Atticus Essay I
August 9, 1787
For the Independent Chronicle
Mess’rs. PRINTERS. If you think the following worth the public notice, please to insert it in your paper.
L–Homme est un animal guide par la coutume–
Ses changemens subits la font un Protee.
–K. of PRUSSIA.
IT will often be the lot of him, who is calm, and Philosophical Spectator of the movements of human beings, to remark the sudden changes of their sentiments, and passions. The first observations will create great surprise; but the vehemence of wonder will abate, when a variety of experiments shall have proved the truth of my motto, viz. That man is a being governed by custom, whose frequent changes make her a true Proteus.
Did the capricious power of fashion only extend to regulating the attire of ladies and petit-maitres, the Philosopher would have no cause to complain. But it requires a good degree of patience, calmly to behold her interfering in the province of wisdom, subverting the sciences and perplexing the most important concerns of human kind.
What but fashion teaches the smart and popular divine to talk, in these days, of the absolute necessity of human actions; and that God has acted out his wisdom and goodness, that is, done his utmost in the formation of the universe. But a few years ago, the Deity was thought unsearchable, and man a free agent.
Newtonianism was not long since the fashionable Philosophy; but now is scarcely to be admitted by the beaux-espirits. No, without some tincture of Cartesian, or Hutchinsonian principles, by tasty Philosophers, a man is thought a novice.
Ideas enjoyed a former brilliant day under the patronage of the illustrious Locke. But common sense (the only metaphysics worth a farthing) afterwards seemed to be regaining her authority, supported by Beattie and Reid. But her reign was short; for men will not long be contented with such a homespun mistress as common sense. Ideas have revived their reign, in all their tinsel and splendor.
In physic, not long since, the hot regimen was all in all for the small-pox, and other eruptive disorders. To this succeeded the Suttonian system, and fevers were to be cooled by frost. A simple process indeed! Of late some Physicians have practiced inoculation, on the temperate regimen, with great success. And perhaps, after all, this is the very dictate of nature.
Republicanism, a few years ago, was all the vogue of politicians. “A government of laws and not of men.” But now the aristocratics and monarchy-men on the one hand, and the insurgent party on the other, are with different views contending for a “government of men, and not of laws.” The weakness of republics is become the everlasting theme of speculative politicians. While a man of less enthusiasm, on remarking the extravagancies of parties, is ready to say,
For forms of government let fools contest,
Whate’er is best administ’red is best.
But even this is not strictly true. A government may be deficient in its form: and afford no principles on which the executive power shall proceed. We may therefore define a good government thus. It is that which contains a good system of laws, with provision suitable and sufficient, for the putting them into execution. By whatever name such a government be called, it is a good one. The goodness of forms of government is, however, almost wholly relative. Some agree with one nations, with respect to their temper and circumstances, some with another. Habit and actual experience alone, can absolutely determine that which is fit for any individual State.
Liberty, when considered as a power, is the unrestrained power of acting reasonably: As a privilege, it is the security which a man feels in acting rightly and enjoying the fruit of his own labor. When either of these are wanting, the people are not free, although their government may be called a democracy. When these exist, the people are free, although the government may be stiled an absolute monarchy. For an absolute, and arbitrary government, are very different things.
If a government shall contain a good system of laws, then it is a good one, if these laws can be executed, and guarded from abuse. The form of government is then such as it ought to be; and the evils of such a government are either only accidental, or such as no form can remedy. If false opinions prevail among the people, let common-sense have fair play; and matters will come right again. If the temper and principles of the nation be wholly corrupt, their ruin is certain in the nature of things. They must of necessity be slaves. In vain did Brutus think to make the Romans free by killing Caesar. The spirit of Romans had so totally forsaken them, that any man, who could assemble an army of desperadoes, might be a Caesar if he pleased. In all these things the form of the government was not at fault.
Such as above defined is the system of government we enjoy. The laws are indisputably good. The provision for executing them amply sufficient. We have evidently seen the force of our government, in the surprising rapidity and success, with which the active powers of the State, demolished a rebellion, which, from late facts, appears to have been comprehended, in one form or another, a full third part of the people in the State. If any say it is weak, because certain persons under sentence of death, are not executed; let them ask themselves, Whether the Executive are not able to do it? That the government is afraid, or unable, to execute the laws, can only enter the head of some distracted party-man. They, who could bring a man to the gallows, and keep him there, till within two minutes of the time of execution, doubtless could have suggested their authority two minutes longer.
You will then say, There is a faulty remissness in the Executive.–So there might be if the government were absolutely despotic. But perhaps we are too positive, when we affirm this absolutely–we may not see all that they do–we have not seen the full result of their administration–when we have, we may be better judges. To publish inflammatory libels in news-papers; or revile, and oppose, the present government, is doing, ourselves what we before censured in others. It is insurrection and rebellion. If the present Executive, acquired, hold, and exercise their powers constitutionally, they cannot lawfully be reviled or opposed. The spirit of all parties is the same, and it ought to be received as a political maxim, that no violent party-man can be a good citizen.
As for the perfection of monarchies, in force, in wisdom, in dispatch of operations, in security of private property, it is merely ideal, the fashionable cant of the day, which experience abundantly refutes. No government, in these respects, can claim a preference to our own if we consider its form. Did not the government of France under the administration of the despotic Louis XIV, with an army of 80,000 men, dally with a body of insurgents, for several years; and finally treat with the leaders, give them full indemnity, and admission to places in the government? Who claimed to be more despotic, yet who governed with less force, than the three last Kings of France, of the family of Valois? Who claimed to be more despotic in England, and who governed with less force, than the family of the Stuarts? Did not the whole army of James II. desert him, tho’ raised in his name, supported by his bread, and paid by his order? Even the all powerful Sultan of Turkey, whose subjects scarcely dare whisper of politics, often sees his favourite minister torne in pieces by the populace; and his hands and feet respectfully laid before the door of his palace. While HE trembles from within; and dares not assist his dearest friend.
The folly of Ishbosheth King of Israel; the uxoriousness of Ahab; the inconsistency of James II. of England, Lewix XIV. and XV. of France, governed by women; the madness of Caligula the Roman Emperor, who made his horse a Consul; the South Sea bubble of England when the king was the head of the company; the madness of France in pursuing the schemes of LAW, the Scotch financier, (the very paper money whim of our own country) sufficiently shew, that wisdom is not intailed on monarchies.
What nation ever made more glorious marches, and more quick and vigourous expeditions, than the Greeks? ’Twas the custom of the Romans, according to Virgil, to meet their enemies before they thought of it. Lincoln’s expedition of last winter, proves what republics can do–when the administration is equal to the form.
Property is so insecure in France that the cultivation of lands is greatly neglected. The great men trample on the peasants. The merchant in England is secure, but the tenant often sees his fields destroyed without remedy, if the Squire be fond of hunting. For Spain, Germany, and the dominions of the Pope, no advocate will appear.
Let the people of this Commonwealth, give up their idle whim of tender-acts, and legal alterations of bargains; let us lay aside all violence of party spirit, and esteem the laws which we ourselves have adopted; then our government will appear wise, good, and sufficiently forceable. If we will destroy ourselves, not all the despotism on earth, could save us.