The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 3/The Examiner, Number 33


THURSDAY, MARCH 22, 1710-11.

De libertate retinenda, qua certe nihil est dulcius, tibi assentior.
I agree with you in respect to your sentiments for preserving our liberty, than which nothing can be more pleasing to a human mind.

THE apologies of the ancient fathers are reckoned to have been the most useful parts of their writings, and to have done greatest service to the Christian religion; because they removed those misrepresentations which had done it most injury. The methods these writers took, were, openly and freely to discover every point of their faith, to detect the falsehood of their accusers, and to charge nothing upon their adversaries, but what they were sure to make good. This example has been ill followed of later times: the papists, since the Reformation, using all arts to palliate the absurdities of their tenets, and loading the reformers with a thousand calumnies; the consequence of which has been only a more various, wide, and inveterate separation. It is the same thing in civil schisms: a whig forms an image of a tory, just after the thing he most abhors, and that image serves to represent the whole body.

I am not sensible of any material difference there is between those who call themselves the old whigs, and a great majority of the present tories; at least by all I could ever find from examining several persons of each denomination. But it must be confessed, that the present body of whigs, as they now constitute that party, is a very odd mixture of mankind, being forced to enlarge their bottom by taking in every heterodox professor, either in religion or government, whose opinions they were obliged to encourage for fear of lessening their number; while the bulk of the landed men, and people, were entirely of the old sentiments. However, they still pretended a due regard to the monarchy and the church, even at the time when they were making the largest steps toward the ruin of both: but, not being able to wipe off the many accusations laid to their charge, they endeavoured, by throwing scandal, to make the tories appear blacker than themselves; and so the people might join with them, as the smaller evil of the two.

But among all the reproaches which the whigs have flung upon their adversaries, there is none has done them more service than that of passive obedience, as they represent it with the consequences of nonresistance, arbitrary power, indefeasible right, tyranny, popery, and what not. There is no accusation which has passed with more plausibility than this, or any that is supported with less justice. In order therefore to undeceive those who have been misled by false representations, I thought it would be no improper undertaking to set this matter in a fair light, which I think has not yet been done. A whig asks, whether you hold passive obedience? You affirm it: he then immediately cries out, You are a jacobite, a friend of France and the pretender! because he makes you answerable for the definition he has formed of that term, however different it be from what you understand. I will therefore give two descriptions of passive obedience; the first, as it is falsely charged by the whigs; the other, as it is really professed by the tories; at least by nineteen in twenty of all I ever conversed with.

Passive obedience, as charged by the Whigs.

THE doctrine of passive obedience is, to believe that a king, even in a limited monarchy, holding his power only from God, is only answerable to him: that such a king is above all law; that the cruellest tyrant must be submitted to in all things; and if his commands be ever so unlawful, you must neither fly nor resist, nor use any other weapons than prayers and tears. Although he should force your wife and daughter, murder your children before your face, or cut off five hundred heads in a morning for his diversion; you are still to wish him a long, prosperous reign, and to be patient under all his cruelties, with the same resignation as under a plague or a famine; because to resist him, would be to resist God, in the person of his vicegerent. If a king of England should go through the streets of London in order to murder every man he met, passive obedience commands them to submit. All laws made to limit him signify nothing, although passed by his own consent, if he thinks fit to break them. God will indeed call him to a severe account; but the whole people, united to a man, cannot presume to hold his hands, or offer him the least active disobedience: the people were certainly created for him, and not he for the people. His next heir, although worse than what I have described, although a fool or a madman, has a divine indefeasible right to succeed him, which no law can disannul[1]; nay, although he should kill his father upon the throne, he is immediately king to all intents and purposes; the possession of the crown wiping off all stains. But whosoever sits on the throne without this title, though ever so peaceably, and by consent of former kings and parliaments, is a usurper, while there is any where in the world another person, who has a nearer hereditary right; and the whole kingdom lies under mortal sin, till that heir be restored, because he has a divine title, which no human law can defeat.

This and a great deal more has, in a thousand papers and pamphlets, been laid to that doctrine of passive obedience, which the whigs are pleased to charge upon us. This is what they are perpetually instilling into the people, as the undoubted principle by which the present ministry, and a great majority in parliament, do at this time proceed. This is what they accuse the clergy of delivering from the pulpits, and of preaching up as a doctrine absolutely necessary to salvation. And whoever affirms in general, that passive obedience is due to the supreme power, he is presently loaded by our candid adversaries, with such consequences as these. Let us therefore see what this doctrine is, when stripped of such misrepresentations, by describing it as really taught and practised by the tories; and then it will appear what grounds our adversaries have to accuse us upon this article.

Passive obedience, as professed and practised by the Tories.

THEY think that in every government, whether monarchy or republick, there is placed a supreme, absolute, unlimited power, to which passive obedience is due. That wherever is entrusted the power of making laws, that power is without all bounds; can repeal, or enact at pleasure whatever laws it thinks fit; and justly demand universal obedience and nonresistance. That among us, as every body knows, this power is lodged in the king or queen, together with the lords and commons of the kingdom; and therefore all decrees whatsoever, made by that power, are to be actively or passively obeyed. That the administration, or executive part of this power, is, in England, solely entrusted with the prince; who, in administering those laws, ought to be no more resisted, than the legislative power itself. But they do not conceive the same absolute passive obedience to be due to a limited prince's commands, when they are directly contrary to the laws he has consented to, and sworn to maintain. The crown may be sued as well as a private person; and if an arbitrary king of England should send his officers to seize my lands or goods against law, I can lawfully resist them. The ministers, by whom he acts, are liable to prosecution and impeachment, although his own person be sacred. But, if he interpose royal authority to support their insolence, I see no remedy, until it grows a general grievance, or until the body of the people have reason to apprehend it will be so; after which, it becomes a case of necessity; and then, I suppose, a free people may assert their own rights, yet without any violation to the person or lawful power of the prince. But, although the tories allow all this, and did justify it by the share they had in the Revolution; yet they see no reason for entering upon so ungrateful a subject, or raising controversies upon it, as if we were in daily apprehensions of tyranny, under the reign of so excellent a princess, and while we have so many laws of late years made to limit the prerogative; when, according to the judgment of those who know our constitution best, things rather seem to lean to the other extreme, which is equally to be avoided. As to the succession, the tories think an hereditary right to be the best in its own nature, and most agreeable to our old constitution; yet, at the same time, they allow it to be defeasible by act of parliament; and so is Magna Charta too, if the legislature think fit: which is a truth so manifest, that no man, who understands the nature of government, can be in doubt concerning it.

These I take to be the sentiments of a great majority among the tories with respect to passive obedience: and if the whigs insist, from the writings or common talk of warm and ignorant men, to form a judgment of the whole body, according to the first account I have here given; I will engage to produce as many of their side, who are utterly against passive obedience even to the legislature; who will assert the last resort of power to be in the people, against those whom they have chosen and trusted as their representatives, with the prince at the head; and who will put wild improbable cases, to show the reasonableness and necessity of resisting the legislative power in such imaginary junctures: than which however nothing can be more idle; for I dare undertake in any system of government, either speculative or practick, that was ever yet in the world, from Plato's Republick, to Harrington's Oceana, to put such difficulties as cannot be answered.

All the other calumnies raised by the whigs may be as easily wiped off; and I have the charity to wish they could as fully answer the just accusations we have against them. Dodwell, Hickes, and Lesley, are gravely quoted to prove, that the tories design to bring in the pretender; and if I should quote them to prove that the same thing is intended by the whigs, it would be full as reasonable; since I am sure they have at least as much to do with nonjurors as we. But our objections against the whigs are built upon their constant practice for many years, whereof I have produced a hundred instances, against any single one of which no answer has yet been attempted, although I have been curious enough to look into all the papers I could meet with, that are written against the Examiner; such a task us, I hope, no man thinks I would undergo, for any other end but that of finding an opportunity to own and rectify my mistakes: as I would be ready to do upon the call of the meanest adversary. Upon which occasion I shall take leave to add a few words.

I flattered myself last Thursday from the nature of my subject, and the inoffensive manner I handled it[2], that I should have one week's respite from those merciless pens, whose severity will some time break my heart: but I am deceived, and find them more violent than ever. They charge me with two lies, and a blunder. The first lie is a truth, that Guiscard was invited over; but it is of no consequence. I do not tax it as a fault; such sort of men have often been serviceable: I only blamed the indiscretion of raising a profligate abbot, at the first step, to a lieutenant general and colonel of a regiment of horse, without staying some reasonable time, as is usual in such cases, until he had given some proofs of his fidelity, as well as of that interest and credit he pretended to have in his country. But that is said to be another lie; for he was a papist, and could not have a regiment: however this other lie is a truth too; for a regiment he had, and paid by us, to his agent monsieur le Bas for his use. The third is a blunder; that I say Guiscard's design was against Mr. secretary St. John, and yet my reasonings upon it are as if it were personally against Mr. Harley. But I say no such thing, and my reasonings are just. I relate only what Guiscard said in Newgate, because it was a particularity the reader might be curious to know, and accordingly it lies in a paragraph by itself, after my reflections; but I never meant to be answerable for what Guiscard said, or thought it of weight enough for me to draw conclusions thence, when I had the address of both houses to direct me better; where it is expressly said, that Mr. Harley's fidelity to her majesty, and zeal for her service, have drawn upon him the hatred of all the abettors of popery and faction. This is what I believe, and what I shall stick to.

But, alas! these are not the passages which have raised so much fury against me. One or two mistakes in facts of no importance, or a single blunder, would not have provoked them; they are not so tender of my reputation as a writer. All their outrage is occasioned by those passages in that paper, which they do not in the least pretend to answer, and with the utmost reluctancy are forced to mention. They take abundance of pains to clear Guiscard from a design against Mr. Harley's life: but offer not one argument to clear their other friends, who in the business of Greg were equally guilty of the same design against the same person; whose tongues were very swords, and whose penknives were axes.

  1. Disannul is a stent and improper word; as, 'annul,' is used in exactly the same sense, and the prefix, 'dis,' according to all rules of analogy, ought to give it an opposite meaning.
  2. 'And the inoffensive manner I handled it' is a mode of speech ungrammatical, it ought to be 'in which I handled it.'