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It is founded on an observation, (which I was formerly [supra, Vol. I. p. 21, seq.] at some pains to illustrate,) that the happiness of mankind depends immediately, not on the form of government, but on the particular system of law and policy which that form introduces ; and that the advantage which one form of government possesses over another, arises chiefly from the facility it affords to the introduction of such legislative improvements as the general interests of the community recommend. Now, I do not think that in the present state of the world, Democratic constitutions in any form which it is possible to give them, are favourable to the establishment of those systematic and enlightened principles of Political Economy which are subservient to the progressive happiness and improvement of mankind. Under every form of government, (whatever it may be,) provided its general spirit be favourable to liberty, and allows an unrestrained freedom of discussion, these enlightened views of Political Economy will gradually and slowly prevail in proportion to the progress of reason and the diffusion of knowledge. And they will command the general assent of mankind soonest in those countries where a strong executive power and a vigilant police allow men to prosecute calmly and dispassionately those important but difficult studies, which lead to the melioration of the human race.
I shall prosecute this subject further when I come to treat of the peculiar advantages of the English Constitution. In the meantime, I proceed to make a few remarks on the nature and spirit of Aristocratic Governments.
[SUBSECT. 11.]-Of Aristocracy. In an Aristocracy, the supreme power is vested in a select body of the citizens, or (to express myself in the language of modern Europe) in a body of Nobility; but the nature and spirit of such a form of government may be widely diversified in different instances, while the general character of the constitution remains the saine.
1. If the nobles be numerous, a senate will be necessary for
the management of those kinds of business which cannot be transacted in a large assembly, and for preparing the business which is to come under the general consideration of the order. “Where this is the case,” says Montesquieu, “the Aristocracy is, in some measure, in the senate, the Democracy in the body of the nobles, and the people are nothing at all."*
2. With respect to the manner in which the power of the nobles is vested in them, two suppositions may be formed. First, that it belongs to them in their collective capacity only, individuals possessing no separate authority but what they derive from the whole body; and secondly, that each nobleman has a separate and independent authority belonging to himself. The former supposition took place in the old Venetian government; the latter in that of Poland, in which every nobleman, by means of his fiefs, had a certain hereditary authority over his vassals, and the whole body had no authority but what it received from the concurrence of its parts.
Of the two, it is easy to see that the former is likely to be by far the more tolerable ; for where the whole authority of the nobles is vested in them in their collective capacity, although the laws which are made will probably be calculated to favour the interests of the ruling order, yet such acts of wanton oppression are not to be dreaded as often proceed from the bad passions of uncontrolled individuals. In the latter case, the nobles will set up as little tyrants in every corner of the country, extending their oppressions to all descriptions of men, and even to those individuals who, in an extensive monarchy, would derive some security from their insignificance. It is therefore with good reason that Mr. Hume, in his Essay entitled Politics a Science, lays it down as a universal political axiom, that the best aristocracy is that in which the nobility have no vassals. In further illustration of this maxim, Mr. Hume observes, that “a nobility who possess their power in common will preserve peace and order, both among themselves and their subjects ; and no member can have authority enough to control the laws for a moment. The nobles will preserve their authority over the people, but without any grievous tyranny, or any breach of private property ; because such a tyrannical government promotes not the interest of the whole body, however it may that of some individuals. There will be à distinction of rank between the nobility and people; but this will be the only distinction in the state. The whole nobility will form one body, and the whole people another, without any of those private feuds and animosities which spread ruin and desolation everywhere. It is easy to see the disadvantages of a Polish nobility in every one of these particulars.”*
* [Esprit, &c., Liv. II. chap. iii.] 1 Hume's Essays, Vol. 1. [Part I. Essay iii., Politics a Science.)
3. Montesquieu remarks, † that those aristocracies are the best in which they who have no share in the legislature are so few and inconsiderable that the governing party have no interest in oppressing them. Thus, when Antipater made a law at Athens, that whosoever was not worth two thousand drachmas (about £60 sterling') should have no power to vote, he formed, by this means, the best Aristocracy possible ; because this was so small a sum as excluded very few, and not one of any rank or consideration in the city. The truth is, that such an aristocracy carries political liberty as far, perhaps, as is compatible with the great ends of government. In every society there must be distinctions and subordinations among men, founded on their personal qualities; and the perfection of government undoubtedly would be, to arrange men as nearly as possible by this standard. To give political power, therefore, to those who, from their situation and education, may be presumed best qualified to exercise it, and to exclude from a share in the government those who are incapable of thinking and judging
1 See Hume's Essay, On the Po pulousness of Ancient Nations. “This government, however, was so disagree able to the people, that about two-thirds
of them immediately left their country. Cassander reduced that census to the half; yet still the government was considered as an Oligarchical tyranny, and the effect of foreign violence."--Hume, ibid.
for themselves, is not to counteract, but to fall in with the obvious intentions of Nature.
“For just experience tells, in every soil,
That those who think must govern those who toil."*
The invidious and unjust distinctions of an Aristocracy consist in those disqualifications founded on birth, which prevent a man, however eminent for virtue and ability, from serving his country in particular situations. No form of government secures completely the rights of mankind, in which there is not a fair field opened to a laudable ambition ; but provided this is done, provided it is in the power of every individual to raise himself to all the honours of the state, by personal merit, the constitution cannot be censured as partial or oppressive; nay, the interest even of the lower orders imperiously requires, that they should be excluded from those functions which they could only exercise to their own ruin.
But whatever be the particular nature of the Aristocracy, it will be the interest, as it undoubtedly is the duty, of the governing order, to conceal as much as possible, in the intercourse of private life, every circumstance in their situation which may have a tendency to mortify the pride, and to rouse the jealousy of their inferiors. Particular constitutions may require, that certain political functions should be confined to a particular order of men; and in such a situation, it may be the duty of this order to maintain these privileges against every encroachment; but it is their duty, at the same time, to shew, by the uniform tenor of their manners, that they consider the distinctions they enjoy, not as the rightful appendage of a separate caste, but as a trust committed to them for the purpose of general utility.
This, I presume, was in part the idea of Montesquieu, when he said that moderation is the principle of Aristocracy.t He has indeed left us in this, as in many other instances, in some measure to conjecture his meaning ; but he has expressed the same sentiments, which I have now been stating, very explicitly * (Goldsmith, Traveller, 383.]
† [Esprit, &c., Liv. III. chap. iv.)
in other parts of his writings. “Aristocratical families," says he in one place, “ought, as much as possible, to level themselves in appearance with the people. The more an Aristocracy borders on Democracy, the nearer it approaches to perfection.”* In another place he remarks, that as “the pomp and splendour with which kings are surrounded form a part of their power, so modesty and simplicity of manners constitute the strength of an aristocratical nobility. When they affect no distinction, when they mix with the people, dress like them, and with them share all their pleasures, the people are apt to forget their subjection and weakness.” To illustrate this observation, he mentions an anecdote of the Venetians, “who, in many respects," says he, “may be said to have been a very wise government, and who, in the present age, decided a dispute between a noble Venetian and a gentleman in Terra Firma, with respect to precedency in a church, by declaring, that out of Venice a noble Venetian had no pre-eminence over any other citizen.”+
Dr. Ferguson, too, in commenting on Montesquieu's doctrine concerning the principles of the different forms of government, puts the same interpretation on the word moderation, in this instance, which I have done.
“To maintain for himself, and to admit in his fellow-citizens a perfect equality of privileges and station, is not the leading maxim of the member of an Aristocracy. The rights of men are modified by their condition. One order claims more than it is willing to yield; the other must be ready to yield what it does not assume to itself; and it is with good reason that Montesquieu gives to the principle of such government the name of moderation, not of virtue.”
“The elevation of one class is a moderated arrogance; the submission of the other a limited deference. The first must be careful, by concealing the invidious part of their distinction, to palliate what is grievous in the public arrangement, and by their education, their cultivated manners, and improved talents, to appear qualified for the stations they occupy. The other must be taught to yield, from respect and personal attachment, * [Esprit, &c., Liv. III. chap. viii.)
+ [Ibid. Liv. V. chap. viii.]