On the Present Discontents_

Seventeen and Seventy_

Edmund Burke_

The distempers of Monarchy were the great subjects of apprehension and redress, in the last century; in this, the distempers of Parliament.  It is not in Parliament alone that the remedy for Parliamentary disorders can be completed; hardly, indeed, can it begin there.  Until a confidence in Government is re-established, the people ought to be excited to a more strict and detailed attention to the conduct of their Representatives.  Standards, for judging more systematically upon their conduct, ought to be settled in the meetings of counties and corporations.  Frequent and correct lists of the voters in all important questions ought to be procured.


On the Present Discontents_

It is an undertaking of some degree of delicacy to examine into the cause of public disorders.  If a man happens not to succeed in such an inquiry, he will be thought weak and visionary; if he touches the true grievance, there is a danger that he may come near to persons of weight and consequence, who will rather be exasperated at the discovery of their errors than thankful for the occasion of correcting them.  If he should be obliged to blame the favourites of the people, he will be considered as the tool of power; if he censures those in power, he will be looked on as an instrument of faction.  But in all exertions of duty something is to be hazarded.  In cases of tumult and disorder, our law has invested every man, in some sort, with the authority of a magistrate.  When the affairs of the nation are distracted, private people are, by the spirit of that law, justified in stepping a little out of their ordinary sphere.  They enjoy a privilege of somewhat more dignity and effect than that of idle lamentation over the calamities of their country.  They may look into them narrowly; they may reason upon them liberally; and if they should be so fortunate as to discover the true source of the mischief, and to suggest any probable method of removing it, though they may displease the rulers for the day, they are certainly of service to the cause of Government.  Government is deeply interested in everything which, even through the medium of some temporary uneasiness, may tend finally to compose the minds of the subjects, and to conciliate their affections.  I have nothing to do here with the abstract value of the voice of the people.  But as long as reputation, the most precious possession of every individual, and as long as opinion, the great support of the State, depend entirely upon that voice, it can never be considered as a thing of little consequence either to individuals or to Government.  Nations are not primarily ruled by laws; less by violence.  Whatever original energy may be supposed either in force or regulation, the operation of both is, in truth, merely instrumental.  Nations are governed by the same methods, and on the same principles, by which an individual without authority is often able to govern those who are his equals or his superiors, by a knowledge of their temper, and by a judicious management of it; I mean, when public affairs are steadily and quietly conducted: not when Government is nothing but a continued scuffle between the magistrate and the multitude, in which sometimes the one and sometimes the other is uppermost—in which they alternately yield and prevail, in a series of contemptible victories and scandalous submissions.  The temper of the people amongst whom he presides ought therefore to be the first study of a statesman.  And the knowledge of this temper it is by no means impossible for him to attain, if he has not an interest in being ignorant of what it is his duty to learn.

To complain of the age we live in, to murmur at the present possessors of power, to lament the past, to conceive extravagant hopes of the future, are the common dispositions of the greater part of mankind—indeed, the necessary effects of the ignorance and levity of the vulgar.  Such complaints and humours have existed in all times; yet as all times have not been alike, true political sagacity manifests itself, in distinguishing that complaint which only characterises the general infirmity of human nature from those which are symptoms of the particular distemperature of our own air and season.


Nobody, I believe, will consider it merely as the language of spleen or disappointment, if I say that there is something particularly alarming in the present conjuncture.  There is hardly a man, in or out of power, who holds any other language.  That Government is at once dreaded and contemned; that the laws are despoiled of all their respected and salutary terrors; that their inaction is a subject of ridicule, and their exertion of abhorrence; that rank, and office, and title, and all the solemn plausibilities of the world, have lost their reverence and effect; that our foreign politics are as much deranged as our domestic economy; that our dependencies are slackened in their affection, and loosened from their obedience; that we know neither how to yield nor how to enforce; that hardly anything above or below, abroad or at home, is sound and entire; but that disconnection and confusion, in offices, in parties, in families, in Parliament, in the nation, prevail beyond the disorders of any former time: these are facts universally admitted and lamented.

This state of things is the more extraordinary, because the great parties which formerly divided and agitated the kingdom are known to be in a manner entirely dissolved.  No great external calamity has visited the nation; no pestilence or famine.  We do not labour at present under any scheme of taxation new or oppressive in the quantity or in the mode. Nor are we engaged in unsuccessful war, in which our misfortunes might easily pervert our judgment, and our minds, sore from the loss of national glory, might feel every blow of fortune as a crime in Government.


It is impossible that the cause of this strange distemper should not sometimes become a subject of discourse.  It is a compliment due, and which I willingly pay, to those who administer our affairs, to take notice in the first place of their speculation.  Our Ministers are of opinion that the increase of our trade and manufactures, that our growth by colonisation and by conquest, have concurred to accumulate immense wealth in the hands of some individuals; and this again being dispersed amongst the people, has rendered them universally proud, ferocious, and ungovernable; that the insolence of some from their enormous wealth, and the boldness of others from a guilty poverty, have rendered them capable of the most atrocious attempts; so that they have trampled upon all subordination, and violently borne down the unarmed laws of a free Government—barriers too feeble against the fury of a populace so fierce and licentious as ours.  They contend that no adequate provocation has been given for so spreading a discontent, our affairs having been conducted throughout with remarkable temper and consummate wisdom.  The wicked industry of some libellers, joined to the intrigues of a few disappointed politicians, have, in their opinion, been able to produce this unnatural ferment in the nation.

Nothing indeed can be more unnatural than the present convulsions of this country, if the above account be a true one.  I confess I shall assent to it with great reluctance, and only on the compulsion of the clearest and firmest proofs; because their account resolves itself into this short but discouraging proposition, “That we have a very good Ministry, but that we are a very bad people;” that we set ourselves to bite the hand that feeds us; that with a malignant insanity we oppose the measures, and ungratefully vilify the persons, of those whose sole object is our own peace and prosperity.  If a few puny libellers, acting under a knot of factious politicians, without virtue, parts, or character (such they are constantly represented by these gentlemen), are sufficient to excite this disturbance, very perverse must be the disposition of that people amongst whom such a disturbance can be excited by such means.  It is besides no small aggravation of the public misfortune that the disease, on this hypothesis, appears to be without remedy.  If the wealth of the nation be the cause of its turbulence, I imagine it is not proposed to introduce poverty as a constable to keep the peace.  If our dominions abroad are the roots which feed all this rank luxuriance of sedition, it is not intended to cut them off in order to famish the fruit.  If our liberty has enfeebled the executive power, there is no design, I hope, to call in the aid of despotism to fill up the deficiencies of law.  Whatever may be intended, these things are not yet professed.  We seem therefore to be driven to absolute despair, for we have no other materials to work upon but those out of which God has been pleased to form the inhabitants of this island.  If these be radically and essentially vicious, all that can be said is that those men are very unhappy to whose fortune or duty it falls to administer the affairs of this untoward people.  I hear it indeed sometimes asserted that a steady perseverance in the present measures, and a rigorous punishment of those who oppose them, will in course of time infallibly put an end to these disorders.  But this, in my opinion, is said without much observation of our present disposition, and without any knowledge at all of the general nature of mankind.  If the matter of which this nation is composed be so very fermentable as these gentlemen describe it, leaven never will be wanting to work it up, as long as discontent, revenge, and ambition have existence in the world.  Particular punishments are the cure for accidental distempers in the State; they inflame rather than allay those heats which arise from the settled mismanagement of the Government, or from a natural ill disposition in the people.  It is of the utmost moment not to make mistakes in the use of strong measures, and firmness is then only a virtue when it accompanies the most perfect wisdom.  In truth, inconstancy is a sort of natural corrective of folly and ignorance.

I am not one of those who think that the people are never in the wrong.  They have been so, frequently and outrageously, both in other countries and in this.  But I do say that in all disputes between them and their rulers the presumption is at least upon a par in favour of the people.  Experience may perhaps justify me in going further.  When popular discontents have been very prevalent, it may well be affirmed and supported that there has been generally something found amiss in the constitution or in the conduct of Government.  The people have no interest in disorder.  When they do wrong, it is their error, and not their crime.  But with the governing part of the State it is far otherwise.  They certainly may act ill by design, as well as by mistake.  “Les révolutions qui arrivent dans les grands états ne sont point un effect du hasard, ni du caprice des peuples. Rien ne révolte les grands d’un royaume comme un Gouvernoment foible et dérangé.  Pour la populace, ce n’est jamais par envie d’attaquer qu’elle se soulève, mais par impatience de souffrir.”  These are the words of a great man, of a Minister of State, and a zealous assertor of Monarchy.  They are applied to the system of favouritism which was adopted by Henry the Third of France, and to the dreadful consequences it produced.  What he says of revolutions is equally true of all great disturbances.  If this presumption in favour of the subjects against the trustees of power be not the more probable, I am sure it is the more comfortable speculation, because it is more easy to change an Administration than to reform a people.


Upon a supposition, therefore, that, in the opening of the cause, the presumptions stand equally balanced between the parties, there seems sufficient ground to entitle any person to a fair hearing who attempts some other scheme besides that easy one which is fashionable in some fashionable companies, to account for the present discontents.  It is not to be argued that we endure no grievance, because our grievances are not of the same sort with those under which we laboured formerly—not precisely those which we bore from the Tudors, or vindicated on the Stuarts.  A great change has taken place in the affairs of this country.  For in the silent lapse of events as material alterations have been insensibly brought about in the policy and character of governments and nations as those which have been marked by the tumult of public revolutions.

It is very rare indeed for men to be wrong in their feelings concerning public misconduct; as rare to be right in their speculation upon the cause of it.  I have constantly observed that the generality of people are fifty years, at least, behindhand in their politics.  There are but very few who are capable of comparing and digesting what passes before their eyes at different times and occasions, so as to form the whole into a distinct system.  But in books everything is settled for them, without the exertion of any considerable diligence or sagacity.  For which reason men are wise with but little reflection, and good with little self-denial, in the business of all times except their own.  We are very uncorrupt and tolerably enlightened judges of the transactions of past ages; where no passions deceive, and where the whole train of circumstances, from the trifling cause to the tragical event, is set in an orderly series before us.  Few are the partisans of departed tyranny; and to be a Whig on the business of a hundred years ago is very consistent with every advantage of present servility.  This retrospective wisdom and historical patriotism are things of wonderful convenience, and serve admirably to reconcile the old quarrel between speculation and practice.  Many a stern republican, after gorging himself with a full feast of admiration of the Grecian commonwealths and of our true Saxon constitution, and discharging all the splendid bile of his virtuous indignation on King John and King James, sits down perfectly satisfied to the coarsest work and homeliest job of the day he lives in.  I believe there was no professed admirer of Henry the Eighth among the instruments of the last King James; nor in the court of Henry the Eighth was there, I dare say, to be found a single advocate for the favourites of Richard the Second.

No complaisance to our Court, or to our age, can make me believe nature to be so changed but that public liberty will be among us, as among our ancestors, obnoxious to some person or other, and that opportunities will be furnished for attempting, at least, some alteration to the prejudice of our constitution.  These attempts will naturally vary in their mode, according to times and circumstances.  For ambition, though it has ever the same general views, has not at all times the same means, nor the same particular objects.  A great deal of the furniture of ancient tyranny is worn to rags; the rest is entirely out of fashion.  Besides, there are few statesmen so very clumsy and awkward in their business as to fall into the identical snare which has proved fatal to their predecessors.  When an arbitrary imposition is attempted upon the subject, undoubtedly it will not bear on its forehead the name of Ship-money.  There is no danger that an extension of the Forest laws should be the chosen mode of oppression in this age.  And when we hear any instance of ministerial rapacity to the prejudice of the rights of private life, it will certainly not be the exaction of two hundred pullets, from a woman of fashion, for leave to lie with her own husband.

Every age has its own manners, and its politics dependent upon them; and the same attempts will not be made against a constitution fully formed and matured, that were used to destroy it in the cradle, or to resist its growth during its infancy.

Against the being of Parliament, I am satisfied, no designs have ever been entertained since the Revolution.  Every one must perceive that it is strongly the interest of the Court to have some second cause interposed between the Ministers and the people.  The gentlemen of the House of Commons have an interest equally strong in sustaining the part of that intermediate cause.  However they may hire out the usufruct of their voices, they never will part with the fee and inheritance.  Accordingly those who have been of the most known devotion to the will and pleasure of a Court, have at the same time been most forward in asserting a high authority in the House of Commons.  When they knew who were to use that authority, and how it was to be employed, they thought it never could be carried too far.  It must be always the wish of an unconstitutional statesman, that a House of Commons who are entirely dependent upon him, should have every right of the people entirely dependent upon their pleasure. It was soon discovered that the forms of a free, and the ends of an arbitrary Government, were things not altogether incompatible.


X_ SECONDSIGHT