perhaps to dream of a remedy. It is the mistake of wise and good men, that they expect more reason and virtue from human nature, than, taking it in the bulk, it is in any sort capable of. Whoever has been present at councils or assemblies of any sort, if he be a man of common prudence, cannot but have observed, such results and opinions to have frequently passed a majority, as he would be ashamed to advance in private conversation. I say nothing of cruelty, oppression, injustice, and the like, because these are fairly to be accounted for in all assemblies, as best gratifying the passions and interests of leaders; which is a point of such high consideration, that all others must give place to it. But I would be understood here to speak only of opinions ridiculous, foolish, and absurd; with conclusions and actions suitable to them, at the same time when the most reasonable propositions are often unanimously rejected. And as all assemblies of men are liable to this accusation, so likewise there are natural absurdities from which the wisest states are not exempt; which proceed less from the nature of their climate, than that of their government; the Gauls, the Britons, the Spaniards, and Italians, having retained very little of the characters given them in ancient history.
By these, and the like refiections, I have been often led to consider some publick absurdities in our own country, most of which are, in my opinion, directly against the rules of right reason, and are attended with great inconveniencies to the state. I shall mention such of them as come into memory, without observing any method; and I shall give my reason why I take them to be absurd in their nature, and pernicious in their consequence.
It is absurd that any person, who professes a different form of worship, from that which is national, should be trusted with a vote for electing members into the house of commons: because every man is full of zeal for his own religion, although he regards not morality; and therefore will endeavour to his utmost, to bring in a representative of his own principles, which, if they be popular, may endanger the religion established; and which, as it has formerly happened, may alter the whole frame of government.
A standing army in England, whether in time of peace or war, is a direct absurdity: for it is no part of our business to be a warlike nation, otherwise than by our fleets. In foreign wars we have no concern, farther than in junction with allies, whom we may either assist by sea, or by foreign troops paid with our money: but mercenary troops in England, can be of no use, except to awe senates, and thereby promote arbitrary power, in a monarchy, or oligarchy.
That the election of senators should be of any charge to the candidates, is an absurdity; but that it should be so to a ministry, is a manifest acknowledgment of the worst designs. If a ministry intended the service of their prince and country, or well understood wherein their own security best consisted, (as it is impossible that a parliament freely elected, according to the original institution, can do any hurt to a tolerable prince or tolerable ministry) they would use the strongest methods to leave the people to their own free choice: the members would then consist of persons, who had the best estates in the neighbourhood or country, or at least, never of strangers. And surely this is at least full as requisite a circumstance to a legislator, as to a juryman, who ought to be, if possible, ex vicinio; since such persons must be supposed the best judges of the wants and desires, of their several boroughs and counties. To choose a representative for Berwick, whose estate is at Land's End, would have been thought in former times a very great solecism. How much more as it is at present, where so many persons are returned for boroughs, who do not possess a foot of land in the kingdom?
By the old constitution, whoever possessed a freehold in land, by which he was a gainer of forty shillings a year, had the privilege to vote for a knight of the shire. The good effects of this law are wholly eluded, partly by the course of time, and partly by corruption. Forty shillings, in those ages, were equal to twenty pounds in ours; and therefore it was then a want of sagacity, to fix that privilege to a determinate sum, rather than to a certain quantity of land, arable or pasture, able to produce a certain quantity of corn or hay. And therefore it is highly absurd, and against the intent of the law, that this defect is not regulated.
But the matter is still worse; for any gentleman can, upon occasion, make as many freeholders, as his estate or settlement will allow, by making leases for life of land at a rack rent of forty shillings; where a tenant, who is not worth one farthing a year when his rent is paid, shall be held a legal voter for a person to represent his county. Neither do I enter into half the frauds that are practised upon this occasion.
It is likewise absurd, that boroughs decayed are not absolutely extinguished, because the returned members do in reality represent nobody at all; and that several large towns are not represented, though full of industrious townsmen, who must advance the trade of the kingdom.
The claim of senators, to have themselves and servants exempted from lawsuits and arrests, is manifestly absurd. The proceedings at law are already so scandalous a grievance, upon account of the delays, that they little need any addition. Whoever is either not able, or not willing, to pay his just debts, or, to keep other men out of their lands, would evade the decision of the law, is surely but ill qualified to be a legislator. A criminal with as good reason might sit on the bench, with a power of condemning men to be hanged for their honesty. By the annual sitting of parliaments, and the days of privilege preceding and subsequent, a senator is one half of the year beyond the reach of common justice.
That the sacred person of a senator's footman, shall be free from arrest, although he undoes the poor alewife by running on score, is a circumstance of equal wisdom and justice, to avoid the great evil of his master's lady wanting her complement of liveries behind the coach.